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Reconciliation Trainings Target Northeastern Villages

2014 September 28
by The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN – Under a temple pavilion, 60 Red Shirt villagers watched a projected image of a candle on a screen. A military staff member asked everyone to close their eyes, sit silent and meditate while she read aloud.

“How was it that we kept a hold on our country and avoided being colonized by another country? It was because our king protected our nation,” she recited.* “If any outsiders come to destroy our country, we will fight until we die. We need to protect our land and we need to love each other as a united country.”

After the brief meditation, a group of soldiers led the villagers in a synchronized dance, chanting the names of fruits and swaying their hips from side to side.

These activities were all part of a training recently conducted in Khon Kaen as part of an extensive tour of three-day events in villages across Isaan. The military government has convened these training camps, complete with lectures, performances, and physical exercises, with the aim of dissolving the political tension that they cite as the reason for the May 22 coup. But villagers here say the event avoided discussing the country’s political rift altogether and failed to address the economic concerns of the people of the Northeast.

This “Project to Strengthen Stability at the Village Level,” organized by the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), kicked off each morning at 8 a.m. with a salute to the national flag. Military staff and speakers gave lectures on topics covering their aims for reconciliation and the importance of the monarchy in Thailand. At night, the military held villager-versus-soldier soccer matches, served dinner, and screened the nationalist movie “The Legend of King Naresuan.”

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Soldiers play music for villagers during a Northeastern reconciliation tour.

The village-level events comprise the second phase of the military’s campaign to unify the country. In late May, the junta ordered the creation of so-called “reconciliation centers” in every province in order to help stabilize the political situation. They have now taken their reconciliation efforts to the doorsteps of the former government’s supporters.

“The intention of the event is to dispense with the colors in the community and provide a unity program,” said the head trainer of the event. He estimated that the sixteen trainings he presided over had been 80% successful.

When asked whether any participants expressed opposition to the coup or military government, he replied, “They wouldn’t dare!” And, if any do, he said, “Well, we’d just go back and do it again.”

Villagers and community leaders, however, said that the event did not address their most pressing concerns.

“All we want is democracy and there’s never going to be more democracy that results from a coup,” said a community leader after the reconciliation training. “No government born out of a coup has ever governed democratically.”

Representatives from three villages attended the event, and nearly all the villagers present were Red Shirts who no longer feel free to express their political views. Red flags, t-shirts and posters are no longer on public display in their homes, but the villagers have not given up their loyalty to the self-described pro-democracy group.

Though the head trainer claimed that the event was held in order to end the Red and Yellow divide, the speakers did not once address color-coded politics.

“The military wanted people to know what they were doing and ensure that people don’t oppose them. That’s their version of ‘reconciliation,’” said a village leader who attended the training. “The other activities were secondary, like relieving stress by singing songs.”

The training also failed to answer the villagers’ questions about the new government’s stance on agricultural subsidy programs and other welfare policies that these villagers consider pivotal to the process of reconciliation.

“What are the people’s problems in Isaan? The price of rice and the prices of the other crops they produce. If we can sell these well, then we have liquidity,” said one fruit seller in the village, who asked to go by the name Joy.

The soldiers devoted one session to the Sufficiency Economy, a royally-backed initiative that encourages farmers toward sustainability and moderation. They booked Martin Wheeler, an Englishman who lives as a farmer in Isaan, to charm the crowd with slapstick jokes as he praised the farming model in fluent Isaan, the regional dialect.

But according to the community leader, his village knows well the tenets of the Sufficiency Economy, and he and his neighbors are impatiently waiting to hear how the new government will support their agricultural work. With rice now selling for as little as 12 baht per kilogram in the local market, many rice farmers here are just breaking even.

“Villagers don’t know who to depend on now,” said the community leader. “We don’t see any transparency in the way the military rules and we have no way to scrutinize this government.” At the same time, he does not feel he can speak openly about his opposition to the coup.

The military will conclude their village-level reconciliation trainings at the end of this month. According to the head trainer, the next phase of reconciliation will entail an internal review of the villagers’ evaluations of the events.

 

*Note: Names were removed from this piece to protect the sources.

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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.

Gold Mine Protesters Hurt by Armed Mob and Shady Deals

2014 May 20
by The Isaan Record

 

On the night of May 15, 300 armed men allegedly beat and bound forty villagers in Na Nong Bong community in Khao Luang district of Loei province. On the morning of the May 17, police came for the initial investigation of the attack on the community and Tungkum Ltd. mining site.

On the night of May 15, 300 armed men allegedly beat and bound forty villagers in Na Nong Bong community in Khao Luang district of Loei province. On the morning of the May 17, police came for the initial investigation of the attack on the community and Tungkum Ltd. mining site.

LOEI—Charging with clubs, broken bottles, slingshots, and guns, approximately 300 masked men descended on Na Nong Bong community at 10 p.m. on May 15, villagers claim. Moving under the cover of darkness, and suspected of cutting power to the village, these men had the tactical edge over community members keeping watch at three checkpoints along the road to a controversial mine in Khao Luang District.

