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.”
LOEI – In the past month, the walls of a gold mine’s tailings pond in Na Nong Bong, Loei have collapsed not once but three times. The tailings pond, which holds the waste water used to dissolve the gold from the ore, contains extremely high levels of cyanide and other chemicals used in the extraction process. As such, the community members from the neighboring village, located just one kilometer from the Tungkum Limited mine, are channeling their fear of the effects into their ongoing fight to close the mine.
People Who Love Their Hometown (PWLTH), a community organization comprised of concerned villagers, has been fighting to close the mine since 2006 in attempts to mitigate the contamination of their food and water. Since the gold mine began its operations, the villagers have experienced lower crop yields, skin rashes, and high levels of cyanide and arsenic in their blood which they attribute to contamination from mining operations. As such, the leak from the tailings pond, which contains cyanide and other dangerous chemicals, has given them greater cause for concern.
“On the 28th of October, the day the wall collapsed for the second time,” explained one of the leaders of PWLTH, “We found that that the water leaked out into some of the farms that were growing yard long beans. The farmers couldn’t harvest because there was water in their fields. We didn’t know whether or not the water was dangerous or not.”
The villagers were the first to report the leak to the government offices after a member of PWLTH found unexpected water in his field. The villagers sent a report to the Provincial Industry Office (PIO) as well as the Department of Primary Industry and Mining (DPIM) and then contacted the Tambon Administration Organization (TAO) to survey the area.
On October 30th, the TAO sent a committee to investigate the broken wall as well as the quality of the water that leaked from the pond. The TAO reported, “TKL has admitted the wall did collapse and that they have been continuously repairing the damage to the wall of the tailings pond.”
The community, however, is still not fully convinced that there will be no lasting effects from the leak.
“It is necessary for the company to warn the people,” said one of the leaders from PWLTH. “We don’t know whether or not this water is dangerous, because no tests have been done on the water. But we are scared of what the effects might be.”
In response to the villagers’ report, the DPIM issued an order to the company to shut down operations until the situation was resolved. The company appealed to the PIO, however, claiming that they were working in accordance with Article 58 of the Mineral Act and, furthermore, that they needed to continue mining in order to acquire specific rocks needed to repair the break that can only come through the crushing process. At present, the mining company, which has assured the government they are working to fortify the tailings pond wall, is still operating.
The leak comes at a particularly pivotal moment for PWLTH, as Tungkum Limited will be holding a public scoping forum on the 22nd of this month. The forum, which has been postponed four times already due to protests staged by the community organization, is one step in the process of obtaining concessions for opening a new mining site near the existing one. The members of PWLTH, however, hope that the news of the tailings pond leak will strengthen their case for the decommissioning of the current mine as well as halting concessions for the newly proposed mine.
Tungkum Limited, which has been in hot water with its shareholders and the Stock Exchange of Thailand over the past year for alleged financial mismanagement, now has more to worry about.
KHON KAEN-For the past seven years, the European Union has sponsored the European Union Thailand National Inter-varsity Debate Tournament (EUTH) with the objective of stimulating critical thinking, democratic values, and English proficiency among Thai youth. However, this year marks a first for the event as organizers moved the tournament outside of the capital in an effort to expand beyond the predominantly Bangkok-based participants. For the tournament’s eighth year, Khon Kaen University (KKU) won the bid to host.
University and high school students from schools from across the country came to Khon Kaen this past week to participate in the five-day tournament in which debaters discussed a wide variety of motions including human rights, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) issues, international relations, media, environmental issues, and the imminent ASEAN economic community.
Moving the debate to Khon Kaen this year was strategic in fortifying the blossoming debate culture that has been developing in the province over the past few years according to the tournament’s advisor and outgoing chair, Mr. Chainarong Sangsranoi.
