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Posts from the ‘Red Shirts’ Category

Khon Kaen Activists Remain Divided, But Peaceful

2014 January 28
by Sally Mairs

KHON KAEN—Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the Election Commission are expected to reach a decision this afternoon on whether or not the February 2 elections will be postponed, but Khon Kaen residents, like Thais across the country, remain divided on their hopes for the outcome. Yet while chaos, and at times violence, has dominated the streets of Bangkok in recent weeks, both sides of the divide in Khon Kaen plan to respond to today’s announcement – regardless of the outcome – calmly and peacefully.

In Khon Kaen, the minority anti-government activists are hoping the elections will be postponed until after the government has undergone significant reform, while Khon Kaen’s strong Red Shirt constituency, which supports the Yingluck government and wants to take the country’s disagreements to the polls, is hoping the February 2 date will remain in place.

The Khon Kaen chapter of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) has been holding anti-government rallies at the city shrine every night since January 3 and sending daily buses of anti-government supporters to participate in the Bangkok protests. But the chairman of the group, 58-year-old Khon Kaen resident Kamol Kitkasitwat, said that even if the government decides to go forward with Sunday’s election, the group does not plan to stage any special demonstrations or protests.

“We don’t want to provoke any violence,” said Mr. Kamol. He added that so far, the group’s nightly rallies have not elicited any hostility from Red Shirt supporters.

Mr. Kamol said that if the polls are open on February 2, PDRC activists may demonstrate at voting stations in Khon Kaen to express their position against the election, but they will not attempt to block voters from casting ballots, as was the case in Bangkok on Sunday.

Many members of Khon Kaen’s strong Red Shirt constituency are hoping for an opposite outcome from Yingluck’s 2 p.m. meeting with the Election Commission, but they also do not plan to respond aggressively if the decision does not go their way.

Forty-year-old Khon Kaen radio DJ Sanya Simma said he is afraid that if the election is postponed today, it might be a long time before the Thai people get another chance to vote. Yet he and another Khon Kaen radio DJ, 45-year-old Bhutdhipong Khanhaengpon, said a decision to delay the election would not be enough to turn them against the government.

“We are ready to listen to the reason that the government gives us,” said Bhutdhipong. “If the reason is good enough, or even not good enough, we will listen and think.”

Pheu Thai party list candidate Thanik Masripitak said he is worried that a postponement of the election will disillusion Pheu Thai voters, but that he will continue to campaign for the party regardless.

“We will have to campaign harder to explain to our supporters why we have to postpone,” said Mr. Thanik. “We hope that our supporters will keep understanding.”

The stark contrast between how the conflict is playing out in Bangkok versus Khon Kaen was illustrated when advance voting on January 26 was either blocked entirely or disrupted at 49 out of 50 polling stations in Bangkok, but completely unimpeded in Khon Kaen and other areas in the northeast.

For the time being, political activity in Khon Kaen, and across much of the Northeast, appears far less confrontational than in Bangkok.

“There will be no violence in this province because most of us know we have different political ideologies and beliefs,” anti-government leader Mr. Komol said. “We can say to one another, ‘I understand that you have a different idea, but we can still live together.’”


Khon Kaen Governor, Red Shirts Oppose Anti-Government Demands

2013 December 2
by The Isaan Record

Guest Contributors: Kati Fithian and Sam Ryals

Ms. Sabina Shah and Khon Kaen Governor Somsak Suwansujarit make agreement to pass red shirt support to Prime Minister Yingluck.

KHON KAEN – Shortly after noon today,  Governor Somsak Suwansujarit affirmed his support for the beleaguered Yingluck government.

“Thailand is a democratic country with the King as Head of the State, and the government comes from elections, from the people, throughout the country.”

Governor Somsak continued, “In a democracy there is a forum, or space for people to come together to exchange ideas, without using force to overthrow the democratic system.”

His statement came in response to Khon Kaen red shirt leaders’ call for support of the government.

Ms. Sabina Shah, accompanied by 40 other local red shirt leaders, delivered a letter to the governor and said, “The government has problems, because of the thing that Suthep has announced. We have tried to analyze what Suthep is saying [and we think] he has announced himself as a traitor.”

