Former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and former secretary general Suthep Thaugsuban spoke at a Democratic party rally at Khon Kaen University’s Golden Jubilee Hall Saturday evening in an effort to garner party support from the Northeast, an overwhelmingly Red region.
With the campaign slogan of ‘pha kwam jing,’ or ‘cutting through the truth,’ Mr. Abhisit spoke against Thaksin’s legacy and the current government’s amnesty law. Additionally, the former prime minister scrutinized the Pheu Thai government’s loan policies, specifically in regards to the rice pledging policy that has received much criticism from the opposition since its implementation. “We are here to bring the truth to the people,” Mr. Abhisit said to a fiery crowd. “We want to show that Thailand is not one of Thaksin’s possessions. We want to protect our democracy and our king.”
Abhisit thanked KKU for hosting the rally, praising it as a ‘colorless university,’ though most consider it to lean Yellow in a densely Red region.
But while thousands of Democrat supporters showered the opposition leader with flowers and adorned his waist with layers of Isaan scarves, about 500 Red Shirts gathered outside in protest of Mr. Abhisit’s visit.
Among pick-up trucks fastened with loudspeakers, local Red leaders set up their own rally, fervently hailing abuses at Mr. Abhisit for his role in the 2010 April-May military crackdown and for his alleged bias against the rural poor.
The Red Shirt contingency remained outside the convention hall under the watch of the 300 police officers brought in to ensure the event proceeded without incident. The rally continued as planned and the protesters remained outside until rain forced them to disperse.
UBON RATCHATHANI—For over two years, four Ubon Ratchathani Red Shirt members have remained imprisoned for their alleged role in the arson of the Ubon Ratchathani provincial hall following the April-May military crackdown on anti-government protests. But the bars of their prison have not been able to keep them completely locked up. Even from within their cells, they continue to fight for their freedom and democracy in Thailand through letters.
The prisoners have been writing to the RedFam Fund, started in 2011 by a group of academics and intellectuals in Ubon Ratchathani, Chiang Mai, and Bangkok in order to help alleviate the financial problems of the families of those charged and detained for the arson of the Ubon provincial hall. The group has now been utilizing social media, such as Facebook, to post the letters of the “Ubon four” in order to get their stories out to the public and to garner support for their freedom.
The RedFam Fund considers the four to be political prisoners, asserting they have been jailed due to their political beliefs and activism. This resonates within their letters, which hold sentiments not only about their struggle for their release, but also about the need for change in what they believe to be a broken justice system.
“I see how people like me have not been given fair treatment or democracy,” writes Somsak Prasansab, referring to low-income Thais. “Will I have a chance to see [democracy] in the future? I don’t even know. People like me may have to suffer a very long time. How many of us will die?”
Although initially upon their arrest the prisoners claimed innocence, after two years in jail, they are now asking for amnesty. They remain slightly reluctant to choose this path to freedom because they believe it would be admitting guilt, explains Dr. Saowanee Alexander, an academic from Ubon Ratchathani University who helped start the RedFam Fund.
The prisoners began writing in September of this year in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Thailand’s report for reconciliation, which came out earlier that same month. The report, which aims to address the concerns of the country’s two main parties, has been critiqued by both sides as being too vague about the events that transpired in April and May of 2010. Pheu Thai members who are critical of the report, including Dr. Alexander, have claimed the ambiguous language of the report has not helped bring clarity to the provincial hall arson, but has rather allowed for the Ubon four to remain locked up with no hard evidence against them.
“The report is not faithful to the spirit of ‘truth-finding’. Rather, it focuses on ‘reconciliation’ although it is not clear what parties would reconcile as a result of this report,” writes Dr. Alexander in her critical analysis of the TRCT report.
As such, the four, who remain in Laksi prison, a special prison for political prisoners in Bangkok, have taken it into their own hands to provide details they believe are missing from the TRCT’s report, namely, the perspectives of those present at the event besides government officials and police officers.
The letters have a tone of both resilience and despair, but continue to assert the prisoners’ fight for their freedom and that of other political prisoners, whom they believe have been victims of an unfair system that imprisons dissenters.
“I miss home so much,” writes Teerawat Satsuwan. “But, in the fight, there must always be someone who sacrifices. I am not sad, professor, because I fight for our brothers and sisters. I fight for justice for Thai people. I don’t want anyone to step on the head of the poor, so I fight for democracy so that the poor can receive it.”
For Sanong Getsuwan, however, his letters evoke a deeper tone of despair at the loss of his freedom and the next 34 years of his life, “For me and my friends in jail, our lives are the same because we are stuck in the darkness of the jail in which no one can help us, in which we cannot find the way to see the light. I don’t know when I‘ll see my freedom. It feels like I have died, but I still have breath.”
Though the 2010 April-May conflict still remains a highly contentious issue, the letters seemingly highlight the disparities in the justice system in light of the murder charges brought against former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva for his involvement in the military crackdown. While Abhisit walks free for the time being, the Ubon four, in contrast, remain behind bars despite the evidence against them that has not been proven to be beyond reasonable doubt.
With help of the RedFam Fund, the prisoners have not yet given up hope, and they continue to write letters in the hopes of one day being released. Somsak Prasansab writes, “I will fight until the last of my breath.”
LOEI – In the past month, the walls of a gold mine’s tailings pond in Na Nong Bong, Loei have collapsed not once but three times. The tailings pond, which holds the waste water used to dissolve the gold from the ore, contains extremely high levels of cyanide and other chemicals used in the extraction process. As such, the community members from the neighboring village, located just one kilometer from the Tungkum Limited mine, are channeling their fear of the effects into their ongoing fight to close the mine.