The assailants, whom villagers call “Blackshirts,” allegedly beat and held captive forty members of the Na Nong Bong anti-mining group, People Who Love Their Hometown (PWLTH), for six hours.

One hundred Blackshirts raided each checkpoint, which was staffed by about ten village volunteers, community members stated. Villagers claim their feet were bound together and their hands tied behind their backs with strips cloth, zip ties, and handcuffs. Images of the wounds show battered faces and limbs. The Environmental Alert and Recovery Thailand (EARTH) activist group reported at least 20 people sustained injuries from the attack.

PWLTH has been protesting Tungkum Ltd.’s mining operation near their village since 2008 due to the mine’s alleged environmental and health effects.

After six years of protesting against Tungkum Ltd., PWLTH ramped up their strategy against the mining company as a response to being excluded from a public hearing event in September 2013. In October 2013, PWLTH installed three checkpoints for monitoring the operations around the Tungkum Ltd. mine site.

At the final checkpoint, villagers constructed a blockade in an intersection between a public road and Tungkum Ltd.’s access road. The blockade’s location in relation to the Tungkum Ltd. property line is in dispute. Mr. Lertsak Khamkongsak, a community organizer working with PWLTH, states the road was built to cease the transportation of illegal ore after the Tungkum Ltd.’s mining license expired at this site. Since then, approximately ten community members have stationed themselves at each checkpoint for nightly shifts of guard duty.

Prachatham reports that Tungkum Ltd. has since filed seven lawsuits against PWLTH, all of which are pending in court. The cases include three criminal cases of alleged trespassing on Tungkum Ltd.’s property, three civil cases regarding Tungkum Ltd.’s financial losses due to blocked access to the mine, and one case for building an obstruction on the road. In total, Tungkum Ltd. is suing the villagers for over 270 million baht plus 10 million baht per day since September.

Once the checkpoints were secured, the Blackshirts bulldozed the blockade obstructing access to the Tungkum Ltd. mine site. Over the next six hours, the unknown assailants worked to move thirteen trucks full of ore out of the Tungkum Ltd. mine, claim witnesses.

Tungkum Ltd. did not respond to requests for comment.

At 4 a.m., after the last truckload of ore exited the mine, captives and eyewitnesses reported that Blackshirts began untying the hostages.

Community members say it was clear that the attack had been planned. “They had prepared a strategy, they knew how many people we had at the checkpoints,” said Mr. Samai Phakmi, a leader of PWLTH and head of the Subdistrict Administrative Office Council, “The hostages couldn’t have asked for help because they had no time. [The Blackshirts] were so organized, they knew how to disable our checkpoints, they knew our leaders, and they knew when to break down the blockade.”

Witnesses claim they began calling the police at 10 p.m. on the evening of May 15. It was not until three hours after the initial seizure that two police officers arrived.

However, realizing they were outnumbered, the two police officers reportedly left. At 2 a.m., villagers went to the nearby Wang Saphung police station to report what was happening, but according to PWLTH leaders, police did not arrive to investigate the situation until Saturday morning, thirty-six hours after the initial call from the community.

Mr. Surapan Rujichaiwat, another PWLTH leader, visibly shaken by the events, stated that, “In a situation where the law is being broken, we have to fight to get the police involved. It shouldn’t be like that, we shouldn’t have to beg for the police to take action.”

Mr. Samai adds, “If the tables were turned and we attacked the company, we would’ve already been in jail.” There has been no confirmation from authorities that the attacks came from Tungkum Ltd.

Mr. Surapan recounts that on the way to his shift at the checkpoint, “They knocked me off of my motorcycle, kicked me in the face, and asked me over and over ‘Where are you going? Where are you going?’ It was then that I realized my friends were tied up lying face down.”

Mr. Yon Khunna, a leader of the anti-mining group in the Na Nong Bong village area, suffers from blows to the face. He was one of many group leaders who says he was beaten and threatened that night.

Mr. Yon Khunna, a leader of the anti-mining group in the Na Nong Bong village area, suffers from blows to the face. He was one of many group leaders who says he was beaten and threatened that night.

At one point, when he was on the ground, Mr. Surapan claims, “One of the Blackshirts said, ‘Oh, this is their leader,’ and then they started to beat me. They dragged me away from the others and I could hear them counting people by hitting them on their bodies with their wooden clubs.”

Mr. Samai stated, “It seemed like we were in a battlefield.”

Members of PWLTH also claim they were threatened as they were beaten. Mr. Surapan stated, “They threatened me, told me it’s not safe for my wife and kids. They said, ‘I know you well, if you keep doing this, it will not be good for your family.’”

Many people who watched the situation unfold felt helpless. “We couldn’t do anything,” explained Ms. Wiron Rujichaiwat, wife of Mr. Surapan. Disheartened, she continued, “The Blackshirts made it seem like if we attacked them, they would beat or kill those held hostage.”

Ms. Wiron sat and gazed at her husband, who was standing near the road. “My husband was captured,” she said. “He said he could hear them saying, ‘If the people try to charge us, capture them and put them in the trucks, drive away, kill them, and dump the bodies.’”

