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By Genevieve Glatsky, Jaime Webb, and Megan Brookens
A train roared past as Kovit Boonjear, a man with a long pony-tail and mischievous look in his eyes, smoked a cigarette behind his modest home in one of Khon Kaen’s slum communities. “I never give interviews,” he said with a smile and more than a hint of irony.
A 60-year-old Isaan transplant from the south of Thailand, Kovit is sparing with his words – not because he does not enjoy conversation, but as a matter of safety. He has been a community rights activist since 1983, a contentious career path in the eyes of the stringent Thai military regime. Freedom of speech and assembly are limited and many of Kovit’s allies and friends have been temporarily detained and fear arrest. With over 30 years of experience, he is well accustomed to the risks that come with the job he has dedicated his life to.
Despite his poor upbringing, Kovit and his siblings all attended school. His father worked tirelessly as a security guard and waiter so that he could send his children to live with their mother in Bangkok, where there were more educational opportunities. His older brother became involved in an activist group while in law school and inspired Kovit to follow a similar path.
During the 1960s and 1970s, when Kovit was starting his law degree, Thai student activism was gaining strong momentum. Several universities had programs that sent students to work with marginalized rural communities so that they could better understand the challenges faced by Thailand’s poor.
As a freshman at Ramkhamhaeng University School of Law, Kovit stayed with a construction worker who was building a school in Bangkok. Because his host’s family didn’t have national identification cards his children were unable to attend the school their father spent so many hours building. The irony resonated with Kovit. “It made me think that if people invest their time in something, they should also profit from the value,” he said.
According to Kovit, his passion for supporting marginalized people stems from this early experience. Seeing first-hand the injustices faced by the urban poor, particularly regarding their lack of access to education, he felt compelled to leverage his own educational opportunities to fight for their rights.
He took his first job after college at the International Foster Care Organization Khon Kaen and he has called the Northeast home ever since. Kovit’s work now revolves around supporting marginalized communities, such as Khon Kaen’s slum residents and villagers resisting a mining company in Loei Province. Kovit uses his experience as a lawyer to navigate the complex legal system to ensure communities’ rights are upheld.
“The law is changing for the benefit of government officers, politicians, and businessmen,” said Kovit, shaking his head in dismay, “not for the poor.” Even with a law degree, he still spends vast amounts of time studying to keep up with ever-changing Thai policy.
Kovit values his high level of formal education, but believes that he can learn the most from personal exchange with people. Understanding the lives of everyday people has always been at the crux of his organizing strategy.
“When the villagers are wet, I am wet. When the villagers are hungry, I am hungry. I never consider myself an outsider. I consider myself a part of the community,” he said as he shared a meal with his neighbor, made from vegetables grown in his own garden.
“I listen. I talk with people,” he said. “The best way to make change happen is by casually stopping by.” Whether working in the rice fields with villagers or laughing over a glass of whiskey, Kovit can often be found discussing social justice issues with those around him.
He has worked closely with the community leaders in Wang Saphung subdistrict of Loei Province in their decade-long struggle to close a gold mine located less than a kilometer from their village. Villagers claim that the mine’s chemical discharge has caused illness and environmental contamination, and that the mining company’s henchmen initiated an attack on the village last May. In response to the tense situation following the attack, Kovit lived in the community for a year to help the villagers create mining-resistance strategies.
“Kovit helped us organize and provided critical information. He was especially helpful after our village was attacked and decisions were being made rapidly,” said Surapan Rujichaiwat, the leader of Khon Rak Ban Koed (People Who Love Their Home), an organization of concerned villagers that has been advocating for the closure of the gold mine.
It is one of Kovit’s primary goals to ensure that communities can sustain their movement without his assistance by identifying leaders and developing a long-term strategy. “I try to accomplish two things in the communities I work with: education and organization. This gets them to think on their own,” Kovit said.
His nonviolent resistance tactics help villagers’ mobilizing efforts to gain momentum. However, as Kovit draws increased attention to communities’ struggles, he too faces heightened risk. He claims his name often appears at the top of the military’s list of people to monitor.
In 2013, he learned that fighting against resource development projects garners the attention of more than just the military. A military officer began following Kovit under the pretense of protecting him from a $10,000 bounty on his head, Kovit claimed. While this could just have been an intimidation tactic, Kovit suspects that the bounty was issued by the mining company.
Despite the threats, Kovit remains undeterred. He has already recruited 18,000 signatures for a petition he is circulating against current Thai mining policy. His goal is to garner 20,000 supporters.
“We have to be careful all the time. One thing I really believe is that the villagers will protect me,” he said.
Moving forward, Kovit seeks to expand his impact outside of Thailand. He is currently working on a website that will spotlight mining-affected communities throughout all ASEAN countries. The effort is one more step in the direction of increasing public understanding of marginalized peoples’ experiences.
Genevieve Glatsky studies International Relations and Megan Brookens majors in Urban Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Jaime Webb studies Music and Philosophy at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.
Since the early 1990s, tens of thousands of Northeastern Thais have left their farms at home to work as agricultural laborers in Israel, often facing exploitation by manpower agencies and employers. Despite a recent push to improve the working conditions of Thai farmworkers in Israel, their situation often remains precarious.
By Matan Kaminer
Over 22,000 migrant workers, mostly from Isaan, are at work on farms in Israel. Although they are but a small percentage of the total number of Isaan villagers who migrate to work abroad, the Israeli agricultural sector has become completely dependent on their labor.
In some rural settlements, Thais now outnumber Israelis, and in modern Hebrew tailandi has become almost a synonym for “farmworker.” Though wages in Israel are much higher than those in Thailand, workers’ labor rights are often violated and living conditions are sometimes atrocious, as has been documented by Israeli NGO “Workers’ Hotline” and the international organization Human Rights Watch.
