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KHON KAEN—It has been banned from Thai classrooms for over 100 years, but the local language of the Northeast, referred to as “Thai Lao,” “Isaan,” or often just plain “Lao,” is making a comeback.
Eleven municipal schools in Khon Kaen have started teaching students how to read and write in Thai Lao, thanks to an E.U.-funded project known as The Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalization Program (ICMRP). Two years after receiving a 20 million baht grant, ICMRP has achieved some notable successes, but formidable challenges lie ahead.
Starting last May, Khon Kaen municipal schoolteachers began teaching the script of Thai Lao, known as Tai Noi, to students ranging from grades four to eight.
The principal challenge so far has been most teachers’ unfamiliarity with the written form of the language. Although the majority of people in the Northeast still speak Thai Lao, the literacy rate of the language is close to zero, save for a few elders, academics, and monks. There have been no new major works of literature written in Thai Lao for almost a century, and scholars have just embarked on the complicated process of adapting the antiquated alphabet, Tai Noi, to modern times. As a result, many teachers in Khon Kaen’s municipal schools have recently learned the alphabet for the first time themselves.
“I was trained for only a month before I started teaching my own class,” said Udomsarp Lurngubol, a Thai language teacher at Suansanook Municipal School who started teaching Tai Noi to his seventh grade students this semester. Mr. Udom stopped the class in December to make time for boy and girl scout activities, and he has already forgotten how to write the ABC’s in Tai Noi script.
Mr. Udomsarp said he would like to see the program continue, but he doesn’t feel confident in his ability to teach the subject. “It would be better to have someone else come to my class once a week and teach it than to have a rookie like me who is starting at the same level as the students,” said Mr. Udom.
Some teachers, parents, and children in the Khon Kaen community have asked why it’s necessary to learn Tai Noi script in the first place.
For Professor Chob Desuankok, who studies the history of Northeastern Thailand, teaching children how to read and write in Thai Lao is about more than achieving literacy. It’s about reclaiming the cultural roots of the Northeast.
“People in Bangkok who say that their 300,000 votes are better than one million votes in the Northeast are looking down on our intelligence,” said Professor Chob. “But revitalizing Tai Noi will show that we have our own literature, our own teachings, our own ethics. Our voice will be made equal by this.”
Professor Chob added, “We want our kids to understand who they are, and why they have to keep on being Isaan people.”
Others see the promotion of Thai Lao literacy as way to increase academic results across the board. On national education tests, the Northeast is consistently one of the country’s lowest-scoring regions. ICMRP project officer John Draper said this could be because most Northeastern children are taught in a language that is not their mother tongue.
At this early stage of language revitalization, the teachers in Khon Kaen lack basic resources like an instruction manual on how to teach Tai Noi, or a standard-reference dictionary, which is still being created. Progress has been stalled by disagreement among academics over the spelling of many words, and on issues like whether or not tone marks—which weren’t included in ancient manuscripts, but are used in the spoken language—should be included.
Khon Kaen University linguistics Professor Rattana Chantao doesn’t think it is possible to reach agreement on these issues any time soon, so she has decided to forge ahead on developing a 600-word dictionary for primary school students in Khon Kaen. In her opinion, tone markers must be added to make the Tai Noi script accessible to young people.
“Without tone markers, it’s too difficult to learn,” said Professor Rattana. “Revitalization encompasses many concepts, and I think it means adapting to changes in the culture and the language.”
Although the project relies heavily on backing from the E.U.’s External Action Service, which funds 90% of the project, coordination between the Thai municipalities and the foreign agency has proven difficult.
Mr. Saran Paonariang, who works in Khon Kaen Municipality’s Education Department, said that adjusting to the European style of accounting has been a challenge.
Furthermore, E.U. funding has been temporarily delayed because of uncertainty over an internal audit, said ICMRP project officer Mr. Draper. Mr. Draper attributes the delay in funding to cross-cultural differences between the two agencies.
“The municipalities know little about the E.U., and the E.U. has little experience working with Thai municipalities,” said Mr. Draper. “I would describe the slippage in terms of problems with the socio-political interface that results from any principal-agent contractual relationship between two entities who do not really know each other.”
The delay in funding, as well as numerous changes in staff on both the E.U. and the Thai side of the project, have had an even more detrimental impact on other parts of the program financed by the grant. There has been only marginal progress in the municipalities of Chum Phae, Ban Phai, and Phon, which were tasked with designing and installing signs in Thai Lao, manufacturing traditional Isaan-style school uniforms, and curating an online database of Isaan cultural performances.
