Posts from the ‘Khon Kaen’ Category
KHON KAEN-For the past seven years, the European Union has sponsored the European Union Thailand National Inter-varsity Debate Tournament (EUTH) with the objective of stimulating critical thinking, democratic values, and English proficiency among Thai youth. However, this year marks a first for the event as organizers moved the tournament outside of the capital in an effort to expand beyond the predominantly Bangkok-based participants. For the tournament’s eighth year, Khon Kaen University (KKU) won the bid to host.
University and high school students from schools from across the country came to Khon Kaen this past week to participate in the five-day tournament in which debaters discussed a wide variety of motions including human rights, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) issues, international relations, media, environmental issues, and the imminent ASEAN economic community.
Moving the debate to Khon Kaen this year was strategic in fortifying the blossoming debate culture that has been developing in the province over the past few years according to the tournament’s advisor and outgoing chair, Mr. Chainarong Sangsranoi.
The Thai education system has often been criticized for its focus on rote memorization rather than critical thinking. Within this system, Isaan has suffered as the standard of education and resources available in Isaan have fallen behind those of other regions, explained Mr. John Draper, KKU lecturer and one of the judges for the debate. By hosting this tournament, however, Khon Kaen University administrators and teachers are hoping to work against that trend by promoting the skills involved in Western style debate and subsequently nurturing a new generation of open-minded and analytical Thai youth.
Participants and spectators alike who expressed their discontent with the traditional education system commented on how events like these can successfully challenge this system.
Siravich Sincharoenkul, a debater from Mahidol University echoed the critiques of Thai education and went further saying, “[Through debate I’ve learned how to use analytical thinking and to be more responsive. We cannot just learn by rote learning, just memorizing the information. That is not effective because you will not be able to apply it in the future.”
Student participants from outside of Isaan recognize the greater implications that the move out of Bangkok has for the Thai education system, and Isaan in particular. “I think that it shows that education or the opportunity to learn is not only limited to the center of Thailand,” said Siravich. “I think the rest of the country has more opportunities to access materials and information and education. I think this is a good step for Thailand so that we can continue to develop a young generation of educated people.”
Mika Apichatsakol, Chulalongkorn University debater and second place winner, explained that debate is motivation for her to stay informed about world issues. “It’s an incentive to research. I want to be an informed individual,” she said. She does recognize, however, that this is not common for the majority of Thai youth, but hopes that through debate, she can help to stimulate critical thinking and self-initiative among others in her generation.
Subsequently, the arguments made throughout the week, from LGBTQ-only schools, to the use of drone warfare, to whether or not Thailand should move its capital, seemingly left a resounding mark on spectators and student volunteers by sparking conversation beyond the walls of the auditorium.
The hope from the organizers and the European Union is that events such as this will help to fortify the regions outside of Bangkok in terms of English proficiency and freedom of expression as debate culture continues to gain momentum. The EU has already helped to create regional workshops that they hope will inspire participation from even more universities from outside Bangkok by providing greater opportunities for practice in preparation for the EUTH National tournament. Nakhon Ratchasima, for example, attended this year’s regional debate in the hopes that next year they will be able to participate in the tournament.
Ms. Ana Beatriz Martins, Head of Political, Press and Information Section of the EU and a judge of the final debate, expressed the influence she hopes the expansion of debate culture will have on Thailand’s next generation, especially given the current political climate. “The intention is to create a next generation and new society that learns to debate constructively. To overcome differences of views in dialogue rather than aggression or violence. I think that is the path Thailand is taking.”
Ms. Martins believes that this year’s move to Khon Kaen is a significant step in building the EU’s relationship with the Northeast through their support of the region’s growing debate culture. “We are very happy KKU has agreed to host. As one of the biggest universities in Thailand, they’re a natural partner for us. We hope to continue this path of encouraging debate culture outside of Bangkok and to link it up with other regions.”
KHON KAEN – Cheers erupted the instant former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s face appeared on the projection screen, but they were not cheers of support for the former figurehead. The enraptured audience was instead hailing the speaker’s assertions accompanying the slide.
