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Isaan Opposition Movement Seminar held at Thammasat University

2015 March 22
by The Isaan Record

Community members, lawyers, academics, and students from the Northeast and Bangkok convened this Friday to kick off a new political movement to defend the rights of Isaan people under martial law.

Community members openly discussed widespread repression under martial law in a rare event held in Bangkok on Friday.

Community members openly discussed widespread repression under martial law in a rare event held in Bangkok on Friday.

BANGKOK- On Friday morning, Khon Kaen University law students from the activist group Dao Din, gathered sleepily after a long train ride to the capital, before walking into a conference room at Thammasat University. Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, one of the students who staged a three-finger salute protest at Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s speech in Khon Kaen last December, briefed the students on the security protocol for the day, in case the seminar was shut down.

“Make sure you move villagers to a safe location if anything happens,” he told his peers before the seminar began.

Over sixty people joined the seminar under the name,“Isaan in the Middle of Bangkok: Peoples’ Life in the Center of Development.” Isaan community groups, students, academics, and lawyers discussed the effects of martial law and the immediate need to repeal it. They declared “New Isaan,” as an emergent political movement in opposition to military rule. Despite the students’ preparation for potential military intervention, the seminar was held without interruption.

The need for the security plan echoed the same climate described by Isaan villagers who feel the daily effects of martial law. Representatives from over ten communities across the Northeast joined the seminar, including those from the gold mine affected area in Loei Province, the forest community that was evicted from Kao Baat, village of Non Din Daeng District in Buriram Province, the potential natural gas sites in Kranuan District of Khon Kaen Province and Kalasin Province, a water transferal project in Roi Et Province, the potential industrial zone in Nam Phong District of Khon Kaen Province, the Phu Pan National Park in Sakon Nakhon Province, and the potential Pong Khun Phet Dam in Chaiyaphum Province.

According to Mr. Jatupat, the seminar was held in Bangkok because it is the country’s center of power and home of the decision makers that Isaan people struggle against.

Villagers expressed many common sentiments, including living life in fear and the disconnect between Bangkok and the Northeast. Porntip Hongchai, a forty-five-year-old activist from the gold mine area in Loei province, described her frustration.

“People in Bangkok hold these stereotypes against us Northeasterners. They think we’re poor and stupid; that we have nothing. We’re good singers or just a joke in the media, but our homes are for mining and industry. They don’t listen to us at all. The New Isaan won’t be obedient to those in power any more.”

Many members described the military presence and surveillance in their communities that came with martial law. They claimed that the military uses the law to negotiate villager compliance with industry interests.

“National security agencies and soldiers still have the mindset that villagers who remain in the forest are communists. They’ve made our relationships with local authorities worse,” said thirty-two-year-old Paitoon Soisod of Kao Baat.

“It’s clear that the military and the company are working together,” added fifty-nine-year-old Pakon Srakangtoom, a villager from Kranuan District.

In their testimonies, villagers stated that they have always had issues with past governments, but the limits on demonstration and expression have now made it nearly impossible for them to defend their rights.

“I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel with regards to martial law,” said Mr. Paitoon, “the fear is deeply embedded into our hearts, but we continue to fight. If we don’t fight, we’ll die.”

To which moderator, Kornchanok Saenprasert, responded, “Now the situation is, if you fight, you’re dead. But if you don’t fight, you’re still fucking dead.”

The morning panel concluded with Ms. Porntip reading “The Declaration for the New Isaan” (read it here), a powerful reckoning with the Central region’s dominance over the Northeast and call to arms against the military government. Student activists played “The Song of Commoners ” while members of the seminar sang along.

Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, a Dao Din activist, and Nathapong Phukaew from Friends of Activists Network perform “The Song of Commoners”.

Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, a Dao Din activist, and Nathapong Phukaew from Friends of Activists Network perform “The Song of Commoners”.

During the afternoon panel several lawyers and academics, both from Bangkok and the Northeast, discussed the historic context of martial law and the continual conflict between Bangkok and the Northeast.

“The government always tells the people they should sacrifice the environment they depend on for the rest of the country,” said Bencharat Chua, lecturer of Human Rights and Peace Studies at Thammasat University. She continued, “Now they ask them to sacrifice their right to protest for the peace and harmony of the country.”

“The hypocrisy of Bangkok is that they don’t want Isaan people to have their own political expression,” said Samchaiy Sresunt (center), a faculty member at the Graduate Volunteer Centre at Thammasat University.

As the event came to an end, twenty-seven-year-old organizer Suttikiat Khontchaso thanked the participants for joining. “Even those who weren’t invited,” he said referring to the four alleged plainclothes military representatives that were present taking pictures of the event.

“This is the day we establish New Isaan, a movement for Isaan people to join,” Mr. Suttikiat concluded, “Isaan is historically the birthplace of political movements, and ours is no different. We hope that this movement can serve as an example to people in other regions.”

The Dao Din student activists were also hopeful about this new movement’s potential. Mr. Jatupat said,“I hope that New Isaan will be able to create change. People should not just receive the policies that are handed to them. They should create their own future.”

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NEWS IN BRIEF

2015 March 13
by The Isaan Record

Ancient Isaan script to be revitalized in new public effort

The Khon Kaen Municipality, Khon Kaen University and the Isan Culture Maitenance and Revitalization Program are collaborating to create programs to teach the Isaan heritage script, Tai Noi.

ToiNoiScript

Learning how to write Tai Noi will allow Isaan people to write the language they most commonly speak in every day life.

 

KHON KAEN– In Northeast Thailand fourteen million people speak the Isaan language in their homes, however, the language lacks a writing system and it is not taught in public schools. In a recent effort, Khon Kaen University (KKU), the Khon Kaen Municipality, and the Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalization Program (ICMRP) hope to reconcile the disconnect.

On 27-28 February, Khon Kaen Municipality and the Department of Culture at KKU held a two-day seminar as the culmination of a three-year effort to develop a syllabus and resources to teach the Isaan language using the Tai Noi script, an initiative supported by ICMRP. The university and the Khon Kaen Municipality signed a memorandum of understanding that will enable schools to teach the Isaan language using the ancient script. The event was attended by approximately 100 people from schools, temples, universities, and municipalities in Khon Kaen Province.

The Tai Noi script dates back to the Sukothai period, and accommodates the six tones of Isaan, allowing the speaker to pronounce the language more accurately than when Thai phonetics are used.

Supporters of the effort to formally teach the Isaan language argue that forging a connection to the region’s written past will help create a living culture of literacy in Isaan, as well as boost people’s pride in Isaan’s heritage. Many have argued that Northeasterners have been historically looked down upon by other Thais, especially those in Bangkok, and the impulse to bolster Isaan’s cultural uniqueness is a means to mitigate such discrimination.

The project is limited to eighteen schools in four municipalities in Khon Kaen Province, and works with a dialect of Isaan originally derived from the Vientiane sub-family of Lao. There are also efforts on behalf of Georgia State University to create a Thai-English-Isaan dictionary.

The university’s support of the project was surprising to some because the Thai educational system has historically emphasized the exclusive use of Central Thai and English for instruction. The Thai state has long insisted on the unity of people within the kingdom under the ethno-national concept of “Thai-ness.” State support, however small, for the countries’ minorities and various ethnic groups is uncommon.

The MOU signals more corporation between the municipality and KKU to facilitate events and workshops that highlight Isaan culture.

The MOU signals more corporation between the municipality and KKU to facilitate events and workshops that highlight Isaan culture.

According to John Draper, the coordinator of ICMRP, recognizing and preserving Thai cultural diversity is necessary and not divisive.

