Martial Law in Northeast of Thailand creates common cause between pro-democracy and community rights groups
Six months after Thailand’s martial law is imposed discontent stirs across diverse factions.
BURIRAM PROVINCE, THAILAND — Sitting cross-legged in a bamboo hut, concealed by tall corn stalks, the 62-year-old man seems at ease, enjoying passion fruit and a cigarette. Yet, the laughter leaves his eyes as he casts furtive glances towards the sound of every vehicle that rumbles past.
“I am afraid that once you leave,” Mr. Lun Soisot nervously admits, “the military will come and ask what we were doing.”
Mr. Lun knows too well what happens when the military takes special interest in a person. The military arrested Mr. Lun and other community leaders in Kao Bat Village, who protested the junta’s decision to evict villagers from Dong Yai Wildlife Sanctuary in July. Paitoon, his son and a local activist, has also faced arrest and is now on the run.
Mr. Lun and his son are just two of the estimated hundreds of grassroots leaders that have been arrested, threatened, and harassed by the junta that seized power in the May 22 coup.
The reach of martial law
Martial law, instituted two days before the coup, has maintained a tight grip over Thailand – outlawing political meetings of five or more people, prohibiting criticism of the junta, and charging civilians in military courts.
The crackdown on opposition, through a series of arrests and detentions, has discouraged any attempts to speak out against the military regime. These tactics have kept Thailand remarkably quiet for the last six months.
The post-coup calm has been particularly unusual in the Northeast, which is a stronghold for the Red Shirts, a pro-democracy movement allied to deposed former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. The Red Shirt’s lack of organized resistance suggests that martial law has been effective in silencing dissent.
As of November 30th, the organization iLaw documented 626 cases of persons apprehended under martial law, 340 of which led to arrest.
The vast majority of those apprehended were pro-democracy politicians, academics, activists, and journalists in Bangkok publicly summoned by the military soon after the coup.
The military has focused much energy on suppressing opposition here in the Northeast as it is the heartland of the Red Shirts. While there’s ample anecdotal evidence, exact statistics on those affected by martial law in the Northeast are hard to come by. As many as 130 people in the region have been affected by martial law, according to iLaw, and upwards of 50 who have been formally arrested. But there are dozens if not hundreds of students, community activists, and university professors who have been unofficially “invited” in by the military for a chat, harassed at work, monitored, and threatened.
‘We fear for our lives’
Martial law and the fear of the junta’s formal and informal intimidation tactics may explain why a unified resistance movement has not formed.
Dr. Alongkorn Akkasaeng, Assistant Dean at Mahasarkham University’s College of Politics and Governance, felt his work impacted by martial law when he was called in to speak at a military base. “The experience has caused me to be more careful in what I say and write,” he explains. Many of his colleagues have been called in and continue to be called in, and so “everyone is quite aware that they are being monitored by the military.”
Last month, five students from the activist group “Dao Din,” borrowing from the movie “The Hunger Games,” raised three fingers directly in front of Prime Minister and junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha when he was visiting the Northeast for the first time.
The students were immediately arrested. As their protest and detention attracted national and international attention, the military decided to release them without charge. But even after their release, the students have been persistently harassed and monitored by the military, driving some students to move out of their homes. “We fear for our lives,” stated one of the students in an interview with the Bangkok Post.
But more than anti-coup groups have been affected by martial law. The junta’s decrees, such as Order No. 64 that authorizes the military to evict communities from their land for the sake of national forests, has embroiled rural communities. Faced with the loss of homes and livelihoods, grassroots-level activists are the latest victims of martial in Thailand’s Northeast. The widespread repression of rights to freedom of assembly and expression has severely limited their ability to advocate for community rights.
It was reported in Prachatai on Dec. 16 that almost 1,800 warrants have been issued against farmers on charges of trespassing into forest areas. Activists claim that if the junta continues its eviction polices, as many as 30,000 Isaan people may be affected.
‘Leave my family alone’
Kridsakorn Silark, an activist working with dam-affected communities in Ubon Ratchathani province, has similarly been summoned and harassed for speaking out against the military’s human rights violations.
On November 18, the military asked Mr. Kridsakorn to deactivate his professional Facebook page, on which he had publicly asked the junta to cooperate with dam-affected villagers, as well as his personal account that he used to express his pro-democracy opinions.
Claiming that he had forgotten the account password, Mr. Kridsakorn kept the page up and dodged the military’s calls.
After three days of evasion, however, Mr. Kridsakorn received a call from his mother; military officers had begun to harass her, calling every ten minutes and eventually showing up at her house. Mr. Kridsakorn realized he had no choice but to meet with the military.
“I was very angry. They can do anything they want to me, but leave my family alone,” he snapped.
At the meeting, officers forbade Mr. Kridsakorn from writing anti-coup declarations and from posting anything on his Facebook critical of the junta.
These intimidation tactics employed by the military are used particularly harshly against those affiliated with the Red Shirt movement.
On the day of the coup, “Daeng” (a false name used for fear of reprisals), a Red Shirt media activist in the Northeast, threw a hard drive of his life’s work into water, knowing what it held could incriminate him under the newly imposed martial law.
The fear that drove him to such extremes remains at the forefront of his thoughts. While being interviewed, Daeng insisted on moving locations several times, convinced that a government spy was eavesdropping nearby.
Daeng spent a month covertly collecting stories on the impact of martial law in the region, especially stories that the junta has attempted to cover up. Daeng has unique insight into the mood of the Northeast.
“People only talk with people they trust. Everyone wants to talk, though,” says Daeng. “They’re stressed, they’re not satisfied, and they’re angry.”
He tells the story of an unnamed Red Shirt DJ in the Northeast. On the day of the coup, 50 soldiers swarmed her workplace, only to find that she was not there. When they were also unable to locate her at her home, the military held her 10-year-old son hostage. Panicked at the thought of being separated from her son and subjecting him to trauma, she had no choice but to turn herself in.
In addition to threatening family members, the junta has employed other methods to intimidate and blackmail dissidents, such as freezing financial accounts, planting evidence, and extortion through the use of explicit photos.
Of the dozens of people Daeng spoke to, the majority signed an “agreement” with the military, pledging to refrain, under threat of arrest for violating martial law, from attending meetings, expressing political opinions, speaking to the media, or leaving the country.
‘We push forward because we know it is the right thing to do’
Most have adhered strictly to the “agreement” out of fear. However, some who have signed, such as Mr. Kridsakorn, insist that signing does not indicate surrender.
“I think I have to be more cautious because I was summoned. But on the other hand, if I do and say nothing, they will feel as if they can do anything. I have to move forward to ensure they do not feel this way,” says Mr. Kridsakorn.
Mr. Kridsakorn’s cautious defiance is not an isolated instance. Academics, villagers, activists, and Red Shirts across the Northeast have also voiced their resolve to keep fighting, despite the threat of repercussions for speaking out under martial law.
The five Dao Din students continue to be monitored closely by the military. One female student was requested, on December 9th, to come speak to military officers about her group’s activities, over a month after their protest.
She refused to go, reflecting the defiance of the group. They have also displayed their unwavering opposition to the military regime in interviews. Capitalizing on newfound notoriety, the Dao Din students called Thai citizens to action: “We want you to fight,” they said last month in a Prachatai interview. People across Thailand have publicly raised three fingers in support of the students.
Even Mr. Lun, a villager whose name remains unknown to the nation, refuses to give in: “The military tries to stop our movement, but we push forward because we know it is the right thing to do.”
Although community activists, like Mr. Lun and Mr. Kridsakorn, on the one hand, and Red Shirts on the other, have typically operated separately, the collective oppression under martial law has created an unexpected common cause between the two groups.
Dr. Alongkorn suggests that although community activists and Red Shirts have different ideologies – the former focused on rights connected to their livelihoods and the latter on issues of democracy – they both share a commitment to rights and the value of equality. “In this ongoing struggle,” he says, “[color-coded politics] are secondary.”
