From rice fields to rebellion: Untold stories of Northeastern Thailand’s armed struggle (PART III)

Today The Isaan Record presents the third and final part of its special series of articles on the experience of rural Northeasterners in the communist movement. (Read part one  and part two)

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A figure of Comrade Sathian, the Nabua villager who died in the clash with security forces on August 7, 1965. Communist veterans in the village say plans to open a museum to remember the community’s history were never realized because of the lack of funding.

Isaan rebels move on to new battles
More than 30 years after they ended the struggle for revolution, many Communist veterans in the Northeast have returned to the village life they had left behind to follow the Communist’s call. Others moved on to other kind of battles.

Bunsong, who had fought for the movement for more than ten years, channels his desire for change into the Northeast’s civil society. In the early 1990s, he co-founded the Isaan Small Farmers Assembly, a pro-farmer activist group that became well known for its rallies along major highways in the region.

For the last 20 years, he has been promoting organic rice farming through a local group that he set up with other Communist veterans. “What I do now isn’t so different,” soft-spoken Bunsong says with a smile. “As a Communist I learned how to convince people of a political ideology and this skill is helping me now in building farmers’ interest in organic agriculture.”

Bunsong flipped from fighting the state to collaborating closely with government agencies in training farmers in organic agriculture. His group now receives support from large companies as part of the companies’ corporate social responsibility policies.

“You can say it’s funny,” says Bunsong about collaborating with the state and the capitalist forces that he used to fight against. “But you know, times change.”

It is a sentiment shared by many communist veterans in the Northeast. For Comrade Phairat the failure of the communist revolution marked a critical juncture in his life but it did not crush his spirit. “Turning a crisis into an opportunity,” is the mantra that Phairat chooses to describe that period of his life.

After returning from the forest essentially penniless, he tried his hand at selling life insurance – an occupation that even today feeds his family and provided the initial funds for his hog breeding and rubber farming ventures.

Judging by the number of projects Phairat is involved with today, he has become a pivotal figure in his community. Among others projects, he initiated a collective cattle breeding project and runs the village savings club and a community radio station.

But after the 2014 coup, military officials confiscated the radio station’s transmitter as pat of a nationwide crackdown that closed stations broadcasting anti-government content. Ever since, Phairat has been attempting get it back, but to no avail.

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Today, Bunsong Madkhao is using the rhetorical skills he learned during his time as a recruiter for the communist movement to convince farmers in the Northeast to join the organic rice farming movement.

Unlike Bunsong, Phairat did not join any movements after his involvement with the Communist insurgency ended. Like many communist veterans in Chat Pattana Chat Thai, he was longing for a quiet life after spending two restless decades underground.

“I’ve never taken sides in the political conflict of the last years,” he says. “But I’ve always stood on the side of the people.”

Comrade U-sa said she supported the struggle of the Red Shirts movement that had mobilized many farmers in the Northeast, but she never joined any protests. It would have been unfaithful to the promise the communist insurgents made when they accepted the state’s offer for amnesty, she says.

There is also a widespread sentiment among the Communist veterans in the Northeast that the political movements of today are somewhat less ideologically pure. The CPT firmly rooted its armed struggle for revolution in Maoist ideology that helped to intellectually guide Northeast farmers who joined the movement. But today, they say, things seem to be more complicated.

“The radical leftists rode on Thaksin’s back to start a revolution,” Bunsong says, referring to two former student activists turned prominent Red Shirt leaders. “But it couldn’t work because it was a deal with the capitalist side.”

In Nabua village, Communist veterans’ reluctance to participate in any of the color-coded protests hails from a deep-seated mistrust in the state and a fear of being seen as acting as pawns in a conflict between elite groups. For them, the faces of those who are in power might have changed in the past 30 years, but the state continues to betray the will of the people of the Northeast.

Yet, their scorn of the military as a political force has not waned over the years, although the political situation is also not as clear-cut as it used to be.

“In the past, the regimes were military dictatorships but today it is not as clear anymore. Looking only at the surface, it might seem like there is a good side to this government,” says Comrade Vihan who was involved in the first clashes with state forces on August 7, 1965.

After the military only allowed a scaled-down anniversary celebration of “The Day the First Gunshot Rang Out” last year, the event was banned altogether this year because the date conflicts with the constitution referendum.

Most communist veterans in the village say the new constitution, if accepted, won’t bring about real democracy for the country. Many say they would vote against the draft in the referendum on Sunday, according to a village leader.

To many, the situation in Thailand today might feel like the 1960s, when the country had waited for nine long years to receive a new constitution from the military government. The charter of 1968 only brought back a partial return to democracy as it provided for a fully appointed senate and unelected prime minister.

By that time, many Northeasterners had already given up on negotiating for an empty democracy. They had instead taken things into their own hands by arming themselves and joining the communist insurgency.

Despite the scars their failed revolution left them with and the political bitterness they struggle with today, communist veterans in Nabua show few regrets for having devoted their lives to a fight that they firmly believed was worth fighting for.

“From the day I joined the movement when I was 16 years old until today, I never had any doubts about my decision,” Comrade U-sa says resolutely. “If there was a movement like this again, I would be the first to join.”

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