“Most Isaan people, whose culture started as Lao and is now a mix of Thai and Lao, would still not like to be called ‘Lao’ by outsiders, though among family and friends they would be more likely to describe their language, festivals, food, and music as ‘Lao.’ The danger comes when people stress differences over similarities in order to create ethnic conflict and disunity, or when people stress similarities over differences to go beyond what is a reasonable level of nationalism.”

Dr. Peerasit Kamnuansilpa, founder and former dean of the College of Local Administration at KKU also validated the necessity of the initiative, “The MOU will bring all participating organizations to work together and achieve the goal of revitalizing the cultural identity and values of the Northeast region.”

Few people have learned Tai Noi as it has traditionally only been used by monks in village ceremonies, according to Dr. Udom Basri, a scholar of Tai Noi and Isaan at Maha Chulalongkorn Buddhist University. This has posed a challenge to common people who might use the script.

“Only monks can learn it, or people who go to temples to learn from the monks. But, now new monks don’t know how to learn Tai Noi. Now, palm leaf manuscripts have been put away like treasures and cannot be touched. This project is important both for new monks who want to read manuscripts and for villagers who want to read the manuscripts.”

Now that instruction in the mother language of most people in the Northeast has gained support both from KKU and the municipality, greater cultural development within Isaan is a possibility.

“We need to look at the Northeast as rich in culture rather than looking at it as a region of poverty,” says the mayor of Khon Kaen, Teerasak Teekhayuphan, “In Thailand, we note that the Southerners speak in their own language fluently and gracefully in social contexts. This is the same in the North. However, our children are shy about doing this. We need to create a future where they are also proud of their identity, and we look forward to working with Khon Kaen University to do this.”

 

 

 

Voices from Isaan: The Constitution Drafting

2015 March 6
by The Isaan Record

People in Khon Kaen express their hopes and worries about the drafting of the country’s new constitution.

KHON KAEN – The drafting of Thailand’s twentieth constitution is entering its last stage. According to Chairman Borwornsak Uwanno, the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) will submit the final draft to the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) by end of May. The new constitution is the centerpiece of the military government’s reform process and a prerequisite for the promised return to democratic rule.

In Khon Kaen, people are skeptical that the new charter will prevent the country from slipping back into new phase of political instability. The Isaan Record talked to people in the city center about their concerns regarding the drafting process and their expectations for the new constitution. Many were reluctant to talk or refused to give their names, citing the current political climate that they said bans people from speaking freely.

“I want it to be the best constitution of all,” says fifty-four-year-old Samai Phetpurkpong, a state employee collecting parking fees in front of Banglamphoo Market. “I don’t want them to just return to one of the old constitutions because that’s where the whole yellow-red chaos all began,” she adds before running off to collect the hourly two baht parking fee from someone.

Kuanjai Srijandee, a fourty-three-year-old drink vendor and rice farmer disagrees. “I want the 1997 constitution back because it was the people’s constitution and many joined in to write it.” For her, the 2007 constitution that followed the military coup in 2006 already marked a step backwards for the country’s democracy. “It doesn’t matter if they write a new constitution now. Nothing will change. Thailand now is like Myanmar was in the past,” Ms. Kuanjai says.

A fifty-three-year-old fruit vendor and self-identified yellow shirt who asked to be identified only by her nickname Nit, says that she has some hope for the new constitution. Asked about what should be included in the new charter, she answers, “I really want them to include an article that makes sure that any large-scale government project can only go ahead with local peoples’ participation.”

Referring to the controversial gas exploration project in Khon Kaen’s Kranuan district, she adds, “Some people benefit from this project, but what about those who don’t? Their voices can’t just be ignored. We really have to do better than that.”

Many respondents raised questions about the transparency of the constitution drafting process and voiced concerns about public participation. “There should be more information for the public, like what laws they are actually writing. This should be accessible to everyone,” says sixty-five-year-old worker Aod Tumyoma. “Also, I think there should be a national referendum on the new constitution,” he says.

Punjawat Namso, a twenty-five-year-old graduate from Khon Kaen University’s Faculty of Engineering, criticizes the lack of public participation in the drafting process. “And this is mainly because this government has not come to power through an election,” he reasons.

The constitution drafting process seemed distant to many of those questioned. “For local people, the new constitution won’t really affect us much, it’s for those people up there, the politicians,” explains Jaratporn Khonkla, a fifty-eight-year-old housekeeper. As she starts her motorbike to take off, she adds “I don’t think it will bring anything new for the country.”

This view is echoed by Pitak Boonbangyang, a fourty-eight-year-old street vendor. As he packs up his stall, he says “They always change the constitution and come up with a new one. And then they don’t respect it. For how long should this go on?” He wipes his face with a towel that hangs over his shoulder and adds, “There really isn’t much hope for democracy in Thailand at the moment. It seems like the country doesn’t really know what democracy actually is.”

[For more thoughts from Khon Kaen on the drafting of the new constitution, click through the slideshows.]

PROFILE

2015 February 27
by The Isaan Record

Khon Kaen University Student Artist Convicted for Lese Majeste

This week, Patiwat Saraiyaem was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for lèse majesté because of his role in the play, “The Wolf Bride.” Patiwat is the most recent student to have been imprisoned under the law, and has been an advocate for Isaan peoples’ rights and democracy for years.

On Monday, the criminal court sentenced Khon Kaen University student Patiwat Saraiyaem and activist Pornthip Munkong to five years in jail for their involvement in a satirical play that was deemed “damaging to the monarchy.” The court reduced the sentence by half for their admission of guilt.

Since last year’s military coup, the number of lese majeste prisoners may have reached a historic high, according to iLaw, a Bangkok-based human rights advocacy group. Mr. Patiwat is the first student known to be convicted since the 1980s.

Mr. Patiwat was arrested last August for acting in the play, “The Wolf Bride,” that was performed at Thammasat University in October 2013. The play was set in a fictional kingdom in which Mr. Patiwat starred as the Brahmin advisor to the king. The production was part of a commemoration of the 40th anniversary of 1973 student protests.

Mr. Patiwat, who goes by “Bank,” is a twenty-three-year old student at Khon Kaen University’s Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts. His peers and teachers describe him as a devoted advocate of democracy, a talented performer, a one-of-a-kind character with a wild wit.

Bank grew up in Sakon Nakhon, in a village not far from the Phu Phan mountain range, an area that once served as the central base of Thailand’s Communist Party during the sixties and seventies. His uncle joined the communist movement when he was young, and it was his political views that sparked Bank’s early interest in social welfare.

“I learned from my family and my community about the people’s movement in Isaan and their struggle for citizens’ rights,” Bank said in an interview with The Isaan Record in May 2014.

Bank moved to Khon Kaen in 2010 to enroll in Khon Kaen University’s Folk Music and Performance Program — a decision he made against his family’s wishes. He wanted nothing more than to be a performer of mo lam, an eclectic style of folk music native to Laos and Northeastern Thailand.

During university holidays, he would not go home like other students, but stayed on campus instead. In his village, people ridiculed him for wanting to become a mo lam performer, to them a sure path into poverty.

Bank poses in one of his mo lam stage costumes.  Bank's flamboyant stage costumes are notorious around campus.

Bank poses in one of his mo lam stage costumes. His flamboyant stage costumes are notorious around campus.

“He has great passion and talent,” said his mo lam teacher, who asked not be named. “From the day I met him, I had a feeling that his ancestors might have been mo lam artists,” she said, as she played recordings of Bank’s songs.

