Dao Din: People need to stand up for themselves
Ian Buruma, a prominent global writer, has just published an article in Harpers entitled, “A Polite Coup.” It is behind a pay-wall, but here is an extract from an interview he had last December with a Dao Din student:
“The students who were arrested for making the three-finger salute belong to the so-called Dao Din group, a kind of informal student society whose members get together to discuss social and political issue…”
“I met one of the students, an articulate young woman from a farming family who had taken out a loan to study law at Khon Kaen University. She appeared to be motivated entirely by youthful idealism. Her goal was to become a human right lawyer. Villagers, she said, are constantly being bullied by corporate lawyers who defend the interests of mining companies or factory owners. Unable to afford their own lawyers, they are powerless to fight back. She mentioned the case of a gold mine whose pollution she and others had protested. After the coup, she had been ordered to stay away from the mine.”
“The young woman wanted me to understand that she was not fighting for any particular political party. She thought that people were placing too much hope in leaders instead of standing up for themselves. Policies and laws should come from below. “Red shirts,” she said, “wait for things to come from above.” But she agreed with the red shirts that it was essential to have the right to vote. Now that right had been taken away.”
Update: The following video was produced in conjunction with this feature, to showcase the effects of eviction on people in Isaan.
Eight months after the implementation of the Thai government’s Master Plan to reforest the country, villagers in Isaan bear the burden of a flawed policy at the cost of their livelihood and health.
KALASIN – Three thousand rubber trees lie fallen on top of each other as if nothing more than a row of toppled dominoes. A slender man with calloused hands and laugh lines around his eyes gazes at the field that was once his life savings, primary source of income, and home. It is now covered in weeds, destroyed in the name of environmental conservation and reforestation.
Mr. Paiwan Taebamrung, 46-years-old, recounts the circumstances under which it all happened. A district officer came fully armed to his house at night demanding Mr. Paiwan leave his property. The smell of whiskey was in the air. Three days later, the officer returned with the village headman. Mr. Paiwan watched as dozens of officers cut down 30 out of 36 rai of his rubber trees.
The Master Plan, rolled out by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) shortly after the coup last year, purports to target commercial investors who own and exploit thousands of rai to grow rubber, cassava, and other cash crops.
Villagers claim they are not at all investors – only poor families trying to make a living on land they have worked their whole lives.
“Many impoverished villagers who have lived in the forest for decades have been identified as investors,” explains Dr. Nattakant Akarapongpisak, a lecturer in the Faculty of Politics and Government at Maha Sarakham University.
This was the case with Mr. Paiwan. “They labeled me an investor and told me I had to move out. My family has been working on this land for 47 years.” Mr. Paiwan’s house was deemed an illegal structure, and he and his wife have had to move in with his elder sister.
Now, eight months after his eviction, the repercussions of the Master Plan are as strong as ever. Mr. Paiwan and his wife have had to find work as day laborers making the minimum wage of 300 baht per day.
“It is hard to make ends meet,” he says, “and I feel frustrated I am not working my own land. I worked in the South for 20 years to save up enough money to buy the rubber trees.”
According to the Internal Security Operations Command, farmers in 68 provinces are facing similar charges and evictions. What began as an admirable goal of achieving forest cover in Thailand within 10 years has now turned into a laundry list of human rights violations.
The International Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) clearly outlines the right to work, and protects people from deprivation of their means of subsistence. Barring access to land directly contradicts the principles the Thai state has sworn to uphold.
With his land seized, Mr. Pongsamai Silawan, a resident of Kalasin province, lost his primary means of income. He soon discovered that his meager salary as a day laborer was not enough to support his family.
“I have to sneak onto my land to tap for rubber,” the 52-year-old Mr. Pongsamai says. He recounts the events of a day following his secret tapping. As he was cooking rice, he heard the dogs barking. “I dropped everything. The officers were coming,” he says. “When the dogs bark, I am ready to run.”
If caught, Mr. Pongsamai could face up to four years in prison.
Mr. Pongsamai faces a dilemma. “Between being afraid and having no food, which would you choose?” he asks. He has had to cut back on many expenses. “I can’t afford food from the market. I must scavenge for it in the forest. I don’t have money for my motorcycle, and I am even in debt to the gas station.”
In the nearby village of Jatrabiab, in Sakon Nakhon Province, the government has taken a more direct approach. Labeled as “investors,” 34 villagers have been charged with trespassing and encroachment.