People Who Love Their Hometown (PWLTH), a community organization comprised of concerned villagers, has been fighting to close the mine since 2006 in attempts to mitigate the contamination of their food and water. Since the gold mine began its operations, the villagers have experienced lower crop yields, skin rashes, and high levels of cyanide and arsenic in their blood which they attribute to contamination from mining operations. As such, the leak from the tailings pond, which contains cyanide and other dangerous chemicals, has given them greater cause for concern.
“On the 28th of October, the day the wall collapsed for the second time,” explained one of the leaders of PWLTH, “We found that that the water leaked out into some of the farms that were growing yard long beans. The farmers couldn’t harvest because there was water in their fields. We didn’t know whether or not the water was dangerous or not.”
The villagers were the first to report the leak to the government offices after a member of PWLTH found unexpected water in his field. The villagers sent a report to the Provincial Industry Office (PIO) as well as the Department of Primary Industry and Mining (DPIM) and then contacted the Tambon Administration Organization (TAO) to survey the area.
On October 30th, the TAO sent a committee to investigate the broken wall as well as the quality of the water that leaked from the pond. The TAO reported, “TKL has admitted the wall did collapse and that they have been continuously repairing the damage to the wall of the tailings pond.”
The community, however, is still not fully convinced that there will be no lasting effects from the leak.
“It is necessary for the company to warn the people,” said one of the leaders from PWLTH. “We don’t know whether or not this water is dangerous, because no tests have been done on the water. But we are scared of what the effects might be.”
In response to the villagers’ report, the DPIM issued an order to the company to shut down operations until the situation was resolved. The company appealed to the PIO, however, claiming that they were working in accordance with Article 58 of the Mineral Act and, furthermore, that they needed to continue mining in order to acquire specific rocks needed to repair the break that can only come through the crushing process. At present, the mining company, which has assured the government they are working to fortify the tailings pond wall, is still operating.
The leak comes at a particularly pivotal moment for PWLTH, as Tungkum Limited will be holding a public scoping forum on the 22nd of this month. The forum, which has been postponed four times already due to protests staged by the community organization, is one step in the process of obtaining concessions for opening a new mining site near the existing one. The members of PWLTH, however, hope that the news of the tailings pond leak will strengthen their case for the decommissioning of the current mine as well as halting concessions for the newly proposed mine.
Tungkum Limited, which has been in hot water with its shareholders and the Stock Exchange of Thailand over the past year for alleged financial mismanagement, now has more to worry about.
KHON KAEN-For the past seven years, the European Union has sponsored the European Union Thailand National Inter-varsity Debate Tournament (EUTH) with the objective of stimulating critical thinking, democratic values, and English proficiency among Thai youth. However, this year marks a first for the event as organizers moved the tournament outside of the capital in an effort to expand beyond the predominantly Bangkok-based participants. For the tournament’s eighth year, Khon Kaen University (KKU) won the bid to host.
University and high school students from schools from across the country came to Khon Kaen this past week to participate in the five-day tournament in which debaters discussed a wide variety of motions including human rights, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) issues, international relations, media, environmental issues, and the imminent ASEAN economic community.
Moving the debate to Khon Kaen this year was strategic in fortifying the blossoming debate culture that has been developing in the province over the past few years according to the tournament’s advisor and outgoing chair, Mr. Chainarong Sangsranoi.
The Thai education system has often been criticized for its focus on rote memorization rather than critical thinking. Within this system, Isaan has suffered as the standard of education and resources available in Isaan have fallen behind those of other regions, explained Mr. John Draper, KKU lecturer and one of the judges for the debate. By hosting this tournament, however, Khon Kaen University administrators and teachers are hoping to work against that trend by promoting the skills involved in Western style debate and subsequently nurturing a new generation of open-minded and analytical Thai youth.
Participants and spectators alike who expressed their discontent with the traditional education system commented on how events like these can successfully challenge this system.
Siravich Sincharoenkul, a debater from Mahidol University echoed the critiques of Thai education and went further saying, “[Through debate I’ve learned how to use analytical thinking and to be more responsive. We cannot just learn by rote learning, just memorizing the information. That is not effective because you will not be able to apply it in the future.”
Student participants from outside of Isaan recognize the greater implications that the move out of Bangkok has for the Thai education system, and Isaan in particular. “I think that it shows that education or the opportunity to learn is not only limited to the center of Thailand,” said Siravich. “I think the rest of the country has more opportunities to access materials and information and education. I think this is a good step for Thailand so that we can continue to develop a young generation of educated people.”
Mika Apichatsakol, Chulalongkorn University debater and second place winner, explained that debate is motivation for her to stay informed about world issues. “It’s an incentive to research. I want to be an informed individual,” she said. She does recognize, however, that this is not common for the majority of Thai youth, but hopes that through debate, she can help to stimulate critical thinking and self-initiative among others in her generation.
Subsequently, the arguments made throughout the week, from LGBTQ-only schools, to the use of drone warfare, to whether or not Thailand should move its capital, seemingly left a resounding mark on spectators and student volunteers by sparking conversation beyond the walls of the auditorium.
The hope from the organizers and the European Union is that events such as this will help to fortify the regions outside of Bangkok in terms of English proficiency and freedom of expression as debate culture continues to gain momentum. The EU has already helped to create regional workshops that they hope will inspire participation from even more universities from outside Bangkok by providing greater opportunities for practice in preparation for the EUTH National tournament. Nakhon Ratchasima, for example, attended this year’s regional debate in the hopes that next year they will be able to participate in the tournament.