Bank quickly made his mark at Khon Kaen University as both the class star and class clown. He threw all his energy into perfecting his stage skills and mastering various Isaan instruments, including the khaen, a mouth reed organ that usually accompanies mo lam performances. However, according to his teacher, his real forte is singing and songwriting. Like most mo lam songs, Bank’s lyrics revolve around stories of romance and unrequited love, but also political issues—especially the rights of the people of Isaan—all flavored with a wry sense of humor.

On stage, Bank calls himself, “bak nuat ngoen lan,” which roughly translates to ‘The Million-Baht Mustache Man,” an ironic reference to his well-groomed facial hair and a career choice that is unlikely to fill his pockets.

Bank showed pride in his Isaan roots, despite widespread prejudice experienced by people from the Northeast. While his peers salivated over denim, he opted out of the mandatory student uniform for traditional Northeastern garb, insisting on a new faculty uniform.

Bank with a pa kha ma, a Thai traditional cloth for males, which he remembers his grandfather always wore when Bank was young.

Bank with a pa kha ma, a Thai traditional cloth for males, which he remembers his
grandfather always wore when Bank was young.

The hardship of the people in the Northeast motivated Bank to become a social activist. “Isaan has been historically suppressed and exploited by the powers of the central region,” Bank said last May, in a thick Isaan accent.

But the crackdown on red shirt protesters in Bangkok in May 2010 fully cemented his commitment to fight for social justice and democracy.

“The violence in Bangkok really got to him. He couldn’t bear that so many people were killed only because they asked for democracy,” said a fellow activist, who asked not to be identified. The killings of the protesters, many of them from the Northeast, drove Bank to engage more with national activist groups and he began skipping class to perform at red shirt protests around the country.

This didn’t keep him from working with the student activist community at Khon Kaen University. He was elected as the secretary general of the Student Federation of the Northeast in 2010, and; he was a member of the Student Council in 2011 and a committee member of the Student Union in 2013.

In September 2010, the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security gave Bank the National Outstanding Youth Award. It was Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn who personally handed the award to Bank.

Any minute Bank could spare he devoted to the small student activist group Sum Kieow Dao, or Harvesting the Stars, one of the few politically engaged student clubs at the university. The group worked with progressive NGOs in the Northeast and garnered student support for pressing social and political issues, work that Bank found shamefully absent from the university curriculum.

Bank at a anti-coup protest in Khon Kaen May 2014

Bank at an anti-coup protest at Central Plaza in Khon Kaen in May 2014. Photo credit: Sara Stiehl

“Students nowadays don’t care for politics and they don’t think for themselves — they just eat, sleep and shit — excuse my language,” Bank exclaimed, exploding into laughter. He added that he believes that universities should teach students how to be critical thinkers in order to help build a democratic society. For Bank, students across the country have been misled by an education system that stifles any critical voice that going against the status quo.

In early 2011, after the controversial arrest of Amphon “Akong” Tangnoppakul for defaming the monarchy, Sum Kieow Dao organized a protest campaign against Thailand’s lese majeste law, or article 112 of the Criminal Code—the very law that has now put Bank behind bars.

According to a friend, Bank understood that his involvement with the play could land him into trouble, but he didn’t expect that anyone would interpret the performance as defaming the monarchy.

Bank playing a fictional advisor to a fictional king in the fictional play, in the "The Wolf Bride," in 2013. His performance was deemed offensive to the monarchy and he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

Bank playing a fictional advisor to a fictional king in the fictional play “The Wolf Bride,” in 2013. His performance was deemed offensive to the monarchy and he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

Only a few months before his arrest, Bank expressed his concerns about the burgeoning number of lese majeste arrests. “I am afraid of the witch hunters going after red shirt activists,” Bank said, referring to the Rubbish Collection Organization, an ultra-royalist group based in Bangkok. “If you dare to think differently, you are already guilty,” he warned.

In the late morning of February 23, Bank stood to hear the judge read the verdict on his case at the Ratchada Criminal Court in Bangkok. After the judge ruled against Bank and Pornthip, a group of activist supporters chanted protest songs for the two outside the courthouse.

“Even the sky turned dark, the moon disappeared forever, the stars are still shining, and the faith will always be there” they sang, as a silver van led the two prisoners off to serve their sentences.

 

 

 

 

GUEST CONTRIBUTION

2015 February 23
by The Isaan Record

OP-ED: International Mother Language Day: Implications for Isaan

Without an official language policy, Thailand’s many ethnolinguistic minorities cannot experience equality.

By John Draper, Guest Contributor

IMG14415825

International Mother Language Day has been celebrated since 1999 and promotes awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.

This past Saturday marked International Mother Language Day, and while it is not particularly celebrated in Thailand, there were a couple of academic seminars in Chiang Mai and at Mahidol University in Bangkok. It is a difficult day to celebrate in Thailand, at the best of times, due to the fact there is no official national language policy, nor much affirmative action for approximately 70 ethnic minorities in Thailand.

Around 14 ethnolinguistic minorities live in Isaan, which has a population of approximately 19 million. Most of these are from the Tai-Kadai language family, with around 15 million being Thai-Lao, or Western Lao—there are three sub-families, the Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and Champasak—and another 156,000 who are Phu Thai. An estimated two million are Thai Chinese, mainly intermarried with the Thai Lao, and over a million are from the Mon-Khmer language family— mainly the Northern Khmer.

In particular, the Lao have a history of warfare against their southern neighbors that dates back to the period of the Kingdom of the Million Elephants under the White Parasol (1354-1707), which jockeyed for control of populations and tributes with the fellow Tai Kingdom of Sukhothai (1238-1583), and gave way to the Tai Kingdom of Ayutthaya (1351-1767). A major Lao “rebellion” in 1826-1829 against the pre-modern Kingdom of Siam saw the Kingdom of Vientiane obliterated and its people dispersed through forced marches southwards into the annexed Khorat Plateau and beyond.

In Thailand, the current interim military government may be praised for not interfering with these potentially political seminars on language. There is no doubt that language, especially when combined with ethnic rights, can be political. The self-exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is well known for his attempts to sing Thai-Lao folk songs during his video phone-ins on stages in 2008-2014 and thus “playing the ethnic card.”

Consequently, Thailand faintly experienced the possibility of ethnopolitical civil war, and rumors of separatism, in both the Northeast and in the North this past year. The North is the former Kingdom of Lanna, which fell to King Taksin of Thonburi in 1775, but nearly survived into the 20th century in the form of the Siamese vassal state of the Kingdom of Chiang Mai (1802-1884). In response to the recent separatist rumors, the Ministry of the Interior’s Internal Security Operations Command has conducted national reconciliation forums in Isaan and stressed how the Tai peoples once controlled a swathe of territory from Southwest China (the Sipsong Panna) down to Malaysia, east into Cambodia and west as far as India, and how disunity has caused the loss of Tai control over these territories.

The main problem is that this approach to reconciliation only stresses the similarities and does not show the main differences separating the Central-Thais from the Thai-Lao and from other major ethnolinguistic groups in the Northeast. In fact, Thailand has started accommodating ethnic minorities over the last decade. No language is banned, most can be heard on community radios and sometimes on television, and ethnic identities are promoted for their tourism potential. However, without a national language policy establishing equality, with Thai as a de jure national language, this is not enough to prevent ethnopolitical differences being exploited in the future.

02-21-mother-language

IMLD was introduced by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Multicultural Organization (UNESCO) and calls upon United Nations members “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world.”

