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INTERVIEW: Luk Thung – The Sound of Political Protest and Isaan’s Cultural Revival

2015 October 30
by The Isaan Record

Book author James Mitchell talks about Thailand’s most popular music.

In an excellent new book, James Mitchell traces the evolution of the Thai music genre luk thung (literally, “child of the fields”) from its working class origins to becoming Thailand’s most popular music. The Isaan Record talked to the author about how luk thung energized the revival of Lao-Isaan identity and culture in Thailand from the 1990s on, and how it came to play a vital role in the protest music of the country’s color-coded political conflict.

IR: How did you come to write a book about luk thung?

JM: The book is based on my Ph.D. thesis, but it is very much different. Before it was published by Silkworm, it was rejected by major ethnomusicology series because it was too multi-disciplinary for them. It mixes politics, it mixes history and there is only one chapter on music ethnology and perhaps that was not “heavy” enough for them.

In the making of the book, I collaborated with Peter Doolan, who runs the Thai music blog Mon Rak Pleng Thai and Peter Garrity, who is a passionate luk thung fan. This book would have never come about without them. Nick Nostitz contributed a couple of photos and more to the original article on the use of music by the Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts.

James Mitchell with Phongsri Woranut, a female luk thung superstar of the 1960s and '70s. Phongsri became known for her involvement in the genre of phleng kae ("dueling songs").

James Mitchell with Phongsri Woranut, a female luk thung superstar of the 1960s and ’70s. Phongsri became known for her involvement in the genre of phleng kae (“dueling songs”).

IR: Is luk thung known outside of Thailand and is it considered an area of academic interest?

JM: Luk thung is an area that has not really become mainstream in the academic world and hopefully this book will change this a bit. It is becoming a far more well-known music genre and there are many more international luk thung fans than before. Through my website Thai Music Inventory, I’ve been contacted by people in Germany, Australia, USA and elsewhere who are fans of Thai music rather than academics.

IR: How did you become interested in luk thung and was it easy to gain access to the scene?

JM: It really was because of my wife, who I met in 2002 in Khon Kaen. After we got married and moved here, I started working at Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts at Khon Kaen University. The Dean of the Faculty, Chaloemsak Phikunsri, got me started with luk thung. He gave me some old books and articles on the topic, such as Anek Nawikamun’s “Phleng Nok Sathawat (“Songs Outside the Century”).

At first, it was frustrating to get people to talk to me. I tried to go everywhere in Bangkok to make connections. I tried to ask major music companies for introductions to singers but no one was interested. It is about maintaining control over their artists and their music. They seem to not want to give anything away if they don’t see an upside to it. And for academic work, they don’t see any upside to it.

But when I communicated this to my friend, Ajan Jenwit Phikap at Khon Kaen University, he immediately said , “Oh, I know a really famous luk thung artist.” He took me to meet Soraphet Phinyo right away. Soraphet became the main case study of my book and that’s how it all started.

4.5 job joy at veteethai p112

The luk thung mo lam duo Job and Joy holding garlands known as phuang malai given to them by their fans at concerts. Singers have to be ready to accept the garlands at any time and are expected to hold them for as long as possible. This is an important aspect of star-fan interaction in luk thung, writes James Mitchell in his book. Photo credit: Peter Garrity

IR: In the book, you highlight the interaction between luk thung singers and fans as a reflection of Thai society.

JM: Apart from the concerts sponsored by TV and radio stations, luk thung artists also perform at funerals, weddings, and ordination ceremonies. At concerts, all the big luk thung fans are up front, and are mostly known by name to the singers. In one amazing picture that didn’t make it into the book, two famous singers hand Peter Garrity a birthday cake. They bought it themselves and presented it to him at their concert. You’d think it should be the other way around. These reciprocal relationships are not specific to luk thung, but you certainly do not see the same kind of relationships in Thai pop, in which artists are much more standoffish.

IR: You argue that luk thung became a main driver for the revival of Isaan culture in Thailand. Can you explain what that means?

JM: Yes, and I say revival only because I am thinking back to when Isaan culture was quite strong but successive Thai governments, and that goes back to the 19th century, have put their stamp down on Isaan culture – like discouraging the use of Isaan language in both spoken and written form.

The oral nature of Isaan culture contributed to not only the success of the luk thung music industry, but the entire entertainment industry. Isaan performers now really are everywhere, like all the comedians from the Northeast who often started performing on luk thung stages. Luk thung created this space for Isaan people to move into jobs in the entertainment industry.

Puu Yai Lii

The cover of the record “Phu Yai Lee” by Saksri Sri-akson (1961), a song that was of unparalleled popularity in Thai music. The song is inspired by a 1959 mo lam performance in Ubon Ratchathani about an archetypical local Isaan official, who was not used to central Thai language and was easily confused by government edicts.