The most common injuries to those captured were cuts from knives and glass, scrapes, beaten and bruised faces, and one individual reported blood in his urine. Of the forty hostages, seven have filed complaints to the police and only one person could provide the name of an un-masked Blackshirt whom he recognized.

Mr. Surapan explained, around 4 a.m. on May 16, he was untied by a captor who then began to apologize for the violence inflicted upon the community. The captor then attempted to bribe Mr. Surapan. “He offered me a car, money, and a job with [Tungkum Ltd.] if I stopped our protest movement.”

For villagers, this has been a serious turn in their battle against the mining industry. “This conflict is not about making a profit for us, it is about protecting our livelihoods, our food sources, our security… It is not a business conflict, it is about protecting our environment which affects our life, our health, our children, and our family,” said Ms. Wiron.

Recently, on April 22, Mr. Surapan stated that a retired high-ranking military official came to his house, allegedly claiming to be a Tungkum Ltd. buyer and asked if the copper ore from the company mining site could be transported. Mr. Surapan deflected the retired military official’s request and said that he needed to talk to the members of PWLTH.

Mr. Surapan stated that on May 5, he received another visit from the same retired military official, this time accompanied by his son, again requesting to transport the copper ore. Purportedly, they questioned Mr. Surapan, stating, “We just want to buy the copper, why are you making this so difficult for us?”

Ten days after the last contact with the retired military official and his son, the blockade obstructing Tungkum Ltd.’s mine was torn down and pieces strewn about.

Villagers claim the 300 attackers bulldozed the blockade obstructing the access road of the Tungkum Ltd. mining site and transported thirteen trucks of minerals.

Villagers claim the 300 attackers bulldozed the blockade obstructing the access road of the Tungkum Ltd. mining site and transported thirteen truckloads of minerals.

During the events of May 15, villagers claim that they recognized the retired military official from his previous visits to Na Nong Bong and heard references to his son on walkie-talkies. It is reported by captives that the mask-less retired military official had physical altercations with a villager and his son was controlling the transportation of ore from the mine that night.

“People were mentioning [the retired military officials’ son] on the walkie-talkie the whole night,” stated Mr. Samai. Those uninvolved with the anti-mining movement know little of the son’s identification otherwise.

Mr. Thanawoot Pimsuwan, Head of the Provincial Administrative Office of Loei province, explained that the retired military official’s son came to his office before the Songkran holiday claiming Tungkum Ltd. would make the retired official’s son the Managing Director only if they transported the copper ore from the site in Na Nong Bong. Mr. Thanawoot advised the son to work through the legal cases with Na Nong Bong by negotiation and more communication with the villagers.

According to the Asian Human Rights Commission, Mr. Thanawoot has appointed himself as a broker to buy copper ore from Tungkum Ltd. Mr. Thanawoot denies this allegation. “Why would I want to be a part of this smuggling business?” he said.

Mr. Thanawoot explained that the moving of minerals from the Tungkum Ltd. site on May 15 is illegal unless the company holds the proper permits from the Mineral Transportation Office.

He urged the villagers to go to the Office of the Governor and request to view the mineral transportation documents to find out if the copper was legally or illegally taken out of the Tungkum Ltd. mine on May 15. Community organizers and members state that the Tungkum Ltd. transportation documents are registered for May 16 and 17, which excludes the transportation of ore from 10 p.m. to 11:59 p.m. on May 15.

“What’s going to happen when it happens again?  It will when they want more copper,” claimed Ms. Wiron. Villagers described a sense of injustice throughout the investigation process and a fear of being ill equipped to handle more violence from gangs and mobs.

She explained, “We have our own way of dealing with finding justice, and it is through the courts, not through violence.”

A local community organizer, who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons, said, “This is a collaboration of three parties that work as an organization. You can’t say that this is just the company, or just the gangsters, or just the administrative offices, but it is a conflict over the rights to resources and who will benefit most from them.”

Thanawoot, for his part, believes this conflict may be the end for Tungkum Ltd. Shaking his head in disappointment, Mr. Thanawoot said, “[Tungkum Ltd.] has done itself in through this violence against the community.”

 

 

Senate Candidates Campaign Without Politics

2014 March 30
by Sally Mairs
senate rally

Crowds gather at Khon Kaen’s provincial hall to hear senatorial candidates speak.

KHON KAEN—When Komet Teekhathananon took to the stage outside the provincial hall on Thursday, he described his experience as a business owner and a local politician. Mr. Komet is running for senator, and this was his sole chance to speak to voters before Sunday’s senatorial election. But there was one catch: he was not allowed to talk about politics.

“As a senatorial candidate, there are many laws that control what I can say,” said 57-year-old Mr. Komet, whose family owns a marketplace in Khon Kaen. “So it’s hard to explain what I really want you to understand.”

Mr. Komet is one of seven candidates running for senator in Khon Kaen Province. Strict rules aimed at maintaining a non-partisan Senate in Thailand bar candidates from carrying out many common campaign practices, including discussing current political issues.

The few permissible activities include posting billboards with their names and slogans on government offices, and submitting photos and short biographies to be circulated by mail and broadcasted over government radio.