She further said, “We support the government. And we want to tell the government to keep on working its best to give them our support.”

After making the statement, Ms. Sabina held up an announcement of Mr. Suthep’s People’s Democratic Reform Committee (previously called the People’s Committee for Thailand’s Absolute Democracy under the Constitutional Monarchy), tore it up, and trampled it under foot.

Governor Somsak shared his thanks to the red shirt representatives, “By coming here in order to express what you are feeling really reflects the heart of democracy. In our country, [during] this moment, we want people who have the heart of democracy to come out and express their ideas for the people to know.”

Last night, anti-government leader Mr. Suthep Thaugsuban called on supporters to close down provincial halls throughout the country. However, Khon Kaen Provincial Hall was up and running with about 200 police and army security personnel present.

There was no sign of anti-government protesters.

The Governor, accompanied by 20 security officers, spoke with red shirt leaders and agreed to pass the letter of support on to the Prime Minister, saying it will “give her encouragement to pass this crisis.”

Commenting on recent anti-government actions during his statement, the Governor said, “using force to take over government offices, which are the places where people come and get services, is not the right thing to do according to the law.”

“The government officers have a job, a responsibility, to follow the orders and policies from the government that comes from the democratic election” said Mr. Somsak in an interview with The Isaan Record after his statement. “We don’t have responsibility to follow people who use mass power to solve problems.”

Looking forward, Khon Kaen provincial government, he said, will “continue to be a good example in upholding democracy with the King as the Head of the State.  We will try to uphold and follow the rules and regulations that were already written; problem solving by peaceful means, not trying to solve problems with force.”

When asked what he would say to Mr. Suthep, the governor responded, “Tell him to go back to the democratic system of governance; don’t create wrong beliefs or values in solving the problems by using force because it is not the way of democracy.”

For the time being, Khon Kaen red shirts are playing a waiting game, said Ms. Sabina. “Right now we are trying to observe what Mr. Suthep is going to do next. He is clearly a traitor and trying to take over power, but the government can still go on with its work. We really have to see what is going to happen.”

Ms. Sabina concluded the gathering today by announcing, “Delivering the letter is our primary mission, and then we go home. We are red people, we love democracy. Whatever we do, please do things under the law. Be calm. And observe what Mr. Suthep will do next. So today we came here to encourage the prime minister.”


Additional material provided by Emily Parker.

Former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva Rallies at KKU Campus, Is Met with Red Shirt Resistance

2013 March 13
by The Isaan Record

Democratic party supporters shower the former prime minister with flowers and scarves.

Former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and former secretary general Suthep Thaugsuban spoke at a Democratic party rally at Khon Kaen University’s Golden Jubilee Hall Saturday evening in an effort to garner party support from the Northeast, an overwhelmingly Red region.

With the campaign slogan of ‘pha kwam jing,’ or ‘cutting through the truth,’ Mr. Abhisit spoke against Thaksin’s legacy and the current government’s amnesty law. Additionally, the former prime minister scrutinized the Pheu Thai government’s loan policies, specifically in regards to the rice pledging policy that has received much criticism from the opposition since its implementation. “We are here to bring the truth to the people,” Mr. Abhisit said to a fiery crowd. “We want to show that Thailand is not one of Thaksin’s possessions. We want to protect our democracy and our king.”

Abhisit thanked KKU for hosting the rally, praising it as a ‘colorless university,’ though most consider it to lean Yellow in a densely Red region.

But while thousands of Democrat supporters showered the opposition leader with flowers and adorned his waist with layers of Isaan scarves, about 500 Red Shirts gathered outside in protest of Mr. Abhisit’s visit.

Among pick-up trucks fastened with loudspeakers, local Red leaders set up their own rally, fervently hailing abuses at Mr. Abhisit for his role in the 2010 April-May military crackdown and for his alleged bias against the rural poor.

The Red Shirt contingency remained outside the convention hall under the watch of the 300 police officers brought in to ensure the event proceeded without incident. The rally continued as planned and the protesters remained outside until rain forced them to disperse.