Charges have piled up in some families. The Srikham family had three members charged for encroachment. Ms. Khamlamun Srikham was called in to the Royal Forestry Department (RFD) under the pretext of registering her land in order to receive land titles.
She had wanted to divide the land she farmed into three parts – one for herself, and two parts for her daughters who could have land titles in their own names as an inheritance.
Yet soon after, Ms. Khamlamun and her two daughters were all charged for trespassing. The key piece of evidence behind the charges was the very information Ms. Khamlamun had provided to the RFD.
“We trusted [the RFD representative] as a government employee, that he would allocate the land to us,” Mr. Chai Thongdeenok explains. “But the RFD truly tricked us villagers. Now we have no rights and cannot use the land.”
Ms. Khamlamun’s eldest daughter was charged even though she’s been working in Bangkok for over 20 years. She now has to cover transportation costs to and from Bangkok to attend court hearings.
For Amorn, Ms. Khamlamun’s younger daughter, what hurts the most is the effect the charges have had on her father. “He used to talk and laugh. But since the court case he is quiet and doesn’t say much,” she says. “I believe everyone who’s been charged is suffering from depression.”
Charges have been often exaggerated, say many of those arrested, adding even more pressure on these fragile families. When Ms. Khamphai Todkaew was brought to court, she found that she had been charged with farming 36 rai of land, when she only owned four rai.
These discrepancies in charges are not anomalies – of the 34 people charged, 25 reported being charged with incorrect property amounts.
Ms. Khamphai’s husband, Mr. Prasert, offered to be charged in her place, and thought he had reached an agreement with the police to such effect. Yet when the case was brought before the judge, the court charged both husband and wife.
They were presented with two choices: either fight but risk four years in prison if found guilty, or give up and suffer a reduced penalty of two years. In the absence of adequate legal advice, they opted not to fight the charge and instead plead guilty.
The arrests of both the mother and father have shaken the entire family. The eldest son, Lerdsak, 23 years old, has fallen apart emotionally. After 10 days in a psychiatric ward, he has returned home but is still at risk. “Every day now my brother has to take psychiatric medicines to manage his condition,” says his brother, Jakkrit. “He cannot work and we must spend a lot of time taking care of him.”
At least three families have had a family member see a doctor or have been admitted to the hospital for psychiatric illnesses. This not only puts an added strain on state mental health facilities, but burdens families with medical payments and extra care of loved ones.
Despite negotiations with representatives of the RFD, farmers in Jatrabiab were denied access to their land during the legal proceedings. A survey of families shows that 75% of those charged are barring access to their primary source of income, resulting in an average loss of monthly income of 50-80 percent per capita.
The absence of a steady primary income source, court fees, and agricultural loans have resulted in insurmountable debt. Collectively, the charged villagers owe around 4.2 million baht, or 180,000 baht per person on average.
Even under the best circumstances, it would take a farmer almost a decade to pay off this debt even without interest. When external factors such as available workdays, health and family expenses, and unexpected expenditures are taken into account, it is unlikely that families can ever repay it.
Land evictions of this type in Thailand have rarely met positive outcomes. The prospects of compensation from the state are low, says Dr. Nattakant, drawing comparisons with the Khor Jor Kor program in 1992. According to Dr. Nattakant, under the 1992 program, government officials stated that there would be just and appropriate compensation measures. However, the funding never came and the land the government allocated was already occupied.
Today, military rule exacerbates the situation, argues Dr. Nattakant. “Officials have blocked villagers any access to help from their allies, including media, NGOs, activists, and academics. Some of the villagers have been received death threats if they tell the media about their plight.”
The military makes it nearly impossible for villagers to share their concerns with larger society. “The use of martial law or Section 44 of the interim constitution and the repeated summoning processes,” says Dr. Nattakant, “clearly violate the rights of local people to resist, or even question the implementation of the plan.”
Despite international condemnation and statements issued by the United Nations Office of the High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR), the NCPO has failed to protect the rights of the poor. As of last November, over 500 forest encroachers had been prosecuted and 300,000 rai of land had been seized.
Under the NCPO’s approach, many more will suffer like Mr. Pongsamai and the Todkaew children, as they are pushed off their land and further into the margins of Thai society.