I interviewed three Isaan villagers who have worked in Israel about their migrant experience. Though the durations of their stays in Israel are spread over two decades, the picture they present is in some ways very similar: the work is hard and one pays a personal price for going abroad for so long. At the same time, working in Israel has enabled our interviewees to achieve financial goals that would have been impossible otherwise.
However, my three interviewees differed greatly in some aspects of their experience – demonstrating that much depends on the particular farm on which one happens to be employed when in Israel.
Large-scale labor migration from Thailand to Israel began around 1993, when the Israeli government took steps to end the massive participation of Palestinian workers in the labor market. These workers, coming from the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, were judged to be too rebellious following the Palestinian Intifada (uprising) of 1987-1991, and plans were made to replace them with workers from developing countries. The government began allowing farmers to recruit workers from Thailand, and they quickly became the majority of workers employed on Israeli farms.
Until 2012, in order to obtain work in Israel a Thai laborer would have to contract with a local manpower agency in Thailand. This agency would connect with a manpower agency in Israel , and the worker would then be eligible to receive a visa for a five-year work contract. Careful to prevent the possibility of workers settling in Israel permanently, Israeli authorities limited each worker to one five-year work period, and disallowed married couples from being in the country at the same time.
Manpower agencies charged workers exorbitant fees, ranging up to 370,000 baht. Workers would often spend their first year in Israel working off the debts incurred in order to pay this fee.
In 2012, the Israeli and Thai governments signed a bilateral agreement aimed at cutting out the middlemen who were charging migrants these exorbitant fees, replacing Thai manpower agencies with the International Organization for Migration, a non-profit intergovernmental group. Today the problem of exorbitant fees has been become less severe and migrants pay around 75,000 baht, which go to the IOM and manpower agencies on the Israeli side.
However, many other problems associated with migrant life continue. A report recently released by Human Rights Watch found that workers are subject to dangerous and unhygienic living conditions, extremely long working hours, and substandard medical care.
Officially, Thai migrants in Israel are protected by Israeli labor laws, including those regulating the minimum wage and overtime hours. However, a study conducted by myself and Noa Shauer of the Israeli non-governmental organization Kav La’oved (Workers Hotline) found that in 2013, none of the migrants who reported their work conditions to the organization were paid according to the law. Their average wage for regular hours stood at around 70% of the legal minimum. Overtime for work of more than ten hours a day, which is quite common in the agricultural sector, was paid at only 55% of the legal requirement. Human Rights Watch reached similar conclusions.
Thai migrant workers’ weak negotiation position in Israel is in part due to the “bound” nature of their employment. Clauses in their contracts, as well as their linguistic isolation and lack of acquaintance with the country, make it very difficult for workers to change employers’ behavior.
Thus, even when migrant workers are aware of the substandard nature of the conditions of their employment, there is little they can do to improve their situation. Many migrants say that the working conditions, together with the long hours and sadness of missing home and family, are behind the prevalence of alcohol and drug abuse among workers.
Some point to drug and alcohol abuse as a possible factor behind the nocturnal deaths of workers, known in Thai as lai tai. These mysterious deaths are also known in Isaan, and some consider them to be caused by evil spirits such as phi mae mai or “widow ghosts.”
Between 2008 and 2013, 43 Thai men perished this way in Israel, yet there has been no systematic investigation into their cause of death. The lack of interest displayed by the Israeli authorities in this case is symptomatic of the general lack of public or state concern for migrant workers’ welfare.
While the workers I spoke to corroborated many of the findings mentioned above, they spoke of the experience of working in Israel as a generally positive one. They said the work enabled them to acquire property and make other monetary gains in life that otherwise they could not have achieved.
The first of my interviewees, Joe – a pseudonym – in his forties, lives in a village near Chumphae in Khon Kaen province. He received us on the ceramic-tile floor of his two-story house and later took us to a field where he grows sugarcane – a field bought with money he earned while working in Israel in the 1990s.
Joe’s distant relatives, Maew and Jaey (also pseudonyms), live in a village in Udon Thani province that has sent many workers to Israel over the years. Their stories exemplify the wide variety of working conditions found in Israel.
Maew, also in her forties, worked on a farm in the hyper-arid Jordan Valley, near Jericho in the occupied Palestinian territories. She worked up to 14 hours a day tending vegetables in greenhouses and made between 35,000 and 45,000 baht a month, of which she was able to save about 25,000 to send home to her family. In employing her for such long hours for such low pay (by Israeli standards), her employers violated the local minimum wage law and possibly other laws as well.
Maew’s younger relative Jaey made the same wages, but working only six hours a day milking cows near Acre in Israel’s north, in proximity to urban centers and in a much milder climate zone.
One cause for the difference may be the fact that Maew worked on a moshav or collective settlement, and Jaey on a kibbutz or communal settlement; the latter tend to be both wealthier and more committed to the historic humanistic values of the Israeli “labor settlement” movement.
The co-existence of such huge disparities in labor and wage conditions is clearly an effect of the “bound” employment regime. If workers could freely choose whom to work for, conditions would undoubtedly equalize, with better results for workers like Maew.
Although she is aware of these disparities, Maew did not react to them with anger or indignation. She told me that she was glad of the opportunity to work long hours and make as much money as possible to send home, and did not see the fact that her relative Jaey had made the same amount of money working about half the hours as unjust.
Maew and Jaey also touched upon another interesting and troubling issue. They told me that villagers in the area who had worked in Israel were approached by lawyers claiming that they could get access to Israeli “tax refunds” for them.