IR: Around what time did the Isaan cultural influence on luk thung become noticeable?

JM: This began as early as the 1950s with Benjamin and Saksri Sri-akson. Saksri was a big star in nightclubs with her song “Phu Yai Lee,” which was a phenomenon. In the 1950s and ’60s these artists were not playing so much on the Isaan identity yet, but from the early 1970s on the whole genre of luk thung isaan, or luk thung mo lam, began to develop. Around 1981-2 this really took off big time.

This development might have been linked to the large of numbers of Isaan people who migrated to central Thailand looking for work. It reached a certain point where the Isaan audience became the most important audience in Bangkok and of course also for the bands touring throughout the countryside. It might also be related to the many Isaan migrants going to work overseas and then starting to come back, which meant that their social upward mobility and their economic standing improved. They started to have more money to spend on records and concerts and that began in the early 1980s.

IR: Luk thung used to be the music of the working class, how did it move into the mainstream of Thai music?

JM: The real shift of luk thung becoming big business and rising in status took place after 1976. It was especially fueled by the rise of Phumphuang Duangjan, the big star of the 1980s.

The cover of Chaophya Magazine (November 1982) showing singer and songwriter Soraphet Phinyo and luk thung star Nong Nut Duangchiwan. The title of this issue, "num na khao – sao na kluea," refers to Soraphet and Nong Nut’s hit duet "Rice Farming Boy, Salt Farming Girl."

The cover of Chaophya Magazine (November 1982) showing singer and songwriter Soraphet Phinyo and luk thung star Nong Nut Duangchiwan. The title of this issue, “num na khao – sao na kluea,” refers to Soraphet and Nong Nut’s hit duet “Rice Farming Boy, Salt Farming Girl.”

Oddly enough, as I write in my book, Soraphet Phinyo’s singing partner Nong Nut Duangchiwan was actually a bigger star than Phumphuang for two or three years in the early 1980s. But by 1984 Phumphuang became the dominant luk thung star until her death in 1992. She added dancing to her stage acts and her voice was just very powerful and sexy – before that most female luk thung singers were more sweet and nice. She was also really the first person to combine luk thung with Thai pop.

In 1989 and 1991 the royal patronage over luk thung began with “50 Years of luk thung” celebrations and Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn became involved with it. She actually wrote the lyrics to the song “Som Tam,” the big Phumphuang hit, which explains how to make som tam.

IR: You write that the usual portrayal of luk thung as an apolitical genre is a misperception, why is that? 

JM: Craig A. Lockert wrote a very good book, Dance of Life: Popular Music and Politics in Southeast Asia, which looks at political use of music throughout the region. He concluded that luk thung could not be used for political purposes because of the extravagant lifestyles of the artists and all the commercial trappings of modern luk thung – like all the dancers, the wonderful costumes, the commercialized lyrics. But when I saw luk thung artists perform at Red shirt protests, it became clear to me that the concert really was part of the protest.

IR: Does that mean that luk thung became politicized through the Red Shirt protests?

JM: No, it was not the first time for luk thung to carry politicized messages. In the 1950s, before it was called luk thung, it was called phleng chiwit (“songs of life”), which is not be confused with phleng phuea chiwit (“songs for life”). Phleng chiwit is a very early version of luk thung; the songs were sung in rural accents using rural themes, and they were highly political. So much so that the songwriters were put in jail or they were threatened.

During the 1970s phleng phuea chiwit was the dominant protest music, but from what I have found even during that time luk thung was used a lot for protests, for example by the communist insurgents.

So, luk thung has always been political, but it has always been heavily censored too. It has been the music of the working class and of the poor, but it wasn’t until the Red Shirts that the working class could really be open about their criticism of the establishment in public.

Red Shirt luk thung singers in a hang khruang ("dancing revue") in Khao Yai in November 2009. Photo credit: Nick Nostitz/Agentur Focus

Red Shirt luk thung singers in a hang khruang (“dancing revue”) in Khao Yai in November 2009. Photo credit: Nick Nostitz/Agentur Focus

IR: Have only the Red Shirts made use of luk thung music or did the Yellow Shirts incorporate it in their protests too?

JM: When the Yellow Shirts and the other offspring groups used luk thung it was clear that they didn’t have any real connection to the music. They use it because it is popular and it is party music, so all the yellow luk thung songs are either very patriotic songs or they are party songs.

The Red Shirts were able to use luk thung with what might be the main focus of this genre, namely themes of sadness and mourning. For example, they were able to write all these songs about Thaksin and his absence. And really, the theme of absence is what luk thung is all about. But not only songs about Thaksin, also mourning songs for Red Shirts who were killed during protests or about the absence of democracy. For the Yellow Shirts, there were never these kinds of songs. When the yellow side used luk thung, it wasn’t professional luk thung singers performing, but more Thai pop stars or old luk krung singers – it always felt quite token.