On Thursday, each candidate in Khon Kaen was also given 15 minutes to speak on stage before a crowd of approximately 2,000 people in front of the provincial hall.

Because senatorial candidates are prohibited from discussing political issues, most of their speeches focused on personal qualifications.

Like Mr. Komet, prominent radio D.J. Wan Suwanphong, 75, also addressed the limitations placed on his campaign speech.

“I believe that we still need to amend the constitution, but I am not permitted to speak much on what I want to see change,” said Mr. Wan.

Instead, Mr. Wan discussed his background as a lawyer.  Yet he did finish with a comment that made clear his view of the Constitutional Court’s recent ruling to void the February 2 election of MPs.

“I am afraid that the March 30 election could end up the same as the MP election on February 2,” Mr. Wan said. “If it becomes invalid again, I will be the lawyer that sues whomever invalidates it.”

Mr. Thitinan Saengnak, 53, also gestured towards his political position without being explicit.

“We have to work with people from the bureaucratic system, like the Office of Ombudsman. We have to work with these people. You know who they are and what they believe,” said Mr. Thitinan.

The Office of Ombudsman is one of several government agencies considered to be aligned with the anti-government camp.

“I want to stay with you on your side,” Mr. Thitinan told the Khon Kaen audience. “I believe that we have the same position, the same point of view.”

Other candidates avoided politics and focused on more neutral issues.

Suwit Namboonroeng, age 62, cited a lifelong commitment to democracy and stressed the importance of education.

Forty-seven-year-old Suthon Sornkhamkaew, who has a background in accounting, stressed his personal impartiality.

“I’m totally independent, I am not interested in backing up any color in particular, “ said Mr. Suthon. “I think the most important thing for the senator is to be honest and have integrity.”

Senatorial candidates cannot be affiliated with a political party, so it is especially valuable to have high name-recognition.

“You cannot be just anybody and run for senator,” said Khon Kaen Election Commissioner Thitipol Thosarod. “There are always some unknown candidates who use this situation to introduce themselves to the public, but usually the people who run for Senate are already very well-known in the province.”

Although anti-government protesters have vowed to block any MP election that is held before a series of national reforms are implemented, they say they will not interfere with Sunday’s Senate election. This is likely because the Senate, which holds the power to impeach the Prime Minister with a three-to-five vote, is essential to any effort to oust Prime Minister Yingluck.

As a result of the 2007 constitution, Thailand’s Senate is only half-elected; the other half is appointed by judges and government officials who are widely considered to be members of the anti-Shinawatra establishment.

The committee that appoints senators includes senior leaders from the Constitutional Court, National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), Election Commission, State Audit Commission and a representative of the Supreme Court.

With a strong influence from these agencies, the Senate is expected to back a decision to impeach Prime Minister Yingluck if the NACC recommends it.

The NACC has charged Ms. Yingluck with negligence of duty in overseeing the government’s controversial rice-pledging scheme. The Prime Minister is scheduled to appear before the NACC on March 31, and the corruption commission is expected to announce its verdict early next month.

With the current government hanging in the balance, the Senate candidates elected on Sunday are set to play a pivotal role in determining the course of Thailand’s political crisis.

Law Students File Complaint Against Constitutional Court

2014 March 29
by The Isaan Record
Law students demonstrate in front of of Khon Kaen's Administrative Court.

Law students demonstrate in front of Khon Kaen’s Administrative Court.

Khon Kaen University Law students filed a complaint against Thailand’s Office of the Ombudsman on Monday in regards to the recent Constitutional Court decision to invalidate the February 2 congressional election.

The student-run human rights group, Dao Din, argued that the Office of the Ombudsman did not have the authority to forward the February 2 election case to the Constitutional Court.  They  also requested financial compensation for the cost of traveling to the polls on February 2 and for the retraction of their political right to vote.

“I feel that the court has lost their legitimacy,” said Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, a 23-year-old law student at Khon Kaen University and member of Dao Din. “They have made a mistake and created a dead end for Thailand.”

Before filing the complaint on Monday, Dao Din staged a skit in front of Khon Kaen’s Administrative Court mocking the Constitutional Court judges and depicting what they consider to be the court’s “silent coup.”

After the demonstration, members of Dao Din affirmed their commitment to democracy and read the group’s official position on the political crisis that has gradually unravelled Thailand’s elected government. 

“We don’t want a reformed government or one that comes from the military, through the independent agencies, or through any power which overthrows the democratic system by undemocratic forces,” the group’s official statement said.

A group of academics known as the Assembly for the Defence of Democracy (AFDD) also criticised the Office of Ombudsman’s actions on Monday. In an official statement, the AFDD argued that the Office of the Ombudsman can only forward complaints to the Constitutional Court that concern the constitutionality of legal provisions, which they argue the “the holding of a general election” does not fall under.

 

Court Annuls February 2 Poll, Khon Kaen Responds

2014 March 23
by Sally Mairs
Activists erect a banner on Khon Kaen's Democracy Monument that says, "Here there stands only a ‘monument’ but no ‘democracy,’ which has now disappeared. RIP democracy."