Just ask the Welsh how they feel about Welsh. It is not that all Welsh people are avidly learning the language—only around 15% are literate. The point is that they voted in a referendum in 1997 to be in charge of managing their own local government, resulting in the 1998 Government of Wales Act and the subsequent Government of Wales Act 2006, and then in 2012 the Welsh passed the National Assembly for Wales (Official Languages) Act. This act makes Welsh one of Wales’ two official languages, and is designed to bring equality to Welsh in Wales, meaning any Welsh person should be able to live all their life in Wales only speaking Welsh in their education and in all contacts with officialdom. It is an excellent example of language policy by a devolved government under a reasonably enlightened parliamentary democracy—the United Kingdom (UK).

Which brings us to the People’s Republic of China, often criticised for not being a reasonably enlightened parliamentary model. It is unusual for the West and China to agree on human rights issues and any writer is taking a risk if holding up China to be a bastion of human rights. But, remarkably, China has 56 recognised ethnicities. Its treatment of its over 1 million Tai (Dai) minority is about as good as it gets in China—Xishuangbanna (based on the historical Sipsong Panna)—is an autonomous state of the kind the Dalai Lama is calling for in Tibet.

Chinese attitude toward its minorities is mainly pragmatic –equality between Han and Dai had been promoted as early as the 1910’s in order to bring stability to the south-western frontier in Yunnan, and China reached out to the area with medical assistance from 1949. In 1953, Xishuangbanna first became an autonomous region, and the Dais, together with a dozen other minorities, were permitted their own alphabet and printed educational matter under a bilingual Dai/Mandarin program—a bold step for a regime which has otherwise linked its success, as has the Thai state, to standardising a single writing system and the accompanying monolithic bureaucracy.

Xishuangbanna became an autonomous prefecture in 1955 and in 1987 passed the Law of the Xishuangbanna Dai Nationality Autonomous Prefecture for Self-Government to bring it into line with Chinese national law on regional national autonomy, and for most of its history it has been led by an ethnic Dai. Another similar Dai province, also in Yunnan, is Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture. Under Chinese affirmative action measures, like other recognised minorities, the Dai taxes raised in these states are all spent in the state. There are also quotas for university entrance positions, and the central government promotes infrastructure development and reserves high-level positions for Dais.

The pragmatism exercised by China in its affirmative action also has a geopolitical background: its policies are based on the Marxist-Leninist theoretical underpinnings of equality of national minorities, together with equality of languages and cultures, and territorial autonomy, as in the Soviet states model. While all this did not work out particularly well for the USSR, Chinese academics, who studied the fall of the USSR, concluded that the theory was not at fault, but that a lack of equality together with power imbalances in practice was the root of the problem.

These are precisely the same conclusions that led the UK’s Labour government into passing the Government of Wales Act and the present UK Conservative/Liberal coalition into granting more rights to Scotland, preventing its independence. These are also the conclusions that may inexorably lead the Kingdom of Thailand, under a constitutional monarchy, to grant regional and provincial autonomy to its ethnic minorities via a decentralization program and an accompanying national language policy.

For a country that effectively stopped mentioning it had any Thai-Lao citizens since the 1910s, such a decision may be more symbolic than world-changing. Cynically, decentralizing and granting language rights is an exercise in granting just enough rights and liberties to prevent real power being devolved, while benefiting from the political stability it would bring and profiting from the side effects, such as more ethnic tourism. Optimistically, it is a means of initiating decentralized government to be more responsive to local needs and a way to reduce graft by weakening the chains of corruption. Linguistically and culturally, it would bring equality to all Northeastern Thai children, including the Thai-Lao, Thailand’s Northern Khmer, and the Phu Thai.

Internationally, the move would comply with numerous UN treaties such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and would make International Mother Language Day a day to celebrate throughout the “land of freedom.”

John Draper is a sociolinguist with a first degree from Oxford University in Modern History and an MA in Applied Linguistics from the University of Southern Queensland. He 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.

Yingluck Shinawatra’s Impeachment Exposes Concerns about the Future of Democracy in Thailand

2015 February 4
by The Isaan Record

The Isaan Record’s continued report on reactions from the Northeast to the impeachment of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

KHON KAEN – In the Northeast the impeachment of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra continues to raise questions over the legitimacy of the process and quashes the hopes of many for a return to democratic rule.

The National Legislative Assembly (NLA) recently impeached Ms. Yingluck over allegations of corruption in her government’s rice subsidy scheme and imposed a five-year-ban from politics. Ms. Yingluck also faces criminal charges of dereliction of duty put forward by the Office of the Attorney-General based on an investigation by the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC).

Ms. Yingluck will likely stand trial in the Supreme Court Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions, just as her brother Thaksin Shinawatra in 2008, who fled the court’s ruling into self-imposed exile.

“This case will be hard to fight because the court will base its legal proceeding on the already completed investigation of the NACC, which found her involved with the alleged corruption,” explains former Khon Kaen senator Wan Suwannaphong in an interview.“In this kind of case, if Ms. Yingluck is ruled guilty, there can be no appeal.”

In Pheu Thai Party’s rice subsidy scheme, the government bought rice from local farmers at up to twice the market rate and stockpiled it with hopes of hiking up global prices before selling it for a profit. At the time, Thailand was the world’s largest exporter of rice, but other countries increased their exports, causing the price of rice on the world market to plunge. That left Thailand with a financial loss of about US$15 billion and an estimated 18 million tons of rice stored away in warehouses.

In some cases rice was supposedly smuggled from neighboring countries and sold to the government at the subsidized rate.

Many, however, believe there was nothing criminal about the policy. Dr. Wiboon Shamsheun, a former Pheu Thai vice minister from Kalasin points out that the policy was expected to cause financial loss. Every government faces the challenge of finding ways to stimulate economic growth. The Yingluck administration used the rice subsidy scheme as a wealth distribution mechanism to support farmers and inject money into the economy.

“Obviously, people like populist policies because they receive benefits through them. And if people like it, what’s the damage? What’s the point of being a government that isn’t popular with the people?” asks Dr. Wiboon.

Dr. Wiboon also questions the legality of Ms. Yingluck’s removal from power. He argues that the former prime minister’s impeachment has no legal grounds since the interim constitution of 2014 neither includes a mechanism for impeachment nor specifies proceedings for such a case.

“This country is governed through a parliamentary system in which there is no impeachment motion as this is a characteristic of presidential systems. It’s like putting the wrong lid on the wrong pot”, explains Dr. Wiboon. “So it is unclear what governance or legal principles [the NLA] is referring to.”

Wasan Chuchai, secretary and committee member of the Khon Kaen provincial branch of the Lawyers Council of Thailand, disagrees and argues that it is the right of NLA members to impeach any holders of political positions according to the law. However, he concedes that the NLA’s decision was not a legal decision proving wrongdoing on the part of Ms. Yingluck, which can only be determined by the courts.

“The impeachment of Ms. Yingluck is about keeping her off the political stage and preventing her from taking any political office again. This is a mechanism that is necessary in our system,” says Mr. Wasan.

Tul Prasertsilpa, president of the Citizen’s Anti-Corruption Network Khon Kaen, stresses the legitimacy of the impeachment motion as based on the constitution. His group is closely aligned with Suthep Thauksuban’s anti-government protests that instigated the downfall of the Yingluck government a year ago.

“The impeachment forces Ms. Yingluck to finally show responsibility to the parliament and the people for her government’s political wrongdoing,” Mr. Tul says.

After the impeachment, the military government, citing martial law, forbade Ms. Yingluck from holding a press conference. On her personal Facebook page, though, a note was posted stating that democracy had died along with the rule of law.

Mr. Wasan says that this statement, “Doesn’t respect the legal system in our country. Ms. Yingluck never acknowledged her faults and she doesn’t want to take any responsibility for her mistakes. Now she is defending herself and blames her own failures on the system.”