This bureaucratic stagnancy is not just a consequence of the difficulties posed by international collaboration. A draft of a National Language Policy, which was approved by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, recognizes Thai Lao as a regional language and supports bilingual education for children of ethnic groups, like many in Isaan, whose mother tongue is different from Central Thai. Yet, all progress on implementing the policy has been frozen since the dissolution of the government in December.
Revitalizing Isaan language literacy is proving to be an uphill battle. But for ICMRP project officer Mr. Draper, the biggest achievement has been a small, but essential one: the creation of a community of activists, historians, and linguists in Khon Kaen who are united around the cause of promoting Isaan culture, language, and identity.
The new sign to the entrance of Khon Kaen University, which was erected last month, captures the budding community-mobilization around this goal. It has the name of the University written in Standard Thai, English, and for the first time, Tai Noi.
“Thousands of people are going to ask, ‘what is that language doing there?” Mr. Draper said. “Sooner or later that is going to have a positive effect on promoting Thai Lao identity and the real history of the Northeast.”
Voting in Thailand’s general election proceeded without disruption in 89 percent of constituencies yesterday, including the entirety of the Northeast, but initial results show voter turnout in Isaan to be significantly lower than the rate in 2011.
Although not all advanced ballots have been counted due to interferences by protesters last week, preliminary results show that only 56 percent of eligible voters in the Northeast voted on Sunday, compared to the 72 percent that voted in the last general election in 2011.
Yet, these election numbers reveal a higher turnout rate in the Northeast than in the Central and Northern regions of the country, which had turnout rates of 42 percent and 45 percent respectively.
The turnout rate in Isaan ranged from 72 percent in Nongbua Lamphu Province, to 43 percent in Sisaket Province. Results for all other Northeastern provinces can be viewed here.
An official announcement of election results will be delayed due to the obstruction of voting in many parts of Bangkok and the South, say Election Commission officials. In addition to blocking candidate registration in a number of constituencies and disrupting early voting last week, anti-government protestors halted voting in 69 out of 375 constituencies on Sunday. By-elections in those constituencies are required by law to be held within three weeks.
On February 2, The Isaan Record traveled around the city of Khon Kaen to hear from voters at the polls. The election proceeded smoothly in Khon Kaen and most parts of Thailand outside of Bangkok and several provinces in the South. Still, a full government will not be formed until elections are re-held in areas where the voting process was disrupted.
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Photographs taken by Lydia Kopecky.
KHON KAEN—Thailand’s highly anticipated general election is set to go forward tomorrow, despite the uncertainty that has shrouded the February 2 snap election from the start. In Khon Kaen, this uncertainty has led to a quieter campaign season than normal, and it has also opened up new spaces for smaller political parties in the race.
It was not until earlier this week that Prime Minister Yingluck officially ruled out postponing the February 2 date, and lingering questions remain about how results will be tallied with 28 constituencies still lacking registered candidates, and thousands of people having been blocked from casting their advanced ballots last week.
As a result, Jukkarin Patdamrongjit, one of Khon Kaen’s incumbent Pheu Thai candidates, is running a very different campaign than he did in 2011. His posters are smaller, he has fewer canvassers, and his leaflets don’t include any points about policy. Mr. Jukkarin stressed that this year’s campaign is solely about the act of voting.
“For this election, the Pheu Thai Party’s only goal is to get past February 2,” said Mr. Jukkarin. “Then we will be able to see how many people voted. It doesn’t matter who they vote for, because simply voting means they disagree with Suthep.”
Pheu Thai’s landslide victory in the last general election and the party’s solid support base across the Isaan region make Mr. Jukkarin almost certain to be reelected.
Yet, that doesn’t mean other MP candidates in Khon Kaen aren’t out on the campaign trail too. In fact, several new parties are using this election to build name recognition and position themselves for success should the country’s unpredictable political turmoil play out in their favor later on.
The Cooperative Power Party (Palang Sahakorn) is fielding three candidates in Khon Kaen, and it is running on the promise to provide farmers with more financial support and protection through an expansion of Thailand’s cooperative system.
Suparerk Putposri, the Cooperative Power candidate running in Khon Kaen’s zone 2, said he does not expect to win this election, but suspects that the country’s unstable political climate might open up an opportunity for him soon.
“I think it is likely we will have another election in the next 6 months,” said Mr. Suparerk. “Or, if the Pheu Thai party runs into legal problems and the candidate is stopped from getting the seat, I might be the next candidate in line.”