At Khon Kaen University’s College of Local Administration last Saturday, a panel of speakers advocated for the role the International Criminal Court could play in bringing justice to the Thai court system by ending impunity for political figures.
Mr. Abhisit’s picture concluded the slide show of a handful of world leaders, including Thomas Lubanga Dyilo of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Charles Taylor of Liberia, who have been taken to the International Criminal Court for committing crimes against humanity. The former prime minister, the speakers said, should be next.
“People in power tell [the military] to kill the people, and this [practice] is still alive,” said Pheu Thai MP Ms. Jarupan Kuldiloke. “It hasn’t stopped yet.”
Thus was the thrust of the arguments included in the forum entitled “The Right of People to Protect Themselves with the International Criminal Court.” Local Red Shirt supporters packed COLA’s auditorium beyond capacity to hear Pheu Thai MP Mr. Sunai Chulponsatorn, Thammasat professors Mr. Piyabutr Saengkanokkul and Ms. Sudsanguan Suteesorn, KKU professor Mr. Kittibodi Yaipool, and Ms. Jarupan present on the subject.
The Thai judicial system, the panelists asserted, has historically been biased towards people in power by granting impunity to those who have committed what the speakers believe to be crimes against humanity, most recently for those involved in the 2010 April and May military crackdown. Additionally, they said that the court has been biased against the rural poor, in the case of the 2010 crackdown on the overwhelmingly Isaan-based Red Shirt movement.
The event was doubly significant for Thais fighting for human rights as the date marked the 36th anniversary of the Thammasat University massacre, a tragedy that still resonates in the memories of many Thai people. Those behind the military orders that claimed the lives of at least 46 student activists and wounded countless more have never been brought before Thai court for what the panelists asserted were crimes against humanity. Consequently, the speakers used the October 1976 event to provide historical context for the pervasive injustice they believe still runs rampant within the Thai court system.
“The government has a duty to protect its people’s rights, but the government is abusing its power,” said Ms. Sudsanguan. Consequently, the ICC, she asserted, would be a mechanism to alleviate the inequalities of the Thai court and reinforce the political rights of all people, not just those in power.
In 1998, the United Nations created the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as a court of last resort. The court’s jurisdiction covers individuals who have committed genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression, but only under the condition that the country’s national justice system is unable or unwilling to do so itself. As it stands, however, Thailand has yet to ratify the Rome Statute of the ICC although it became a signatory 10 years ago.
“Basic democratic societies should be equal. Every human should be equal, but does Thai society really respect this?” Mr. Kittibodi posed to a captivated audience. “Isaan has many minerals and resources, but why are Isaan people still poor? Why are Isaan people not treated equally?”
Though speaking to an overwhelmingly Red Shirt audience, Mr. Piyabutr argued that utilizing the ICC would be a step forward for all Thais, not just for the Red Shirt movement. “If the ICC is successful in Thailand, it will be able to move the country forward. The ICC will be good for the Thai people because the power of the Thai soldiers will be restrained so that they will stop hurting [the] people as they have in the past,” he said, alluding to both the Thammasat massacre and the 2010 crackdown.
Mr. Piyabutr, a member of the controversial Nitirat group of law academics at Thammasat, spoke vehemently about the need to curtail impunity for political figures. In particular, he focused on Article 12 Paragraph 3 of the ICC which asserts that the ICC can exercise jurisdiction over states not yet part of the statute under certain conditions. This article, he asserted, is significant because former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban could be taken to the ICC under it, if Thailand fits the preconditions.
Not all the speakers advocated for the inclusion of the ICC, however. Mr. Kittibodi, although supportive of the ICC’s potential role in ending impunity for political figures, asserted that there should be a more stringent focus on fixing the current Thai judicial system to mitigate the need to take such cases to the ICC. “Other countries will laugh at Thailand because it can’t take care of itself and needs to go to the ICC [to solve its problems],” Ms. Sudsanguan said, in support of Mr. Kittibodi’s suggestion.
As Thais debate how to pave the road to national reconciliation, many stand divided on the potential support of an international court like the ICC. The reactions of the audience at the forum, however, indicate that support for the international court’s intervention continues to grow among Red Shirts of the Northeast.