Ms. Ana Beatriz Martins, Head of Political, Press and Information Section of the EU and a judge of the final debate, expressed the influence she hopes the expansion of debate culture will have on Thailand’s next generation, especially given the current political climate. “The intention is to create a next generation and new society that learns to debate constructively. To overcome differences of views in dialogue rather than aggression or violence. I think that is the path Thailand is taking.”
Ms. Martins believes that this year’s move to Khon Kaen is a significant step in building the EU’s relationship with the Northeast through their support of the region’s growing debate culture. “We are very happy KKU has agreed to host. As one of the biggest universities in Thailand, they’re a natural partner for us. We hope to continue this path of encouraging debate culture outside of Bangkok and to link it up with other regions.”
KHON KAEN – Cheers erupted the instant former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s face appeared on the projection screen, but they were not cheers of support for the former figurehead. The enraptured audience was instead hailing the speaker’s assertions accompanying the slide.
At Khon Kaen University’s College of Local Administration last Saturday, a panel of speakers advocated for the role the International Criminal Court could play in bringing justice to the Thai court system by ending impunity for political figures.
Mr. Abhisit’s picture concluded the slide show of a handful of world leaders, including Thomas Lubanga Dyilo of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Charles Taylor of Liberia, who have been taken to the International Criminal Court for committing crimes against humanity. The former prime minister, the speakers said, should be next.
“People in power tell [the military] to kill the people, and this [practice] is still alive,” said Pheu Thai MP Ms. Jarupan Kuldiloke. “It hasn’t stopped yet.”
Thus was the thrust of the arguments included in the forum entitled “The Right of People to Protect Themselves with the International Criminal Court.” Local Red Shirt supporters packed COLA’s auditorium beyond capacity to hear Pheu Thai MP Mr. Sunai Chulponsatorn, Thammasat professors Mr. Piyabutr Saengkanokkul and Ms. Sudsanguan Suteesorn, KKU professor Mr. Kittibodi Yaipool, and Ms. Jarupan present on the subject.
The Thai judicial system, the panelists asserted, has historically been biased towards people in power by granting impunity to those who have committed what the speakers believe to be crimes against humanity, most recently for those involved in the 2010 April and May military crackdown. Additionally, they said that the court has been biased against the rural poor, in the case of the 2010 crackdown on the overwhelmingly Isaan-based Red Shirt movement.
The event was doubly significant for Thais fighting for human rights as the date marked the 36th anniversary of the Thammasat University massacre, a tragedy that still resonates in the memories of many Thai people. Those behind the military orders that claimed the lives of at least 46 student activists and wounded countless more have never been brought before Thai court for what the panelists asserted were crimes against humanity. Consequently, the speakers used the October 1976 event to provide historical context for the pervasive injustice they believe still runs rampant within the Thai court system.
“The government has a duty to protect its people’s rights, but the government is abusing its power,” said Ms. Sudsanguan. Consequently, the ICC, she asserted, would be a mechanism to alleviate the inequalities of the Thai court and reinforce the political rights of all people, not just those in power.
In 1998, the United Nations created the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as a court of last resort. The court’s jurisdiction covers individuals who have committed genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression, but only under the condition that the country’s national justice system is unable or unwilling to do so itself. As it stands, however, Thailand has yet to ratify the Rome Statute of the ICC although it became a signatory 10 years ago.
“Basic democratic societies should be equal. Every human should be equal, but does Thai society really respect this?” Mr. Kittibodi posed to a captivated audience. “Isaan has many minerals and resources, but why are Isaan people still poor? Why are Isaan people not treated equally?”
Though speaking to an overwhelmingly Red Shirt audience, Mr. Piyabutr argued that utilizing the ICC would be a step forward for all Thais, not just for the Red Shirt movement. “If the ICC is successful in Thailand, it will be able to move the country forward. The ICC will be good for the Thai people because the power of the Thai soldiers will be restrained so that they will stop hurting [the] people as they have in the past,” he said, alluding to both the Thammasat massacre and the 2010 crackdown.
Mr. Piyabutr, a member of the controversial Nitirat group of law academics at Thammasat, spoke vehemently about the need to curtail impunity for political figures. In particular, he focused on Article 12 Paragraph 3 of the ICC which asserts that the ICC can exercise jurisdiction over states not yet part of the statute under certain conditions. This article, he asserted, is significant because former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban could be taken to the ICC under it, if Thailand fits the preconditions.
Not all the speakers advocated for the inclusion of the ICC, however. Mr. Kittibodi, although supportive of the ICC’s potential role in ending impunity for political figures, asserted that there should be a more stringent focus on fixing the current Thai judicial system to mitigate the need to take such cases to the ICC. “Other countries will laugh at Thailand because it can’t take care of itself and needs to go to the ICC [to solve its problems],” Ms. Sudsanguan said, in support of Mr. Kittibodi’s suggestion.
As Thais debate how to pave the road to national reconciliation, many stand divided on the potential support of an international court like the ICC. The reactions of the audience at the forum, however, indicate that support for the international court’s intervention continues to grow among Red Shirts of the Northeast.
In May 2012, Glenn Brown and Lizzie Presser, the founding editors of the Isaan Record, wrote you a goodbye note. We had left Thailand and were looking for ways to keep our project alive. We’re writing now to welcome on a new editor, Caitlin Goss, who will be taking over at the Isaan Record in October 2012.
With a grant from the Davis/Latch Memorial Fund, a philanthropic activity of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, Caitlin plans to continue where we left off. Caitlin has spent nearly two years in Northeast Thailand, focusing on environmental policy, development issues, and community organizing. Alongside a new team of Thai and American writers, she’ll be reporting on political shifts, development, community rights, education and more in the region. If you want to pitch a story or join her team, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Glenn Brown and Lizzie Presser
Like so many other foreigners in Thailand, we came here as teachers. We did it because we didn’t know what else to do after graduation, because the American economy had tanked, because we studied Classics. We told our mothers’ sisters’ next-door neighbors that we wanted to learn another language, see the world, and if we were feeling self-conscious, we said we wanted to air-quote “find ourselves.”