IR: Given the political nature of many luk thung songs, has the scene been affected by last year’s military coup?

JM: There have been less luk thung concerts since the coup. At least, during the martial law period, I think it was difficult to put concerts on at night. However, the regime has made up for this by using luk thung concerts as “rewards” for certain communities or as a propaganda tool.

There aren’t any political songs being put out in Thailand right now. It is amazing to me how successful the junta has been in oppressing political expression. All the political artists are pretty scared at the moment. The only political songs that are being released at the moment come from overseas, for example from the band Fai Yen. They are pumping out music all the time and some of their songs are luk thung.

IR: Do you have plans for another book?

JM: A lot of my current research has been on old Thai records in the 78 rpm format and I plan to publish a complete discography of Thai 78s, which has never been done for any Southeast Asian country. I find these records through collectors, especially buy and sale forums on the internet. There is a lively scene of Thai record collectors, but the part of 78 format collectors is quite small and specialized.

I am also planning to write more articles and I would like to write something on Fai Yen. I didn’t cover them in my book and I keep discovering new protest music that I missed. I’m also planning an article on Sayan Sanya. Chris Baker quite rightly points out that the book misses out on some of the biggest stars, such as Sayan, simply because they are not from Isaan. In the end the book became a triangle of luk thung, Isaan culture, and politics with a focus on the Red Shirts. Of course, in the future there could also be a second, updated edition of the book or perhaps a new, more comprehensive history of luk thung.


Luk_Thung_CoverLuk Thung: The Culture and Politics of Thailand’s Most Popular Music

By James Leonard Mitchell

Published: September 2015. 214 pages. Silkworm Books. 625 baht.

James Leonard Mitchell completed his Ph.D. from Macquarie University in 2012 and is currently a lecturer at Khon Kaen University and an adjunct research fellow at Monash University, Australia.


Khon Kaen Model Raises Questions in the Northeast

2014 June 12
by The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN – Since the May 22 coup d’état, Thailand’s military has tried to sweep the country clean of weapons to quell fears of a violent uprising. But in Isaan, the heartland of the Red Shirts, some of the soldiers’ actions have raised doubts about the military’s intentions. Red Shirts here believe that the military may be wrongly framing peaceful Red Shirts as violent terrorists in a high-profile legal case, which could set the stage for a wider crackdown on Red Shirts in the region.

On May 23, soldiers raided an apartment building in Khon Kaen city and arrested around twenty people allegedly involved in a terrorist plot. The military claims the plot, known as the ‘Khon Kaen Model,’ was designed to incite violence in Khon Kaen. In the following days, they arrested additional suspects in their homes, bringing the total number of the accused to twenty-four.

Soldiers reported that they seized grenades, ammunition, and gas tanks at the site of the apartment building. After interrogating the suspects, the military announced what they found to be the Khon Kaen Model’s master plan: mobilize anti-coup supporters, disarm authorities, force financial institutions to give money to the poor, and declare a nationwide “zero debt” policy.

It’s the kind of story that plays right into the conservatives’ two biggest fears: militant Red Shirts and Thaksin’s populism.

The Khon Kaen Model case preceded the military’s nationwide call to civilians to dispose of all firearms. On June 3, the military ordered that all handguns, legal or illegal, be surrendered or thrown away within a week, or else gun owners risked facing up to 20 years behind bars. According to one 2011 report, there are an estimated ten million civilian firearms in the country, which lands Thailand in tenth place worldwide for the most guns in civilian possession.

Red Shirts and those close to the accused in the Khon Kaen Model case insist it is not a clandestine plan of a militant revolt, as the military claims, but part of a broader campaign for social justice and equality. A relative of one of the arrested explained that the group only gathered that day to discuss Red Shirts’ peaceful responses to the coup.

She and many others interviewed by the Isaan Record asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.

A staff member of the apartment building, who saw the arrests take place, also said the group seemed to be meeting peaceably. “In the media, the reports were overblown. What happened from what I saw was they didn’t rent a whole floor, they weren’t staying two months, they just stayed one day, and weren’t even sleeping there. There was never any plan to stay for a long time.” The staff member never saw any weapons enter or leave the apartment building.

A relative of another of the accused described how more than a dozen soldiers arrived at her house in a village outside of the city a few days after the arrest. The soldiers did not produce a warrant, but they searched her entire house. They left without finding any weapons but confiscated only a red hat and a United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) form, she claimed.

Relatives and villagers close to the defendants told Benjarat Meethien, the lawyer of the accused, that soldiers have been searching the homes of at least some of the men awaiting trial. The wives feel threatened by these unexpected visits, and they think their husbands are innocent. “The villagers told me that when soldiers armed with guns enter the villages unannounced, it terrifies them,” said Ms. Benjarat.