Four Ubon Reds Still Languish in Jail, Continue Their Fight Through Letters

2013 January 2
by The Isaan Record

UBON RATCHATHANI—For over two years, four Ubon Ratchathani Red Shirt members have remained imprisoned for their alleged role in the arson of the Ubon Ratchathani provincial hall following the April-May military crackdown on anti-government protests. But the bars of their prison have not been able to keep them completely locked up. Even from within their cells, they continue to fight for their freedom and democracy in Thailand through letters.

The prisoners have been writing to the RedFam Fund, started in 2011 by a group of academics and intellectuals in Ubon Ratchathani, Chiang Mai, and Bangkok in order to help alleviate the financial problems of the families of those charged and detained for the arson of the Ubon provincial hall. The group has now been utilizing social media, such as Facebook, to post the letters of the “Ubon four” in order to get their stories out to the public and to garner support for their freedom.

The RedFam Fund considers the four to be political prisoners, asserting they have been jailed due to their political beliefs and activism. This resonates within their letters, which hold sentiments not only about their struggle for their release, but also about the need for change in what they believe to be a broken justice system.

“I see how people like me have not been given fair treatment or democracy,” writes Somsak Prasansab, referring to low-income Thais. “Will I have a chance to see [democracy] in the future? I don’t even know. People like me may have to suffer a very long time. How many of us will die?”

Although initially upon their arrest the prisoners claimed innocence, after two years in jail, they are now asking for amnesty. They remain slightly reluctant to choose this path to freedom because they believe it would be admitting guilt, explains Dr. Saowanee Alexander, an academic from Ubon Ratchathani University who helped start the RedFam Fund.

The prisoners began writing in September of this year in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Thailand’s report for reconciliation, which came out earlier that same month. The report, which aims to address the concerns of the country’s two main parties, has been critiqued by both sides as being too vague about the events that transpired in April and May of 2010. Pheu Thai members who are critical of the report, including Dr. Alexander, have claimed the ambiguous language of the report has not helped bring clarity to the provincial hall arson, but has rather allowed for the Ubon four to remain locked up with no hard evidence against them.

“The report is not faithful to the spirit of ‘truth-finding’. Rather, it focuses on ‘reconciliation’ although it is not clear what parties would reconcile as a result of this report,” writes Dr. Alexander in her critical analysis of the TRCT report.

As such, the four, who remain in Laksi prison, a special prison for political prisoners in Bangkok, have taken it into their own hands to provide details they believe are missing from the TRCT’s report, namely, the perspectives of those present at the event besides government officials and police officers.

The letters have a tone of both resilience and despair, but continue to assert the prisoners’ fight for their freedom and that of other political prisoners, whom they believe have been victims of an unfair system that imprisons dissenters.

“I miss home so much,” writes Teerawat Satsuwan. “But, in the fight, there must always be someone who sacrifices. I am not sad, professor, because I fight for our brothers and sisters. I fight for justice for Thai people. I don’t want anyone to step on the head of the poor, so I fight for democracy so that the poor can receive it.”

For Sanong Getsuwan, however, his letters evoke a deeper tone of despair at the loss of his freedom and the next 34 years of his life, “For me and my friends in jail, our lives are the same because we are stuck in the darkness of the jail in which no one can help us, in which we cannot find the way to see the light. I don’t know when I‘ll see my freedom. It feels like I have died, but I still have breath.”

Though the 2010 April-May conflict still remains a highly contentious issue, the letters seemingly highlight the disparities in the justice system in light of the murder charges brought against former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva for his involvement in the military crackdown. While Abhisit walks free for the time being, the Ubon four, in contrast, remain behind bars despite the evidence against them that has not been proven to be beyond reasonable doubt.

With help of the RedFam Fund, the prisoners have not yet given up hope, and they continue to write letters in the hopes of one day being released. Somsak Prasansab writes, “I will fight until the last of my breath.”

Panel Garners Red Shirt Support for the International Criminal Court

2012 October 17
by The Isaan Record

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.

One Thousand Red Villages Open in Isaan

2012 February 21
by The Isaan Record

UDON THANI  – From a stage outside Udon Thani’s Provincial Hall, the Red Village movement grew rapidly Sunday evening as it welcomed 1,000 new Isaan villages as official Red Villages for Democracy. The Federation of Red Villages, a branch of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, now boasts a total of 10,260 Red Villages in Thailand.