“I believe the junta would have something to worry about if these two movements were to find common ground and enjoin their struggles, but I don’t think the junta has quite seen the bigger picture,” he adds.
An academic and former red shirt leader in Khon Kaen also acknowledges the difference in objectives between the two groups. But, Ms. Phanwadee Tantisirin adds, “It is democracy and rights that will allow both groups to be able to fight for their cause. We will have to wait to see if these two groups can come together to fight the military government.”
On December 10, at the Isaan Human Rights Festival in Khon Kaen, villagers, NGOs, students and academics came together to openly express their frustration with how martial law has suppressed their ability to advocate for community rights. The event was one of the first where these different groups were brought together to articulate their common struggle.
Whether or not these factions will unify in opposition remains unclear. Yet, the sentiment of individuals from each group does indicate a resolve to continue fighting for human rights and democracy. As the stories of military harassment circulate throughout the Northeast, dissent appears to becoming more and more common.
“The things that have happened within our village and other villages have been spread to everyone, and it has caused fear,” explains Mr. Lun. “The military is making a lot of enemies without even knowing it.”
As Mr. Lun sits on the bamboo floor of the small hut, he asserts his defiance to the coup and commitment to work towards a better Thailand.
“In every movement there has to be someone stubborn enough to get other people to join. We choose to be fireflies in the forest. We are willing to be small sources of light – even though they’re small, it’s better than total darkness.”
Alexandrea Lee studies international studies at Johns Hopkins University and Catherine Darin studies economics at the University of Pennsylvania. They are student journalists who have been studying in Khon Kaen for the past four months.
First published on Prachatai English
Seven months ago twenty-six people were arrested in Khon Kaen and now face charges of terrorism and treason—offences that could exact the death penalty. The case, known as the “Khon Kaen Model,” is the most high-profile case to be tried in a military court since the junta took power in May. Kate Cowie-Haskell and Plia Xiong have been following the case in Khon Kaen to learn more about the process of military court and its consequences for families of the defendants. [Those interviewed for this story preferred that neither real names nor photographs be used, worried that it may affect the case of their family members.]
It is past noon, but “Nok” is still in her pajamas. She stands in front of her open refrigerator, staring at its meager contents. The shelves have become bare as the months drag on and she is unable to search for a job. Finally, she removes two eggs and turns toward the cluttered kitchen. “I can’t go anywhere, so I can’t make any money,” she says as she cracks the eggs into a pan. “The soldiers watch me whenever I leave.”
It has been a month since Nok, still in her forties, was released on bail for medical reasons from the Khon Kaen Central Prison. There she was held for five months with the twenty-five other people accused of plotting the “Khon Kaen Model” of resistance, an alleged Red Shirt plan to overthrow the military government that came into power on the 22nd of May. The suspects were arrested in the days following the coup, and imprisoned on June 4th.
Nok was released from prison, but she has been unable to fall back into her role as the provider for the seven people in her family. Instead, she spent most of the last month under what is essentially house arrest. She doesn’t want to give the soldiers a reason to suspect she is organizing or attending meetings, so she limits contact with friends and never strays more than a few hundred meters from her house. Nok is even too afraid to find work, fearing that contact with anyone outside her family may incriminate her again. Her family’s financial situation has become dire since her arrest, and continues to deteriorate despite her release from prison.
“It has been a very hard time for our family,” admits Nok’s father, who has become increasingly immobile as muscular atrophy claims his body. He sits in the small makeshift bedroom that has become his world in the past few years. “I am becoming weaker, and I can’t support the family. We have many financial problems now. With three kids, school and meals cost a lot.”
Nok doesn’t know when she will be able to find a job. For now, she is paralyzed by the knowledge that the military can interpret anything she does as a reason to put her back in prison.
“We have no income, and I have to think about everything I do before I do it. Every decision I make can affect my family now, and I don’t want to make our situation worse.”
* * *
The Khon Kaen Model suspects and their families have been under the watchful eye of the military government since the arrests were made in May. All twenty-six suspects were accused of nine charges, including amassing arms and conspiracy to commit terrorism.
Order No. 37 of the junta, stipulating that offenses against the “internal security of the Kingdom” come under the jurisdiction of a military court, was issued days after defendants in the Khon Kaen Model case had already been apprehended. A lawyer familiar with the case called this arrangement “strange” and “against legal principles.” Regardless, the Khon Kaen Model case is being tried in military court.
A number of international human rights organizations have denounced civilians being tried by military court as a violation of human rights. In military court there are no appeals, and bail has so far been denied to the Khon Kaen Model suspects without preexisting medical conditions. All twenty-six suspects could face the death penalty.
The defense lawyers have repeatedly called for the case to be moved to a civilian criminal court on the grounds that a trial by military tribunal violates Article 4 of the junta’s 2014 interim constitution, which vaguely states that the new government will protect human rights.
According to Mr. Wilder Tayler, the Secretary-General of the International Commission of Jurists, “Under international standards, civilians should not be subject to the jurisdiction of military tribunals, particularly where, like in military-ruled Thailand, military tribunals lack the institutional independence from the executive required by international law regarding fair trials.”
The court proceedings of the Khon Kaen Model case have appalled the defendants and their lawyers. Since May the judges assigned to the case have already changed once, and two of the three current judges are military personnel with no professional background in law. The court has also been unclear about the dates of court appearances for the defendants, rescheduling hearings multiple times.
A legal expert familiar with the details of the case who asked to remain unnamed is frustrated with the lack of transparency in the court process. “I don’t know what principle the court is working from. Are they waiting for the political situation to get better? Or are they waiting for orders from higher powers? The more detailed of this case are revealed, this expert says, “the clearer it is that these families can’t get justice.”
The high-profile nature of the case, particularly the terrorism charges, has garnered a lot of attention for the accused and their families. The media has painted the families as treasonous and violent. As a result, they have been ostracized in their communities.
* * *
“Dao” has been socially isolated since her husband’s arrest. She sits at a table in her sparsely furnished home, which for her has become unbearably empty.
“Nobody comes to visit my family. They see us as criminals and they think we are trying to ruin the country,” Dao says through tears. “I am a Red Shirt but I have no war weapons— I don’t even know what they look like.”
Before the arrest, Dao and her husband sold sausages, making around 1,000 baht per day. But suddenly, after the arrests she could only make 200 baht per day. Now her most eager customers are the dogs she gives her leftovers to at the end of the night.
“My neighbors used to come buy sausages from me, but now they don’t even come near me. I ask them why, and they just say they don’t want to eat sausages anymore.”
Dao mentions that some of her old friends received phone calls from a person who warned them to avoid interacting with her. She does not know who these calls were from.
Unable to handle the way people stare at her (or worse, ignore her) in the street, Dao locks herself in her home. Now, her only comfort lies in the fifteen-minute visits she has with her husband at prison. She goes whenever she can afford the bus fare. Desperate for fast cash she skips meals and sells her motorcycles, sewing machines, rice steamers—anything she can find—at the scrap dealer for a fifth of their price. She often stays at the jail long after morning visitation hours are over, sitting alone in the darkening waiting room until she is asked to return to her empty home.
In the few months after the arrest Dao’s 18-year-old daughter, “Noi,” was her mother’s sole companion and only source of income. An accomplished boxer, Noi made around 5,000 baht for each of her fights in a boxing ring in Khon Kaen. Without her father to drive her, Noi took public transport to the ring every week with her mother. When the fights ended too late for the women to catch a bus home the two slept on the bare mats at the ring, using their bags as pillows. But soon after the arrests the ring manager heard about Noi’s situation and started putting her in lower fight levels, where she could only make 300 baht per fight.