However, Ms. Yingluck’s statement rings true for many, reflecting the prevailing gloominess about the prospects of democracy and true reconciliation in the country.

“In many instances, we thought that democracy in Thailand was dying, but then we still had a flicker of hope in us. Now, after the impeachment of Ms. Yingluck, we see that democracy is in fact dead,” says Sutin Klangsaeng, a member of the Pheu Thai party-list from Maha Sarakham. He added that his party has lost all of its confidence in the military government’s reconciliation process.

This sense of resignation is echoed by Mr. Wan, who has little hope for a return to democratic rule under the current circumstances. “You cannot plant the seeds of democracy anywhere in Thailand at the moment. It’s like a volcano just exploded and all the land is covered in lava—democracy cannot grow because of the heat.”

In the last two weeks, the impeachment has garnered national and international criticism. At home, the military junta has launched a new round of summoning key Pheu Thai and red shirt leaders who have spoken out against the NLA’s decision. But quieting international critiques has proven more difficult.

On a visit to Thailand last week, senior US envoy, Daniel Russel, described the disposal of Ms. Yingluck and the criminal charges against her, as potentially “politically driven.” He called for an end to martial law and expressed concerns about the restraints on freedoms since the military seized power.

In contrast, Mr. Tul argues that martial law and restrictions on freedom of expression are still necessary to ensure social peace in the country, even if the international community may see it as a sign of “underdevelopment” of Thailand’s democracy.

“Freedom comes with responsibility and it means that everyone can exercise their rights,” Mr. Tul reasons. “But if people use their rights to incite division among each other and to violate the law, this is not freedom.”

The military government reacted to Mr. Russel’s comments by summoning the most senior American diplomat stationed in Bangkok and expressing its displeasure. Deputy Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said that the US lacks an understanding of Thai politics.

However, for Dr. Wiboon, the main problem lies elsewhere. “Now they claim that the US doesn’t understand Thailand,” he says. “But it’s rather that Thailand doesn’t understand democracy.”

Voices from Isaan: The Impeachment of Yingluck Shinawatra

2015 January 27
by The Isaan Record

People in Khon Kaen voice their opinions on the impeachment of former prime minister and Pheu Thai party leader Yingluck Shinawatra.

 

KHON KAEN – Last friday, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), a body hand-picked by the military government, voted with an overwhelming majority to retroactively impeach former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra over her role in the rice subsidy scheme. Ms. Yingluck is now banned from politics for five years and faces criminal charges that could lead to a 10-year prison sentence.

In Khon Kaen, people are divided over the impeachment of the former prime minister, but many expressed their approval of Pheu Thai’s rice subsidy scheme. The Isaan Record talked to people in the city center about the NLA’s recent decision. While some were reluctant to share their views on politics, most respondents eagerly voiced their opinions.

Nongnut Wiansri, a fifty-seven-year-old female market vendor says, “The process of the impeachment was not just. Yingluck was already bullied out of government, had to give up her position as prime minister, and now they continue trampling on her.”

Speaking in favor of the rice subsidy scheme, Ms. Nongnut says, “The farmers are the backbone of the nation, right? But they don’t receive enough support, and now without the rice scheme they have to sell their rice at a much lower price.”

Atthaphon Chumwong, a twenty-seven-year-old police academy student from Maha Sarakham, disagrees. “As former head of state, Ms. Yingluck needs to take responsibility for the obvious flaws in the rice scheme. In my village, many people had to wait for a very long time to get paid; some didn’t get paid at all.”

He believes that the rice subsidy scheme was a good policy in theory but the execution failed. “The delay of payments caused farmers to lose money. The government should have had a better plan,” Mr. Atthaphon says.

Nearly all respondents agreed that the process of Yingluck Shinawatra’s impeachment was unfair and exposed deep flaws in Thailand’s justice system.

Maliwan Thamsimma, a thirty-seven-year-old female market vendor, wonders, “I’ve never really believed in the justice system. From my experience, when people like me have to go to court, they hardly ever receive justice. And how can they, when even the former head of state is not treated fairly?”

[For more thoughts from Khon Kaen on the impeachment of Yingluck Shinawatra, click through the slideshow above.]

The Master Plan: Solving Deforestation or Yet Another Strategy to Remove and Evict People?

2015 January 8
by The Isaan Record

The NCPO claims to be reclaiming forest land from investors, but the poor continue to suffer. Junta policy introduced under martial law destroys livelihoods of thousands of forest inhabitants.

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has set out to end a long-standing history of land rights conflicts between the Thai state and communities living in national forest reserve areas. Despite junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha request for citizens’ “Participation and Honesty” in the matter, the NCPO’s strategy has been less about collaboration and more about amputation when confronting forest communities. 

The NCPO began its campaign in June with the release of Order 64/2014. The order enables government agencies to put an end to deforestation by removing any encroachers on national reserve lands. In August the NCPO followed up with a Master Plan describing how to implement Order 64/2014. The end goal is to increase forest cover in Thailand to 40% within ten years.

A discourse surrounding the Master Plan is that commercial investors’ exploitation of Thailand’s natural resources is responsible for deforestation and must be stopped. The NCPO appeared sincere in its intentions to target only wealthy investors after releasing Order 66/2014, which states that a supplemental directive government operation must not impact the poor and landless who had lived on the land before the enforcement of Order 64.

Yet, as the NCPO has implemented its Master Plan, it has repeatedly identified many impoverished villagers who have lived in the forest for decades as “investors.” As a result they have lost the protection of Order 66. In some cases the NCPO has made allegations with scanty evidence that villagers are part of production ring funded by wealthy investors.

Village communities in the Isaan region have been impacted directly. At present, the NCPO is charging 17 villagers for trespassing and has seized the farmlands of 70 families in Samchai District, Kalasin Province. Similarly, they are charging 37 villagers for trespassing Phuphan District, Sakhon Nakon Province, and have already destroyed upwards of 383 rais of villagers’ rubber tree farms. If the villagers are found guilty of these charges, they could be imprisoned for up to two years. In Khon San District, Chaiyaphum Province the villages of Baw Keaw and Khok Yao are facing forced eviction from their homes and farmlands, and have receive notices demanding they evacuate. The NCPO evicted at least 1,000 villagers from their homes and land in Kao Bart village, Non Dindaeng District, Buriram Province.

In November the NCPO reported successful prosecution of over 500 forest encroachers and the seizure of over 300,000 rai of land throughout Thailand. Currently, the National Human Rights Commission has received 32 complaints regarding land rights violations but expects more exist.

The NCPO’s crusade has been terribly efficient. Instead of democratically resolving a conflict between the two sides, it has physically and politically removed the villagers from the conversation on land tenure altogether. Martial law has silenced protests from people’s movements on all levels of society, and villagers are left waiting for the day when they can demand their rights and return to their homes.

Produced by Paul Sullivan, Bowdoin College & Wilder Nicholson, Bowdoin College.

Contact: Isaan Land Rights Issue Study Group  (NGO-COD) Northeast
six hundred and eighty-six fifths Soi Wuttaram, Namunag Rd., Muang District., Khon Kaen 40000
Tel. / Fax. (66) 043-228-
992/322267

Martial Law in Northeast of Thailand creates common cause between pro-democracy and community rights groups

2014 December 20
by The Isaan Record

Six months after Thailand’s martial law is imposed discontent stirs across diverse factions.

BURIRAM PROVINCE, THAILAND — Sitting cross-legged in a bamboo hut, concealed by tall corn stalks, the 62-year-old man seems at ease, enjoying passion fruit and a cigarette.  Yet, the laughter leaves his eyes as he casts furtive glances towards the sound of every vehicle that rumbles past.  

