Remembering rebellion

Isaan’s former communists resist fading into oblivion and continue organizing annual commemoration events.

Ask around the countryside of the Northeast, and you’ll find thousands of former members of the communist movement who once led an uprising against Thailand’s military dictatorship. But the turbulent history of their failed revolution is not well-known in the country, and is only kept alive in local commemoration events organised every year across the region.

Last weekend, a crowd of 500 people, including former communists, their families, and local youth, gathered at Wat Uthum Phon Phichai in Nong Bua Lamphu’s Muang District. They celebrated the 20th anniversary of the erection of the Phu Sang Stupa, a privately sponsored monument for local communist fighters who lost their lives in the rebellion.

Former communist fighters from Nong Bua Lamphu, dressed for the occasion, pose for photos. Photo by Donlawat Sunsuk

“Every year, we honor all the heroes who sacrificed their lives for the people’s struggle,” Sunee Chaiyarose, an organizer of the event, told The Isaan Record.

Once a member of a local communist group who later became a National Human Rights Commissioner, Ms. Sunee is one of Nong Bua Lamphu’s most prominent daughters.

The event has served as a meeting place for former communists from all over the country, Ms. Sunee said. Similar events are held annually across the Northeast, including the provinces of Amnat Charoen, Buriram, Mukdahan, Nakhon Phanom, Sisaket and Yasothon.

In the ceremony, attendees paid respect to the “heroes” of the local chapter of the movement, and families who lost relatives in the conflict laid down roses at the stupa. The event also featured an exhibition about the history of the rebellion from 1961 to 1980, and the communist families’ lives in the forests and mountains of the area.

The construction of the Phu Sang Stupa was funded by donations from former CPT members and the families of the 200 people who died in the conflict in the area. Completed in 1997, the stupa contains the remains of the deceased. Photo by Donlawat Sunsuk

Highway construction radicalizes farmers

Located in the heart of the Khorat Plateau, today’s Nong Bua Lamphu Province was once a stronghold of the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT).

In the early 1960s, hundreds of locals took jobs in the construction of the Highway 210 connecting the area with Udon Thani. The construction team had been infiltrated by CPT recruiters who successfully mobilized the rural workers against the state.

In the coming years, thousands of impoverished northeastern farmers filled the ranks of the communist movement as the party declared an armed rebellion against the government in 1965.

But after two decades of conflict, the movement faltered when external support dwindled, and the government switched tracks from suppression to reconciliation. A general amnesty and promises of state-sponsored compensation saw communist fighters and their families returning to lives as farmers.

In an attempt to rebrand the rebellious Northeasterners, the government coined the official title “Thai National Development Partners.” State-approved history books now avoid mention of rural Northeasterners’ involvement with communism altogether.

Inside the stupa, a memorial wall displays the names of the killed communist fighters. Photo by Donlawat Sunsuk

A ban on remembering rebellion

In the village of Nabua in Nakhon Phanom’s Nakae District, former communists have been commemorating their involvement with the movement. Every year, locals celebrate the anniversary of an incident that came to be known as the “Day the First Gunshot Rang Out.”

On August 7, 1965, the ethnic Phu Thai village became the site of Thailand’s first-ever physical confrontation between communist fighters and Thai security forces. Eight communist villagers, one of whom was shot dead, were involved in the incident that made headlines all across Indochina.

The village has been commemorating the incident for the last sixteen years with large events featuring political debates, lectures, and cultural performances.

“We realized that without these commemorative events, the history of our political struggle would be lost,” Chom Saenmit, one of the oldest former CPT members in the village, told The Isaan Record in an interview in 2015.

The events used to be a space for people to openly express their opinions, says Phairin Lueamphao, the younger sister of the villager who was killed in the incident.

But since the military coup in 2014, local officials asked organizers to keep the event small, or they banned it altogether like last year.

“I’m not pleased with the ban but there is nothing we can do,” says 70-year-old Ms. Phairin. “Our lives will be difficult if we oppose the government.”

Bridging political rifts

But Ms. Sunee has noticed a positive effect of the latest military coup that put a ban on political activity and curtailed freedom of expression.

“In the past two years, after the conflict of political colors faded, comrades from all regions started to come to the event again,” she says.

Sunee Chaiyarose, a former member of the Communist Party of Thailand and once a National Human Rights Commissioner, stresses the importance of remembering the communist movement’s role in the country’s history. Photo by Donlawat Sunsuk

Thailand’s color-coded conflict of the past ten years has created a deep rift among some former communists, who took opposing political sides. Many of them refused to even attend the same annual commemoration events.

But since 2014, this rift seems to have started to heal. “No matter if red or yellow, they are all coming again,” Ms. Sunee says, stressing unity through collective memory.

“It’s about remembering a past that we all played a part in, and not only about the conflict of colors,” she says.

Reporting and photography from Nong Bua Lamphu by Donlawat Sunsuk. Additional reporting from Nakhon Phanom by Jirasuda Saisom and Varirak Rakkhammoon. They are participants of The Isaan Journalism Network Project, organized by The Isaan Record.