Activists erect a banner on Khon Kaen’s Democracy Monument that says, “Here there stands only a ‘monument’ but no ‘democracy,’ which has now disappeared. RIP democracy.”

KHON KAEN—Student activists in Khon Kaen wrapped a black banner around the city’s Democracy Monument on Saturday to condemn the Constitutional Court’s annulment of the February 2 election.

Thailand’s Constitutional Court judges ruled in a 6-to-3 vote on Friday to nullify the election because of a constitutional clause that requires voting to be held in every part of the country on the same day. Voting was not held in every constituency on February 2 because anti-government protesters prevented candidates from registering in 28 districts in southern Thailand.

The ruling raises many questions about how the country will resolve the political stalemate that has left it without a fully functioning government for months. The court’s decision may also set a troublesome precedent in which entire elections can be voided if protesters succeed at blocking voting in a single district.

Voting in the 28 constituencies that were unable to field candidates on February 2 was expected to take place at a later date, but the court’s ruling requires a new election to be held countrywide.

The Election Commission has not announced when the new poll will take place but said it could more than two months from now.

With a complete legislature even further from being formed, and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s status on the line as she faces impeachable charges from the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NAAC), Thailand’s judiciary branch is emerging as one of the most powerful players in the country’s political crisis.

“I think the [Constitutional Court] has trampled on our democracy just to get rid of this government,” said 18-year-old Chongphithack Namlao, who helped organize Saturday’s demonstration. “We cannot exchange the whole democratic system simply to chase away the current government.”

Activists took turns speaking over a loudspeaker to a small crowd gathered around the shrouded monument in Khon Kaen.

“We are not Red Shirts or Yellow Shirts,” announced a student. “We are dressed in black to say that our democratic system is dying.”

A Red Shirt rally in protest of the court’s ruling was also planned for Saturday in Khon Kaen, but it was canceled at the last minute, said radio D.J. and Red Shirt leader Bhutdhipong Khanhaengpon.

Mr. Bhutdhipong said that many Red Shirt supporters in Khon Kaen are angry over the election’s nullification, but they don’t want to cause any additional problems for the already beleaguered caretaker government.

“We are thinking more than we did in 2010 because we don’t want to lose anybody on the streets anymore, and if we do anything under this government it might just give them more trouble,” said Mr. Bhutdhipong.  “For now, we are just waiting. If something else happens, like a coup or an attempt to replace this government with an unelected one, that will be the last straw.”

“If the UDD needs them, the people here are ready to join.” added Mr. Bhutdhipong, in reference to the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, a Red Shirt political group whose leaders have made increasingly militant remarks in recent weeks.

In addition to uncertainty over when a fresh poll will be rescheduled, there is concern over how the government will avoid another invalidated election if protesters decide to blockade polls again.

Legal expert and political commentator Verpat Pariyawong expressed worry over the precedent that Friday’s court ruling could set.

“The reasoning of the court is paving ways for anyone to have the power to nullify an entire election simply by obstructing candidates from registering in a single district,” said Mr. Verpat.

Although the protests in Bangkok have dwindled over the past month, Suthep Thaugsuban, the leader of the opposition movement, vowed before a crowd of supporters on Thursday to obstruct any attempts to hold a new election before national reforms are implemented.

Anti-government leader Kamol Kitkasitwat, the chairman of Khon Kaen’s PDRC chapter, reiterated the necessity of carrying out reforms before a new election is held.

“Everyone needs to accept that we have to reform,” said Mr. Kamol. “People in Khon Kaen should watch and listen to what happens in Bangkok. If anything happens that we don’t want to see, we are going to have street rallies again.”

The Democrat Party, which boycotted the February 2 poll, has not yet said whether it will participate in the rescheduled election.

 

Khon Kaen Promotes Female Leadership

2014 March 8
by The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN—In a run up to International Women’s Day today, Khon Kaen hosted a regional event focusing on the role of women in Northeastern Thai society on March 4. The ceremonies, sponsored by government agencies, featured a market with women entrepreneurs, awards for women leaders, and a keynote speech by former senator, Dr. Krasae Chanawongse.

Dr. Krasae’s speech emphasized education, the role of Buddhism, and leadership, and it drew on a traditional description of a good woman: “Know how to use words, know how to work, know how to be generous.”

Audience members were invited to share their impressions of Dr. Krasae’s speech. One woman said to the audience of 500 overwhelmingly women, “The main idea is that giving, and not receiving, will make you a better person.”

Those sharing were presented with Dr. Krasae’s book, Success is Reachable.

Women from Khon Kaen province were recognized for outstanding achievements in 12 themed areas. Among those receiving awards was Ms. Pithayaporne Sukkho, 47, from Chonnabot district who was recognized for efforts toward “environmental care.” After encountering health problems with chemical-based dyes, Ms. Pithayaporne developed a system to make organic dyes with leaves and flowers. Her entire community has since adopted the method. “If we don’t start now, then there’s no one who will,” she commented about organic dyes.

Ms. Pithayaporne also expressed that women needed to organize among themselves and not just come together when “there is government funding.” She said, “Being more serious about holding women’s events can change women’s lives.”