The Thai education system has often been criticized for its focus on rote memorization rather than critical thinking. Within this system, Isaan has suffered as the standard of education and resources available in Isaan have fallen behind those of other regions, explained Mr. John Draper, KKU lecturer and one of the judges for the debate. By hosting this tournament, however, Khon Kaen University administrators and teachers are hoping to work against that trend by promoting the skills involved in Western style debate and subsequently nurturing a new generation of open-minded and analytical Thai youth.
Participants and spectators alike who expressed their discontent with the traditional education system commented on how events like these can successfully challenge this system.
Siravich Sincharoenkul, a debater from Mahidol University echoed the critiques of Thai education and went further saying, “[Through debate I’ve learned how to use analytical thinking and to be more responsive. We cannot just learn by rote learning, just memorizing the information. That is not effective because you will not be able to apply it in the future.”
Student participants from outside of Isaan recognize the greater implications that the move out of Bangkok has for the Thai education system, and Isaan in particular. “I think that it shows that education or the opportunity to learn is not only limited to the center of Thailand,” said Siravich. “I think the rest of the country has more opportunities to access materials and information and education. I think this is a good step for Thailand so that we can continue to develop a young generation of educated people.”
Mika Apichatsakol, Chulalongkorn University debater and second place winner, explained that debate is motivation for her to stay informed about world issues. “It’s an incentive to research. I want to be an informed individual,” she said. She does recognize, however, that this is not common for the majority of Thai youth, but hopes that through debate, she can help to stimulate critical thinking and self-initiative among others in her generation.
Subsequently, the arguments made throughout the week, from LGBTQ-only schools, to the use of drone warfare, to whether or not Thailand should move its capital, seemingly left a resounding mark on spectators and student volunteers by sparking conversation beyond the walls of the auditorium.
The hope from the organizers and the European Union is that events such as this will help to fortify the regions outside of Bangkok in terms of English proficiency and freedom of expression as debate culture continues to gain momentum. The EU has already helped to create regional workshops that they hope will inspire participation from even more universities from outside Bangkok by providing greater opportunities for practice in preparation for the EUTH National tournament. Nakhon Ratchasima, for example, attended this year’s regional debate in the hopes that next year they will be able to participate in the tournament.
Ms. Ana Beatriz Martins, Head of Political, Press and Information Section of the EU and a judge of the final debate, expressed the influence she hopes the expansion of debate culture will have on Thailand’s next generation, especially given the current political climate. “The intention is to create a next generation and new society that learns to debate constructively. To overcome differences of views in dialogue rather than aggression or violence. I think that is the path Thailand is taking.”
Ms. Martins believes that this year’s move to Khon Kaen is a significant step in building the EU’s relationship with the Northeast through their support of the region’s growing debate culture. “We are very happy KKU has agreed to host. As one of the biggest universities in Thailand, they’re a natural partner for us. We hope to continue this path of encouraging debate culture outside of Bangkok and to link it up with other regions.”
KHON KAEN – Cheers erupted the instant former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s face appeared on the projection screen, but they were not cheers of support for the former figurehead. The enraptured audience was instead hailing the speaker’s assertions accompanying the slide.
At Khon Kaen University’s College of Local Administration last Saturday, a panel of speakers advocated for the role the International Criminal Court could play in bringing justice to the Thai court system by ending impunity for political figures.
Mr. Abhisit’s picture concluded the slide show of a handful of world leaders, including Thomas Lubanga Dyilo of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Charles Taylor of Liberia, who have been taken to the International Criminal Court for committing crimes against humanity. The former prime minister, the speakers said, should be next.
“People in power tell [the military] to kill the people, and this [practice] is still alive,” said Pheu Thai MP Ms. Jarupan Kuldiloke. “It hasn’t stopped yet.”
Thus was the thrust of the arguments included in the forum entitled “The Right of People to Protect Themselves with the International Criminal Court.” Local Red Shirt supporters packed COLA’s auditorium beyond capacity to hear Pheu Thai MP Mr. Sunai Chulponsatorn, Thammasat professors Mr. Piyabutr Saengkanokkul and Ms. Sudsanguan Suteesorn, KKU professor Mr. Kittibodi Yaipool, and Ms. Jarupan present on the subject.