For most of you, our readers, you know what this first year is all about – temples and beaches and ill-advised motorbike trips. Late nights spent giggling about mispronunciations and student precociousness. It was the standard fare.
But when the buildings burned down and the protesters were shot dead in May of 2010, our introspective stupors were interrupted and we started asking questions. Less than a year later, in February of 2011, without a bit of journalism experience and not a dime to our names, we started the Isaan Record. And fortunately, many of you have stayed with us since our clumsy beginnings.
With some luck we picked up a modest grant and our readership grew. But now, 15 months later, we’ve decided to close up shop – at least temporarily. Our funds have dwindled and it’s been a struggle to replenish them. So we’re back home in the US of A, talking to some potential replacements and searching for funding, and we wanted to share with you, loyal readers, a few of our thoughts. It’s time, we figure, to lift this long-standing veil of anonymity and speak to our experience as a pair of resident, foreign journalists far outside the Bangkok expressways in the heart of Isaan. And though there is a lot on our minds, we’ve tried our best to pare things down to what we think will be most interesting. Broadly speaking, we want to describe the difficulties with our journalistic style, the easy access we had to our subjects, the equal parts skepticism and openness with which we were greeted in the field, and, of course, our relationship to the lèse-majesté law. We hope you enjoy.
When we first started writing the Isaan Record, we made a few rules about style. We would not sensationalize, write first-person blog posts, or editorialize. We would deliver good, old-fashioned, hard news reporting. It was a two-pronged decision; we recognized a void of neutral, local news reporting in the region, and we also wanted a shield of professionalism and formality to hide our inexperience. We did not expect that our decision would be so loaded.
For one, our subjects were more accustomed to participating in the Thai media landscape – one in which reporters’ political leanings are often very clear. So, when we would write articles about Red Shirts without explicitly advocating for their political goals, we’d read angry Facebook posts in Red Shirt forums. After writing about a meeting on constitutional reform at Khon Kaen University, one Red Shirt posted, “I’ve read the whole article over again and again and it’s totally neutral…. Do you want more blood to be spilled? Are you the same as the media on October 6, 1976?,” he wrote in reference to the infamous military crackdown on left-wing students on Thammasat’s campus.
Our political leanings were abundantly clear. We weren’t pro-military royalists. We wrote about grassroots social and political movements – people trying to challenge the system. We were progressives.
But since we tried to maintain a neutral voice, our very subjects often accused us of cowardice, or even abetting the “enemy.” We had two goals: to spread information about the kinds of social and political movements in the region and to do so without employing a style that isolated readers with different political beliefs from our own. Sometimes, though, our style isolated even people whose political goals we admired.
Even Thai journalists didn’t quite know what to make of us. At a forum on local journalism, a regional reporter from Prachatai, the nation’s leading alternative news source, read our name off a list and remarked, “Oh, I know them – the neutral ones.” The reputation stuck and, frankly, we felt pretty good about it.
When we started going out into the field in the winter of 2011, we had very little external support and a tiny network. We figured we would start slow and try our best to get people to take us seriously. We never expected that within our first week of reporting, we would be shaking hands with former Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat and asking for his thoughts on the burgeoning Red Shirt movement in the region. What we learned very quickly remained true our entire stay in Thailand: Top-level politicians and other high-powered figures would not be an obstacle in this adventure. People in Isaan were ready to talk and foreign reporters promised wider readership. It didn’t matter that we were young and didn’t have press passes. Authorities in Isaan just weren’t being hounded by journalists as they were in Bangkok. In the Northeast, politicians still seemed to think that talking to reporters was a good way to discuss the issues that mattered to them, not a burden or a trap.
Civilians, too, were jumping at the opportunity to share their stories. When we called to schedule interviews in relevant communities, we never had any problem. In fact, the only problem we did encounter was that too many people wanted to take part. “We’d like to talk to a few rice farmers in your village about their views on Yingluck’s rice mortgage policy,” we once said over the phone to a village representative. When we arrived in Yan Yong village, we were greeted outside the leader’s home, thirty some-odd plastic chairs facing a dais. The brief interviews we had planned from our office had quickly turned into a three-hour forum of opposing views.
At first, these forums seemed like a complicated alternative to the more private, in-depth, one-on-one conversations that we had imagined. But as we grew accustomed to these large crowds of interviewees, we grew grateful for the chance to hear from a wide spectrum of voices. The attendees were eager to debate, and we got to listen. Irrespective of the story, one thing remained true for nearly all the civilians we interviewed. Whether we were talking to villagers trying to protect their land deeds, laborers fighting to gain access to basic utilities, or Red Shirts spreading their movement’s causes and goals, the local people in Isaan would all ultimately close with the same line: Thank you for coming to hear from us.
For most of them, speaking to a reporter of any nationality was a novelty. They were unconcerned with our inexperience and relative anonymity. And many were just as naïve and idealistic as we were – hoping that better news coverage would bring greater domestic and international attention to their causes.
Just as more and more story ideas began to pile up in our inboxes and on our voicemails, our readership slowly grew as well. Among the 22 million people of Isaan, we had few competitors.
This great access to our subjects, however, was not uncomplicated. Behind the endless invitations often lay a lingering question: What were two American kids doing poking around the cities and villages of the Thai Northeast?