This year’s annual event is in its twelfth year. Its organizers wanted to focus on family, community and local government, and to build ways for women to step up, become educated, and get involved in public life.

An entrepreneur selling her woven handicrafts outside the meeting hall, Kannika Unkam, 44, from Khon Kaen was more skeptical. “Selling my products doesn’t really empower me. Even though I own my own business I don’t think I am equal to men.”

Ms. Kannika also questioned the choice of asking a man to give the keynote speech. “The speaker should have been a woman. Today is about women’s power, so a woman should have spoken.” As she had come to the event to sell her crafts, she was unable to attend the keynote or awards ceremony.

She noted that the role of women had changed a lot. Before there were no women leaders, she said, “but today we can see that women have stepped into leadership roles like village headperson.”

In 2004 women represented only 5.6 percent of Tambon Organization Administration (TAO) ministers in the Northeast, while in 2011 that number increased to 12.41 percent.

One attendee, a graduate student working on women’s issues at Khon Kaen University, observed that there was very little in the event about the status of women in the Northeast or the challenges facing them. “I expected or hoped to hear about the current status of women and the direction of a women’s movement,” she said. “But today the goal seemed to be to give awards, compliment women, and to show examples. There was nothing concrete about the role or status of women in Thailand.”

She said that Dr. Krasae “didn’t talk specifically about women; he just talked about management. We are still under a patriarchy. Men do everything and they don’t believe in women’s ability.”

In Thailand, statistics show that women still lag far behind men in terms of vying for public office. Ranked at 90 in the world for national public offices held by women by the Inter Parliamentary Union, women accounted for 15 percent of the parliament in 2013. In nearby Vietnam and Indonesia, women held 24 and 18 percent of the seats respectively.

Demonstrators Campaign to End the Freeze on Democracy

2014 February 22
by The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN—Three thousand people and Governor Somsak Suwansujarit of Khon Kaen came together yesterday afternoon to show their support for the electoral system of Thailand. Frustrations continue to rise in the Northeast following escalating violence in Bangkok and the stalled election results from February 2.

Activists from Khon Kaen primary schools, district offices and labor groups waved signs demanding, “Stop Freezing Democracy” as they gathered to demand a functioning electoral system. Many of the representatives from the 17 district offices claimed similar peaceful campaigns would be held throughout Thailand if reconciliation does not come soon.

The Provincial Office of Khon Kaen assisted in organizing the event after residents made multiple requests for action to support democracy.

Governor Somsak shared his support for the demonstrators as well. “This campaign is to encourage the solving of Thailand’s problems through democratic practices,” he said. “I want elections to be completed so that Thailand can create a new government.”

As the speech drew to a close, the participants organized into a parade and marched through the streets. Village headman Kaewluechai Sawati of Bueang Niam explained that he was here “to organize against the mob in Bangkok and to campaign for the importance of democracy.”  Wearing his government uniform, he explained that he and his colleagues wish to be recognized as civil servants of the Tambon Administrative Organization (TAO) fighting for peace in Thailand.

While the campaigners marched out of the courtyard of the provincial hall, Opart Kusanhia stated that he is nervous for the outcome of Thailand. He came out today to show his desire for reconciliation within Thailand through a democratically elected government with the King as the head of state.

[portfolio_slideshow size=large showdesc=true]

 

 

Photographs taken by Sara Stiehl.

PISA Thailand Regional Breakdown Shows Inequalities between Bangkok and Upper North with the Rest of Thailand

2014 February 21
by The Isaan Record

Guest Contributor: John Draper

As reported previously in The Isaan Record, there are clear inequalities in Thai students’ academic achievement, and these are easily seen in official Ordinary National Educational Test (O-NET) Results by province. These results have been seen to broadly follow ethnolinguistic and class groupings, with Bangkok, home to wealthier ethnic Central Thais, noticeably outperforming other areas and ethnicities. This was visible in the fact that 15-16-year old Central Bangkok students achieved a mean score of 50.6/100% in the Thai language in 2010, compared to a mean of 39.0/100% for the median northeastern province, Mahasarakham – a difference of nearly 12%.

In an article in The Nation on December 5th, 2013, it was revealed that Thai students’ results in the Organization for Economically Developed Countries’ Programme for International Student Tests (PISA) had improved from 2009-2012. This test also looks at the achievement of Thai 15 year olds, with Thailand being one of 65 countries and economies involved.

The 2009 results were 421 in reading, 425 in science, and 419 in mathematics. The recently released 2012 results were 441 in reading, 444 in science, and 427 in mathematics. However, Dr. Sunee Klainin, the manager of the PISA Thailand Project, attributed the higher scores to the performance of demonstration schools and the Princess Chulabhorn’s College schools. She also pointed out that half of Thai students tested did not achieve a Band 3 or higher in mathematics, while around a third did not achieve a Band 3 in science or reading.

What do these scores mean? The definitions of the PISA levels for reading and mathematics are available here. There are six bands for mathematics. Students testing in Band 3 or lower – half of Thai students aged 15 – means they have little problem-solving ability in mathematics.