Disgusted with this treatment and fed up with the teasing she endured at school, Noi dropped out of eleventh grade. She left her mother and moved to a province in another region, where she is able to conceal her connection to the Khon Kaen Model. Now she boxes during the week and takes adult education classes on the weekend, sending money to her mother when she can.
* * *
“Aom,” 17, is also sacrificing her education because of the Khon Kaen Model case. Her father was one of the twenty-six people arrested in May, and as each day passes without his income her family faces greater losses.
In the dark kitchen of her family’s cement home Aom chops up vegetables for the evening meal. Out of the corner of her eye she sees her backpack slouching against the dirty wall, with unfinished readings and assignments threatening to spill out of it. She hasn’t picked it up since the last time she went to school four days ago. Tonight though, she knows she will have to tackle some of the assignments that have been building up on her since the semester began in November.
Aom’s school fees have become an unbearable strain. The weekly 100 baht that Aom needs for transportation to school is now required for basic necessities for herself, her four-year old brother, and her mother. Recently Aom’s mother, Mai, has become so desperate for money that she asked her daughter to drop out of school and find work.
It has been a tense topic for the mother and daughter recently, as Aom insists that she should stay in school for one more year so she can graduate. For now, the family has reached a fragile compromise: Aom will go to school only two or three days a week.
“No mother wants her child to leave school,” Mai says as she watches her daughter sweep the oil-stained floor of their kitchen. “I want her to have the highest education possible so she can get a good job and have a future. But I don’t know where to get money—if my husband was here we could work this out together.”
Over the last semester and a half, school has become a battleground. Aom is failing most of her classes. Already her poor attendance has barred her from taking the final exams for half of her classes this semester. She will have to make up the assignments next semester, on top of her new schoolwork.
“I don’t know if I will be able to do it,” Aom confides. “But I want to graduate high school so I can get a good job.”
She has dreams of studying hotel management at Khon Kaen University, the leading university in the Northeast. Her sociable personality would serve her well, and she is intrigued by the glamour of it all. “I want to look fancy,” she laughs.
However, her dreams are quickly moving beyond her reach. She has a commitment to support her family, and her mother’s emotional instability since the arrests has only made it more necessary to shoulder some of the caretaking burden left behind by her father.
Mai tries to put on a brave face and smile for her two children, but the sorrow that lies just beneath the surface is sometimes unmanageable. “After the arrest I cried for weeks,” she admits quietly. “I was devastated, I didn’t know what to do with my life. My daughter saw this and stopped going to school for two weeks to keep me company.”
With her future on the line, Aom must now try to balance the financial distress caused by the case and her family’s emotional upheaval, even while coping with her own sense of loss.
“I miss my father,” she says. “When I think about him I want to cry.”
Seven months after the arrests it is clear that the acute emotional loss the Khon Kaen Model families feel has cut far deeper than their financial losses. Without the presence of their loved ones, they are suspended in a kind of mourning— indefinitely. The convoluted processes of the military court give families little hope that their suffering will end in the near future.
Since the arrests few questions have been answered for the affected families. They have asked to see the evidence against their loved ones, they have asked for bail, for release dates, for the dates of court hearings. And they have asked, again and again: What have we done to justify such grave punishment?
A lawyer in the case fears for the future of his defendants’ families. “Not knowing the next date and knowing that the court refuses to give bail has impacted families a lot. They are in limbo—they don’t know when they will be together again.”
* * *
Like Aom’s mother, the members of the “Damrong” family have been paralyzed by grief since the arrest of “Somsak”: their husband, father, and grandfather.
“Joy” has been married to Somsak for 36 years, and his arrest has taken a steep emotional toll on her. As she walks across the rutted yard in front of the family home, she pauses. “Everything reminds me of him,” she says solemnly. She looks to the front of the small house, where a vegetable garden stubbornly persists amidst riotous vines. “He loves planting,” she says, her voice choked. “He made that vegetable garden, and he built this house and dug out the fish pond. Anywhere you look you have to think about him.”
His absence is a void that his loved ones cannot ignore. Friends come to join family dinners, but everyone has become so accustomed to the rhythm of life with Somsak that they are at a loss when there are pauses in the conversation that his jokes normally fill.
“It is like there is no happiness in the family,” says Joy. “I have no energy, and all I can think about is how to help him.”
Since May the family has thrown itself into efforts to bail him out. They raised money and scoured documents, but the military has denied bail. Seven months later, Somsak is still in jail, and his wife still doesn’t know why.
“If we knew he was guilty it would be different because there would be a reason for him to be there. But I can’t think of anything he did wrong.”
Her claims match those of the defendants, all of whom have claimed innocence to the accusations. But despite what a lawyer described as “weak” evidence against them, the trial persists.
The only thing Joy is absolutely sure of is that her husband should have been released long ago. “All we want is for him to be back with us. If there was justice he would be home by now.”
Justice, it seems, is not something the Khon Kaen Model families will see soon. At the third case hearing on November 26th the court was as vague as ever, once again cancelling the next court appearance and failing to provide a new date. The lawyers’ request to move the case to a civilian criminal court remains under deliberation.
Meanwhile, these families must continue their battle with the uncertainty that is consuming their lives. The unanswered questions loom over them, and the unbelievable power the military holds over their situation permeates their daily life.
* * *
Dusk is just settling over Nok’s small home when she climbs on her motorcycle to buy vegetables down the road. As the motorcycle pulls away Nok’s brother rises and makes his way to the end of the dusty driveway, where he stares after the vanishing taillights. He stands there in the dark, headlights occasionally illuminating his concerned face, until his sister returns fifteen minutes later.
“He thinks that if I leave I might not come home again,” explains Nok. “Every time he returns home, he checks up on me and he is happy to see that I am still here.”
She drops the bag of vegetables on the table and sags against the wall of her home, the home that has become her prison.
Kate Cowie-Haskell studies Anthropology at the University of Rochester and Plia Xiong is majoring in Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They are student journalists on the CIEE Khon Kaen study abroad program.
Co-published on Prachatai English
Khon Kaen– Despite concerns from the military, about 400 people from thirteen provinces participated in the 7th Annual Isaan Human Rights Festival held yesterday at Kwanmor Hotel in Khon Kaen. New to the festival this year was the participation of diplomats from the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, the European Union, Sweden, and the United States.
The event, funded primarily by European Union’s “Thailand-EU Policy Dialogues Support Facility” program, has been organized almost every year since 2006 to commemorate International Human Rights Day. Event organizers say the annual festival has provided a venue for communities and networks to come together to share their human rights situation and make demands.
The morning session began with an opening statement by Mr. Jarrod Weir of the EU, and talks by Ms. Anne-Charlotte Malm, head of Sweden’s regional SIDA program, and Mr. Norman Pflanz, a human rights officer from the United States.
The “Ambassadors’ Forum on Human Rights” followed, featuring Mr. Mark Kent, UK ambassador to Thailand, Ambassador Philip Calvert of Canada, and New Zealand Ambassador Reuben Levermore.
The ambassadors related the human rights journeys of their respective countries, emphasizing the need for freedom of expression and assembly in the pursuit of a democratic society. Ambassadors Calvert and Levermore highlighted how indigenous people’s rights became an important part of the “fabric” of the human rights landscape in Canada and New Zealand.
Ambassador Calvert said, “Canada has learned that when you suppress cultural rights—the right to speak your own language and connection to the land—the results are disastrous.”
Ambassador Kent, who preferred to address the audience in Thai, spoke about the importance of equality and equal opportunity.
“I am from a small village in rural England. Growing up, my father was a truck driver, yet I was given the opportunity to go to Oxford. From this I have seen the importance of equal access and rights for all people, whether they are rich or poor, from the city or the country.”
The ambassador’s affirmation of equal rights for rural people was received warmly by the audience.
Members of various affected communities and networks throughout the Northeast had the rare chance to share with the foreign guests their growing frustration with the enduring human rights issues facing their communities.
