Isaan Human Rights Festival: “If you call us grassroot, then please don’t step on us.”

Guest Contribution by Sarah Wright and Andy Pham

MAHA SARAKHAM – On November 24, the 8th Annual Isaan Human Rights Festival took place at Mahasarakham University’s College of Politics and Governance. It is the first time the event has taken place since 2014.

There was much to be discussed amongst community members and a larger international audience that was present at the festival. The event served as a protected space for human rights defenders to share their experience with violations of human rights. Such public events have been rare since the military took power in 2014. The event was under strict limitations regarding what could be said, and yet community members still passionately expressed their grievances.

“There is a kind of oppressive atmosphere at the moment, and to counterbalance that, there is a very strong need for people to be able to gather under semi-secure circumstances, and to feel that there is a solidarity not only within their own groups, but also from outside,” said Manfred Hornung, director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Southeast Asia office, which funded the event.

The organization is associated with Germany’s Green Party and currently works as a think tank for green visions and projects worldwide. Mr. Hornung saw the festival as an opportunity for “creating a platform for different provinces to come together and talk about the issues based on human rights and communities.”

Community members from 17 villages throughout Isaan were represented, as well as local and international student groups. Ambassadors from Finland, Sweden, and the UK presented their own country’s human rights journey, as well as political officers from Canada and the United States. Angkhana Neelapaijit, the National Human Rights Commissioner in Thailand focusing on actual human rights, also addressed the audience.

“Human rights is not something we are given,” stated Ombun Thipsuna, from the Network of Community Organization Council of Seven Northeastern Provinces in the Mekong Basin. “We have human rights because we are human, and that fact entitles us to live with certain rights and freedoms.” This idea continued to be a theme of the festival.

After a panel on the human rights situation in the region, each community represented at the festival expressed their grievances and the human rights violations they have faced. A common theme among these communities was the feeling of hope in a seemingly hopeless situation.

One villager pleaded, “We want to live in our traditional culture. We want clean water, clean air, and no pollution for our grandchildren”.

The room ignited with another villager’s fervor. With great sadness and ardor in her voice, she said, “I want to make sure, where is justice? If you call us grassroot, then please don’t step on us.”

A community representative shares how her community has experienced violations of human rights. Photo credit: Alena Limthongviratn

Representatives expressed outrage and sorrow due to the human rights violations they have faced and continue to face. The audience in the hall was paralyzed by the incessant outcries for help and relentlessness in the pursuit of justice.

During the festival there was also a seminar where community members and others in attendance could hear from a panel of international representatives. The Ambassadors to Thailand from Finland, Sweden and the United Kingdom made statements concerning the human rights situation in their own countries, continuously touching upon the importance of civil society in the fight for human rights.

“Everyone has a right to a dignified life, one free of violence and discrimination,” stated Brian John Davidson, the United Kingdom’s Ambassador to Thailand.

The Ambassadors to Thailand from Finland, Sweden, USA, and the United Kingdom each shared their country’s history and progress of human rights. Photo credit: Sarah Wright

In an individual interview, Staffan Herrström, the Swedish Ambassador to Thailand, talked about the importance of this type of festival.

“I think the concept of human rights shouldn’t just be a theme for legal discussions or dealt with on a very general level,” said Mr. Herrström. “In my experience, it is firmly based on a community level. I understand that that’s the character of this forum, and I think that’s an opportunity for me to hear from civil society here. It can help me and my colleagues understand Isaan and Thailand better.”

Mr. Hornung believes that “one of the outcomes [for success] is that diplomats come experience firsthand what it means to operate under such repressive systems and go back and communicate that in their channels in Bangkok.”

Alongkorn Akkasaeng, the coordinator of the event, said he would like to thank every ambassador that attended.

“These small people who are living in the authoritarian country have very little chance to negotiate,” said Mr. Alongkorn. “I hope that you will pass on the [human rights violations] to [international human rights committees] for them to put pressure on Thailand.”

The festival provided space for much needed dialogue. Community members from all over Isaan were able to come together and share their common experience with each other and with an international audience.

Sarah Wright is a Junior at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. studying sociology and sustainability. Andy Pham is a Junior at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota studying economics. Both are studying about development and globalization issues in Khon Kaen this semester.

Additional reporting from Hannah Hoffman and Krithika Rao.