Likewise, in reading, a third of Thai students aged 15 are not able to relate a text to everyday knowledge and find and link multiple parts of a text.

What about the regional breakdown for Thailand? To date, this has not been included in the PISA 2012 regional data sheet (available here), which lists regional breakdowns for 14 of the PISA countries and economies. In fact, the regional breakdown for Thailand has never been publicly reported in the media. However, a regional breakdown was reported in a technical document published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the ASEAN Secretariat in late 2013.[i] (Also available from a web link on the OECD Centre for Development website, here).

 

Figure: PISA scores in Thailand, by subject and region

Math

Level

Math/BKK

Science

Science/BKK

Bangkok

450

2

-

455

-

Central

400

1

-50

416

-39

Upper North

445

2

-5

449

-6

Lower North

412

1

-38

415

-40

Upper Northeast

420

1or2

-30

422

-33

Lower Northeast

412

1

-38

410

-45

South

397

1

-53

409

-46

National Average

419

 

 

425

Source: The Institute for the Promotion of Teaching Science and Technology (IPST).

Note: PISA scale was set such that approximately two-thirds of students across OECD countries score between 400 and 600 points. Gaps of 72, 62 and 75 points in reading, mathematics, and science scores, respectively, are equivalent to one proficiency level.

 

In math, the average Bangkok student scores half a PISA level higher than almost every other regionally-based student except in the Upper North, where Chiang Mai has been an academic powerhouse for some time. The Upper Northeast fares slightly better than the Lower Northeast likely because it includes the major urban centers of Khon Kaen and Udon Thani. Interestingly, the average Central region student also scores very low compared to the average Bangkok student, and this may be because of differences in the quality of the schools. One possible explanation for the much lower average score for a student in the South is because it includes the war-torn provinces of Yala, Narathiwat, and Pattani.

In science, there is a similar pattern. The average Bangkok student scores half a PISA level higher than almost every other regionally-based student except in the Upper North and the Upper Northeast, with the Upper Northeast still well behind Bangkok.

Can we correlate the statistics with ethnic identity? It certainly looks like the scores of the Northeast Thailand students can be correlated with the Thai Lao ethnolinguistic identity. In the Lower Northeast, where there are a million ethnic Khmers, the scores are lower, but without a detailed understanding of which provinces are included, it is difficult to say. What is interesting is that the average student from the Central Thai ethnolinguistic identity also scores low outside Bangkok.

One of the standard explanations for these differing scores is poverty. Poverty is certainly a factor in tertiary enrollment in Thailand.[ii] While poverty is also a factor in PISA achievement, the 2012 PISA figures note that the socio-economic background (class) of Thai students has an impact on both performance and the performance gap that is actually better than the OECD averages. Another issue then may be the inequality of access to resources, especially in more rural areas populated by ethnic minorities.

In response to the poor Thai PISA 2012 results, Professor Gerald Fry made five recommendations in an article in The Nation of December 23, 2013. He suggests additional factors in the low scores may be a lack of equity in resource allocation, an emphasis on quantity (buildings and personnel) rather than the quality of people, the lack of a strong reading culture, and a lack of expenditure on Research and Development. He also notes there is the possibility that students may be scoring low because their first language is not Thai. In other words, they may simply not understand the written instructions or how to write the short analyses in Thai required by the PISA tests.

Overall, the Thailand regional breakdown and the country PISA scores make for tragic results. Thailand is a whole PISA level behind the OECD averages of 494 for mathematics, 496 for reading and 501 for science. As also pointed out by Professor Fry in his article, it is also behind Vietnam, a newcomer to the PISA tests and a developing country compared to Thailand’s status as a newly industrialized country.

The gap in PISA levels is the difference between 15-year-old Thai children being able to solve problems or not. And, for the first time we can see from the PISA statistics themselves where those differences are geographically. They are the same kind of differences that can be seen in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey results from 2011 for Thai Primary 4 and Thai Secondary 2 students’ scores, as reported in The Nation on December 12, 2012.

There is an urgent need for a public discussion of these regional figures and what they mean for the future of the Thai education system. This public discussion should be constant and sustained until the scores of the children of the Northeast – and those of the other regions stricken by poor results – can equal the scores of the children of Bangkok.

 

About the Author: John Draper is currently a lecturer at the College of Local Administration at Khon Kaen University and is assigned to the Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalization Programme (ICMRP; see www.icmrpthailand.org and www.facebook.com/icmrpthailand).

 


[i] OECD. (2013). Southeast Asian Economic Outlook 2013: With Perspectives on China and India. Available at http://books.google.co.th/books?id=c8vri8vPvmIC&pg=.

[ii] Ibid., p. 207.

Isaan Farmers Rally in Support of Government’s Rice Policy

2014 February 18
by Sally Mairs

Rice farmers at Khon Kaen's pro-government rally on Monday.
Rice farmers at Khon Kaen’s pro-government rally on Monday.