Villagers in Kalasin province who are fighting to prevent the drilling of petroleum near their land were among those voicing concerns about Thailand’s inequities.
“Usually foreign companies collaborate with the Thai government to create problems for our communities,” a Kalasin villager said. “They look at us as a minority and claim that we have to sacrifice for the nation. We sent letters and spoke to the media, but our rights are still violated. You might have a more powerful voice than us, so I think you can make our small voices heard.”
The visiting diplomats acknowledged the value of this chance to speak directly with common people from the Northeast to better understand the human rights situation in the Thailand.
“Bangkok is important to us [as ambassadors], but it’s not the whole of Thailand,” said Ambassador Levermore. “The Northeast is a very important region. The chance to come up here for the day gives us an opportunity to hear the concerns people have on a day to day basis.”
An afternoon session focused on human rights abuses in the Northeast, with eight short videos on consumer rights, right to healthcare, right to land and livelihood, and right to a safe environment, followed with statements from each community.
The festival was one of the first of its kind since the imposition of martial law in Thailand. Many academic seminars have been cancelled or closed down due to military intervention.
The festival was organized by the NGO Coordinating Committee on Rural Development (NGO-CORD), the Council on International Educational Exchange in Khon Kaen (CIEE), and a student network of the Northeast.
One Khon Kaen military source told organizers that the military had been “50/50” on whether to cancel or allow the event. Military authorities requested on the day prior to the festival that the organizers write up and sign an agreement to refrain from criticizing the NCPO, or mention politics or martial law. Organizers agreed that they would themselves not bring up these topics and they would censor festival media.
However, organizers stated at the beginning of the day’s events that while they had agreed not to bring up such topics, they hoped that participants would speak freely, given it was International Human Rights Day.
One participant stood up and asked, “If we can’t talk about martial law, the NCPO, or politics, what can we talk about?”
The self-censorship on the part of organizers made some of the videos incomprehensible, given that martial law had affected many of the communities represented at the event, especially those affected by the NCPO’s controversial land policies which have led to the arrest and eviction of many Isaan communities.
In the showing of a short documentary on evictions of communities from forests, confused voices broke out in the many parts where the film’s sound was muted and subtitles blurred. When an organizer explained that the film had been subjected to censorship, the room burst out in a chorus of knowing laughter.
One of the villagers whose words had been silenced in the film stood up, his fists clenched, and said, “I am not afraid to say here what was censored on the video. Forty four days after the coup the military issued an eviction notice in my community. [The junta] just wants us out of the forest. They don’t care how many decades ago we moved in.”
His defiance was met with cheers and support from other affected villages.
Mr. David Streckfuss, a lead organizer of the event and director of CIEE Khon Kaen, observed that the event was one of the first where red shirts activists, who have felt the full force of martial law in Isaan, and community rights activists who have likewise been arrested and detained, shared a unique moment in their common struggle against repression under martial law.
Mr. Decha Premrudelert a long-standing leader NGO leader in the Northeast, agreed. “People are made stronger by sharing experiences. They have to come together in order to find a way to survive.”
Many participants were unfazed by the presence of plain-clothed security officials taking pictures at the event. “I’m not scared of the military because it is my right to be here,” said Mr. Miew Jongsadapklang from Yasothorn. “Why be afraid?”
Assistant Dean at Mahasarkham University’s College of Politics and Governance, Dr. Alongkorn Akkasaeng, the event’s moderator, said he believed the event was beneficial.
“There have been significant human rights violations in the Northeast for decades. Whenever we talk about rights in Thailand, it is only about political rights and elections,” he said.
“But usually the discussion is not about everyday rights, such as those guaranteeing having enough to eat or having a place to stay. These rights are neglected because they happen to marginalized groups. The persistent violation of these rights in the Northeast and Thailand should be something the world community is made aware of.”
Mr. Kritdsakorn Silarak, an activist based in Ubon Ratchathani, was proud of the event and its potential outcome.
“Community members were more confident and more assertive which can lead to a large community movement that fights for our human rights. This is an important first step for a brighter future.”
At the end of the festival, representatives from most participating groups each came up with a right they believed would address their issue. All these rights were drawn up to make the “Isaan Human Rights Declaration of December 10th, 2014.” The declaration states: “All Thai people have the right:
—to manage environmental resources and take part in solving problems;
—to take part in politics and elections;
—to freely and directly express their opinions;
—to air grievances to the government;
—to have their opinions taken seriously by the government and for the
government to address grievances through concrete actions;
—to access education;
—to housing and land;
—to have the laws that guarantee the rights and protection of the people;
—to equal and fair treatment in the justice system;
—to public health and welfare services;
—to participate in the media;
—to access accurate information from the government”
Two days after the festival, UK Ambassador Mark Kent wrote the following on his blog,
“At the festival I spoke about the importance of freedom of expression to a strong democratic culture. Freedom of expression and a free media and social media are essential rights that allow citizens to be adequately informed and able to vote according to their own interests. Without these rights, and without opportunity for debate, any return to elections will not be meaningful. The NCPO claims that they are providing the platform for debate on reform of the political system through the National Reform Council and various local initiatives. However it is clear that many local activists in Isaan feel they do not possess the opportunity for their voice to be heard, given the current limitations on freedom of speech. One activist told me it feels like local people are being forced to wait as the military imposes reform upon them, rather than being actively involved in the process.
It was also striking that many local people feel that the current restrictions are beginning to infringe upon their daily life. Farmers with concerns over their economic situation are unable to organise to protest for a change in Government policy. Local groups struggling to protect land rights against corporate interests in their area are unable to campaign or effectively access justice. They feel unable to voice concerns about health and environmental issues. Without the participation of local communities and transparency in decision making, injustice and corruption can flourish. It’s not hard to see how limitations on freedom of expression and assembly have a real impact on local communities throughout Thailand.
For a democracy to be genuine, it must be inclusive. All citizens should have equal rights and the opportunity to participate fully in the political process, and to have a say in decisions that affect their lives. Democracy also subjects governments to the rule of law and ensures that all citizens receive equal protection under the law and that their rights are protected by the legal system. Thailand is a party to many international human rights conventions – including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – that are supposed to enshrine these democratic principles. Under martial law, these principles are not being upheld. If Thailand wishes to become a respected and active player in the global community it must take these issues seriously. The Isaan villages may not be familiar with UN conventions, but they should be able to benefit from the rights in them in their daily life.”
The full post can be found here.
By: Alexandrea Lee, Johns Hopkins University; Catherine Darin, University of Pennsylvania; and Rebecca Goncharoff
Photo credit to: Aaron Hedquist, George Washington University; Emma Tran, Tulane
University; and Jeremy Starn
EU, Western Diplomats to speak at Isaan Human Rights Festival in Khon Kaen on International Human Rights Day
The Seventh Annual Isaan Human Rights Festival will be held on December 10th at Khon Kaen University’s Kwan Mor Hotel. This year’s event features talks by Western diplomats, presentations on human rights issues facing Isaan communities, and screening of human rights-related films.
The event is funded primarily through the European Union’s “Thailand-EU Policy Dialogues Support Facility” program. Sponsors include the embassies of Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, as well as the NGO Coordinating Committee on Rural Development (NGO-CORD) and the Council on International Educational Exchange’s Council Study Center (CIEE) at Khon Kaen University.
The morning session, entitled, “Human Rights Lessons from Abroad,” has representatives from the EU, Sweden, and the United States speaking on the human rights context in their own countries and their work in Southeast Asia. A highlight is the “Ambassadors’ Forum on Human Rights.” Canadian Ambassador to Thailand, H.E. Mr. Philip Calvert, New Zealand’s Ambassador to Thailand, H.E. Mr. Reuben Levermore, and H.E. Mr. Mark Kent of the United Kingdom will all be speaking at the event.