According to Maew, hundreds of locals had signed papers for these lawyers but none had seen any money. Their story corroborates reports of Israeli lawyers representing Thai workers to sue the employers for severance pay – another legal requirement that is often unheeded.
The NGOs are worried that these lawyers may be engaged in unscrupulous practices vis-à-vis their clients – a concern that Maew’s story seems to strengthen, as villagers signed up and never heard anything back or received any money, and as they may have been misinformed as to the nature of the legal proceedings.
Labor migration is a global phenomenon, linking countries across the world in a chain of human movement that embodies both opportunity and exploitation. The workers I spoke to – who did not know me well and may have hesitated to be completely forthright – spoke of working in Israel as, overall, a positive experience.
Yet even this must be understood against the background of the alternative – either going to work elsewhere in Thailand or abroad, where conditions and pay are often worse, or being mired in unemployment and poverty back home in Isaan.
Compared to some of their neighbors, those villagers who are given the opportunity to do backbreaking work for below-minimum pay, thousands of kilometers from home, for years on end, may be the lucky ones.
Matan Kaminer is a Ph.D student in anthropology at the University of Michigan. His research is on Thai migrant farmworkers in Israel. Additional reporting and translation by Disaraporn Phalapree.
For 35 years, Thailand’s primary healthcare system has rested on the shoulders of a legion of Village Health Volunteers. Now that Thailand has had universal healthcare for some years, is this model – which was originally established to boost poor rural communities’ access to essential healthcare – obsolete?
By Zoe Swartz, Mariko Powers, and Katie Mathieson
KHON KAEN – Mekhala Nonsiri sits in the doorway of her two-room rented home in a slum community of Khon Kaen. She suffers from a calcium deficiency in her bones that makes walking nearly impossible. Living with a disability in an urban slum is already a challenge, but without the daily visits of a Village Health Volunteer (VHV) her life would be much harder.
Ms. Nonsiri lives in Theparak 5, one of Khon Kaen’s shanty communities. Set back from the slum’s narrow thoroughfare by an even narrower alley, her home overlooks the train tracks. Like everyone here, she is accustomed to pausing conversations amid the deafening clamor of passing trains.
Ms. Mekhala has plenty to fret over, but one thing she does not have to worry about is eating lunch. Each day, Uthumporn Srichai a Village Health Volunteer, checks on Ms. Mekhala and brings her a meal, free of charge. The 52-year-old has been a VHV for six years and looks after 15 disabled residents in Theparak 5 and its neighboring slums.
In her community, Ms. Uthumporn and the other nine VHVs serve as liaisons between villagers and the formal health sector. They provide basic services such as checking blood pressure, health consultations, first aid, and sometimes transportation to the hospital.
Thailand established this healthcare delivery system in 1980 after the country’s ratification of the Alma Ata Declaration, an international agreement to promote the health of all people.
In the 1980s, transportation in rural areas – where the bulk of the population lived – was difficult. Medical care was costly – prohibitively so for the poor. It made sense for communities to develop ways to take care of their own health.
Thailand in 2015 is quite different. According to the United Nations Development Programme, the number of impoverished households in Isaan dropped from 3.4% in 1996 to less than 1.3% by 2009. Northeastern people are more educated and urbanized.
Most importantly, a low-cost universal healthcare system was put in place in 2002.
Nevertheless, the VHV program continued to expand. There were 700,000 VHVs in 2005; now there are more than a million, each working with seven to twelve families in every community in Thailand. VHVs are expected to systematically coordinate their work with government public health policies.
The national budget for the VHV program is over 7.2 billion baht (US$240 million) annually, which includes funds for the 600-baht monthly stipend volunteers have received since 2001.
Given the changes in Thailand’s poverty demographics and the expansion of access to the healthcare system, are VHVs still necessary?
Dr. Amorn Nondasuta, Thailand’s former Permanent Secretary of Public Health, was in charge of the national primary healthcare program from 1983 to 1986. Now 87 years old and retired, it was under his watch that Thailand’s community health volunteer program was initiated 35 years ago.
The mission of the program has always been to expand “community access” by placing primary healthcare into the hands of villagers and creating “health autonomy,” Dr. Amorn says in an email to The Isaan Record. He originally hoped to see “the people fully in control of their own health, via behavior change or health planning and management.” But this mission, Dr Amorn admits, “has not been fully realized so far.”
A 1997 report found that the use of VHVs declined as Thailand urbanized and access to medical services improved. As a result, “more and more people self-refer into this level of care,” the report states.
“City people have many choices to visit doctors, so they don’t use VHVs,” says Vanarat Kongkam, who oversees the VHV program in Khon Kaen municipality.
Proponents of the program point out that the VHV program is closely tied to community development, a role that cannot be fulfilled by formal health services alone.
“VHVs are the role models of people in the communities. They are dedicated to many social causes. They become respected and may be elected headman,” says Waraporn Chukhanhom, Secretary to the Director of Public Health for Khon Kaen City District.
Government officials working with VHVs echo this sentiment and insist that the program still plays a crucial role for Thailand’s healthcare system. From the beginning, says Ms. Vanarat, the program was “exclusively designed to give poor people access to healthcare.”
In many cases, lack of transportation is an additional barrier to medical care. For rural residents in remote communities in Isaan, traveling to the hospital can be particularly burdensome. In order to tackle this problem, the VHV program in Isaan has established “Happy Pavilions” – small healthcare stations where volunteers provide basic care close to rural residents’ homes.
“The Happy Pavilion program works well,” Ms. Waraporn says, adding that it helps vulnerable populations “reduce the cost of hospital visits.”
As VHVs are members of the communities they serve, they know the day-to-day struggles of their neighbors and can track the general well-being of the families under their care. They can support people with mobility challenges by assisting them, giving baths, or providing diet-appropriate meals.