No matter where we ventured, we almost always raised eyebrows. We were the only foreigners with notepads and the only reporters conducting interviews with a translator. Sometimes people would tell us we weren’t “real reporters.” Most of the time people would ask where we were posted as exchange students, notwithstanding the clear indicators – notepads, microphones, cameras – of our jobs. Some Thais would tell us outright that we couldn’t possibly ever understand Thailand. Others would warn us that we needed to be especially careful: English reporting could make more waves than Thai reporting so we had better be measured and accurate.
The most extreme suspicions we faced were in a remote village in Loei province. In August, we started pursuing a story in a community that claimed to be suffering effects of chemical runoff from a nearby gold mine. Our translator reported to us that prior to agreeing to an interview, community leaders subjected us to a most surprising kind of scrutiny. Were we part of the CIA, they wanted to know. Some of the last Americans to traipse through the village had been CIA men gathering information about the growing communist presence a generation earlier. As Americans, we often have an elementary school student’s attitude towards forgiveness vis-à-vis our tawdry history of military interventions in foreign countries (illicit and otherwise). Forgive and forget, right? Northeastern Thailand’s collective memory, it seems, runs deep. And when Isaan people feared we were from the CIA, we had to work a lot harder to prove ourselves trustworthy, for good reason.
Thankfully, for most of the people we were working with, the intrigue (and even promise) of our foreignness outweighed the skepticism. Overall, it seemed as if people in Isaan respected our dedication to hearing their stories, even if they thought we could never quite understand the ins and outs of their country. When we got lucky, they would even press us to compare Thai and American politics. Because we stood out, people let us in. We ran around backstage at Red Shirt rallies interviewing speakers, slept on the floors of farmers’ far-flung, wooden houses, and took tours of industrial complexes – all with warm invitations and undue generosity. The skepticism, though sometimes discomforting, didn’t prevent us from contributing to the Thai media landscape.
The lèse-majesté law changed our work in significant ways: we didn’t write what we heard and people didn’t tell us what they thought. It doesn’t take 15 months in the field to know that that’s what a law like this does. What did come to surprise us, though, was just how differently our interviewees would adhere to, interpret, sidestep, or just outright ignore their half of the bargain. Many chose to place the onus of censorship squarely on our shoulders, which is, of course, a most regrettable duty. Villagers were often surprisingly candid about exactly who and what they didn’t like about Thailand’s political elite – they could be refreshingly critical. Others would clam up the very moment we said the words “lèse-majesté” (which was, incidentally, the longest and most esoteric word in our Thai vocabulary). In response to a question we posed to a particularly influential Red Shirt leader about lèse-majesté reform, the woman said, “This is something that is simply not in the Red Shirts’ interests at this time and that is all I would like to say about that.” That was as far as she would go.
Still others found a comfortable compromise between these two extremes. A very well-known Isaan Red Shirt leader and Pheu Thai Member of Parliament (MP) had taken a liking to the Isaan Record and always found time to talk to us at a rally or demonstration, for which we were always grateful. Most likely the man relished the opportunity to practice his English, and he never failed to entertain us with his innuendos regarding institutional reform. He’d gesture to the sky, wink, give a knowing laugh or pat one of us on the shoulder when he talked about the power of “The Invisible Hand.”
Nevertheless, almost none of these interactions ever made it into our stories. Though we wrote a couple of articles about the Campaign Committee for the Amendment of Article 112 (CCAA 112 – a movement, in part, to reform the lèse-majesté law) in Khon Kaen, we only ever wrote one story that addressed lèse-majesté directly and it only stayed up on the site for a couple of months before we reconsidered the possible consequences of our decision.
Early on, when our readership was still small and our work was not yet translated into Thai, we ran a story about a Northeastern MP who had been accused of lèse-majesté for the comments he had made at a Red Shirt rally the week before. It was hastily written and was based solely on a thirty-minute phone interview with the accused, and really, at this point, is more a testament to our idealism than it was a gutsy exposé. Nevertheless, we agonized over what we could and could not publish. We consulted with an expert in the field and concluded that if the remarks had been published elsewhere, we could cite that publication and we’d be in the clear. But of course, it wasn’t that simple.
The MP had caught the public’s attention the month prior when during a nationally broadcast parliamentary debate he shouted down a particularly despised government politician with an idiomatic (and quite commonplace) vulgarism: “Shut the hell up!” Literally translated, it works out to “Holler for your father.” In the weeks that followed, the MP’s outburst on the House floor had grown into something of a rallying cry. Not long after the televised debate, on the stage of a Red Shirt rally the MP repeated his catchphrase at the audience’s insistence. Then he said it again with a slight alteration: “You don’t just have to holler for your father,” he said, “you can holler for your mother, too.” Two days later he was summoned to a Bangkok police station and charged with lèse-majesté.
Though to a Western audience the MP’s remarks may appear entirely innocuous (even if indecorous), Thailand’s hierarchical and familial system of pronouns allows this to be read as an affront to the king and queen, the “father” and “mother” of the country at large.
So, what could we publish? The catchphrase’s origins were on YouTube for goodness’ sake. He was simply repeating a rude colloquialism. Did that mean we could link to the video and we’d be safe? Or was writing about its repetition at the Red rally tantamount to slander? What about the reference to “your mother”? Was that crossing the line?
Most Westerners are blessed with legal systems in which innuendo and sentence constructions cannot constitute felonies.
We ran the story, but with one glaring omission. The remark about “your mother” was excised. In retrospect, it seems like an overly cautious decision, but with a long history of arbitrary enforcement comes an unhealthy dose of journalistic paranoia. Charges can be brought, dismissed, put on hold and reanimated without any rhyme or reason. Just last Thursday, the Bangkok Post reported that the charges brought against this MP and others around the same time are likely to be dismissed – 13 months later.