The afternoon session has short video presentations, booths displaying human rights issues in the Northeast, and various other activities. Representatives from a dozen groups from eleven provinces will discuss human rights issues related to the right to access in the healthcare system, producer and consumer rights, right to livelihood for dam-affected communities, right to public participation for mining-affected communities, rights to housing and participation for communities occupying forest land, and right to natural resources for communities affected by industry.
Organizers hope the event will help local participants understand the human rights experience and work of other countries, and help international participants understand the challenges facing various groups in the Northeast of Thailand. By starting a dialogue at the festival, organizers say, it is hoped that an ongoing dialogue on human rights between Northeast communities and the diplomatic community in Bangkok can be established.
Registration begins at 8 a.m. and the opening ceremony is at 8:30 a.m.
The event is free and open to the public. For more details, see the Facebook page, International Academic Seminar The 7th Annual Isaan Human Rights Festival
A sister human rights event, entitled, “Democracy and Human Rights within Thailand and the EU – a Forum of Exchange,” will take place at Ubon Ratchathani University on the same day.
Mr. Khamtorn Tawornsatit took up the position of Khon Kaen governor on June 3 of this year. A career civil servant, Mr. Kamtorn has a Master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning and started as a district officer in Sakorn Nakorn Province in 1992. His first governorship was of Mae Hong Son Province in 2009. He was governor of Chainat Province for just eight months before his appointment to Khon Kaen, as part of move by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) immediately after the May 22 coup to replace several governors suspected of supporting the February elections. The Isaan Record recently sat down with Mr. Kamtorn to discuss his perspectives on the current situation and the role of provincial government.
Ending Color-Coded Divisions
The Isaan Record: How have you been handling the creation of harmony and conformity of people in Khon Kaen in the case of colored-shirt villages?
Governor Kamtorn Tawornsatit: I’d like to inform you that the word ‘colored-shirt villages’ was a measurement to address the critical atmosphere caused by the differences in information and beliefs of the people. The NCPO therefore came and took control of the country. First, we have to look at the people as Thai, that we are all Thai. This idea eliminates division and violence. When we are divided, we think of others not as Thai, but as opponents. Thus, this crisis could be peacefully resolved if we looked at others as Thai. There would be no violence if we trusted each other.
Today, I have managed to eliminate the colored shirts in each community. Each community is different. Khon Kaen people are not the same as they appear. They have different beliefs. [Understanding] this will make us successful in the creation of harmony and conformity. If one makes an assumption that all these folk are all the same and think the same, that’s not true. Thai people have freedom within them. When we are aware of their right to believe or like [what they choose], we respect their right. But at the same time, we could [think differently] because different facts and visions [influence us]. First, we have to respect each other’s thoughts. Each village and subdistrict is not the same. Some quickly understand the situation. Others may not quickly understand the situation. However, we consider which community or village can understand the situation well. We have talked in principle about what the causes of the crisis were or what environments can lead to violence, [and] we urged them to stop. [We had to] stop the flow of information that has caused division; this is the most important. Then people understand peace and happiness.
I’d like to compare Thailand to the human body with many diseases such as hypertension, [with] blood, bones, [and] including the lungs, spleen, and heart. There is a doctor for each disease. But if each doctor treats this patient all on his or her own, it would affect the other diseases. Therefore, the situation [on May 22] was critical. It was already moving forward and could not be turned back. No one could handle it. Everyone speculated there would be violence. Therefore, no one knew which disease ought to be treated first, nor which doctor should be the first. In medicine, there is a leader of the doctors who decides what disease is critical and should be treated first. As can be seen, the situation had to be stopped and the administration had to take control. After everyone cooperated, we could take the opportunity [to analyze] what causes there were to all this conflict and then to manage the divisive ideas systematically. And then guidelines could be proposed to solve the problems which [in turn] lead to reform.
IR: What are the benefits of the Damrong Dhamma Center (centers established by the NCPO in every province to aid in public service) establishment for the people in Khon Kaen?
KT: The Damrong Dhamma Center was born from the NCPO Order 96. A NCPO order is on the same level as a decree and alters many laws. For example, a governor has the duty to control the operation of the bureaucracy [with authority] derived from the central government. These are the mechanisms of the justice process. Previously, governors had no authority in these areas but did have the power to call people in for questioning if necessary. But now, they have power to command [these areas]. The authority to command has now been unified in seven or eight areas, such as in forests, where the governor can take command for more efficient law enforcement.
For the many complaints received from the people, the governor can announce guidelines on how to support the people. At the moment, command orders [go out] to all officials in the province, thus even local officials from the central government [have to obey] if the governor asks them for their cooperation to solve a problem. In the past, [in trying to find a] solution to a problem, the official were overwhelmed by the problem. Official could not solve all the problems in a timely fashion. But now, it is the problems that are overwhelmed by the officials. That is, working in an integrated way, the officials are able to solve problems. If even a single problem is taken care of, it might also solve other problems.
IR: What is the provincial government doing in terms of national security and maintaining peace and order in Khon Kaen (short and long term)?
KT: First, for the state’s administrative power to be used, people must trust in the state’s mechanisms. We want peace and happiness. What state officials can do is deliver on justice. Justice comes from good governance observed by state officials. After all officials observe good governance, work can be fast and accurate, [and with that] then comes fairness and justice. Justice is about how the legal process is enforced. The last part, fairness, is how well the political rights, the duties and power of the people, are taken care of. In the long term, it is about having a peoplecentric and problem-solving approach. To address problems of the people in this case, the government has announced the 12 Core Thai Values policy. This shows that people come before the structure and the system.
Addressing Problems of the People
IR: What is the government doing to address the short and long-term problems facing people of Khon Kaen?
KT: The urgent problem is the livelihood of farmers. Farmers are the foundation of the country. It is the farmers who are having problems now, especially with production and the market. In this, the livelihood of [the farmers] must be taken care of, the economy has to flow, and a reduction of social costs will all create opportunities for the people. In the long run, according to my principles, I think the problem concerns the country’s plans [on the one hand] and the national scheme [on the other]. They do not match with each other. First, for the long term, is the National Economic and Social Development Plan (NESDP). The plan provides the big picture and gives direction to this country. We give too little attention to it. It should be held as the principle for state administration for every level of government. The national scheme is related to the NESDP. For example, land usage must match with soil potential. This gets much less attention and leads to disasters and development problems. NESDP is my long-term, primary solution [to the country’s problems].
IR: What is the provincial government doing in terms of providing economy stimulus and raising revenue for the people of Khon Kaen?
KT: We must look at Khon Kaen’s gross [provincial] product by its character. In theory, Khon Kaen is the center of Isaan. Therefore, agriculture is not the most important aspect of Khon Kaen. Gross product comes from many industries such as green logistics, Khon Kaen serving as a medical and educational hub, and as a Meetings, Incentives, Conferencing, Exhibitions (MICE) city. The income from these tells us we are the center of the region. If more development takes place, Khon Kaen could be the center of the Mekong basin and next, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
[*Ed. Note: Khon Kaen was designated by the Thai government as a MICE City in July 2013. A MICE city is one promoted as “a premium destination for meetings, incentive travels, conferences, and exhibitions.”]
IR: In the provincial administration, is there an opportunity for civil society to be involved in the process? In which areas in particular?
KT: For provincial development planning, we have a provincial development committee which already includes all related sectors. It’s simply not true that as a new governor I can change [government] policy—this is an old misunderstanding. There are laws, plans, decrees, good governance, and the provincial development plan in the way [of my doing that]. Vision must come from the planning committees, their strategies, and their missions. The governor comes and assigns policy in operations, not in development. Therefore, I’m quite sure that Thailand is already good in principle. The people, civil society, and the private sector are already involved. But the upper mechanism of budget allocation and budget considerations can only support that vision.
IR: Why is good governance important?