The Red Village movement garnered media attention last July when just a few hundred villages celebrated Red inauguration ceremonies in Isaan. Now, the Federation of Red Villages is aiming to expand its reach nationwide to 30,000 Red Villages within the next couple of years.

Representatives from the Federation of Red Villages hand out signs for newly inaugurated Red Villages for Democracy.

On and offstage on Sunday, local politicians and Red Shirt leaders touted the movement’s success in encouraging the free flow of ideas among Red Shirts fighting for democracy.

“In truth, the idea of the Red Villages did not come from the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, but rather from the people themselves after the protests in Bangkok,” shouted the Member of Parliament (MP) and Red Shirt leader Jatuporn Prompan. “Finally, the people are capable of moving forward by themselves.” In response, thousands of red clad supporters burst out in cheers.

Surathin Pimanmekin, Udon Thani MP and Chief Consultant for the Federation of Red Villages, also spoke of the movement as one that encourages grassroots mobilization. “We want the Red people to take steps forward by themselves,” he said in an interview. “They should have their own political ideology and political thoughts without just following the direction of certain leaders.”

According to the head of the Federation of Red Villages, Kamonsil Singhasuriya, a given village can request a Red Village title if 50% of its constituents sign a petition in favor of the Red branding. Some local Members of Parliament, however, prefer to see a larger show of support. Party List MP Cherdchai Tantirin from Khon Kaen, for example, believes a village should receive a Red title only if more than 70% of the constituents give support.

Though critics have blamed the Red movement and particularly the Red Village movement for inspiring disunity among Thais, Mr. Kamonsil insists that the opposition groups in Red Villages are rarely uncomfortable with the title.

Before the ceremony kicked off, a Red Shirt performer sat with posters demanding constitutional amendments.

“People who are not Red Shirts are beginning to understand that Red Shirt activities are good for democracy,” he claims. “The opposition tries to blame the Red Shirts, but our fight is peaceful.”

In recent months, the Red Village movement has expanded into the North (with several hundred already inaugurated in Lampang) and the South as well. Local politicians and the Federation of Red Villages have also begun to inaugurate certain districts as Red.

As the sun set behind the Provincial Hall, Red performers led the crowd in song and dance. Between chants and cheers, Red supporters chatted about constitutional amendments and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s imminent arrival in Udon Thani.

“I like being a part of this movement because I want to see a return to a fair constitution in Thailand,” said Samanjit Khotchomphoo from Nong Khai. “It’s as if our rights were stolen after the 2006 coup.” Huddled under a tent, five new friends nodded behind her in agreement.

Article 112 Reform in the Provinces

2012 February 1
by The Isaan Record

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.]

NEWS IN BRIEF: Red District Movement Expands into Khon Kaen

2012 January 24
by The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN – This past Sunday morning, Red Shirt politicians, DJs, local leaders, and hundreds of villagers gathered in Ubolratana district’s Khok Glang Nong Lai village to celebrate the opening of 68 newly minted Red Villages, as well as the inauguration of the province’s first official Red District.

“I hereby open this Red District, [made up of] Villages for Democracy that are safe from drugs and that have strong community economies,” Khon Kaen MP Thanik Masripitak said to cheers and the nearby boom of fireworks. Mr. Thanik is the Pheu Thai MP spearheading the movement’s expansion into Khon Kaen.

Villagers from Nong Lai Village receive a blessing as they represent their community in a processional that officially marked their village's opening as Red.

Mr. Thanik’s remarks reflect the same platforms that the movement has in its birthplace, Udon Thani. There too, the movement’s chief architect and local Red Radio DJ, Ms. Ratanawan Suksala, began opening Red Districts last year not just as a show of organizational power (as its earlier incarnation, the Red Village movement), but to help fight drug use and to ensure local economic stability.

But where in Udon Thani many of the villages in these Red Districts had been previously inaugurated as Red, in Khon Kaen’s Ubolratana district, prior to Sunday’s ceremony only three villages had been established. This sudden surge of support, Red District Officer and local businessman Sirisak Nojit explains, is a sign of the country’s changing political tides.