There are few silver linings to be found in discussing lèse-majesté. “Uncle SMS”’s tragic passing while behind bars is yet another reminder of just how devastating the law can be. What we can say, however, is that we are amazed how in the last year alone, lèse-majesté reform came out of obscurity and started regularly making front page headlines. Finally, the conversation has begun.
Both of us have been back in the United States since early April, and while we’ve been looking to find new funds and potential successors, we took our time in writing this final piece. Before we sit back, though, we would like to thank all the people who made the Isaan Record possible. Without our translators, mentors, contributors, sources, and many close friends, we could never have produced the kind of reporting that we did.
And thanks especially to you, our readers, for sticking by us over the last year or so. This site was something of a laboratory for young journalists, and, as a result, you were our guinea pigs. Our hesitancy to editorialize was a tactic, a trick. We wanted you to take us seriously and we have been honored to find that you did. The site has seen well over 30,000 hits and our work has been featured in numerous print and web publications from around Southeast Asia. So if there is one legacy that we would like to leave, it is this: The work that we have done over the past year is vital, lacking, and, most importantly, doable. We weren’t the first and we certainly hope that we won’t be the last to bring you regular news from the Northeast.
And please – don’t de-friend us or un-follow us. We’re in talks to make this more of a hiatus than a shut-down. Stay tuned.
Glenn Brown and Lizzie Presser
The Isaan Record
UDON THANI – Earlier this year, the Ministry of Labor announced plans to increase the number of Thais employed overseas by 10% to more than 600,000 workers. In addition to maintaining existing markets for Thai labor (in countries such as South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei) and pursuing new markets (including Finland, New Zealand and South Africa), the Ministry hopes to encourage a renewed demand for Thai construction workers in the Middle East. But in some of Thailand’s first labor-sending communities, the effects of migrant labor programs have settled in and enthusiasm for working abroad has all but dried up.
Baan Na Tha Kai, situated some 14 kilometers outside of Udon Thani, is one such Thai community that began to send many men to work in the Middle East more than 35 years ago. There is little in Baan Na Tha Kai to signify the community’s rather exceptional history. Like most Northeastern villages, Baan Na Tha Kai is comprised of clusters of traditional wooden stilt houses, many of which have been modified with concrete to resemble conventional two-story homes. Yet, just beyond the houses, paddy land adjoins a military base through a battered, chain-link fence.
The base is one of seven which housed American Air Force units during the Vietnam War. The origin of many of the bombing missions which decimated Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, the base provided dollars and jobs for the villagers of Baan Na Tha Kai who previously had little opportunity to work off of their rice fields.
“Thirty, forty years ago, people were not working in Bangkok [like today]”, a retired 64-year-old former base worker and migrant to Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Israel recalled. “There was mostly farming. Some people worked in sawmills or in construction in Nong Khai, Khon Kaen and Udon Thani. Then the Americans came. People who had left the community came back to work and lots of people from other places came in.”
Having grown accustomed to the steady source of income that service, security, and manual labor jobs on the base provided for more than a decade, villagers suffered when the Americans suddenly withdrew in 1976. Even so, when a former American soldier tried to recruit labor for multinational construction and resource extraction companies in the Middle East, he found few takers. “We were scared,” the former base worker explained. “We didn’t know where these places were or what they would do to us there.”
The exception, many villagers recalled, was the late Noy Rawsiklao. According to village lore, Noy’s heavy debts rendered him receptive to the American’s proposal. When Noy returned home flush with money the following year, Baan Na Tha Kai took notice. It is unclear whether Noy spoke of the desert heat, the lack of amenities and women, the prohibitions on alcohol, or the exploitative working conditions about which other returned migrants would later complain. When villagers recall Noy and his triumphant 1977 return, they speak only of how rich he appeared. A 55-year-old former migrant explained, “Noy told us, ‘Next time someone invites you to go to Saudi Arabia, you go.’”
By and large, the men of Baan Na Tha Kai took Noy’s advice to heart. Villagers recalled that at the height of the Middle Eastern migration craze in the 1980s, men from nearly every household in three of the four villages that comprise Baan Na Tha Kai were working abroad. But now, as the government plans to rebuild the labor market for Thais in the Middle East, it will likely need to seek labor from other areas of Thailand.
In the mid-2000s, overseas migration began to fall out of favor in Baan Na Tha Kai. A village official estimates that, today, at most 30 people from Baan Na Tha Kai’s approximately 1000 families are working abroad.
“The trucks haven’t even run through here for the past two years,” a shopkeeper confided, referring to the employment agents who used to disrupt the quiet afternoon air with recorded loudspeaker messages about riches to be earned in foreign lands.
Villagers suggest that there is one main reason that migration has recently become so unpopular: Employment agencies have significantly raised their fees for arranging migration. “The word has gotten out,” explained the shopkeeper. “People pay well over 100,000 baht to go to Taiwan. Then in two years in Taiwan they only make [around the same amount]…It’s like you worked for free.”
Expenses required for migration have historically created a high barrier to success. An old Thai aphorism describes the plight of migrants whose earnings fall short of their spendings: “On going, you lose your rice field; on coming back, you lose your wife.” Many migrants are forced to mortgage their family’s land in order to pay the employment agencies’ exorbitant fees. And, while they are away, their marriages can sometimes fall apart. Upon return, the migrants who have been wronged by their foreign employers or have encountered other financial hardships rarely have the funds to buy back their land or the ability to win back their wives. Villagers estimate that those whose migration cost them their homes and families amounted to under 20% of migrants.