KT: One confusing aspect of the state administration is that the state mechanisms do not have credibility and reliability in the eyes of the people. Therefore, observing the principle of good governance is how to win the people’s trust, confidence, and feeling of reliability [in the government]. When this is accomplished, I think the people will cooperate and become a part of economic, social, and political development.
Decentralization and Self-Governance
IR: What is the vital key of decentralization?
KT: There are three mechanisms in the administration: centralization, authorization, and decentralization. But if we tried to use one or another in Thailand, it would not work because we have all three mechanisms. We must use them together. In the history of Thailand, it was never that we had separated states such as Buriram, Khon Kaen that then joined together to become a nation. It was born as a kingdom by itself as the Rattanakosin kingdom and then spread. Thailand’s decentralization has spread management and development—not government administration. For example, the areas of services or development can be decentralized. However, security-related administration cannot be decentralized. Therefore, only decentralization of management and development will be done. But, because [people] misunderstand the nature of a unitary state of Thailand, people might think the word “freedom” must be used. With Thai democracy, it is impossible to talk about rights and freedoms by the book because rights and freedoms are related to the quality of the people. If we don’t have democracy yet, then the quality, perspectives, and knowledge of our people should be taken into consideration. I’m not complaining, but these are all obstacle to democracy.
IR: In your opinion, should governors be elected or appointed?
KT: If you are the government, will you only stay in Bangkok? We had the same atmosphere during the [Cold War], that is, when the Communist [Party] of Thailand still existed. District and provincial authorities had to fight in all work zones. There was the government in Bangkok [but] it meant nothing because it could not help us. We only had the district offices to fight with that force.
At the same time, if we look at present situation, [can] you be the government without eyes and ears? How can you be an efficient government? Where is the nation? There has to be one government for the whole country. For a government to occupy the whole of Thailand, [local central government offices] have to be the government’s eyes and ears. Governors get their salaries from the Ministry of Interior, but do all the jobs from every department/ministry. If one asks, “Who is a governor?” the governor is the ears and eyes for the government in each province. Who is the district head? The district head is the [central] government in a district. Imagine what would happen to the country if the government was not in Bangkok, in Isaan or in the South—there would no one from the central government [in those places].
IR: Is Khon Kaen ready for an elected governor?
KT: I insist that the [central] government must be in every region. You can change the governor or the title. That is, the governor is called the representative of the government which handles national security, foreign affairs, peace and order. To the question, can we assign national security to a local government? No! You must think how a self-governed province manages its revenue. Will they share it? I’m afraid they would try to keep it in their province.
IR: Is Khon Kaen ready to be self-governed province?
KT: Khon Kaen can be self-governed in some areas, [but] not all. One must understand—where is self-governance happening on the planet? Some areas can be handled, some cannot. Thus, the readiness of Khon Kaen depends on high urbanization. For example, Khon Kaen municipality is self-governed but they cannot manage some areas, such as garbage fee collection, on their own. Some think everything can be handled. Elected people can handle some issues, but not others. [The issues they cannot handle,] must be handled by appointed people. Raising garbage fees is problematic and unwelcome. Decentralization cannot be done in all areas; self-governed provinces cannot manage all issues.
IR: What about local elected bodies whose term has ended and the appointed officials there who are now in charge? The NCPO did not extend their terms and instead has used appointments to fill vacancies. What is your view on this?
KT: It is within my authority to appoint [new] members [to formerly elected local bodies]. While we are [in a period] when we do not have confidence in the electoral process and the election system is being reformed, we use appointments as authorized by the NCPO. The procedures and rules are already defined. [Appointees] must be a bureaucrat who has served in the position in the area for a certain period as legislatively defined.
IR: How is decentralization related to solving Khon Kaen’s problems?
KT: The most urgent matter is to proceed according to the vision. It is not physically possible for Khon Kaen to be a self-governed province. It needs leaders. Even managing traffic jams is difficult, because there are those who stand to lose. Thus, appointed people are needed. Today, there are many issues related to solving problems of the municipality and organizing the city. If asked why [these problems haven’t been solved yet,] it is because of elections. If you are elected, will you be able to [act with discretion] or will you think you can do anything?
Looking to the Future
IR: What area is Khon Kaen ready for in terms of the ASEAN Economic Community?
KT: Khon Kaen has Mice-City industries which indicate its capability to support expositions, seminar tourism, and it is a medical hub as well as the gateway to other main cities in ASEAN. Khon Kaen is not a city focusing on border trade but is an aviation hub for business negotiations in this region.
IR: What message do you want to give to people in Khon Kaen?
KT: The bureaucracy is the mechanism of the government. Taking care of the people’s welfare is the duty [of the bureaucrat]. When bureaucrats do their job with good governance and with responsibility to the people, the faith and trust of the people [in us] will provide the energy for us to move together. Without trust, the country cannot develop. Come and work together [with us].
Khon Kaen will open a green market this Friday, November 7, from 3 – 7 p.m. at Bueng Kaen Nakhon near the Bua Luang Restaurant. Teerasuk Teekayupun, the mayor of Khon Kaen, is set to speak at the opening of the market.
Government and public health officials, NGOs, farmers, and other interested parties have spent the last two months planning for the Khon Kaen Green Market.
The idea for opening a green market came from members of the Khon Kaen Expat Association (KKEA), a public group of foreigners based in Khon Kaen. Josh Macknick, 34, a local business owner, says of the market’s origins that KKEA wanted to be “an active organization rather than reactive, and a green market is something that can be a joint project with Thais.”
Despite being one of the ‘Big 4 Cities of Isaan,’ Khon Kaen is still lagging far behind its smaller counterparts in other Northeastern provinces when it comes to providing people with fresh organic produce.
Until now, local organic produce has only been available through small independent sellers, at TOPS Supermarket, and at green markets in nearby provinces. The market will contain several zones, including an education zone, a fresh produce zone, and a ready-made food zone. Currently, there are 67 booths registered to sell; vendors will be coming from Khon Kaen and surroundings areas, as well as Mahasarakham and Phetchabun.
See the Facebook page for directions to the market.
Guest contribution to The Isaan Record by Jenny Vainberg
The results in many Bangkok-based polls since the coup in May display a Bangkok-centric bias or they rapturously praise the work of the military junta. The Bangkok-based pollsters also say they have surveyed people nationwide but do not provide any details to back up the claim.
On October 1 and 3, The Isaan Record surveyed the opinions of 483 people. Respondents come from a variety of occupations, educational backgrounds, and ages and 92% self-identified as Northeasterners. The survey was conducted by university students in Khon Kaen.
The Coup, Human Rights, and Elections
Bangkok-based polls have yet to ask the central question as to whether people agreed with the May 22 coup in the first place. Instead, they have focused on the aftermath of the coup. It may be that the junta prohibited asking this question in the name of unity.
It is interesting to note then that the coup itself remains a divisive issue in the Northeast. Almost 29% of those polled agreed with the coup while nearly 45% were against it, with just over 26% of respondents neutral on the issue.
One surprising finding from the survey concerns the present government’s record on human rights. Only 20.04% of those polled thought the military junta did not respect human rights while 43.03% felt it did, and another 36.92% neither agree nor disagree with the statement. This result seems to be in contrast with the view of 39.33% of those polled who felt martial law affected their rights (see below).
If the military government’s main theme in its democracy trainings is to teach people that elections are not a key feature of democracy, it has a lot more work to do. Of the 458 respondents who expressed an opinion one way or another on the matter, 88.43% believe that elections are important.
Another surprising result is that 40.17% of those surveyed felt that Thailand is presently a genuine democracy while even the junta may not make such a claim, arguing instead that the said genuine democracy is awaiting Thailand on some unspecified future date.