KHON KAEN— Rice farmers are taking center stage in the political battle wreaking havoc in Thailand, as the debate shifts to the government’s controversial rice-pledging policy. In Bangkok, hundreds of farmers on Monday besieged Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s temporary headquarters, demanding their long overdue payments for last year’s rice crops. Meanwhile, in the Northeast, rice farmers gathered in the city of Khon Kaen to stage a counter-demonstration in support of the caretaker government and its rice subsidy program.

“We are not protesting about not getting money,” said Charoensab Jampathong, a 65-year-old farmer from Ban Phai district who participated in Monday’s pro-government demonstration. “We came here to support all the government officials who are working really hard to get money for us.”

An estimated 400 farmers gathered in front of Khon Kaen’s provincial hall on Monday morning and marched to nearby branches of the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC), Krungthai Bank, and the Government Savings Bank (GSB) to voice their support for the government and its rice-pledging scheme over loud speakers.

“They came here to say thank you to us,” the Director of BAAC’s Khon Kaen province branch, Thanoo Tosajja, said. “This is the first time that has happened.”

Leaders of the pro-government demonstration also met with the provincial governor in Khon Kaen on Monday.

“We told the governor that we support him as a government official, and would like him to communicate to the government that we like the rice-pledging program,” said Bhutdhipong Khanhaengpon, a radio DJ in Khon Kaen who participated in Monday’s rally.

The demonstration of support from farmers in Khon Kaen stands in stark contrast to the activity of farmers in Bangkok, who over the past month have blockaded major highways in several parts of the country, filed a court complaint to claim compensation from the government for delayed rice payments, and on Monday, breached barricades to Prime Minister Yingluck’s temporary headquarters.

The divergent reaction of the Central Thai farmers protesting in Bangkok and their upcountry counterparts is symbolic of larger political rifts dividing the country. Whereas Bangkokians have taken to the streets over the past four months to protest against the government, their Northern and Northeastern neighbors have, for the most part, remained loyal to Prime Minister Yingluck and her social policies.

Both demonstrations by farmers, in Bangkok and Khon Kaen, are in response to the government’s delay in paying 130 billion baht to an estimated one million farmers for last year’s rice crops. The payments have been stalled in part by the caretaker government’s limited borrowing-powers, but are also the result of accumulated losses from the government’s ill-fated rice subsidy scheme.

In 2011, Prime Minister Yingluck’s government implemented a rice-pledging policy under which it purchased rice from Thai farmers at almost 50 percent above the market rate, and reduced exports to the rest of the world in an attempt to spike global prices. The plan backfired when other countries boosted their production to fill the void and unseated Thailand as the world’s number one rice exporter. Now, the government is struggling to sell its premium rice on the market without facing big losses.

A survey from the University of Thai Chamber of Commerce shows farmers earning, on average, almost three times as much money from rice sales as they did before the pledging policy was implemented. According to data from the BAAC, approximately 70 percent of farmers in Khon Kaen province have not been paid for last year’s rice sales. Yet many farmers still applaud the scheme for the tangible benefits it has brought to their lives.

“We don’t have to worry about money anymore,” said Kongsri Matsombat, a 56-year-old rice farmer from Nong Bua Kham Mun Village. “We never thought that rice farming could make us happy like this.”

“I was able to build and repair my house because of the rice-pledging program,” said 46-year-old rice farmer Banjob Chaisaenta.

Waraphon Buapin, 39, said she would still like the policy even if the government lowered its purchasing price.

“If 15,000 baht per ton is too much for the government to handle, we will still be happy even if the price is a bit lower,” said Mrs. Waraphon.

Academics, economists, and global agencies like the International Monetary Fund have voiced concern over the rice policy since its induction in 2011.

Khon Kaen University Professor of Agricultural Economics Nongluck Suphanchaimat says the policy has benefited farmers financially, but the overall program is fiscally unsustainable and has been gravely mismanaged. Instead of interfering with the market, Dr. Nongluck suggests the government end the rice-pledging scheme and focus on subsidizing technological advances for farmers.

“The government should set different strategies to assist  farmers in each region, mainly to reduce costs and focus on rice quality,” said Dr. Nongluck. “For example, the Northeastern farmers need improvements in water resources, farm equipment, good seeds, and quality fertilizer.”

The rice-pledging policy is due to expire on February 28th because the caretaker government does not have the power to extend it.

Looking ahead, the caretaker government hopes to pay farmers through a series of bank loans and a gradual sale of the 17 million tons of rice stockpiled in state warehouses.

Yet between investigations of the subsidy program by Thailand’s anti-corruption agency, the recent collapse of a trade deal with China, and a serious struggle to secure loans from Thai banks, the prospect of repaying farmers any time soon looks grim.

Although a five billion baht loan was secured from GSB on Sunday, this is only a fraction of the money owed to farmers, and the bank has already received a backlash from its labor union and customers.

Yet for the time being, Isaan farmers remain patient.

“I believe that no matter what the Constitutional Court, or any other body against Yingluck’s government tries to do, Yingluck’s government is still going to get formed and then we will get our money,” said Prasit Charoensuk, 66, from Nong Bua Kham Mun Village. “I don’t agree that we should try to protest because it’s only going to put Yingluck’s government in a worse situation.”