Feature by Sarah Sanbar who studies International Relations at Claremont McKenna College. She is a student-journalist on the CIEE Khon Kaen study abroad program.
Video by Margaret Kierstead who studies Journalism at George Washington University. She is a student-journalist on the CIEE Khon Kaen study abroad program.
INTERVIEW: Sleeping Soldiers, Sinking Ships, and Dinosaurs: Filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul discusses his upcoming film
Northeastern Thailand rarely features in internationally acclaimed cinema, but the region has been the setting for filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s beautifully allusive and atmospheric films for years.
Apichatpong grew up in the Northeast and graduated in architecture from Khon Kaen University. He then proceeded to study cinema at the Art Institute of Chicago.
In his films, Apichatpong creates mesmerizing images and nonlinear plots that often blur the boundaries between reality and imagination. While his work eludes any clear political leaning, Apichatpong cultivates a vivid interest in the margins. He often focuses on characters who rarely make it on Thai screens, like homosexual soldiers and migrant workers.
This fascination with borderlands and his enchantment with Khon Kaen have kept luring him to the Northeast. He once referred to the region as “the most precious treasure” of filmmaking possibilities in Thailand, and he wondered whether Isaan’s energy is “the backbone of contemporary Thai society and culture.”
After Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2010, and the hour-long Mekong Hotel from 2012, Apichatpong now returns with a new feature set in the Northeast.
Cemetery of Splendour (Thai: Rak Thi Khon Kaen) tells the story of a middle-aged woman who cares for a group of soldiers who contracted a mysterious sleeping sickness. Apichatpong calls the film a “very personal portrait” of his hometown Khon Kaen and “a rumination of Thailand, a feverish nation.”
This week, Cemetery of Splendour will have its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in France. The Isaan Record talked to Apichatpong about childhood memories, Isaan dreaminess, sinking ships, dinosaurs and the Northeast’s communist past.
IR: How is your personal relationship to the Northeast reflected in your films?
A: Most of my films are more or less based on my memories from my time growing up in Khon Kaen. The landscape around and also the architecture. I prefer to depict the mood of Isaan, I guess it’s also the charm of the region.
My grandfather was from China and he relocated to Nakhon Sawan, so my father is actually from there. And my mom is from Bangkok, she is also from a Chinese family. After they graduated as medical doctors, they chose to live in Khon Kaen, to work at the hospital there. At that time nobody wanted to go to the Northeast.
When I was a little boy, I spent most of my time around the hospital. We lived in the doctor’s housing unit in the hospital area. And most of the doctors were from somewhere else and not from the Northeast.
I wasn’t really conscious about featuring the Northeast in my films in the beginning. I was more interested in borders. For one of my first films, I was interested in the Thai-Burmese border. I always was fascinated by the act of crossing borders.
It was only later when we had more of a budget that I started to feel that I wanted to move my films closer to Isaan. About half of Syndromes and a Century was shot in the Northeast. And Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives was about 95% shot in Isaan, in Khon Kaen and Loei Province. My newest film Cemetery of Splendour was shot completely in Khon Kaen.
IR: You are quoted saying that when you were younger you tried to hide your background of being from Khon Kaen. How has that changed over time?
I would say that I was from Khon Kaen, and people would laugh.
A: Yes, it has changed a lot. When I was younger, up until my 20s, when I was trying to get into architectural school, I went to a tutoring school for architecture. I would say that I was from Khon Kaen, and people would laugh. But that would never happen now. It has changed quite a lot, in a good way. There are still some bits of resentment, but less than before.
For many people too, like Jenjira Pongpas, my regular actress, while she was living in Bangkok, she worked for a woman who supplied extras for TV and movies –supporting casts. And one of Jenjira’s jobs was to help them get rid of their Isaan accents. She taught them how to properly speak central Thai.
IR: Why is your newest film set in your hometown Khon Kaen?
A: Partly because I haven’t really been back too often. My mother and my brother live in Khon Kaen, so it was almost an excuse to spend a longer period of time with them.
I feel like Khon Kaen has changed quite a lot. Every time I’ve been back, there is always this memory, the old things layered under what is now. It is almost a bit of a farewell film because honestly, I feel like I should take up the challenge to work somewhere other than Thailand. So, maybe it’s good to have a last film set in my hometown.