The two-year-old New Democracy Party, which consists primarily of teachers and is focused on empowering the rural poor, is also preparing for the potential decline of Pheu Thai.
New Democracy MP candidate Surachai Hanchin said he suspects that Pheu Thai’s stronghold in the Northeast will begin to weaken soon, and hopes that his party will be able to fill the vacuum.
“Somebody needs to be there for the rural people,” said Mr. Surachai. “We will be the smaller political party that they can access.”
Another small party fielding candidates in Khon Kaen is hoping that its neutrality in the country’s political conflict will help rally support.
“We understand this crisis,” said Pooncharas Thatdi, the People’s Monthly Party candidate for Khon Kaen’s zone 1. “We are the neutral party that people can rely on. We will not take sides.”
Only a year in the making, the People’s Monthly Party is founded on implementing a system in which children receive a 15,000 baht deposit in their bank account every month starting on the day they are born.
Other parties fielding three or more candidates in Khon Kaen include Chart Pattana, Bhumjaithai, and the People’s Voice Party. In total, of 12 of the country’s 53 political parties have MP candidates running in Khon Kaen Province, though only Pheu Thai has a candidate running in each of the province’s ten constituencies.
There will be 2,671 voting units set up in Khon Kaen Province tomorrow, and the local Election Commissioner, Thitipol Thosarod, said he expects the election to be orderly.
KHON KAEN—Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the Election Commission are expected to reach a decision this afternoon on whether or not the February 2 elections will be postponed, but Khon Kaen residents, like Thais across the country, remain divided on their hopes for the outcome. Yet while chaos, and at times violence, has dominated the streets of Bangkok in recent weeks, both sides of the divide in Khon Kaen plan to respond to today’s announcement – regardless of the outcome – calmly and peacefully.
In Khon Kaen, the minority anti-government activists are hoping the elections will be postponed until after the government has undergone significant reform, while Khon Kaen’s strong Red Shirt constituency, which supports the Yingluck government and wants to take the country’s disagreements to the polls, is hoping the February 2 date will remain in place.
The Khon Kaen chapter of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) has been holding anti-government rallies at the city shrine every night since January 3 and sending daily buses of anti-government supporters to participate in the Bangkok protests. But the chairman of the group, 58-year-old Khon Kaen resident Kamol Kitkasitwat, said that even if the government decides to go forward with Sunday’s election, the group does not plan to stage any special demonstrations or protests.
“We don’t want to provoke any violence,” said Mr. Kamol. He added that so far, the group’s nightly rallies have not elicited any hostility from Red Shirt supporters.
Mr. Kamol said that if the polls are open on February 2, PDRC activists may demonstrate at voting stations in Khon Kaen to express their position against the election, but they will not attempt to block voters from casting ballots, as was the case in Bangkok on Sunday.
Many members of Khon Kaen’s strong Red Shirt constituency are hoping for an opposite outcome from Yingluck’s 2 p.m. meeting with the Election Commission, but they also do not plan to respond aggressively if the decision does not go their way.
Forty-year-old Khon Kaen radio DJ Sanya Simma said he is afraid that if the election is postponed today, it might be a long time before the Thai people get another chance to vote. Yet he and another Khon Kaen radio DJ, 45-year-old Bhutdhipong Khanhaengpon, said a decision to delay the election would not be enough to turn them against the government.
“We are ready to listen to the reason that the government gives us,” said Bhutdhipong. “If the reason is good enough, or even not good enough, we will listen and think.”
Pheu Thai party list candidate Thanik Masripitak said he is worried that a postponement of the election will disillusion Pheu Thai voters, but that he will continue to campaign for the party regardless.
“We will have to campaign harder to explain to our supporters why we have to postpone,” said Mr. Thanik. “We hope that our supporters will keep understanding.”
The stark contrast between how the conflict is playing out in Bangkok versus Khon Kaen was illustrated when advance voting on January 26 was either blocked entirely or disrupted at 49 out of 50 polling stations in Bangkok, but completely unimpeded in Khon Kaen and other areas in the northeast.
For the time being, political activity in Khon Kaen, and across much of the Northeast, appears far less confrontational than in Bangkok.
“There will be no violence in this province because most of us know we have different political ideologies and beliefs,” anti-government leader Mr. Komol said. “We can say to one another, ‘I understand that you have a different idea, but we can still live together.’”
During this time of political conflict in Thailand, The Isaan Record is especially interested in stories about political movements in your Isaan province. To send us news items, please see further details at http://isaanrecord.com/get-
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.”