“Before people were scared [to show themselves], but now time has passed and people are showing that they’re red,” he said.

Here in Ubolratana, at least, that showing has been quite strong. At least 70-80% of a district’s inhabitants must agree to a Red title before the district can be inaugurated, Mr. Sirisak explained. And in Ubolratana, he said, the figure was closer to 90%, with every village collectively approving the informal door-to-door referendum.

In the coming months, more Khon Kaen Red Shirts will be showing their colors. Phra Yun district is scheduled to be inaugurated on February 19, to be followed soon after by the Nai Muang sub-district of Khon Kaen city.

[Note February 20, 2012: Though Ubolratana was inaugurated as a Red District by MP Thanik, the Federation of Red Villages does not currently recognize the district as Red.]

Red Village Thwarted, a Community Divided

2012 January 11
by The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN – In Non Reuang, an unassuming Northeastern village located just 15 kilometers north of Khon Kaen city, fallow rice fields line pothole-ridden roads made dusty with windswept topsoil. Here, most residents are looking to have those roads repaved. Others are interested in having the local elementary school’s bathrooms renovated. These are the daily concerns of a small provincial town in which everyone knows everyone else.

But on December 23, Non Reuang made headlines when a group of concerned citizens successfully torpedoed plans to establish the community as a Red Village, just one day before its proposed inauguration ceremony. A village-wide vote saw 160 votes cast against the Red Village’s establishment and, as a result of a Red Shirt boycott, none cast in support.

The Red Village movement, conceived in the run up to last year’s July 3 election, has seen hundreds of villages throughout the Northeast name themselves “Red Villages for Democracy” in an attempt to demonstrate organizational power and scale. But in places like Non Reuang, the movement has strained community relations and deepened political divides.

The lead up to the village’s public referendum inspired unneighborly behavior of all kinds which has raised questions about the social net worth of redrawing rural landscapes into two-toned political maps. Red Shirts accuse the opposition group of voter intimidation, dissemination of libelous and misleading information, and even assaulting a Red Shirt supporter in front of the polling station. The opposition, on the other hand, claim that Red Shirts from other villages were brought in to artificially inflate support and that the Red Village movement is a Trojan Horse, the beginning of a Red conspiracy to dominate all levels of local government.

In light of all the squabbling and finger pointing that has come out of the last month, Village Leader and self-proclaimed “middle-man” Samran Srivichan has grown concerned that the disagreement seriously undermines the community’s well-being. “For the Red Shirts, [the Red flag of the Red Village movement] is a symbol of unity, but if everyone is not behind it, then it is not a unifying symbol,” he said. And to Mr. Samran, there are very practical advantages to having his community unified, or at the very least, capable of civility.

“Unity is very important for all of us,” he said. “If we want to build a house or a road, we can do it. We can work together. If we are not unified, then people are not willing to do this.”

Though Non Reuang is the first village in Khon Kaen to successfully oppose a Red Village’s establishment, Mr. Samran is certainly not the first to express concerns about the movement. In June of last year Army Chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is much despised amongst the Red Shirts for the May 2010 military crackdown that left dozens of unarmed Red Shirts dead, criticized the Red Villages for their potentially destabilizing effects. Gen. Prayuth’s emphasis on the importance of national unity can be heard in Mr. Samran’s own criticisms. “I don’t want there to be signs that break our unity,” the village leader said. “We should just have flags and posters of the king and queen.” Indeed, Mr. Samran has no fewer than 16 posters of King Bhumibol Adulyadej adorning the exterior walls of his home.

A voter for the Red Shirt-backed Pheu Thai government, Mr. Samran said that the opposition to the Red Village’s establishment was partially due to poor procedure. Many complained that they did not know about the Red Shirts’ plans until a mid-December village meeting devolved into shouts and name-calling. It was then that Mr. Samran proposed that the village hold a public referendum on the matter.

Though Ms. Ratanawan Suksala, a leading proponent of the Red Village movement in Isaan, told the Isaan Record last month that at least 70% of a given community must be in support of the Red Village in order for it to be inaugurated, the eleventh hour bickering in Non Reuang casts some doubt on the rigorousness with which that figure is assured, if at all.