Originally, I meant to set the film in Nong Khai, because Jenjira is from there. She has been inspiring me a lot, especially through her memories of Isaan. Also, I really love the Mekong River and there is of course this fascination with borders, the Thai-Lao border. In fact, I think Khon Kaen is not that photogenic compared to Nong Khai, and this felt like a challenge to me too.
IR: How do your childhood memories of Khon Kaen feature in your film?
A: I based it on the hospital that I spent so much time in as a child, and also my school. Because my world back then as a child was really only that: the hospital, the school, and also the local cinemas. So this film is a combination of the three.
I think the film looks at the city with the eyes of sadness.
And we used a school that is maybe 15 minutes from Khon Kaen University, which in terms of architecture is a mixture of wood and concrete. Actually, this is almost a mixture of my school and my old wooden house at the hospital complex.
When I grew up more than thirty years ago, there were mainly dirt roads in the town. And there were not as many buildings as there are today. And because of my architectural background, Khon Kaen sometimes feels like a failure of city planning to me. The traffic is getting quite bad now and there are not that many trees around anymore.
I feel sorry to say that Khon Kaen is becoming very similar to other cities around the country that have no identity anymore. The best that city planners can come up with is placing dinosaurs around the city. We also feature that in the film. I think the film looks at the city with the eyes of sadness.
IR: Is your new film more based in an urban setting than, for example, Uncle Boonmee or Hotel Mekong?
A: It is a combination of neutral places. In the beginning you see something that looks more like a rural school and then the viewer is taken to the city. But not really like a sprawling city, it’s more like shots of the night market in Khon Kaen. And then also the lake, Bueng Kaen Nakhon. So these are more of these neutral grounds which I chose because they have mostly remained the same from when I was young until now.
IR: You talked about your fascination with borders and the act of crossing borders. Do you feel like your films also often cross some sort of border between the Northeast and Bangkok?
Yes, that’s for sure. It’s not only the Northeast, but also the North and the South. These regions are separated spiritually from the center which also translates into a political dimension.
But in my films there are many borders, for example the one between the dead and the living. And also the border between the everyday life and dreams. And I believe that for the Northeast, it is pretty obvious that there is this layer of the two worlds on top of people’s imagination. When you look at Isaan folk tales, they are full of fantastical imaginary or animistic beliefs. So it seems that people and myself included live not only in this one singular dimension, but in various different realities and in their dreams. These can be dreams of the supernatural, the spiritual world, but also dreams of a better future.
IR: How would you describe Thailand’s current political situation and how does it impact your filmmaking?
For me, living in this country represents powerlessness, but at the same time this negative force really drives me to work.
A: Well, I would say, the situation is almost boring. It’s almost like this is one of the Thai seasons, a short winter, a rainy season, a hot season and then the coup season. It’s a never-ending cycle and this is terrible of course. And I feel tired of it.
That is why this film and previous ones look at the country in quite a sad way, full of sorrows. For me, living in this country represents powerlessness, but at the same time this negative force really drives me to work. I don’t know if I were to live somewhere else that I would be as productive.
IR: Previous films of yours have been censored in Thailand. Do you expect to run into censorship problems with your newest film?
A: In fact there’s only Syndromes and a Century that ran into problems with the censors. That film, to me, was so pure and innocent. So you never know what will happen in this country.
IR: Have you ever felt scared or threatened because of the work that you do?
A: Of course. As a filmmaker and artist, it is about expression, so it is a promise that you are being true to yourself. But can you do that in this climate? Often times I cannot call myself a true artist.
It is like being on a sinking ship, but it is a quite comfortable ship. There is music, there is good food, but it is sinking, and we don’t realize it.
IR: What do you think is in store for the future Thailand and how is this related to your work?
A: It is a cycle of power balance, but the problem is that the majority of the people are not part of this power. So right now it is about the recalibration of this power out there, between different institutions. What can I say, I am just amazed that we have survived this far.
For me it is like being on a sinking ship, but it is a quite comfortable ship. There is music, there is good food, but it is sinking, and we don’t realize it.
IR: Is the recurring theme of sleeping and dreaming in your films a political commentary? Are the sleeping soldiers a reference to the Thai military?
A: It could be interpreted like that. Because here you can’t do anything about it, you just sleep and this is a form of escape into the world of dreams. I have featured this theme since Blissfully Yours and also in my Primitive project in Nakhon Panom, in which all the teens are sleeping.