Beyond the families of the accused, other Red Shirts around Khon Kaen wonder about the implications of this case. “The news accounts of the ‘Khon Kaen Model’ have gone overboard,” said one Red Shirt organizer, who knows a handful of the men involved in the case. “But the military has never been on our side.” He fears that cases like this one could give credence to more arrests of Red Shirts in the region, even though the majority of Red supporters are nonviolent.

Still, a number of small Red Shirt groups that organize “defensive trainings” have cropped up over the years, which the military could perceive as a threat to their rule. One source explained her anger over the arrests on May 23, but she also described her involvement in an underground defense training that taught her and a hundred others how to use BB guns, in case of attack.

The defendants’ lawyer expects the trial to take place at the end of June. At the time of writing, none of the accused had been released on bail. In the military court system, there are no appeals.

Opposition to Military Coup in Khon Kaen

2014 May 25
by The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN—On May 24, the second full day after the overthrow of the caretaker government by a military coup, there was a greater military presence in Khon Kaen, as well as signs of resistance to the  National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). In the span of three hours, at least three independent anti-coup activities took place around Khon Kaen, including two at Central Plaza shopping mall and one at Khon Kaen University.

On May 23, it was reported that about 100 soldiers were visible midday at key intersections of the city. Yesterday, military security appeared to be significantly heightened, with as many as an estimated 500 soldiers in the city and almost 100 posted outside of Central Plaza alone.

At approximately 5 p.m. on May 24, witnesses say a student group was halted by the authorities at Central Plaza. At least six of the students were reportedly detained. Shortly after, a loud altercation between two female activists and military authorities ensued, attracting a large crowd of onlookers inside the front entrance. The incident only quieted down after officials assured the activists that the students had been released.

At that same moment, another group of protesters attempted to unroll an anti-coup banner reading, “No to the Coup Constitution of 2007. Bring Back the 1997 Constitution.” Military officials wrestled the banner away from protesters and confiscated it.

One onlooker shook her head and said, “The coup will never end, it has happened more than fifteen times [in Thailand] already.”

Ms. Suratda, a thirty-seven-year-old small business owner, expressed frustration, saying that she thought a lot of people in Khon Kaen are unhappy about the coup but are too afraid to come out.

Ms. Chawthip, a forty-nine-year-old owner of a tutoring center, said, “I don’t like the coup.” More people would be protesting, she said, but “we are afraid of guns. Soldiers have guns, but the people don’t.”

Military officials at the scene refused to make any comment to The Isaan Record.

A second protest group relocated to a restaurant in the mall where they displayed a sign that read, “Get out military, give back democracy.” This declaration led military authorities to rush and intervene. A protest leader refused to accompany authorities for talks elsewhere, prompting a military official to sit with the leader at an adjoining table in the restaurant.

A member of this group said their protest was to bring back democracy. “Our demand is for elections and equality of all votes regardless of who the person is. We don’t want a constitution that further limits democracy. The people have to be the sovereign power.”

A third group had travelled down from Namphong District and had planned to assemble at the park across from Central Plaza. They were unable to carry out their demonstration due to confusion between the various protest groups. The leader of this group said, “The age of dictatorship is over. Any advanced country is democratic, like Japan, Germany, or the US.”

Thailand is rated in the top eight countries in the world for number of coups; it is once again caught in the vicious cycle of coups, new constitutions, elections, and now another coup, he explained.

A fourth protest group met at Khon Kaen University’s Faculty of Law. It included members of the student activist group Dao Din, as well as several members from the Namphong group. Together they performed a Thai version of The People’s Song in front of a bust of Pridi Phanomyong whom they recognize as the “Father of Thai Democracy.” The performance was recorded and will be posted on social media outlets.

Mr. Jatupat, a leader of the group, said the goal of the video is to encourage people to be brave. “In this situation, we have to wake up the people; this is a song for those who are oppressed.”

There were other signs of opposition to the coup in the city. Along Chonnabot Road outside of Khon Kaen University, one piece of graffiti showed a broken peace symbol and the words, “Resist the Coup.” Another said, “MILITARY: Don’t Mess [in politics].”

None of the groups protesting in Khon Kaen seemed to be connected to the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD). Many, however, identified themselves as red shirts or as sympathetic to the UDD cause.

There appeared to be little coordination between the groups yesterday. Among those protesting, there was some surprise to see other groups protesting as well.

Yesterday’s anti-coup activities come in the wake of twenty-one people who were arrested for allegedly preparing violent acts in Khon Kaen on May 23, as reported by the Mass Communication Organization of Thailand (MCOT).

There is reportedly an anti-coup protest scheduled for 4:30 p.m. in Khon Kaen on May 25.

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.]