“I am afraid that once you leave,” Mr. Lun Soisot nervously admits, “the military will come and ask what we were doing.”

Mr. Lun was a rice farmer before the military arrived in his village and evicted everyone from their homes and farmland.

Mr. Lun was a rice farmer before the military arrived in his village and evicted everyone from their homes and farmland.

Mr. Lun knows too well what happens when the military takes special interest in a person. The military arrested Mr. Lun and other community leaders in Kao Bat Village, who protested the junta’s decision to evict villagers from Dong Yai Wildlife Sanctuary in July. Paitoon, his son and a local activist, has also faced arrest and is now on the run.  

Mr. Lun and his son are just two of the estimated hundreds of grassroots leaders that have been arrested, threatened, and harassed by the junta that seized power in the May 22 coup.  

The reach of martial law

Martial law, instituted two days before the coup, has maintained a tight grip over Thailand – outlawing political meetings of five or more people, prohibiting criticism of the junta, and charging civilians in military courts.  

The crackdown on opposition, through a series of arrests and detentions, has discouraged any attempts to speak out against the military regime. These tactics have kept Thailand remarkably quiet for the last six months.

The post-coup calm has been particularly unusual in the Northeast, which is a stronghold for the Red Shirts, a pro-democracy movement allied to deposed former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. The Red Shirt’s lack of organized resistance suggests that martial law has been effective in silencing dissent.

As of November 30th, the organization iLaw documented 626 cases of persons apprehended under martial law, 340 of which led to arrest.  

The vast majority of those apprehended were pro-democracy politicians, academics, activists, and journalists in Bangkok publicly summoned by the military soon after the coup.  

The military has focused much energy on suppressing opposition here in the Northeast as it is the heartland of the Red Shirts. While there’s ample anecdotal evidence, exact statistics on those affected by martial law in the Northeast are hard to come by. As many as 130 people in the region have been affected by martial law, according to iLaw, and upwards of 50 who have been formally arrested. But there are dozens if not hundreds of students, community activists, and university professors who have been unofficially “invited” in by the military for a chat, harassed at work, monitored, and threatened.

‘We fear for our lives’

Martial law and the fear of the junta’s formal and informal intimidation tactics may explain why a unified resistance movement has not formed.

Dr. Alongkorn Akkasaeng, Assistant Dean at Mahasarkham University’s College of Politics and Governance, felt his work impacted by martial law when he was called in to speak at a military base. “The experience has caused me to be more careful in what I say and write,” he explains. Many of his colleagues have been called in and continue to be called in, and so “everyone is quite aware that they are being monitored by the military.”

Last month, five students from the activist group “Dao Din,” borrowing from the movie “The Hunger Games,” raised three fingers directly in front of Prime Minister and junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha when he was visiting the Northeast for the first time.

The students were immediately arrested. As their protest and detention attracted national and international attention, the military decided to release them without charge. But even after their release, the students have been persistently harassed and monitored by the military, driving some students to move out of their homes.  “We fear for our lives,” stated one of the students in an interview with the Bangkok Post.

But more than anti-coup groups have been affected by martial law. The junta’s decrees, such as Order No. 64 that authorizes the military to evict communities from their land for the sake of national forests, has embroiled rural communities. Faced with the loss of homes and livelihoods, grassroots-level activists are the latest victims of martial in Thailand’s Northeast.  The widespread repression of rights to freedom of assembly and expression has severely limited their ability to advocate for community rights.

It was reported in Prachatai on Dec. 16 that almost 1,800 warrants have been issued against farmers on charges of trespassing into forest areas. Activists claim that if the junta continues its eviction polices, as many as 30,000 Isaan people may be affected.

‘Leave my family alone’

Kridsakorn Silark, an activist working with dam-affected communities in Ubon Ratchathani province, has similarly been summoned and harassed for speaking out against the military’s human rights violations.

On November 18, the military asked Mr. Kridsakorn to deactivate his professional Facebook page, on which he had publicly asked the junta to cooperate with dam-affected villagers, as well as his personal account that he used to express his pro-democracy opinions.

Mr. Kridsakorn proudly shows off his controversial Facebook page, on which he posted a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi: “You should never let your fears prevent you from doing what you know is right.”

Mr. Kridsakorn proudly shows off his controversial Facebook page, on which he posted a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi: “You should never let your fears prevent you from doing what you know is right.”

Claiming that he had forgotten the account password, Mr. Kridsakorn kept the page up and dodged the military’s calls.

After three days of evasion, however, Mr. Kridsakorn received a call from his mother; military officers had begun to harass her, calling every ten minutes and eventually showing up at her house. Mr. Kridsakorn realized he had no choice but to meet with the military.

“I was very angry.  They can do anything they want to me, but leave my family alone,” he snapped.

At the meeting, officers forbade Mr. Kridsakorn from writing anti-coup declarations and from posting anything on his Facebook critical of the junta.

These intimidation tactics employed by the military are used particularly harshly against those affiliated with the Red Shirt movement.

On the day of the coup, “Daeng” (a false name used for fear of reprisals), a Red Shirt media activist in the Northeast, threw a hard drive of his life’s work into water, knowing what it held could incriminate him under the newly imposed martial law.

The fear that drove him to such extremes remains at the forefront of his thoughts. While being interviewed, Daeng insisted on moving locations several times, convinced that a government spy was eavesdropping nearby.

Daeng spent a month covertly collecting stories on the impact of martial law in the region, especially stories that the junta has attempted to cover up. Daeng has unique insight into the mood of the Northeast.

“People only talk with people they trust.  Everyone wants to talk, though,” says Daeng. “They’re stressed, they’re not satisfied, and they’re angry.”

He tells the story of an unnamed Red Shirt DJ in the Northeast.  On the day of the coup, 50 soldiers swarmed her workplace, only to find that she was not there.  When they were also unable to locate her at her home, the military held her 10-year-old son hostage. Panicked at the thought of being separated from her son and subjecting him to trauma, she had no choice but to turn herself in.

In addition to threatening family members, the junta has employed other methods to intimidate and blackmail dissidents, such as freezing financial accounts, planting evidence, and extortion through the use of explicit photos.

Of the dozens of people Daeng spoke to, the majority signed an “agreement” with the military, pledging to refrain, under threat of arrest for violating martial law, from attending meetings, expressing political opinions, speaking to the media, or leaving the country.

‘We push forward because we know it is the right thing to do’

Most have adhered strictly to the “agreement” out of fear. However, some who have signed, such as Mr. Kridsakorn, insist that signing does not indicate surrender.

“I think I have to be more cautious because I was summoned.  But on the other hand, if I do and say nothing, they will feel as if they can do anything.  I have to move forward to ensure they do not feel this way,” says Mr. Kridsakorn.

Mr. Kridsakorn’s cautious defiance is not an isolated instance. Academics, villagers, activists, and Red Shirts across the Northeast have also voiced their resolve to keep fighting, despite the threat of repercussions for speaking out under martial law.

The five Dao Din students continue to be monitored closely by the military.  One female student was requested, on December 9th, to come speak to military officers about her group’s activities, over a month after their protest.

She refused to go, reflecting the defiance of the group.  They have also displayed their unwavering opposition to the military regime in interviews.  Capitalizing on newfound notoriety, the Dao Din students called Thai citizens to action: “We want you to fight,” they said last month in a Prachatai interview. People across Thailand have publicly raised three fingers in support of the students.  