An unlikely movement has taken root in the heart of Khon Kaen: street art. Here, a group of recent college graduates and former skateboarders are taking the city by surprise with the controversial artwork they are painting across the walls of city buildings. They call themselves Dude Factory.
Street art has yet to make waves in Isaan but this group of artists has made it their goal to bring the movement to the region. Recently, the Isaan Record sat down with Floyd, Baby83, and Wink – three artists from the group (all of whom preferred to be identified by their tag) – to hear more about their work and their experience painting in the city and on the outskirts.
See their work and read what they have to say below.
Isaan Record: So, why street art?
Baby83: Floyd, Wink and I used to do extreme sports together – BMX-ing, skateboarding. We got to know each other through these activities and in the context of street culture. [And over time] I got to know the culture better, too. I started learning more and I discovered that modern street art is a branch of this culture. It’s a performance, and one that can be presented to people easily. You know, if we work on art inside a frame, we’re just working at home – people will only see our work when we display it in an exhibition. But for street art, they can see our work while we are in the process of doing it, and they’ll ask questions while we work. That’s what it means to be fresh. It’s a lot of fun.
Wink: After I graduated from [the faculty of arts at KKU], I started to see that there are other kinds of work out there like street art. Once I was out of college, I realized that there’s this large gap between art and people. I thought I should do something to bring art closer to people because our city, Khon Kaen, doesn’t have much in the way of [contemporary art] movements. I chose to present this kind [of art] as my way of expression. I came to that conclusion two years ago.
Floyd: I had seen [street art] when I was young and became interested in it, but I didn’t know how I could get involved. I started getting into BMX-ing and I was studying art at the university. After I graduated — well, it’s the same as Wink said. The art of this society is really dull, it’s also dated. There are only old people doing it. For teenagers, especially the alternative ones, it’s so old-fashioned. So we all started talking to each other about how we could make a strong impact [on people] and how we could make them confused. We decided street art was the best option. We like it. And we think that the finished product is cool, too.
Baby83: Let’s suppose that drawing on paper is like listening to music on a CD. What I mean is that working inside of a frame is a lot like listening to a CD. But the process of going out and doing street art, well, that’s like playing a concert. It’s live. Whatever we say, however we play at a concert – it’s far more powerful than when it’s on a CD.
IR: How do people react to your work in the city?
Baby83: We always ask for permission and we even show people sketches beforehand. The reason we do this is because [Thailand] is different from Europe or America. There, [artists] don’t need to ask permission because people aren’t afraid of art, it’s not talked about as if it’s scary. But here we have to ask for permission because people are afraid even though it’s just art. Ultimately, it means people can have trouble appreciating it.
Wink: Once I was painting a head on a Chinese house – one half of the face was a skull and the other half was pretty. But once it was done I had to erase it. Chinese people really hate skulls. In China, punk culture is not something that people accept, partly because of [the symbol of] the skull. So I had to take it down and paint the whole wall over again. I understand that this is a part of their culture but sometimes I can’t control myself. [Laughs] But I also know I have another responsibility – I respect the owners of the buildings so I had to make the piece softer and less frightening. I still maintained my concept, though. Since we’re sharing the space with the public, this is something you just have to accept. So I’ll only make art [that’s controversial] to a certain point. That’s what I believe is right. And I’ve learned on my own that in this situation, if the art is too frightening, society might not accept it. So, that’s our answer.
Floyd: Just to be clear – sometimes we don’t ask for permission. We just sneak around and do it because it’s exciting that way. It’s also more exciting for people who don’t know what they’re about to see around the corner…. Really, impact is our main policy in street art. Like in Banksy’s work – he got his work into a museum and made people really confused. It made people start asking questions.
IR: We see that you also make street art out in the villages. How do people there receive it?
Floyd: For me, painting in the village is better than painting in the city. It’s innocent. Villagers don’t have any silly questions, like “Who hired you to paint?”. But they’re glad that the work is beautiful and they invite me to paint often. But if I’m in the city, people have a lot of questions and I have to give them reasons. “Why do you do this?” “Do you get any money?” “Did you have to ask the municipality for permission?”