Most important, say proponents, the volunteers help villagers navigate the medical bureaucracy and personalize healthcare. When Ms. Mekhala first started to have trouble walking, she couldn’t afford to buy a wheelchair. With the support of her VHV, Ms. Uthumporn, she was able to secure municipality funds to purchase one.
The VHV program also provides basic healthcare training to selected villagers. In this way, they can serve as a bridge to the formal health system and actively support preventive healthcare in their communities.
This role as a bridge is especially profound for Somphaan Sonphromma, a 50-year-old resident of Khok Si, a village eight kilometers outside of Khon Kaen City. She is one of the village’s twenty health volunteers educating people on how to prevent mosquito-borne illnesses, such as dengue. One of Ms. Somphaan’s weekly tasks is to visit her assigned families and distribute fish and chemicals that destroy mosquito larvae.“VHVs and villagers live in the same community, so volunteers know people’s problems better than the doctor and can work to help one another” says Jitti Chertchoo, the headman of the slum community Theparak 5.
The localized volunteer service model is effective in Thailand because it mirrors what is already culturally practiced – villagers taking care of family members and supporting the well-being of the community.
“My life is hard but then I look around and see that other people have it worse than me,” says Ms. Uthumporn. Her budget request letter to the municipality did not ask for much in the way of resources. She knows that the most valuable thing she can offer is her time. Here, she checks to make sure the food that the school donates will not be too spicy for her patients.
Amphon Phosanit used to work transporting and selling vegetables in remote provinces. Five years ago he lost his left arm in a car accident when he swerved to avoid a shipping container that fell off an eighteen-wheel truck in front of him. Now he drives Ms. Uthumporn to the places she volunteers. He earns 50 baht to cover the cost of gas, and 5 Baht for every meal they deliver.
Knocking on the door of each patient's house every day can take a long time, but that closeness is what Ms. Uthumporn thinks makes this program important. “We are closer to each other than we are to doctors. We see the real conditions of the community, but doctors and nurses see the patient only at that moment,” Ms. Uthumporn says.
Ms. Uthumporn smiles, saying “seeing people in the community healthy makes me happy. If I had to choose between helping the community or helping myself, I would help the community.”
Phanom Seemuang, 76, has problems with her vision. Like many of Ms. Uthumporn’s patients, she lives alone and doesn't have family around to take care of her. In the corner of the house, Ms. Phanom has a small stove for cooking on days when Ms. Uthumporn cannot bring her meals.
Ms. Phanom lives here alone. The railroad connecting Nong Khai to Bangkok runs 15 yards outside her front door. Many houses here are dilapidated structures made of plywood and sheet metal, but the community has made some improvements. After petitioning the government to be recognized as a legal settlement, the community was granted legal status ten years ago. Jitti Chertchoo, the headman of Theparak 5 community, says the challenge these days is “the government thinks that children should not be here in the slum.”
Mekhala Nonsiri’s husband works as a gardener in downtown Khon Kaen and her children work at a store, so Ms. Uthumporn helps take care of her during the day. With Ms. Uthumporn’s assistance she is in the process of registering for a disability card and received money to buy a wheel chair. Many of Ms. Uthumporn’s patients receive 800 baht in disability benefits a month from the municipality.
Sustained declines in birth and death rates during the last three decades of the 20th century have left Thailand facing a rapidly growing population of older persons. Almost a third of Thailand’s population will be over the age of 60 by the year 2050. Women constitute the majority of Thailand’s older population and face disadvantages relative to men, including lower levels of literacy, longer periods of widowhood, living alone with significantly lower household income, higher levels of morbidity and disability, and lower likelihood of receiving formal retirement benefits or social security support, according to the United Nations. [Pictured above Ms. Uthumporn visits her patient Amphorn Khanwijit]
Basket weaving is a common source of income for the elderly and disabled of Theparak 5. A basket takes a whole day to make and might sell for 50 baht, less than .50. For elderly residents living alone, like 75-year-old Samai Moongjuaklang, these baskets are means to a livelihood.
“After I got in the car accident, I didn’t want anyone in my family to take have to care of me, so I moved here to Khon Kaen. I would be a burden to my family and I didn’t want my grandma taking care of me and washing dishes for me - I wanted to take care of myself” Mr. Amphon says. Encouraged by Ms. Uthumporn, Mr. Amphon took up singing. Some nights he can make up to 1,000 baht singing in the market for coins. A true caregiver, Ms. Uthumporn sees the potential in everyone she works with.
Despite living in the center of the city's activities along the rail road tracks, access to public services can be confusing, especially for those not living near extended family.
The Isaan Record is happy to announce a new section in the publication: Letters to the Editor. We invite readers to share their thoughts by sending comment to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please be aware that any published letter or comment might be subject to editing for clarity. (We apologize for republishing a Letter to the Editor from the other day, but The Isaan Record wanted to better highlight this new section.)
Observations about Northeasterners and Ethnicity
I have been traveling to Isaan quite often, especially during the past few years. But I do not consider myself a traveller, but a traveller-cum-anthopologist. I love observing, jotting down, and, most importantly, talking with the locals. I could notice a big difference in various parts of the region.
Northeastern Thailand, or Isaan, is a most squabbling territory where the issue of inter-ethnicities, primarily against central Thai ethnicity, comes into sight. Northeasterners are of more ethnically related to Laotians as shown in cultural manifestation of language and rituals.
The people in those days may have appreciated a more patriotic sense of being Lao than Thais. However, when Marshall Pleak Phibunsongkhram was in office, Thailand declared a nationalist propaganda through state decrees or rattaniyom (รัฐนิยม). Non-Thai people were pushed to be Thais. Northeasterners underwent ethnic persecution in that the Thai government terminated their ancestral identities, yet cultivating central Thai practices. For instance, schools could only teach Thai, not Lao.