Over 40% of respondents felt martial law has had a strong effect on their daily lives, while 21.82% felt it had not. Another 32.63% felt neutral on the matter. When asked whether martial law has had a strong effect on their rights, 41.24% said it had, 20.09% said it had not, and 38.68% were neutral. Interestingly, 50.4% of students felt martial law impacts their rights.
Performance of the Military Government
The military junta might find some solace in knowing that 61.28% of respondents are satisfied or very satisfied with the performance of the government. Only 27.95% are dissatisfied, with another 10.74% neutral or giving no opinion.
However, a 62.05% approval rating on the work of the government is far below the percentages given by many Bangkok polls that place satisfaction with the government at high levels, such as the Dusit Poll conducted in late September which found 92% of respondents satisfied with the government’s performance.
Only 15.76% of respondents identified themselves as supporting the red shirts and 2.31% the yellow shirts or PDRC (People’s Democratic Reform Council). A little more than 30% said they supported neither, and another 51.89% had no opinion.
Meanwhile, 47.29% said they had voted for the Pheu Thai Party in the last election, 9.98% for the Democrat Party, and 4.12% for other parties. The rest—38.61%—said they supported none of the above.
Will this formula break the hold of the Northeast over electoral democracy and fracture the vote sufficiently in the region to allow appointed bodies to dominate Thai politics?
Demographics of those surveyed:
Occupation: 29.81% described themselves as regularly employed, 26.20% as students, 24.84% as business owners, 5.59% as civil servants, 1.66% as farmers, 8.90% as other, and 5.18% did not specify.
Age: Of those who responded, 9.7% were 17 or younger, 24.6% were between 18 and 24, 17.8% between 25 to 34, 32.7% 35 to 54, and 12.2% were 55 and above.
Urban vs. Rural: A little more than 58% described themselves as urban, 29% as rural, and 14.07% in semi-rural, semi-urban settings.
Region: Of 468 respondents, more than 92% identified themselves as Northeastern, 3.9% as from the Central Region or Bangkok, 3.2% as Northerner, and 0.6% as Southerner.
Education: Almost 16% had a primary education, 37.7% had a high school education, 14.7% had some college, 25.5% had finished university, and 1.9% had graduate degrees, while 4.6% did not respond.
In an effort to restore Thailand’s image abroad after a May 22 military coup, a coalition of local organizations hosted its first Foreigner Friendship Festival last Sunday in front of Khon Kaen University’s Golden Jubilee Convention Hall.
The lighthearted event featured Isaan-themed activities such as buffalo riding, eel catching, displays of Thai boxing and sepak takraw.
According to organizers, the festival aimed to show that Khon Kaen is friendly toward foreigners and to provide foreigners with information from government offices and local businesses.
The idea for the festival originated in Bangkok tourism business circles, according to Josh Macknick, a 34-year-old member of the Khon Kaen Expat Association who served on the festival’s planning committee.
Similar festivals were intended to take place in every province shortly after the coup. But after several months of waiting for funding from Bangkok, organizers in Khon Kaen decided to sponsor the event locally to showcase Khon Kaen as a tourist destination. They reached out to Khon Kaen University, local businesses and private hospitals in the city to help.
Nationally, Thailand’s tourism market has fallen by 20 percent since the coup in May.
International perceptions of Thailand as a tourism destination were further hampered by the botched murder investigation of two British tourists on Koh Tao in September. The military government has responded by trying to market martial law to domestic and international tourists through campaigns such as “Martial Law Tourism” and “24 Hours Enjoy Thailand.”
Larry Bright, 57, an American expat living in Khon Kaen, is curious whether the festival’s approach will help spark more tourism. “Martial law appears to be subduing tourism a lot, but we are entering high [travel] season so it will be interesting to see if these types of events help encourage people to keep visiting cities,” he said.
The goal of the event was “to have foreigners help spread the word that Khon Kaen and the Northeast of Thailand are peaceful and orderly, and that Khon Kaen is a good place to live and a good environment for investment,” said the Chairman of the Tourist Business Association of Khon Kaen, Kemchart Somjaiwong, a key organizer of this event, in a bulletin issued by the Public Relations Office of Khon Kaen Province.
Original predictions of the budget were estimated above 10 million baht, when initial plans were to include all of Isaan. The festival’s cost is estimated at around 200,000 baht, though it was mostly covered through in-kind donations.
Mr. Macknick was skeptical at first, when he heard in the original plan organizers “wanted to have a blonde- haired dinosaur and a brown-haired dinosaur to represent white people and Thai people.”
Only about 75 people attended the event, far short of the targeted 300. Volunteers attributed low turnout to the lack of advertisement.
Pasuta Sukmamop, 36, a volunteer from Rachawadee Hotel, said that the festival’s biggest shortcoming was the lack of time organizers had to promote the event. But she felt confident that the festivals would be more successful in the future. “Next time it will be huge,” she said.
Mr. Macknick was not bothered by the low turnout. In his view, the festival was “actually very successful in the sense that Thais [in Khon Kaen] are making an effort to create a community with foreigners. Khon Kaen is a small town with a lot of foreigners who don’t go out of their way to interact.”
Guest contribution to The Isaan Record by Jane Okerman and Hannah Thompson
Guest contributor, Evan Gershkovich, reports on how the government’s new forest policy impacts the poor far more than the rich landowners and resort operators the government claims to be targeting.
SAKON NAKHON-On October 1, 37 villagers of Jatrabiap village were arrested and held on bail for charges of illegally reclaiming and occupying a section of Phu Phan Reserve Forest. This past June a task force of park officials, soldiers, and police cut down 18 families’ rubber tree farms totaling 383 rai (151.4 acres), in Non Jaroen village in the same reserve. According to a local activist, officials plan to clear-cut a total of 10,000 rai of rubber trees in the area by the end of the year, a move that could deprive 700 households of income.
These actions are in line with a policy of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) which came to power through a coup in late May. According to Laothai Ninuan, an advisor to the Assembly of the Poor and to the Northeastern Network for Development of the Poor on Land-Forest Issues based in the area, state authorities are in the process of evicting more than 50 Northeastern communities from forest areas.
The increasingly aggressive attitude on the part of state authorities is part of a trend that has either removed or aims to evict more than 50 Northeastern communities from forest areas and threatens the livelihoods of what one forestry official has estimated to be as many as two million people throughout the country.
In June, the NCPO issued Order 64, which calls for an end to deforestation and forest encroachment. The order aims to regulate corrupt and large-scale commercial operations in reserve forests. Order 66, issued three days later, requires that the poor or landless people living on reserve land prior to Order 64 not be adversely affected.
The attorney representing Jatrabiap villagers, Tanom Sakrawaschai, does not believe that Order 66 has actually functioned as an effective check on Order 64.
“In practice, Order 64 has mostly been enforced against common villagers rather than large-scale investors,” says Mr. Tanom.
Villagers have little way to respond to evictions. With the help of Mr. Laothai, Non Jaroen villagers sent a petition to the Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRC) demanding the NCPO call off plans to destroy the remaining rubber trees. The NHRC has received over a dozen of such petitions.
A meeting in Bangkok with the NCPO and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment on August 10 where the NCPO was urged to change its policy regarding forest encroachment.
Apparently unsuccessful, four days after the Bangkok meeting, Mr. Palinchai Sonsoe, the head of Phu Phan District, issued an order for Jatrabiap villagers to vacate the land they used to grow rubber trees. When they refused, Mr. Palinchai issued a warrant for their arrest.
There is question as to who benefits from the rubber trees. Local authorities claim that investors hire the farmers to tap the rubber. Mr. Palinchai does not believe that the villagers can afford to grow rubber trees on their own.
“Growing rubber trees is not done by the poor,” he said. “It is done by investors who hire the villagers to work for them.”
When asked for evidence that investors had hired the villagers to work for them, Mr. Palinchai could not produce any.
Local villagers used to grow cassava and sugar cane. In 2001, local authorities introduced rubber saplings into the area as part of the agricultural policy of the first Thaksin Shinawatra administration.