Baby83: We used to work at a school in Kaina village. Kids like this kind of work – they never really knew that painting on walls was a field of art. They always thought that artwork was just a drawing on a piece of paper that they needed to hand in to their teacher.
Floyd: Villagers look at our work with their feelings – they’re not asking for lots of reasons. This is the right approach. They still see beauty, even though they many not quite understand it.
IR: Why do you think city people might be afraid of contemporary art?
Baby83: There are restrictions on how much we can learn about other cultures. [Cultural movements] come here late. When I was studying at the university, my faculty didn’t even have a library. And that was in 2000.
Floyd: In the past, there weren’t any bookstores in Khon Kaen. The books in the library were too old and there wasn’t a movement to bring new books to the library. When we got a bookstore in Khon Kaen, it was like the whole world opened up in front of us. Still, lots of students studying at university today learn from really old books so their work is old-fashioned.
Wink: In my opinion, some people fear the work itself, and other people fear what will happen because of the work. There are two kinds of fear.
IR: How does your work contribute to the identity of Isaan?
Floyd: Khon Kaen doesn’t have an identity. We pick up stuff from other places to use here. Like in Chiang Mai, of course, there’s so much art, and it’s easy to get into it. But in Khon Kaen, things are superficial, unprofound – it’s all business. I sure as hell don’t want to sell stuff. They can bring their business, but they’re not bringing any real culture. We still haven’t proven anything about Khon Kaen to outsiders yet. What does Khon Kaen have to offer?
Baby83: In some ways, we are trying to create [an identity]. We’re starting small, but that’s good.
KHON KAEN – On February 28, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) released a report condemning Khon Kaen University (KKU) for arbitrarily and unjustly dismissing Kittibodi Yaipool from his position as the Acting Dean of the Law Faculty. Mr. Kittibodi, whose abrupt dismissal came in June 2011, submitted the case to the NHRC because he believed that the Office of the President had abused its power for political reasons.
Last June, Acting Dean Mr. Kittibodi was notified by the Office of the President that he was dismissed from the Law Faculty due to allegations of tampering with official documents. He and many of his staff were then banned from the Law Faculty’s premises and moved to other faculties. In response, Mr. Kittibodi submitted the case to the NHRC for a proper investigation. He denies ever tampering with official documents and believes that he was being punished for his support of human rights issues and social activism.
The NHRC concluded that the University did not have enough justification to transfer Mr. Kittibodi and his personnel. Their report ultimately urges the University to officially exonerate all transferred staff members and to consider reinstating them in their former positions.
“The University should publicly apologize for its mistake, neglect, and the false information given to the University community,” the report reads. “The University should also inform the public that those who were transferred from the faculty are not guilty.”
Khon Kaen University has yet to issue its decision.
Frustrated with the University’s silence, over 100 activists and villagers took to the Office of the President on Tuesday to demand that the president admit his faults. Suwit Khulabwong, the event’s organizer, led the crowd in chants calling for KKU President Kittichai Triratanasirichai’s resignation.
“The report from the NHRC has come out and we can see clearly that the president abused his power and violated human rights,” he said in an interview. “What is the [president's] responsibility? The president has to quit.”
Mr. Kittibodi helped found the Law Faculty at KKU in 2006 and thereafter began demonstrating his commitment to community rights in Isaan. He established free courses for Isaan villagers to learn about the legal system and also regularly encouraged students in the faculty to volunteer in remote communities struggling with legal issues. Now, he is on a crusade to prove to the public that the University violated his own rights.
“I have been using my rights, the law, and the constitution as a route to find justice and now it is up to the University to take responsibility once they hear the decisions of neutral organizations that [make decisions] following the constitution,” Mr. Kittibodi said in a phone interview. “I believe that the University should demonstrate their responsibility to be an exemplar for society.”
KHON KAEN – On Thursday, the European External Action Service of the European Union launched its funding for an Isaan language program, The Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalization Program (ICMRP), at the College of Local Administration at Khon Kaen University (KKU). The EU pledged nearly half a million euros to a program that codifies Isaan language for its integration into city schools and local signage.