Chon-klum-noi (ชนกลุ่มน้อย) or ethnic minorities are pervasive in Isaan. The word chon-klum-noi is pejorative, implying that the people lack ability to survive by themselves, considered government’s liability. As for main occupations, “previous” Northeasterners depended largely on agriculture and sadly, as the terrains are arid, here comes emigration. Those who are “breadwinners” move to Bangkok where they are promised a higher income or high enough to send remittances home, even if their jobs are often of the working-class.
A number of agricultural communities have been transforming into industries, small or middle-sized. The emergence of a nouveau riche is observed too. People, inclusive of ethnic minorities, get higher and higher educations.
I speculate that because of the readjustment of social construction, there comes the new middle class, who are self-reliant and even can give the nation substantial economic contributions. Their way of thinking is also changing in that, since they are already have that “potential,” they need more of self-government.
The problem is: our military regime now assumes “centralization” in which the power is monopolized by the government. I opine that it is contradicting to social reality of the present-day Isaan.
KHON KAEN – In the Northeast, most people were always doubtful. They laughed at the reconciliation trainings that came to their villages. They mocked a constitution drafting process that purported to include their voices. Very few here believed that the military had any intention of swiftly returning Thailand to a democracy. The news that the military rejected its own constitution draft comes as just another sign of the junta’s insincere rule.
Last Sunday, the military government’s hand-picked National Reform Council (NRC) voted down the blueprint for Thailand’s new political system in a process that the military itself had initiated.
After overthrowing an elected government last year, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has argued that constitutional reform is necessary to lift the country out of its chronic cycle of political instability. While the need for reform is recognized across the political spectrum, critics throughout the country and around the world question the military government’s commitment to returning the country to democracy.
The defeat of the charter draft is salt in the wounds of those who saw the drafting process as illegitimate and regarded the government’s efforts to seek citizen participation through public forums as nothing but a false front.
In March, one chairman of a public forum in the Northeast revealed to The Isaan Record that he saw the public participation campaign as “just window-dressing” and expressed no hope for genuine inclusion of people’s voices.
Others embraced the chance to give input to the drafting process, even while admitting that there were little chances that the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) considered their suggestions.
Tul Prasertsilpa, President of the Citizen’s Anti-Corruption Network Khon Kaen, participated in the public forums and is incensed over the defeat of the constitution draft.
“In the Five Rivers, some members are using the reform process to their own benefit,” he claims, referring to the military government’s five major bodies, two of which – the NRC and CDC – are now defunct after the rejection of the charter draft.
He suggested that Prime Minister Prayuth was not decisive enough in his leadership and failed to control the voting process. “Now he can’t follow the roadmap as promised and in the future no one will listen to him anymore,” Mr. Tul said in an interview with The Isaan Record.
The majority of military members in the NRC voted against the constitution draft, leaving the CDC’s Chairman Borwornsak Uwanno to thank the sole three military members who gave their support to the draft. He hinted at pressure from military superiors to vote no.
“It really should have passed, it was a solid draft,” said Wasan Chuchai, Secretary and Committee Member of the Khon Kaen provincial branch of the Lawyers Council of Thailand. He reflects concerns that political meddling played a role in the rejection of the draft and accused “some politicians” of influencing the vote.
However, many suspect the rejection of the constitution was orchestrated by the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) in order to postpone handing power back to a civilian government.
“The constitution draft wasn’t democratic and neither was its down voting,” said Siwat Sriphokhakun, a lecturer at the College of Local Administration at Khon Kaen University. He believes its rejection was coordinated to extend the NCPO’s rule.
The substance of the charter draft had drawn criticism from both political camps as it allowed for an appointed prime minister and included a provision for a “crisis panel” empowered to overrule executive and legislative decisions.
“The charter draft was a tool of military dictatorship and not a vehicle for the will of the people,” said Dr. Wiboon Shamsheun, a former Pheu Thai vice minister from Kalasin. “Constitutional reform must ensure people’s liberties and rights and establish the rule of law,” Dr. Wiboon said.
“That’s what real reform must look like – and not what the PDRC thinks reform is,” he added.
The People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) staged mass protests against the former elected government demanding the implementation of a vague set of reforms before elections. The movement’s leaders argue that Thailand is not ready for electoral democracy, a claim that conservative forces have historically clung to in their opposition to a democratic system for Thailand.
For Sutin Klangsaeng, a member of the Pheu Thai party-list from Maha Sarakham, the rejection of the charter draft comes as a mixed blessing. “At least now we don’t have to vote on an undemocratic constitution in a referendum,” he said.
In the run-up to the NRC’s decision on the draft, pro-democracy activists across the country had started to prepare a strategic response in the case of a referendum. Some called for an outright voting boycott, while others argued it would be better to participate by voting no or spoiling the ballot.
On the downside, said Mr. Sutin, the country now has to tolerate extended military rule, which might send Thailand’s economy into a downward spiral and further taint its international image.
“The longer their rule lasts, the more they want to stay in power and the country will keep straying off its democratic path,” Mr. Sutin added.
According to the military government’s rules, it must set up a new constitution drafting body within 30 days, which will have to present a new charter draft within 180 days. The NCPO postponed national elections to 2017 the earliest, after it had pushed back the election date several times.
Mr. Siwat expressed little hope for the new draft to be more democratic than the failed one. “It will limit people’s power again and if it fails a referendum, the process will just start all over again,” he said.