Contrary to government claims, villagers say they own the trees and now the income of many families depends solely on rubber.
Ms. Sunan Singwong, a 28-year-old farmer in Jatrabiap village, says that families started with one rai and then gradually added one rai at a time. Ms. Sunan claims that relatives working in other provinces provide money to help grow more rubber trees.
According to Mr. Laothai, an average family in Jatrabiap village has a modest holding of about 15 rai. Each month, a family typically makes about 1,000 baht per rai from the harvest of rubber. With two people working the average of 15 rai of trees, they can expect to earn less than 300 baht a day.
While not the poorest of the poor, these families are not getting rich either. It is for this reason that Mr. Laothai argues that villagers are by no means the wealthy landholders that NCPO Order 64 aims to target and ought to be protected by Order 66.
Although the Non Jaroen and Jatrabiap villagers claim to have been living on their land for generations, the area was named Phu Phan National Park in 1972. After negotiations with villagers and NGOs in 1993, cabinet ministers issued a resolution allowing the Agriculture Land Reform Office to allocate land to villagers.
But now the government seems to be revoking that resolution. Mr. Palinchai insists that he will follow the NCPO’s order. “I have to seize all reserve forest area,” he says. “The rubber trees must be cut and destroyed.”
The NCPO policy, though, has made land tenure uncertain and threatens the livelihoods of two million people throughout the country. Ms. Sunan has little doubt about the resolve of the government. “I think the government will cut down more of our trees and seize our land,” she says. “But we are poor. From what I’ve heard about [the NCPO] order, they say that if we are poor we should be able to keep our land.”
Dr. Komsan Rueangritsakul of the Royal Forest Department’s Bureau of Community Forestry Management acknowledged the problems with the NCPO order in a previous interview.
“This problem is an old, old problem, but our first priority is to ensure that no more forest land is converted for commercial use,” he told Khao Sod English. “There are two million people in protected forested areas in Thailand, and they are not criminals, they are farmers.”
Mr. Laothai fears that the criminalization of villagers in the Northeast will continue. He also worries that he himself might be arrested.
“It’s not that I’m scared for myself,” says Mr. Laothai. “I’ve been fighting dictatorship for a long time. We’ve had a lot of coups in Thailand. But if I go to those areas, the villagers will be in even more trouble than they already are; the military will think that I’m trying to spark a political movement in the area.”
His fear is not uncommon in the climate of martial law. The ban on discussion of politics in groups of five or more and the frequent “summons” of other AOP leaders has given many like Mr. Laothai pause.
“I just need to be careful,” he says.
Dr. Sataporn Roengtam, a professor of Public Administration at Khon Kaen University, believes that the targeting of villagers by district officers will continue unless the government’s policy is clarified and protects the rights of the poor.
“In Isaan, there are a lot of poor farmers who only plant a few rai of rubber trees, but the local authorities don’t make a distinction between the poor and the large-scale businesses run by corrupt people who are taking land from the state – that’s who the policy was meant for,” he said in an interview.
Like villagers, Dr. Sataporn feels there is a disconnect between policy makers and people on the ground. “I’ve spoken to a lot of people about this, and I really do think that higher government officials really mean this policy for large commercial operations; it’s the lower level government officials who are using this policy to take advantage of poor people. And this is a big problem in Thailand right now.”
The first court hearing in the case against Jatrabiap villagers is scheduled for November 21. The attorney, Mr. Tanom, is uncertain about the outcome of the case; Ban Jatrabiap is located in Phu Phan National Park, he notes, and the 1993 Cabinet resolution does not allow the growing of rubber trees.
Mr. Tanom worries that the court may decide to issue severe penalties, which could include up to fifteen years in prison, confiscation of land, and fines of up to 150,000 baht per rai in violation.
Phinitnan Chanasabaeng contributed reporting.
Evan Gershkovich is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok. Follow Evan on Twitter @EvanGershkovich
KHON KAEN – Under a temple pavilion, 60 Red Shirt villagers watched a projected image of a candle on a screen. A military staff member asked everyone to close their eyes, sit silent and meditate while she read aloud.
“How was it that we kept a hold on our country and avoided being colonized by another country? It was because our king protected our nation,” she recited.* “If any outsiders come to destroy our country, we will fight until we die. We need to protect our land and we need to love each other as a united country.”
After the brief meditation, a group of soldiers led the villagers in a synchronized dance, chanting the names of fruits and swaying their hips from side to side.
These activities were all part of a training recently conducted in Khon Kaen as part of an extensive tour of three-day events in villages across Isaan. The military government has convened these training camps, complete with lectures, performances, and physical exercises, with the aim of dissolving the political tension that they cite as the reason for the May 22 coup. But villagers here say the event avoided discussing the country’s political rift altogether and failed to address the economic concerns of the people of the Northeast.
This “Project to Strengthen Stability at the Village Level,” organized by the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), kicked off each morning at 8 a.m. with a salute to the national flag. Military staff and speakers gave lectures on topics covering their aims for reconciliation and the importance of the monarchy in Thailand. At night, the military held villager-versus-soldier soccer matches, served dinner, and screened the nationalist movie “The Legend of King Naresuan.”
The village-level events comprise the second phase of the military’s campaign to unify the country. In late May, the junta ordered the creation of so-called “reconciliation centers” in every province in order to help stabilize the political situation. They have now taken their reconciliation efforts to the doorsteps of the former government’s supporters.
“The intention of the event is to dispense with the colors in the community and provide a unity program,” said the head trainer of the event. He estimated that the sixteen trainings he presided over had been 80% successful.
When asked whether any participants expressed opposition to the coup or military government, he replied, “They wouldn’t dare!” And, if any do, he said, “Well, we’d just go back and do it again.”
Villagers and community leaders, however, said that the event did not address their most pressing concerns.
“All we want is democracy and there’s never going to be more democracy that results from a coup,” said a community leader after the reconciliation training. “No government born out of a coup has ever governed democratically.”
Representatives from three villages attended the event, and nearly all the villagers present were Red Shirts who no longer feel free to express their political views. Red flags, t-shirts and posters are no longer on public display in their homes, but the villagers have not given up their loyalty to the self-described pro-democracy group.
Though the head trainer claimed that the event was held in order to end the Red and Yellow divide, the speakers did not once address color-coded politics.
“The military wanted people to know what they were doing and ensure that people don’t oppose them. That’s their version of ‘reconciliation,’” said a village leader who attended the training. “The other activities were secondary, like relieving stress by singing songs.”
The training also failed to answer the villagers’ questions about the new government’s stance on agricultural subsidy programs and other welfare policies that these villagers consider pivotal to the process of reconciliation.
“What are the people’s problems in Isaan? The price of rice and the prices of the other crops they produce. If we can sell these well, then we have liquidity,” said one fruit seller in the village, who asked to go by the name Joy.
The soldiers devoted one session to the Sufficiency Economy, a royally-backed initiative that encourages farmers toward sustainability and moderation. They booked Martin Wheeler, an Englishman who lives as a farmer in Isaan, to charm the crowd with slapstick jokes as he praised the farming model in fluent Isaan, the regional dialect.
But according to the community leader, his village knows well the tenets of the Sufficiency Economy, and he and his neighbors are impatiently waiting to hear how the new government will support their agricultural work. With rice now selling for as little as 12 baht per kilogram in the local market, many rice farmers here are just breaking even.
“Villagers don’t know who to depend on now,” said the community leader. “We don’t see any transparency in the way the military rules and we have no way to scrutinize this government.” At the same time, he does not feel he can speak openly about his opposition to the coup.
The military will conclude their village-level reconciliation trainings at the end of this month. According to the head trainer, the next phase of reconciliation will entail an internal review of the villagers’ evaluations of the events.
*Note: Names were removed from this piece to protect the sources.