The program will develop an Isaan language curriculum implemented in 17 public schools, record and archive Isaan cultural dance and performance, introduce official city signage in Isaan language, and initiate a weekly ‘Isaan Day’ that encourages government employees to wear traditional Isaan clothing. The mayors of Khon Kaen, Phol, Chumphae, and Ban Phai will collaborate with a coordination team at KKU over four years in the hopes of enhancing the perception of Isaan culture and language.
Khon Kaen’s Governor, Sombat Triwatsuwan, delivered the opening address in which he talked (partly in Isaan language) about the need to preserve Isaan language for future generations and encourage people not to be ashamed of it. “Isaan people are shy to speak their own language,” he said in an interview. “I want them to be aware of its value.”
National media has given Isaan people good reason to shy away from speaking Isaan language in formal settings. According to John Draper, a sociolinguistic researcher at KKU and the Project Officer of the ICMRP, they are popularly cast as “maids, laborers, and servants, and this is made obvious through the way they speak, which is often as comic relief.” In studies which test the national perception of Isaan speakers, “consistently, Isaan people come out sounding uneducated, and naïve, however honest and hardworking as well,” he explained.
Mr. Draper (also an Isaan Record contributor) argues that this program should not only enhance the perception of Isaan speakers by publicly embracing the language, but also help close the performance gap between Isaan and Central Thai students. Research shows that people who achieve literacy in their mother-tongue language at an early age are more likely to achieve better scores in school overall.
Teaching Isaan language and culture in schools, however, is still politically sensitive. Central Thai is Thailand’s only officially recognized language and the government has long fought to keep Thais unified under one language and minority dialects out of the classrooms.
Priya Waeohongsa, Programme Officer of the European Union and an attendee of Thursday’s opening ceremony, argues that it is time for change in Thailand’s centralized education system that was initiated a hundred years ago. “One language [was used] as a medium for control – not only for education’s sake, but to control the people by imposing the central language on the schools [in a time of national integration],” she explained. “At that time it might have been the right thing, but now we found this is not the right approach and we need to revitalize local culture.”
Though some may fear that allowing regional languages in schools could disrupt the long sought after “national unity” of Thailand, programs similar to the ICMRP have revealed quite opposite results. The Asia Foundation, a nongovernmental organization focused on capacity building, has been implementing a similar language program in the Deep South for nearly five decades. “When we did a public perception survey, what the majority of people said very clearly was that they were not on a quest for independence but a quest for common understanding and respect. Our language program puts that into practice,” said Kim McQuay, the organization’s Thailand Representative.
The ICMRP’s Project Officer, Mr. Draper, is confident that this program will maintain the support of government officials like Governor Sombat Triwatsuwan of Khon Kaen by garnering regional interest in mother-tongue education. “Sustainability will come from the top down,” he said. “But the know-how and the knowledge to implement it in a way that people will welcome it will come from this program that was launched today. It will serve as an incubator for larger-scale deployment later.”
KHON KAEN – For the second time in recent weeks, the Campaign Committee to Amend Article 112 (CCAA 112) continued its effort to reform the lèse-majesté law (Article 112) on Khon Kaen University’s campus, this time employing a non-confrontational tactic akin to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The organizers from the Thai Undergraduate Student Union sought to avoid conflict with the university and chose to identify the event at KKU’s Kwan Mor Hotel as a meeting of the innocuously named “Community Development Institute.” The university, for its part, received a statement of purpose from the Student Union and opted not to inquire about future meetings.
Though the organizers’ procedural sleight of hand could be easily overlooked, it is emblematic of the treacherous pas de deux that Thai intellectuals and universities have been practicing ever since the CCAA 112 began its controversial campaign in mid-January.
Indeed, the previous meeting of CCAA 112 at the campus hotel on January 29 saw its headlining speaker and KKU academic Dr. Buapun Promphakping drop out at the last minute. The Associate Professor at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Science later clarified his absence by saying that Manager Online reporters had incorrectly identified his faculty to be one of the event’s organizers and Dr. Buapun, “thought the [faculty] would not be happy with that.”
This Monday afternoon, however, Dr. Buapun sat in on the forum, though he was the only KKU professor in attendance. After last month’s confusion, he chose not to address the audience.