In the Northeast, many would like to see a return to the so-called “People’s Constitution” from 1997, which some regard as Thailand’s most democratic charter. This seems unlikely as the military government regards this constitution as the precondition for the rise of what the NCPO sees as corruption-ridden, populist governments.
The military justified its coup against a democratically elected government with the imperative to end an alleged political deadlock that paralyzed the country’s constitutional bodies. However, now the military seems to be trapped in its own cul-de-sac while desperately seeking ways to legitimize its rule.
For Dao Din student activist Chaturapat Boonyapatraksa, who is awaiting trial for his participation in an anti-coup protest, the rejection of the charter has proven military rule a dead-end street. Its claim of working more efficiently than a civilian government has been reduced to absurdity, he said.
“Their image is damaged now and people will begin to understand that the NCPO can’t keep promise,” he said. Mr. Chaturapat hopes that an organized opposition movement will help bring the military rule down.
“Society is slowly realizing that the military dictatorship is limiting people’s freedom and rights. It will take some time, but eventually, we won’t be able to take it any longer,” he said.
"I agree with the rejection of the draft constitution, because it was not democratic anyway. I was a soldier myself and I don't agree with this all. They were drafting the constitution for themselves but it should be for the people. We don't need a drafting council, what we need is elections."
"It's good that it was rejected. It just wasn’t democratic and it allowed for an unelected prime minister. They should just use the 1997 constitution, it's probably more democratic than whatever they can come up with."
"It really doesn't look good now, it was a waste of time and resources to set up this drafting committee and then reject the charter. I want Thailand to become a fully developed democracy without this never-ending cycle of coups. People are sufficiently educated for a democratic system."
"I support that they rejected the draft constitution because if we had elections now the old politicians would come back. But I want new politicians and not the ones who started this whole mess. That's why we need to reform the country first. It might take quite long, maybe two years."
"I want them to set up a new drafting council but it shouldn't take them longer than 6 months to write a new constitution. Thailand is a weak democracy, and I want it to grow stronger soon,” said Ms. Phonpichaya
"I just got the news and I am so happy that it was rejected. It just wasn't a good constitution and we grassroots people and farmers would not have benefited from it."
KHON KAEN – Despite their relief about the rejection of the constitution draft, people in the Northeast are dismayed by the undemocratic drafting process and the prospect of extended military rule.
On Sunday, the military-appointed National Reform Council (NRC) voted down the charter draft that the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) had been writing for almost a year. According to Prachatai, at least 85 million baht (about $2.35 million) was spent on the entire process.
In Khon Kaen, people support the rejection of the draft constitution, but criticize the delay of a return to electoral democracy. In March, people in the city voiced their skepticism of the drafting process and some called for a return to the 1997 constitution. This sentiment was echoed by many when The Isaan Record talked to people at the city’s new bus terminal about the failed constitution draft.
“I just got the news and I am so happy that it was rejected,” said soft-spoken Sirilak Phonsuwan, a 60-year-old rice farmer from Sakon Nakhon. “It just wasn’t a good constitution and we grassroots people and farmers would not have benefitted from it,” she said, describing herself as “grassroots” despite Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s insistence to replace the term with “people with little education.”
Surasak Baojanya, a 53-year-old veteran and security guard at the city’s new bus terminal also agrees with the rejection of the charter. “It was not democratic anyway, and they were drafting it only for themselves and not for the people. I was a soldier myself but I am not agreeing with what they are doing now,” he said.
He criticized the high number of constitutions that Thailand has gone through without ever becoming a full democracy. “It might be a good idea to go back to the 1997 constitution and amend it, that’d be more democratic. We don’t need another drafting council, what we need are elections,” he said before raising his hand in a military salute.
Retired civil servant Thanatat Satanakho also favors a return to the so-called “People’s Constitution.” “Whatever they can come up with, it won’t be more democratic than the 1997 constitution,” he said. “And there still is no reconciliation, the country is as divided as ever. I see more problems in the future with this current government,” he added.
Another retired civil servant, Wanna Koetsiri agrees with the rejection of the charter but for different reasons. “If we had elections now the old politicians would come back,” the 67-year-old said. “I want new politicians and not the ones who started this whole mess. That’s why we need to reform the country first. It might take quite long, maybe two years,” she added before walking away to buy a bus ticket to Bangkok.
“I want them to set up a new drafting council but it shouldn’t take them longer than 6 months to write a new constitution, said 21-year-old Phonpichaya Phiriya-anatakun, a Local Administration student at Northeastern University in Khon Kaen. “Thailand is a weak democracy, and I want it to grow stronger soon,” she added.
Most interviewees agreed that the state funds used for the drafting process were poured down the drain. “It was a waste of time and resources to set up this drafting committee and then reject the charter,” said retired teacher Surasak Samroeng.
“I want Thailand to become a fully developed democracy without this never-ending cycle of coups. People are sufficiently educated for a democratic system,” he added.
The Isaan Record unveils today a new section called “Isaan Lives.” It will feature the stories of Isaan people—the low, the mighty; the rich, the poor; the actively engaged and those just carrying on with their work and lives.
We debut with the work and life of a Village Health Volunteer who takes care of the underprivileged in a slum community that is both in the center of Khon Kaen City and yet still on the margins of Thai society.
By Zoe Swartz, Mariko Powers, and Katie Mathieson
KHON KAEN – “My life is hard but then I look around and other people have it worse than me,” says Uthumporn Srichai standing in a narrow alley of the slum community she calls home. To make a living, she works nights as a cleaner, but she spends her days as a Village Health Volunteer (VHV) looking after the people of her community.
On a daily basis Ms. Uthumporn visits the elderly, the sick, the crippled, and the mentally ill. She sees infants, children, and alcoholics. She also sees a community that is becoming more developed and unified.