Even Mr. Lun, a villager whose name remains unknown to the nation, refuses to give in: “The military tries to stop our movement, but we push forward because we know it is the right thing to do.”

Common ground

Although community activists, like Mr. Lun and Mr. Kridsakorn, on the one hand, and Red Shirts on the other, have typically operated separately, the collective oppression under martial law has created an unexpected common cause between the two groups.

Dr. Alongkorn suggests that although community activists and Red Shirts have different ideologies – the former focused on rights connected to their livelihoods and the latter on issues of democracy – they both share a commitment to rights and the value of equality.  “In this ongoing struggle,” he says, “[color-coded politics] are secondary.”

“I believe the junta would have something to worry about if these two movements were to find common ground and enjoin their struggles, but I don’t think the junta has quite seen the bigger picture,” he adds.

An academic and former red shirt leader in Khon Kaen also acknowledges the difference in objectives between the two groups.  But, Ms. Phanwadee Tantisirin adds, “It is democracy and rights that will allow both groups to be able to fight for their cause. We will have to wait to see if these two groups can come together to fight the military government.”

Looking ahead

On December 10, at the Isaan Human Rights Festival in Khon Kaen, villagers, NGOs, students and academics came together to openly express their frustration with how martial law has suppressed their ability to advocate for community rights.  The event was one of the first where these different groups were brought together to articulate their common struggle.

Although the military had disallowed organizers of the Human Rights Festival from mentioning politics or martial law, participants were not fazed.  One villager asked the crowd, “if we can’t talk about martial law, the NCPO, or politics, what can we talk about?”

Although the military had disallowed organizers of the Human Rights Festival from mentioning politics or martial law, participants were not fazed. One villager asked the crowd, “if we can’t talk about martial law, the NCPO, or politics, what can we talk about?”

Whether or not these factions will unify in opposition remains unclear.  Yet, the sentiment of individuals from each group does indicate a resolve to continue fighting for human rights and democracy.  As the stories of military harassment circulate throughout the Northeast, dissent appears to becoming more and more common.

“The things that have happened within our village and other villages have been spread to everyone, and it has caused fear,” explains Mr. Lun.  “The military is making a lot of enemies without even knowing it.”

As Mr. Lun sits on the bamboo floor of the small hut, he asserts his defiance to the coup and commitment to work towards a better Thailand.

“In every movement there has to be someone stubborn enough to get other people to join.  We choose to be fireflies in the forest.  We are willing to be small sources of light – even though they’re small, it’s better than total darkness.”

Alexandrea Lee studies international studies at Johns Hopkins University and Catherine Darin studies economics at the University of Pennsylvania. They are student journalists who have been studying in Khon Kaen for the past four months.

First published on Prachatai English

The Interrupted Lives of the “Khon Kaen Model” Families

2014 December 16
by The Isaan Record

Seven months ago twenty-six people were arrested in Khon Kaen and now face charges of terrorism and treason—offences that could exact the death penalty. The case, known as the “Khon Kaen Model,” is the most high-profile case to be tried in a military court since the junta took power in May. Kate Cowie-Haskell and Plia Xiong have been following the case in Khon Kaen to learn more about the process of military court and its consequences for families of the defendants. [Those interviewed for this story preferred that neither real names nor photographs be used, worried that it may affect the case of their family members.]

It is past noon, but “Nok” is still in her pajamas. She stands in front of her open refrigerator, staring at its meager contents. The shelves have become bare as the months drag on and she is unable to search for a job. Finally, she removes two eggs and turns toward the cluttered kitchen. “I can’t go anywhere, so I can’t make any money,” she says as she cracks the eggs into a pan. “The soldiers watch me whenever I leave.”

It has been a month since Nok, still in her forties, was released on bail for medical reasons from the Khon Kaen Central Prison. There she was held for five months with the twenty-five other people accused of plotting the “Khon Kaen Model” of resistance, an alleged Red Shirt plan to overthrow the military government that came into power on the 22nd of May. The suspects were arrested in the days following the coup, and imprisoned on June 4th.

Nok was released from prison, but she has been unable to fall back into her role as the provider for the seven people in her family. Instead, she spent most of the last month under what is essentially house arrest. She doesn’t want to give the soldiers a reason to suspect she is organizing or attending meetings, so she limits contact with friends and never strays more than a few hundred meters from her house. Nok is even too afraid to find work, fearing that contact with anyone outside her family may incriminate her again. Her family’s financial situation has become dire since her arrest, and continues to deteriorate despite her release from prison.

“It has been a very hard time for our family,” admits Nok’s father, who has become increasingly immobile as muscular atrophy claims his body. He sits in the small makeshift bedroom that has become his world in the past few years. “I am becoming weaker, and I can’t support the family. We have many financial problems now. With three kids, school and meals cost a lot.”

Nok doesn’t know when she will be able to find a job. For now, she is paralyzed by the knowledge that the military can interpret anything she does as a reason to put her back in prison.

“We have no income, and I have to think about everything I do before I do it. Every decision I make can affect my family now, and I don’t want to make our situation worse.”

* * *

The Khon Kaen Model suspects and their families have been under the watchful eye of the military government since the arrests were made in May. All twenty-six suspects were accused of nine charges, including amassing arms and conspiracy to commit terrorism.

Order No. 37 of the junta, stipulating that offenses against the “internal security of the Kingdom” come under the jurisdiction of a military court, was issued days after defendants in the Khon Kaen Model case had already been apprehended. A lawyer familiar with the case called this arrangement “strange” and “against legal principles.”  Regardless, the Khon Kaen Model case is being tried in military court.

A number of international human rights organizations have denounced civilians being tried by military court as a violation of human rights. In military court there are no appeals, and bail has so far been denied to the Khon Kaen Model suspects without preexisting medical conditions. All twenty-six suspects could face the death penalty.

November 26th—Shackled, the defendants enter the court at the Sri Patcharin military base for the case's third hearing as their families look on.

November 26th—Shackled, the defendants enter the court at the Sri Patcharin military base for the case’s third hearing as their families look on.

The defense lawyers have repeatedly called for the case to be moved to a civilian criminal court on the grounds that a trial by military tribunal violates Article 4 of the junta’s 2014 interim constitution, which vaguely states that the new government will protect human rights.

According to Mr. Wilder Tayler, the Secretary-General of the International Commission of Jurists, “Under international standards, civilians should not be subject to the jurisdiction of military tribunals, particularly where, like in military-ruled Thailand, military tribunals lack the institutional independence from the executive required by international law regarding fair trials.”

The court proceedings of the Khon Kaen Model case have appalled the defendants and their lawyers. Since May the judges assigned to the case have already changed once, and two of the three current judges are military personnel with no professional background in law. The court has also been unclear about the dates of court appearances for the defendants, rescheduling hearings multiple times.

A legal expert familiar with the details of the case who asked to remain unnamed is frustrated with the lack of transparency in the court process. “I don’t know what principle the court is working from. Are they waiting for the political situation to get better? Or are they waiting for orders from higher powers? The more detailed of this case are revealed, this expert says, “the clearer it is that these families can’t get justice.”

The high-profile nature of the case, particularly the terrorism charges, has garnered a lot of attention for the accused and their families. The media has painted the families as treasonous and violent. As a result, they have been ostracized in their communities.  

* * *

“Dao” has been socially isolated since her husband’s arrest. She sits at a table in her sparsely furnished home, which for her has become unbearably empty.

“Nobody comes to visit my family. They see us as criminals and they think we are trying to ruin the country,” Dao says through tears. “I am a Red Shirt but I have no war weapons— I don’t even know what they look like.”