“The upcountry universities are very careful about this sort of thing,” said Dr. Buapun. “Khon Kaen University is not like Thammasat University or Chulalongkorn University [in Bangkok]. We are a [provincial] university and we seem to understand that we are part of the government. Government policy is concerned with security, so [KKU] is more concerned with security than freedom of speech.”
On February 13, Thammasat University decided to officially allow Article 112 activities on campus after its ban on such activities two weeks earlier created much controversy. The decision by Thammasat, notoriously the most politically active campus in Thailand, has not visibly influenced other state-run schools in the provinces.
In addition, Dr. David Streckfuss, the foremost scholar on Thai lèse-majesté law and a resident of Khon Kaen, gave a short presentation on lèse-majesté laws in other constitutional monarchies. He did not, however, utter the word “Thailand” even once.
When asked why he had chosen not to speak about lèse majesté in Thailand, Dr. Streckfuss responded without mention of self-censorship. “Thais might have less access to different kinds of laws or other kinds of provisions [on lèse majesté] from other constitutional monarchies,” he said. “Thailand, or at least the new government, has made a case of wanting to follow international standards of human rights. If that’s the case, then we would look at what those standards are and how they are observed in countries that are members of the European Union, for instance, and how these countries handle lèse majesté.”
Even though Monday’s event proceeded with much circumspection, its student organizers were not distressed by the kind of caution exercised by students and academics alike. Instead, they saw it as integral in their campaign to spread information about Article 112 and the proposed reforms.
“We’re not afraid of anything, but we evaluated the situation and we didn’t want there to be pressure that would have disallowed us from holding the event at all, like the last time when a professor had to remove himself [from the panel],” said a student organizer from the Thai Undergraduate Student Union. “Next, we’re looking to go to Loei or Sakon Nakhon, or if there are people in villages who want to know about 112, we can even set up talks in small communities.”
When the mobile cabinet meeting rolls into Udon Thani on February 21, Withoon Kamonlnaruemet, the president of the Khon Kaen branch of the Federation of Thai Industries, is prepared to woo cabinet members with a presentation. Mr. Withoon and a committee headed by Khon Kaen Governor Sombat Triwatsuwan plan to request a 50 million baht appropriation to conduct a feasibility study and create the blueprints for Northeastern Thailand’s first industrial estate.
“Khon Kaen has all the favorable conditions to attract investors here. We are a hub in the Northeast for logistics, education, and health care. And we have golf,” Mr. Withoon said.
If Mr. Withoon’s presentation is as well received as he expects, thousands of jobs will be created in new Khon Kaen factories. However, it is not yet clear whether Northeastern laborers, long the backbone of Central Thailand’s industrial workforce, would follow investors back home to Isaan.
Heavy industry is not entirely foreign to Khon Kaen. Government policies have promoted the decentralization of industrial development for more than four decades. While most heavy industry remains concentrated in Greater Bangkok and along the Eastern Seaboard, Khon Kaen boasts fifteen large industrial factories.
Yet despite decentralization policies intended to increase the incomes of workers in the Northeast, the manufacturing divisions of at least half of Khon Kaen’s large industrial factories are still staffed with Burmese laborers. “The fish net factories, the garment factories and the shoe factories,” Mr. Withoon explained, listing three of Khon Kaen’s five major areas of industrial concentration, “are mostly staffed with foreigners”.
Indeed a Ministry of Labor official, who wished to remain anonymous, is skeptical that a Northeastern industrial estate would offer wages that Isaan workers would find attractive. “The investors who move operations, will their decision be related to the 300 baht minimum wage policy?” she questioned.
Under the revised 300 baht policy scheduled to go into effect on April 1, the 300 baht per day minimum wage will only apply to Bangkok and six other provinces. Though Khon Kaen’s minimum wage will see a 40% increase to 234 baht per day, it will remain significantly below Bangkok’s.