Ms. Uthumporn thought her life would turn out much differently. Growing up in a rural village near the Cambodian border, she always wanted to become a teacher. But after she graduated with a BA in Education she could not pass the teacher certification test after computer skills were added to the requirements.
Ms. Umthumporn, who is single and without children, could have lost heart when her dream did not come true. Instead, she measures her life not as the teacher she could have been, but by the lives she impacts today.
“It is better to give than to receive,” says the 52-year-old, who has been a VHV for six years and receives a monthly stipend of 600 baht. She says the service she delivers to her community makes her happy and gives her confidence.
Each day, Ms. Umthumporn begins her work by delivering free lunches, donated by a local school, to disabled residents in her community and nearby neighborhoods. Amphon Phosanit, her friend and patient, is always with her providing her transportation and company.
“I realized that there were many people with disabilities who I could help, so I wrote a proposal for a budget to deliver food,” says Ms. Uthumporn, who started the new lunch delivery program a few months ago.
But she does more than deliver meals. She also visits patients to check their blood pressure and blood sugar, reminds them to take medicine, and sometimes helps them get to the hospital.
As Ms. Uthumporn and Mr. Amphon walk the narrow streets of Theparak 5, the pair are recognized and greeted with warm smiles and small talk from everyone they pass. While many VHVs only volunteer a few hours a week, Ms. Uthumporn dedicates a large portion of her day to serving her neighbors.
Theparak 5 is a slum community alongside the railroad tracks in Khon Kaen, tucked away on the margins of urban society. Many of the residents here make a living weaving baskets that sell for 50 baht apiece. Once a squatter settlement, it is now legally recognized by the government and residents have access to running water and electricity, although some still cannot afford them.
Like many other residents of the community, Ms. Uthumporn left her home in Buriram sixteen years ago to look for work in the city, eventually finding a home in the slums along Khon Kaen’s railroad tracks.
Without family networks to support them, many slum residents have limited options for home care when they become sick or immobile, a need Ms. Uthumporn recognized. “We treat each other like family members. I don’t treat them as a patient,” she says.
Ms. Uthumporn received VHV training six years ago and completed a six-month certification program in which she learned how to take care of peoples with disabilities and how to lead the blind.
This training also taught her the confidence to act proactively during crises, she says. One time, when a neighbor suffered a brain aneurism, she was the first to respond.
While eating breakfast together, the neighbor told her that he had a headache. She recalls that he had already drunk a small bottle of rice whiskey that day. He then sat down and coughed up blood. She called an ambulance and other VHVs to assist her. They administered first aid for thirty minutes before the ambulance arrived.
With no family to take care of him it was left to Ms. Uthumporn to be by his side. The man died in the hospital later that day, but Ms. Uthumporn says she “felt prepared for the situation” and is grateful that she could be there to help.
Thinking beyond how she can help others, Ms. Uthumporn makes it possible for them to help themselves– like Mr. Amphon, her driver, patient, and friend, who lost his left arm in car accident five years ago.
“I used to have a girlfriend who helped take care of me, but we broke up. We used to drink a lot,” says Mr. Amphon who rents a space in Ms. Uthumporn’s house.
She encouraged him to get sober during Buddhist Lent, and she helped him secure disability benefits from the government. “I didn’t have a disability card so I didn’t know what benefits I should be getting from the government until I started renting from Ms. Uthumporn,” he says.
In the small living area they share, Mr. Amphon pulls out a rudimentary portable speaker with his right hand and plugs in a USB drive with recordings of his favorite songs. Ms. Uthumporn bought him the speaker and encouraged him to use his talents to work as a street musician at nearby markets.
“My life is a lot better now because [Ms. Uthumporn] helped me to go out and get a job for myself. Without her I would be homeless, just wandering around and sleeping at night by the trains,” he says.
Mr. Amphon then sings a ballad into a microphone, the tinny sound of a keyboard and synthesizer drums ticking alongside his voice. He sings with confidence as Ms. Uthumporn looks on, smiling.
GUEST NEWS CONTRIBUTION: High Speed Train Plan Moves Forward Despite Community Concerns in Khon Kaen
By Kelsey Magill and Nancy Chong
KHON KAEN – On Wednesday morning, representatives of the Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning met with local community leaders in Khon Kaen to discuss the development of the new high speed rail system.
The public forum was held as part of an environmental impact assessment (EIA), which requires project planners to consult with potentially affected communities before moving forward.
The Governor of Khon Kaen Province, Kamtorn Tawornsatit, and the Deputy Director-General of the Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning, Chaiwat Tongkamkoon, welcomed members of the public, including representatives of the thirteen communities of the Khon Kaen Slum Network.
In his opening speech, Governor Kamtorn voiced his support for the project, saying it will improve the quality of life for local residents and reduce pollution. He expects economic integration with neighboring countries to increase since the train line will serve as a connection between China, Laos, and major transportation and tourism hubs in Thailand.
The plan to construct a high speed rail began in 2010, and includes five routes radiating from Bangkok. Khon Kaen will serve as one stop on the Bangkok-Nong Khai route, which also include stations in Nakhon Ratchasima, Udon Thani, and Nong Khai. Construction is expected to begin in December 2015 and completed in early 2018.
During the open meeting, representatives from local slum communities handed a letter to government officials in which they called for fair treatment, transparent communication, and involvement in the planning process as development moves forward.
In the letter, the Khon Kaen Slum Network proposes that “the project should consider the impact on the communities along the train track” and that “the people need to be involved in every part of the process.” The letter also advocates that the high speed rail project should use only 20 meters beyond the track, rather than the proposed 40 meters, allowing slum villagers to remain living on the rest of the land.