It’s like the intrusion of a fantasy which I sometimes feel like when watching the news. There is the sheer force of craziness. In previous projects I was always interested in the act of sleeping as a form of escape. I did some research about sleeping sicknesses and I discovered cases of people suffering from this kind of sickness during the WWII era. We still don’t know much about these cases.
I am also quite fascinated by uniforms; sexually and also in terms of power in society. So in Cemetery of Splendour, I sort of combine these two fascinations and interests.
IR: What is the significance of the communist past of the Northeast in your films?
A: In a way, this is just me trying to understand what happened during that time. While working with Jenjira, I learned that her father was part of the Internal Security Operations Command during the communist period. He was in a special unit that went out to the villages to suppress communism by screening propaganda films at Buddhist temples. So there is this link to films.
And then I travelled along the Mekong River and stayed at a village in Nakhon Phanom Province. I learned more about that time, which was not totally new to me, but it still impacted me and brought me to listen to people who were traumatized in different ways.
I wondered how come I had so little knowledge about this.
And it’s quite astonishing that this all happened during my lifetime. I wondered how come I had so little knowledge about this. And I believe that these events from then are a very important factor for where Thailand is today.
When I was little, more than once there were 24 hours of cartoons on TV. And that was often exactly the time when the coups, the killings in the villages happened. So this happened while I was enjoying watching my cartoons.
Also the presence of American troops in the Northeast, I remember a US Army base in Khon Kaen as well. And I think they showed 16mm black-and-white movies, like King Kong, and I remember really enjoying watching those movies. I mean this is where part of my love for cinema and American culture comes from, while at the same time it spread fear of communism.
IR: In Uncle Boonmee there is a scene at the table when the spirit of the sister appears and they talk about her foreign husband, Hans. In your newest film there is also a foreign husband. What’s the significance of this for you?
A: All my movies are personal and they always feature people that I love. And Jenjira is one of them. Over the years she really had this mission to find a husband [laughs]. A good husband. We are all looking for a good person for ourselves. She was married to foreigner before who was quite abusive. So they separated and she landed a couple more foreigner partners until she found her current husband who is a really great guy from New Mexico. They have been married for four years and live in Nong Khai. And the foreigner in Cemetery is a reference to him.
In the future Isaan will be very different from what it is now—it might become the center of the country.
I also have this interest in Isaan’s phenomenon of women marrying foreigners. I believe this will have an impact on the region. In the future Isaan will be very different from what it is now—it might become the center of the country. You have all these mixed kids who are financially well-off and of course many also go to better schools. So the landscape of the Northeast will change.
IR: How was the shooting and editing process of Cemetery of Splendor?
A: Shooting in Khon Kaen was a very smooth experience and there was a lot of support from Khon Kaen City, from the police, and from people. It was my first time doing most of everything in Khon Kaen, so that was very new to me.
Usually, I rely so much on the resources in Bangkok. When we casted Isaan people we would find them in Bangkok. But this time, we did casting in Khon Kaen and the process of meeting people there was amazing. Now, I have a long list of talented actors—all of them non-professionals. They have other jobs, but they are really good.
For this film, the shooting was quite straight forward, we followed the script. In fact, I didn’t improvise that much. We really stressed the importance of timing for the shooting; we had to follow the sun. And even though there wasn’t much room for improvisation, it turned out very good for me.
The editing has changed quite a bit for this film. We cut off about 30% of the film. We put the focus more on Jenjira. Before there were other supporting characters but now the movie is her.
IR: In Khon Kaen, is there a community or support structure for filmmakers?
A: Not much, but there are groups of young filmmakers, and a lot of talent. There are agents for modelling, for advertising, and for events, but not much.
From what I know there is only one guy who is really established. Uten Sririwi who made Poo Bao Tai Baan–this guy has a company there. One funny thing is that he has a son, and he named him Apichatpong. So that’s very flattering.
There just isn’t a big audience anywhere for this kind of film. It would be a minority film for every country.
IR: Do you have a release date for Cemetery of Splendour?
A: Only for France, in September. That’s something that boxes me in–people always say I don’t make films for Thai people and it makes it even worse when I don’t show my films here. But it is totally not true because there just isn’t a big audience anywhere for this kind of film. It is a minority film for every country.
IR: But internationally you have quite a crowd of followers.