Phaiboon Sornsakda, Mr. Samran’s assistant, wondered if the Red Shirts thought the July 3 general election results were justification enough to inaugurate the village. “Around 70% of the village voted for Pheu Thai,” he said. “We can vote for Pheu Thai politicians, but that doesn’t mean we are voting for Red Shirts.”

While Pheu Thai’s most fervent supporters come out of the Red Shirt movement, the party’s populist platforms also attract many votes from rural farmers who do not directly identify with the Red Shirt movement.

Despite Non Reuang’s dispute, nearby Wang Taw village is set to be inaugurated as a Red Village later this month. For both Mr. Paiboon and Mr. Samran, this should appease upset Non Reuang Red Shirt supporters and according to Mr. Samran, “that’s the end of the story.”

However, just 50 meters down the road, at a house lined with Red flags and whose walls are decorated with a photo collage of a Red Shirt rally, a group of Red villagers have more to say. Sanong Chaiyatha, easily the most outspoken Red Shirt in the village, considers the Wang Taw concession to be totally inadequate. She had wanted to found the Red Village in Non Reuang as a way to receive donations from the movement’s considerable largesse in order to fix the village’s crumbling roads and renovate the elementary school’s dilapidated bathroom. Now that the Red Village proposal has been decisively quashed, her village will have greater difficulty finding funds from the Red Shirt movement.

Nevertheless, Ms. Sanong said she would continue her search for funds elsewhere and, now, is left waiting. “Soon, I hope [Mr. Samran] will retire, so that a new village leader will make new decisions to help make the village a better place,” she said.

Though Non Reuang did not officially turn Red this December, it is now certainly a different place to live.

In Udon, Red Villages Grow into Red Districts

2011 November 19
by The Isaan Record

UDON THANI – As Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is losing popular support, facing fierce criticism for her management of the massive floods plaguing Bangkok, her strongest supporters, the Red Shirts, are finding new ways to strengthen their movement and prepare for the worst. With fears of a looming coup, Red Shirt leaders in Udon Thani are quietly launching a project to consolidate their constituents. Just recently, they began inaugurating entire Districts as Red territory.

“We don’t know if there is going to be a coup or not,” said Sa-ngad Hanarong, a villager from Prajak Silapakhom, a freshly named Red District. “But the purpose [of the Red District] is not to fight. The purpose is to be stronger and keep track of what’s actually going on.”

Prajak Silapakhom was inaugurated as a Red District on October 9. The district, on the outskirts of the city of Udon Thani, is comprised of a total of 41 villages, all of which are Red. Since then, nearby Non Sa-at was the second district to celebrate its Red inauguration on November 1.

The Red District project is an expansion of the Red Village movement that saw hundreds of villages across the Northeast officially title themselves Red Villages for Democracy. But while the Red Villages were scattered shows of support, the Red Districts boast specific objectives and a newfound network of local leaders.

According to Ms. Ratanawan Suksala, the mastermind behind the Red District model, the project is organized around three main goals. It seeks to teach democratic values, initiate anti-drug campaigns, and promote village-level entrepreneurship.

To promote education about democracy, with each inauguration ceremony, for example, comes a two-day lecture series from pundits and Red Shirt leaders. But once the festivities come to a close, so too does this informal schooling.

For Ms. Ratanawan, a former secretary to Member of Parliament (MP) Surathin Pimanmekin and a current consultant to the Red Radio station 106.75, it is the network created by the Red District that helps unify the movement’s goals even more.

“[Before Prajak Silapakhom District was inaugurated,] some people were confused…and influenced by different ideas. But since we have started the Red District, the people seem like they understand more what we are doing,” she said. “I feel like we’re walking together in the same direction.”

In some ways, the model does encourage democratic practices at a local level. Each village is asked to elect ten representatives who attend meetings and relay messages between their constituents and other Red Shirts. And each village also gathers to vote on a local entrepreneurial project.

“I feel like we know more about democracy now. I realize how much I can do,” reflected one Red District resident.

In order to stave off drug use, the Red District model also encourages each village to establish a network of local guards to monitor drug presence in the village. “We’ll hire them on shifts and pay them as guards. We want to give them the responsibility of a job and teach them that working is better [than unemployment],” said Ms. Ratanawan about her future plans. She aims to find funding through private donations.