Jitti Cherdchoo, an adviser to the Four Regions Slum Network, said within the current plan an estimated 600 households will be displaced in Khon Kaen alone.
When asked about the necessity of 40 meters of land in areas where community members reside, Deputy-Director Chaiwat said that they “will use as little land as possible.” However, he added, the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) has the right of way to the land and in some areas settlements “are illegal.”
Members of the Khon Kaen Slum Network argue that the high speed rail system does not need the full 40 meters on both sides because the track gauge is only 1.43 meters wide, while the government insists that it serves as safety measure in case of train derailment.
Eli Elinoff, a postdoctoral fellow in Asian Urbanisms at the Asia Research Institute in Singapore, says that the space around the track deemed necessary for a high speed rail system has varied under different government administrations. Designs drawn up first by the Yingluck administration stipulated the project would only use 20 meters on each side of the tracks. The military government’s plan encompasses 40 meters of land on each side.
Villagers are worried about facing eviction if the high speed rail system project moves forward. Yom Aedaeng, a resident of the Theparak 5 community, expressed concern as her home is located within 40 meters of the existing track. “I’m not sure where to move,” she said, “I just want a place to stay.”
As the timetable for the project’s completion and possible eviction of surrounding communities remains unclear, Mr. Jitti said, “it feels like we’re being pressured. It’s not fair because when the government wants to do something, they should ask the people first, not the other way around.” He plans to travel to Bangkok to voice his concern to higher authorities at the Ministry of Transportation.
Kelsey Magill studies at George Washington University and Nancy Chong studies International Relations at American University. They are student journalists studying in Khon Kaen for a semester.
KALASIN – On August 9 at 9:00 A.M., Thailand’s Minister of Energy, Narongchai Akrasanee, visited the Dong Mun petroleum-drilling site (DM-5) in Krung Kao sub-district, Tha Khun Tho district, in Kalasin province. Around 100 villagers from three community organizations waited on the road to the drilling site, hoping to deliver a letter asking for the project to be stopped.
At 10:00 A.M., over 300 police officers and military personnel formed a blockade to prevent villagers from obstructing the road, allowing the minister to pass. After Minister Narongchai safely reached the mining site, an undercover official approached the protesters and asked for two volunteers to deliver the letter to the minister. Villagers refused and asked that the minister come to them instead.
After he left without reviewing their request, the protesters went to Na Kham Noi village in Kalasin province – a potential site for the petroleum gas factory – where the minister had been scheduled to visit that afternoon. The protesters waited until the afternoon but the minister never arrived. A representative from the group commented that the organizations will go to Bangkok to deliver the letter at the Ministry of Energy and will continue to protect the community from the petroleum-drilling project.
KHON KAEN- Yesterday 600 protesters, organized by the group, “Rak Pattana Baw Kaw Saw 1,” gathered at the Khon Kaen Provincial Hall to voice their concern over the government’s decision to close Khon Kaen’s original bus terminal and consolidate all bus transportation in the city’s new bus terminal, 7km from the city center.
Khon Kaen used to have two bus stations downtown, the original bus station (Baw Kaw Saw 1), and a second terminal for air conditioned buses. The second terminal closed at the opening of the third terminal in 2014.
Protesters believe that closing the first station—which is located in the heart of the city—will greatly restrict access to downtown Khon Kaen for the 20,000 passengers who rely on buses for transportation each day. Protesters also claim that moving all bus transport to the distant terminal will increase the cost of transportation in the city. Many believe taxis will be the only option to get to and from the new location.
Mr. Anusak Vatcharronon, a police officer observing the protest, expressed concern that the move will cause several problems. He says, “Taxis that run from the new station will not use the meter and will just charge whatever they want. It’s not fair to the people.”
In addition, the 300 vendors and shop owners of Baw Kaw Saw 1, as well as bus drivers employed by the station, fear they will lose their jobs. Banphot Chamaarat, an elderly bus driver whose route runs between Khon Kaen and Ubon Ratchatani, says that the newer private bus station will not hire the bus drivers from the original terminal. “The bus station has been here for forty to fifty years and suddenly they are trying to move it,” said Mr. Banohot, “hundreds of other bus drivers will lose their jobs.”
The Khon Kaen Transportation Committee claims that the move will reduce traffic in the city and allow for business to expand into the old bus station’s prime location.
Protesters believe that the decision to move the bus station did not follow proper protocol, as Khon Kaen’s provincial government mandated the move without approval from the Ministry of Transport. Organizers claim that the consolidation is illegal without the consultation and support of the central government.
Boonme Tengcharoen, a protest leader, says the move was proposed and pushed forward by a local committee composed of Khon Kaen’s Governor, Chief of Justice, and representatives from the Department of Industry, Chamber of Commerce, and Provincial Transportation Department.
Protest organizers, Phathanason Sangjansri and Taweerat Anaruk delivered protestors’ demands to the Vice-Governor of Khon Kaen, Wiwat Metheewannakit, in lieu of Thailand’s Deputy Minister of Transport, Arkhom Termpittayapaisith.
The aim of the meeting was both to implore government officials to allow the old bus station to remain in operation and to request a meeting with the Minister of Transport on August 22, the date that the station was scheduled to close. Officials in yesterday’s meeting agreed to postpone the closure until the Minister of Transport issues a response.“I think it’s possible that the Ministry will agree with our request,” says Mr. Taweerat. “Other provinces in Thailand have two bus stations. Both of Khon Kaen’s are being used now and it’s working.”
The Vice-Governor agreed to submit a document to the Ministry of Transport detailing the day’s events and protesters’ demand for two bus stations, and their request that the Minister of Transport meet with concerned citizens on August 22. Until then, both protesters and the provincial government have agreed to cease action.