“Some of them literally went crazy upon return”, a successful migrant said, explaining the fate of the less fortunate. “But most would go down to Bangkok to work in construction after losing their rice land [and homes].” Construction work often offers on-site housing for laborers.
And, as employment agencies’ fees have steadily increased, the threat of returning home without savings today is far greater than it was three decades ago.
At the same time, economic opportunity is beginning to present itself at home, further discouraging interest in working abroad. “Now you can make 200 to 300 baht a day [in construction in Thailand], 500 to 600 if you have skills,” said the shopkeeper, pointing to construction work being performed on the nearby railroad. More than that, said another former migrant, “If you have 100,000 baht [to pay for agency fees], it would be better to start a business in Thailand.”
An unlikely movement has taken root in the heart of Khon Kaen: street art. Here, a group of recent college graduates and former skateboarders are taking the city by surprise with the controversial artwork they are painting across the walls of city buildings. They call themselves Dude Factory.
Street art has yet to make waves in Isaan but this group of artists has made it their goal to bring the movement to the region. Recently, the Isaan Record sat down with Floyd, Baby83, and Wink – three artists from the group (all of whom preferred to be identified by their tag) – to hear more about their work and their experience painting in the city and on the outskirts.
See their work and read what they have to say below.
Isaan Record: So, why street art?
Baby83: Floyd, Wink and I used to do extreme sports together – BMX-ing, skateboarding. We got to know each other through these activities and in the context of street culture. [And over time] I got to know the culture better, too. I started learning more and I discovered that modern street art is a branch of this culture. It’s a performance, and one that can be presented to people easily. You know, if we work on art inside a frame, we’re just working at home – people will only see our work when we display it in an exhibition. But for street art, they can see our work while we are in the process of doing it, and they’ll ask questions while we work. That’s what it means to be fresh. It’s a lot of fun.
Wink: After I graduated from [the faculty of arts at KKU], I started to see that there are other kinds of work out there like street art. Once I was out of college, I realized that there’s this large gap between art and people. I thought I should do something to bring art closer to people because our city, Khon Kaen, doesn’t have much in the way of [contemporary art] movements. I chose to present this kind [of art] as my way of expression. I came to that conclusion two years ago.
Floyd: I had seen [street art] when I was young and became interested in it, but I didn’t know how I could get involved. I started getting into BMX-ing and I was studying art at the university. After I graduated — well, it’s the same as Wink said. The art of this society is really dull, it’s also dated. There are only old people doing it. For teenagers, especially the alternative ones, it’s so old-fashioned. So we all started talking to each other about how we could make a strong impact [on people] and how we could make them confused. We decided street art was the best option. We like it. And we think that the finished product is cool, too.
Baby83: Let’s suppose that drawing on paper is like listening to music on a CD. What I mean is that working inside of a frame is a lot like listening to a CD. But the process of going out and doing street art, well, that’s like playing a concert. It’s live. Whatever we say, however we play at a concert – it’s far more powerful than when it’s on a CD.
IR: How do people react to your work in the city?
Baby83: We always ask for permission and we even show people sketches beforehand. The reason we do this is because [Thailand] is different from Europe or America. There, [artists] don’t need to ask permission because people aren’t afraid of art, it’s not talked about as if it’s scary. But here we have to ask for permission because people are afraid even though it’s just art. Ultimately, it means people can have trouble appreciating it.
Wink: Once I was painting a head on a Chinese house – one half of the face was a skull and the other half was pretty. But once it was done I had to erase it. Chinese people really hate skulls. In China, punk culture is not something that people accept, partly because of [the symbol of] the skull. So I had to take it down and paint the whole wall over again. I understand that this is a part of their culture but sometimes I can’t control myself. [Laughs] But I also know I have another responsibility – I respect the owners of the buildings so I had to make the piece softer and less frightening. I still maintained my concept, though. Since we’re sharing the space with the public, this is something you just have to accept. So I’ll only make art [that’s controversial] to a certain point. That’s what I believe is right. And I’ve learned on my own that in this situation, if the art is too frightening, society might not accept it. So, that’s our answer.
Floyd: Just to be clear – sometimes we don’t ask for permission. We just sneak around and do it because it’s exciting that way. It’s also more exciting for people who don’t know what they’re about to see around the corner…. Really, impact is our main policy in street art. Like in Banksy’s work – he got his work into a museum and made people really confused. It made people start asking questions.
IR: We see that you also make street art out in the villages. How do people there receive it?
Floyd: For me, painting in the village is better than painting in the city. It’s innocent. Villagers don’t have any silly questions, like “Who hired you to paint?”. But they’re glad that the work is beautiful and they invite me to paint often. But if I’m in the city, people have a lot of questions and I have to give them reasons. “Why do you do this?” “Do you get any money?” “Did you have to ask the municipality for permission?”
Baby83: We used to work at a school in Kaina village. Kids like this kind of work – they never really knew that painting on walls was a field of art. They always thought that artwork was just a drawing on a piece of paper that they needed to hand in to their teacher.
Floyd: Villagers look at our work with their feelings – they’re not asking for lots of reasons. This is the right approach. They still see beauty, even though they many not quite understand it.
IR: Why do you think city people might be afraid of contemporary art?
Baby83: There are restrictions on how much we can learn about other cultures. [Cultural movements] come here late. When I was studying at the university, my faculty didn’t even have a library. And that was in 2000.
Floyd: In the past, there weren’t any bookstores in Khon Kaen. The books in the library were too old and there wasn’t a movement to bring new books to the library. When we got a bookstore in Khon Kaen, it was like the whole world opened up in front of us. Still, lots of students studying at university today learn from really old books so their work is old-fashioned.