While it is too soon to ascertain if the proposed industrial estate will draw Northeastern labor back home, the estate’s development seems relatively certain. “The probability is about 70%,” Mr. Withoon predicted. He attributes the high likelihood to the 2011 floods which severely disrupted production and brought billions of baht in damage to factories in Central Thailand. “Businessmen are not in a position to take on any more risk,” Mr. Withoon explained, “and the government hasn’t come forward with a short-term plan or a long-term plan to deal with the threat of flooding. So, an industrial estate in the Northeast is looking pretty good to investors.”
KHON KAEN – The floodwaters have receded, the fields are cleared, and Udom Phanprasri spends his week transplanting his new rice stalks in straight lines across his muddy plot. Neighbors drop by and watch quietly as he sinks the stalks one by one.
In Yangyong village, Mr. Udom is well known for his mastery of farming and villagers often ask to learn his techniques. But while his neighbors are eager to learn his tricks, none have followed suit in his most important decision. Unlike the rest of his village, Mr. Udom embraces organic practices in his farming. The remaining 60 farming families still prefer a far more popular method that relies heavily on agrochemicals.
“It’s difficult to convince the villagers to switch to organic substances,” says Mr. Udom. “Even though I tell them not to use chemicals, they don’t listen because their method is easier. Many farmers try to use bio-fertilizer but then, one month later, they resort to chemicals again.”
Since the 1960s, the use of agrochemicals in Thailand’s agriculture sector has skyrocketed. According to Greenpeace International, an organization that campaigns on environmental issues, Thailand’s farmers have increased their use of chemical fertilizers by a multiple of 94, from only 18,000 tons in 1961 to nearly 1,700,000 tons annually in 2003. The nationwide yield of rice has barely doubled.
This staggering increase in chemical fertilizer coupled with a relatively low gain in crops has led many to worry about possible impacts of chemical waste but has convinced very few farmers to go organic. Excessive or misused chemical fertilizers can threaten farmers’ health and often deplete the quality of the land.
Farmers and experts agree that organic farming remains unpopular mainly because there is no international market for organic produce from Thailand.
“The government focuses on exports so it doesn’t offer organic farmers a rice price guarantee,” explains Professor Wichian Saengchoti of the Research Development Institute at Khon Kaen University. “The government isn’t interested in supporting an alternative production process.”
While the popularly exported jasmine rice can be sold to the government for 20,000 baht per ton, a price nearly double market value, other rice strains that are used in organic farming are not supported by government insurance schemes.
Organic farmers like Mr. Udom are left with little choice but to sell their rice to private millers who often undervalue the product. “The local government officers tell us not to use chemical fertilizers. But when we try to sell to the government, they prefer to buy rice that has been chemically treated,” Mr. Udom complains.
Enticing farmers to turn organic is yet another obstacle. With chemical fertilizer, farmers can see positive results of higher yields and healthier plants within the same season the fertilizer is used. With bio-fertilizers, it can take two to three years to see results.
The Ministry of Agriculture initiated a project to tackle over-dependency on agrochemicals about fifteen years ago. The ministry employs officers in every province to teach Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), a set of farming standards that encourages a mixture of agrochemicals and bio-fertilizers.
“In the past, farmers used only agrochemicals. It’s our duty to reduce the use of chemicals and encourage bio-fertilizers. The results show that a mixture is better than just one or the other,” says Amphon Sirikham, an agricultural specialist for the Ministry of Agriculture.
Nevertheless, in recent years, imports of pesticides have surged from 42,000 tons in 1997 to 137,000 tons in 2009.
Mr. Amphon estimates that in Mr. Udom’s sub-district, Kok Si, about half of the farmers use only agrochemicals and the other half now use a mixture of chemical and bio-products. The switch to organic farming is very rare.
“If Udom is the only organic farmer in his village, he might face difficulties in selling his rice for an appropriate price,” says Dr. Patcharee Saenjan, a professor at KKU’s Faculty of Agriculture. “He needs to join a group of organic farmers or persuade his neighbors to join him. If he is alone, he can’t do anything.”
Networks of organic farmers are sparse in Northeast Thailand. The largest network, the Alternative Agriculture Network, is in Yasothorn and Surin and smaller co-ops are scattered throughout other provinces.