Before the arrest, Dao and her husband sold sausages, making around 1,000 baht per day. But suddenly, after the arrests she could only make 200 baht per day. Now her most eager customers are the dogs she gives her leftovers to at the end of the night.

“My neighbors used to come buy sausages from me, but now they don’t even come near me. I ask them why, and they just say they don’t want to eat sausages anymore.”

Dao mentions that some of her old friends received phone calls from a person who warned them to avoid interacting with her. She does not know who these calls were from.

Unable to handle the way people stare at her (or worse, ignore her) in the street, Dao locks herself in her home. Now, her only comfort lies in the fifteen-minute visits she has with her husband at prison. She goes whenever she can afford the bus fare. Desperate for fast cash she skips meals and sells her motorcycles, sewing machines, rice steamers—anything she can find—at the scrap dealer for a fifth of their price. She often stays at the jail long after morning visitation hours are over, sitting alone in the darkening waiting room until she is asked to return to her empty home.

In the few months after the arrest Dao’s 18-year-old daughter, “Noi,” was her mother’s sole companion and only source of income. An accomplished boxer, Noi made around 5,000 baht for each of her fights in a boxing ring in Khon Kaen. Without her father to drive her, Noi took public transport to the ring every week with her mother. When the fights ended too late for the women to catch a bus home the two slept on the bare mats at the ring, using their bags as pillows. But soon after the arrests the ring manager heard about Noi’s situation and started putting her in lower fight levels, where she could only make 300 baht per fight.

Disgusted with this treatment and fed up with the teasing she endured at school, Noi dropped out of eleventh grade. She left her mother and moved to a province in another region, where she is able to conceal her connection to the Khon Kaen Model. Now she boxes during the week and takes adult education classes on the weekend, sending money to her mother when she can.

* * *

“Aom,” 17, is also sacrificing her education because of the Khon Kaen Model case. Her father was one of the twenty-six people arrested in May, and as each day passes without his income her family faces greater losses.

In the dark kitchen of her family’s cement home Aom chops up vegetables for the evening meal. Out of the corner of her eye she sees her backpack slouching against the dirty wall, with unfinished readings and assignments threatening to spill out of it. She hasn’t picked it up since the last time she went to school four days ago. Tonight though, she knows she will have to tackle some of the assignments that have been building up on her since the semester began in November.

Aom’s school fees have become an unbearable strain. The weekly 100 baht that Aom needs for transportation to school is now required for basic necessities for herself, her four-year old brother, and her mother. Recently Aom’s mother, Mai, has become so desperate for money that she asked her daughter to drop out of school and find work.

It has been a tense topic for the mother and daughter recently, as Aom insists that she should stay in school for one more year so she can graduate. For now, the family has reached a fragile compromise: Aom will go to school only two or three days a week.

“No mother wants her child to leave school,” Mai says as she watches her daughter sweep the oil-stained floor of their kitchen. “I want her to have the highest education possible so she can get a good job and have a future.  But I don’t know where to get money—if my husband was here we could work this out together.”

Over the last semester and a half, school has become a battleground. Aom is failing most of her classes. Already her poor attendance has barred her from taking the final exams for half of her classes this semester. She will have to make up the assignments next semester, on top of her new schoolwork.

“I don’t know if I will be able to do it,” Aom confides. “But I want to graduate high school so I can get a good job.”

She has dreams of studying hotel management at Khon Kaen University, the leading university in the Northeast. Her sociable personality would serve her well, and she is intrigued by the glamour of it all. “I want to look fancy,” she laughs.

However, her dreams are quickly moving beyond her reach. She has a commitment to support her family, and her mother’s emotional instability since the arrests has only made it more necessary to shoulder some of the caretaking burden left behind by her father.

Mai tries to put on a brave face and smile for her two children, but the sorrow that lies just beneath the surface is sometimes unmanageable. “After the arrest I cried for weeks,” she admits quietly. “I was devastated, I didn’t know what to do with my life. My daughter saw this and stopped going to school for two weeks to keep me company.”

With her future on the line, Aom must now try to balance the financial distress caused by the case and her family’s emotional upheaval, even while coping with her own sense of loss.

“I miss my father,” she says. “When I think about him I want to cry.”

Seven months after the arrests it is clear that the acute emotional loss the Khon Kaen Model families feel has cut far deeper than their financial losses. Without the presence of their loved ones, they are suspended in a kind of mourning— indefinitely. The convoluted processes of the military court give families little hope that their suffering will end in the near future.  

Since the arrests few questions have been answered for the affected families. They have asked to see the evidence against their loved ones, they have asked for bail, for release dates, for the dates of court hearings. And they have asked, again and again: What have we done to justify such grave punishment?

A lawyer in the case fears for the future of his defendants’ families. “Not knowing the next date and knowing that the court refuses to give bail has impacted families a lot. They are in limbo—they don’t know when they will be together again.”

* * *

Like Aom’s mother, the members of the “Damrong” family have been paralyzed by grief since the arrest of “Somsak”: their husband, father, and grandfather.

“Joy” has been married to Somsak for 36 years, and his arrest has taken a steep emotional toll on her. As she walks across the rutted yard in front of the family home, she pauses. “Everything reminds me of him,” she says solemnly. She looks to the front of the small house, where a vegetable garden stubbornly persists amidst riotous vines. “He loves planting,” she says, her voice choked. “He made that vegetable garden, and he built this house and dug out the fish pond. Anywhere you look you have to think about him.”

His absence is a void that his loved ones cannot ignore. Friends come to join family dinners, but everyone has become so accustomed to the rhythm of life with Somsak that they are at a loss when there are pauses in the conversation that his jokes normally fill.

“It is like there is no happiness in the family,” says Joy. “I have no energy, and all I can think about is how to help him.”

Since May the family has thrown itself into efforts to bail him out. They raised money and scoured documents, but the military has denied bail. Seven months later, Somsak is still in jail, and his wife still doesn’t know why.

“If we knew he was guilty it would be different because there would be a reason for him to be there. But I can’t think of anything he did wrong.”

Her claims match those of the defendants, all of whom have claimed innocence to the accusations.  But despite what a lawyer described as “weak” evidence against them, the trial persists.

The only thing Joy is absolutely sure of is that her husband should have been released long ago. “All we want is for him to be back with us. If there was justice he would be home by now.”

Justice, it seems, is not something the Khon Kaen Model families will see soon. At the third case hearing on November 26th the court was as vague as ever, once again cancelling the next court appearance and failing to provide a new date. The lawyers’ request to move the case to a civilian criminal court remains under deliberation.  

A relative of one of the defendants reacts after seeing her husband walk into the courtroom in chains.

A relative of one of the defendants reacts after seeing her husband walk into the courtroom in chains.

Meanwhile, these families must continue their battle with the uncertainty that is consuming their lives. The unanswered questions loom over them, and the unbelievable power the military holds over their situation permeates their daily life.

* * *

Dusk is just settling over Nok’s small home when she climbs on her motorcycle to buy vegetables down the road. As the motorcycle pulls away Nok’s brother rises and makes his way to the end of the dusty driveway, where he stares after the vanishing taillights. He stands there in the dark, headlights occasionally illuminating his concerned face, until his sister returns fifteen minutes later.


“He thinks that if I leave I might not come home again,” explains Nok. “Every time he returns home, he checks up on me and he is happy to see that I am still here.”

She drops the bag of vegetables on the table and sags against the wall of her home, the home that has become her prison.

Kate Cowie-Haskell studies Anthropology at the University of Rochester and Plia Xiong is majoring in Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They are student journalists on the CIEE Khon Kaen study abroad program.

Co-published on Prachatai English