Anti-drug campaigns are a touchy subject for the Red Shirts after exiled former Prime Minister and Red Shirt icon Thaksin Shinawatra instigated the most violent anti-drug campaign in Thai history that left 2,500 citizens dead. But in Baan Phonthong, Mr. Sa-ngad’s village in Prajak Silapakhom District, there is little concern.

“Everyone is welcoming of this [anti-drug campaign] because we have a plan. If we find people who are doing drugs we want to send them to rehab therapy,” Mr. Sa-ngad explained.

As for the local entrepreneurship stimulus program, the Red District model encourages each village to vote on one product that its residents believe they could create and sell at the greatest profit. Then, the residents focus their resources on producing their chosen good. The program mimics Mr. Thaksin’s successful One Tambon One Product (OTOP) program that encouraged each sub-district, known in Thai as a tambon, to do the same.

Ms. Ratanawan, however, claims that her project is much stronger since it can more effectively distribute profits. She hopes that ultimately villages will petition the government for stimulus money that can prop up their entrepreneurial pursuits. Mr. Sa-ngad’s village has voted to produce woven reed mats while his friends in the next village are focusing on mudmee silk.

But it is not just Udon Thani that is moving towards the Red District model. “Any province can do the same as long as they are Red Shirts and they stick to the same principles,” Ms. Ratanawan said.

Indeed, MPs and provincial Red Shirt representatives from Roi Et, Kalasin, and Khon Kaen have also begun planning to integrate their Red Villages into Red Sub-districts and Districts.

“When people [in Red Districts] get together and work together…they feel stronger and more united. What our country lacks is a sense of unity,” Khon Kaen MP and Red District proponent Thanik Masripitak said. Just last week, Mr. Thanik led a meeting of close to 300 Khon Kaen Red Village representatives to talk about the reconfiguration. At the request of the rice farmers and agricultural workers that make up the majority of these Red villagers, further meetings, he explained, will be postponed until after the rice harvest.

And though the Red District movement is gaining traction amongst many MPs, not everyone is happy with the shift.

Kwanchai Praipana, a prominent Udon Thani Red Radio DJ, part of the Red movement’s old guard and a man whom Ms. Ratanawan laughingly calls her “enemy,” thinks the move is just a way for Pheu Thai MPs to consolidate the power of the Red Shirt movement.

“Representatives want to have the masses on their side,” he said in an interview last month. “That’s why they do this. They take the Red Shirts who are not as truly passionate about democracy onto their side.”

Mr. Kwanchai’s alternative to the Red District movement takes the power away from Parliamentary Representatives and keeps it in the hands of the people, he claims. The so-called “Udon Lovers Model” encourages villagers to join Mr. Kwanchai’s Khon Rak Udon club (for a monthly fee) so they can meet at local radio stations and coffee shops to discuss the political matters of the day.

“Setting up Red Shirt villages – why is that important? It just interferes,” Mr. Kwanchai said.

For Mr. Thanik, however, Kwanchai’s grousing is little more than personal vanity. “As far as I know, Kwanchai doesn’t support the Red Villages because he’s afraid it’s going to steal his thunder,” the Khon Kaen MP said. Where Kwanchai looks to expand the Udon Model throughout the Northeast, Mr. Thanik thinks that does little more than maintain the status quo. “Just because we’ve won [the election] doesn’t mean we should stop. We should draw attention to who we really are and what more we can do.”

It’s what these Red Districts can do, though, that has got some people worried. Establishing a system of civil-society institutions that, in some ways, parallel pre-existing governmental mechanisms can appear to be a direct threat to the Bangkok establishment. What message does it send when a populist, self-proclaimed pro-democracy movement sees it fit to do its own policing, found its own local craft co-operatives, and develop its own political curricula?

The Red villagers of Baan Phonthong, however, know exactly what message they want to send. Speaking on behalf of an assembled crowd of 40 villagers, Mr. Sa-ngad told reporters that, “Everyone would like to say that we’re waiting for the day when we own our real freedom… And we want Thaksin back as soon as possible!”

Though the organization of Red villagers is being reshuffled and expanded, their battle cry remains the same.