KHON KAEN – The Campaign Committee to Amend Article 112 of the Criminal Code (CCAA 112), the first aggressive, nationwide campaign to reform the world’s harshest lèse-majesté law, made its way to Khon Kaen this past Sunday with a panel discussion and petition-signing held at Khon Kaen University (KKU). Over 100 signatories gathered in the Kwan Mor Hotel to endorse the amendment drafted by the small group of Thammasat Law lecturers know as the Nitirat group.
Both CCAA 112 and the Nitirat group have come under intense criticism since the search for 10,000 signatures began on January 15. For many Thais, the proposal to amend the lèse-majesté law has been construed as a direct attack on long-reigning King Bhumibol Adulyadej himself, and in response, social media users and demonstrators have spared little vitriol for the movement.
Long considered the third rail of Thai politics, the lèse-majesté law has garnered increased media scrutiny and international attention in the past few years as the number of charges have grown by 1500%: from 33 charges in 2005 to 478 reported charges in 2010. Furthermore, the law’s minimum mandatory sentence is an exceptional three years long, with a maximum sentence of 15 years for a single count.
Though Sunday’s Khon Kaen discussion proceeded without incident, KKU’s academics were conspicuously absent, with much of the modest crowd composed of local Red Shirts, independent community members, and student activists.
Boonwat Chumpradit, a Khon Kaen Red Shirt villager in attendance, found the silence of KKU’s professors troubling. “Professors at the university should be the ones leadings us,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to be the ones leading them.”
Still, the campaign is so politically treacherous that even a professor from the Nitirat group declined to attend Khon Kaen’s meeting, telling the event’s organizer that it might endanger his relationship with his employer, Thammasat University. His fears seem to have been justified. The following day, Thammasat University rector Somkit Lertpaithoon announced on his Facebook page that Nitirat was banned from meeting on university property.
Complicating matters is the second campaign launched by Nitirat on January 22 that, among other things, seeks to nullify the legal effects of the 2006 military coup that ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Critics, however, claim this is simply a veiled attempt to pardon Mr. Thaksin for his 2008 corruption conviction. As a result, the group is seen as unthinkably transgressive: both pro-Thaksin and anti-monarchy. Indeed, over 200 members of Khon Kaen Residents Who Love the King gathered at the city’s spirit house on Friday night to protest the group on these very grounds.
Sunday’s motley crew of attendees cut across social, if not political boundaries. There were out-and-proud Red Shirts (“I came because I’m a Red Shirt… everyone should be able to critique [the king] just like they can critique a movie star.”), adamantly color-less university technicians (“The movement to correct the constitution is different from the Red Shirt movement.”), closeted Marxists, Yingluck apologists (“In truth Yingluck wants to change the law, but there are many factions in Thailand and she doesn’t want to fight with all these groups.”), and the likes of Ms. Boonwat, who came dressed to the nines in a floppy-brimmed red hat and flowing red dress.
At times, this audience grew rowdy and vocal as they were stirred to applause and cheers by the seminar’s three speakers: Prawet Praphanukul, lawyer to the anti-112 poster-child, Da Torpedo, Wad Rawee from CCAA 112, and Phornchai Yuanyee, Secretary of the Thai Undergraduate Student Union. Together they addressed the history, contradictions, absurdities, and abuses surrounding the lèse-majesté law.
As Sunday afternoon’s seminar came to a close and the floor was opened up to audience members, one KKU student took the microphone and pleaded for more action. “After we sign the petitions, we need to get in touch with our Pheu Thai representatives,” he said. “We are the ones who elected these representatives and now we need to get in touch with them and get them to change this law.”
This outlook, however, is bleak. Late last week, numerous Pheu Thai representatives swore off making any changes to Article 112. “The government and the Pheu Thai Party will never change Section 112 of the Criminal Code,” Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung said. “Even the thought of it can send us to hell.”
The next anti-112 event to be held in Khon Kaen is tentatively scheduled for February 27.
[Correction February 28, 2012: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that there was a 1500% growth in lèse-majesté "cases" between 2005 and 2010. However, the 1500% increase was actually in lèse-majesté charges issued in that time frame, oftentimes with several charges filed in a single case. The article has been amended to reflect this change.]