The Thai judicial system, the panelists asserted, has historically been biased towards people in power by granting impunity to those who have committed what the speakers believe to be crimes against humanity, most recently for those involved in the 2010 April and May military crackdown. Additionally, they said that the court has been biased against the rural poor, in the case of the 2010 crackdown on the overwhelmingly Isaan-based Red Shirt movement.
The event was doubly significant for Thais fighting for human rights as the date marked the 36th anniversary of the Thammasat University massacre, a tragedy that still resonates in the memories of many Thai people. Those behind the military orders that claimed the lives of at least 46 student activists and wounded countless more have never been brought before Thai court for what the panelists asserted were crimes against humanity. Consequently, the speakers used the October 1976 event to provide historical context for the pervasive injustice they believe still runs rampant within the Thai court system.
“The government has a duty to protect its people’s rights, but the government is abusing its power,” said Ms. Sudsanguan. Consequently, the ICC, she asserted, would be a mechanism to alleviate the inequalities of the Thai court and reinforce the political rights of all people, not just those in power.
In 1998, the United Nations created the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as a court of last resort. The court’s jurisdiction covers individuals who have committed genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression, but only under the condition that the country’s national justice system is unable or unwilling to do so itself. As it stands, however, Thailand has yet to ratify the Rome Statute of the ICC although it became a signatory 10 years ago.
“Basic democratic societies should be equal. Every human should be equal, but does Thai society really respect this?” Mr. Kittibodi posed to a captivated audience. “Isaan has many minerals and resources, but why are Isaan people still poor? Why are Isaan people not treated equally?”
Though speaking to an overwhelmingly Red Shirt audience, Mr. Piyabutr argued that utilizing the ICC would be a step forward for all Thais, not just for the Red Shirt movement. “If the ICC is successful in Thailand, it will be able to move the country forward. The ICC will be good for the Thai people because the power of the Thai soldiers will be restrained so that they will stop hurting [the] people as they have in the past,” he said, alluding to both the Thammasat massacre and the 2010 crackdown.
Mr. Piyabutr, a member of the controversial Nitirat group of law academics at Thammasat, spoke vehemently about the need to curtail impunity for political figures. In particular, he focused on Article 12 Paragraph 3 of the ICC which asserts that the ICC can exercise jurisdiction over states not yet part of the statute under certain conditions. This article, he asserted, is significant because former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban could be taken to the ICC under it, if Thailand fits the preconditions.
Not all the speakers advocated for the inclusion of the ICC, however. Mr. Kittibodi, although supportive of the ICC’s potential role in ending impunity for political figures, asserted that there should be a more stringent focus on fixing the current Thai judicial system to mitigate the need to take such cases to the ICC. “Other countries will laugh at Thailand because it can’t take care of itself and needs to go to the ICC [to solve its problems],” Ms. Sudsanguan said, in support of Mr. Kittibodi’s suggestion.
As Thais debate how to pave the road to national reconciliation, many stand divided on the potential support of an international court like the ICC. The reactions of the audience at the forum, however, indicate that support for the international court’s intervention continues to grow among Red Shirts of the Northeast.
In May 2012, Glenn Brown and Lizzie Presser, the founding editors of the Isaan Record, wrote you a goodbye note. We had left Thailand and were looking for ways to keep our project alive. We’re writing now to welcome on a new editor, Caitlin Goss, who will be taking over at the Isaan Record in October 2012.
With a grant from the Davis/Latch Memorial Fund, a philanthropic activity of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, Caitlin plans to continue where we left off. Caitlin has spent nearly two years in Northeast Thailand, focusing on environmental policy, development issues, and community organizing. Alongside a new team of Thai and American writers, she’ll be reporting on political shifts, development, community rights, education and more in the region. If you want to pitch a story or join her team, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Glenn Brown and Lizzie Presser