Wink: In my opinion, some people fear the work itself, and other people fear what will happen because of the work. There are two kinds of fear.
IR: How does your work contribute to the identity of Isaan?
Floyd: Khon Kaen doesn’t have an identity. We pick up stuff from other places to use here. Like in Chiang Mai, of course, there’s so much art, and it’s easy to get into it. But in Khon Kaen, things are superficial, unprofound – it’s all business. I sure as hell don’t want to sell stuff. They can bring their business, but they’re not bringing any real culture. We still haven’t proven anything about Khon Kaen to outsiders yet. What does Khon Kaen have to offer?
Baby83: In some ways, we are trying to create [an identity]. We’re starting small, but that’s good.
In early February, Department of Employment (DOE) director Prawit Kiengphon authorized the return of Thai workers to Libya. More than 10,000 Thai refinery and construction workers were evacuated from the North African nation in March 2011 after an uprising broke out which resulted in the overthrow of Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi’s authoritarian regime. As thousands of Thais are mobilized for employment in Libya, it is time to consider whether the state’s labor export program sufficiently represents the interests of Thai transnational migrant workers. Is it truly safe for Thais to be deployed to Libya? And should the state be doing more to protect the financial interests of its migrant citizens?
Profits come with mortal risks
The Thai state has been promoting the overseas employment of Thais, most of whom are drawn from the country’s poorest and least developed Northeastern region, for more than three and a half decades. It competes with more than a dozen Southeast and South Asian states for lucrative employment positions in overseas labor markets.
In January 2012, Sri Lanka permitted its migrant citizens to return to Libya. In response, Mr. Prawit asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) to hastily verify that conditions in Libya are safe before Thai jobs were lost to Sri Lankan workers. In his February announcement, Mr. Prawit made no reference to Sri Lanka. Instead, he simply stated that the Thai Embassy in Libya had determined that conditions had returned to a state of normalcy.
However, the DOE’s responsibility for verifying the safety of destination countries is potentially comprised by its duty to promote overseas labor migration. A new Ministry of Labor policy charges the DOE with increasing the number of Thais employed overseas by 10% in 2012 to a total of 600,000 workers. This goal would be farther from reach if the Libyan labor market was lost. Prior to last year’s uprising, Libya ranked as the sixth most common destination of the more than four dozen countries which receive Thai labor.
A recent Amnesty International report which depicted Libya as a troubled nation where “lawlessness” prevails stands in stark contrast to the Thai Embassy’s assessment of normalcy. The report details the continued existence of “hundreds of large militias” that are “largely out of control… their actions threatening to destabilize Libya”. In addition, it documents how “frequent armed clashes between different militia groups” have resulted in the death and injuries of “uninvolved bystanders”.
It is not only Amnesty’s report that casts doubt on the stability of the situation in Libya. The DOE’s new regulations which apply to Thai employment agencies supplying Libyan employers indicate that the DOE is concerned that Thai migrants may be affected by future unrest. Now, employment agencies must ensure that migrants sent to Libya are protected with life insurance policies. In addition, agencies must submit evacuation plans and written assurances that they will shoulder the costs of any future evacuations.
The new regulations ensure that the Thai government will not have to foot the bill for a costly evacuation as it did following the 2011 uprising. Yet while the regulations mitigate the financial risks that the Thai state incurs in the export of labor to Libya, they do nothing to lessen the financial risks assumed by Thai migrants. As became apparent when Thai workers returned unexpectedly from Libya last year, these risks for migrants are substantial.
Paying the price for labor export
Unfortunately, employment agencies generally charge Thai job-seekers under the table service fees in excess of the government stipulated limit. According to Mr. Daeng Phiwdam, an Udon Thani native who has worked in Libya for most of the past fifteen years, first-time migrants to Libya are charged approximately 90,000 baht in agency fees which they typically pay with money borrowed at high interest rates. Mr. Daeng estimates that it takes one and a half to two years for most migrants to recover their agency fees with their 10,000 baht per month Libyan salaries.
When migrants are forced to return home prematurely, they often come home saddled with debts that are difficult to recover in the domestic labor market. According to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs report, only 40 of nearly 10,000 Thai workers in Libya chose not to return home when the uprising broke out in February 2011. However, Mr. Daeng explained that the prospect of returning without money to pay an agency debt is often more daunting than that of remaining in a war-ravaged country. “If you stay you die, if you go home you also die because you are in debt and there is no way of recovering it,” said Mr. Daeng.
A second problem resulting from last year’s evacuation is that many migrants returned to Thailand with outstanding salary claims. Given that it is not uncommon for migrant workers in Libya to be paid once every three months, the amounts owed to many migrants were not insignificant. According to DOE statistics, nearly one year after the workers returned, roughly a quarter still have unresolved salary issues with their Libyan employers.
Returned migrants, especially those with outstanding employment agency debt, are likely anxious to resume work in Libya. Now the DOE has given them the green light to take up residence in the still-troubled African nation. The DOE has implemented measures to reduce the financial burden that it will incur in the event of future unrest in Libya. It should also do the same for migrants. The DOE should implement regulations which require employment agencies to refund most of workers’ agency fees if they are prematurely returned to Thailand through no fault of their own. In addition, the DOE should more aggressively pursue salary claims on behalf of Thai migrant workers. It should also consider implementing regulations which require Libyan employers to pay Thai migrants on a bi-weekly or a monthly basis. Finally, it is high time for the Thai state to reconsider whether its labor export program is truly in the best interests of its citizens. When unemployment is less than one percent domestically, why is the Thai state concerned about losing employment positions in a war-ravaged nation? The DOE’s efforts would be better directed toward creating more highly remunerative employment positions at home.