A: Yeah, it is just that we have different kinds of movie cultures, and hopefully that will also change some day. For example, in Korea or Taiwan, there is a big support from the government, so that not only does domestic movie-making flourish, but also the people’s point of view about the world’s cinema changes; they start to appreciate it. But for Thailand, we can only access such films online and often illegally, so there is not really an official way. This is a real pity.
It would be better if there were state support for this kind of art because I believe that it really changes people. It kind of expands one’s awareness about the world and about different views.
Cemetery of Splendour (Thai: Rak Thi Khon Kaen) will premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on May 18.
Yesterday, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) passed bills to privatize Khon Kaen University and three other higher education institutions. The continuing privatization of Thailand’s universities raises concerns among student activists and academics who warn of soaring tuition fees, exclusion of lower income students, and too much power moving into the hands of too few.
As Thailand remains under military rule, many question the timing of the recent push to transition more universities from a public to a so-called “autonomous” status.
In addition to Khon Kaen University (KKU), similar bills were passed for Thammasat, Kasetsart, and Suan Dusit Rajabhat Universities.
University privatization plans have been the target of student protests in recent months. Last Thursday, students from Thammasat University presented a petition with 2,702 signatures to the NLA, calling for more transparency in the privatization process and student participation in the university’s affairs
In early April at KKU, a student activist climbed onto the roof of the campus’ centrally-located Complex to roll out a banner featuring the message: “Khon Kaen University Company Limited – University President-Dictator.” He was calling to oppose the government’s push to turn the public university into a privatized institution.
The initiative for an autonomous university system began in the 1990s and accelerated due to pressure to privatize public services from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.
Since then, 15 universities out of 185 tertiary education institutions nationwide have transitioned to the autonomous system, almost always accompanied by student protests.
Once made autonomous, universities leave the state’s bureaucratic system and set up their own administrative and budgetary structures. All decision-making power on management and financial matters as well as personnel and curricula policies is held by the university council.
According to the draft of Khon Kaen University’s new charter obtained by The Isaan Record, this powerful body is composed of 30 members, the majority of which are royally appointed for three years and can be reappointed.
The council is dominated by high-level, Bangkok-based officials, but also includes the university’s president and administration, five elected faculty members, one elected representative of university staff, the governor of Khon Kaen Province, and at least one representative from the Ministry of Education.
The university council can act independently on administrative and budgetary matters without having to wait for the central government’s approval, as it is the case for public universities.
Proponents of this system stress that it brings universities more flexibility and independence from state bureaucracy, but critics warn that it will decrease the accountability of the university administration.
Khon Kaen University’s main student activist group, Dao Din, criticizes the lack of student participation in the process and is concerned that after the transition the university council will be able to wield unchecked power over the university affairs.
“If it was really necessary for [Khon Kaen] University to become autonomous, then we students want to take part in the decision-making process,” said 20-year-old Phayu Boonsophon, a Dao Din member from Khon Kaen University’s Faculty of Law.
According to Dao Din, the university held a public forum on the issue to gather opinions from the student community nearly a decade ago. Since then, the university has been quoting this one-time event as evidence of student inclusion in process of privatization.
Student concerns are shared by Yukti Mukdawijitra, an assistant professor at Thammasat University. The efforts to move universities into the autonomous system comes with greater centralization, Dr. Yukti told The Isaan Record over email.
“In an autonomous university, professors and lecturers, as well as supportive staff and students, will be under tighter control,” Dr. Yukti wrote. “The president and the board of referees of the university are more powerful and there will be much less participation from representatives from the faculties.”
In contrast to a public university, its autonomous counterpart no longer fully depends on state funding based on the number of students, but instead receives an annual block grant from the state budget. For this reason, autonomous universities are driven to find other sources of revenues through, for example, increased tuition fees or profitable “special” programs.
Concerns have been raised over the potential commercialization of educational services, equity, and access to higher education by lower income groups.
In 2012, the website ThaiPublica found that tuition fees at Burapha University increased significantly after it became autonomous in 2008. The Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences raised semester tuition rates of its regular programs from under 10,000 baht to 14,000 baht, an increase of at least 40 percent.
“The state is responsible for providing education to its people free of charge. But when the state is dominated by capitalists, then education immediately becomes a business,” says Decha Premrudeelert, a long-time education activist in Khon Kaen. “As a consequence, the poor have less access to higher education and the gap between the rich and the poor gradually widens.”
Public universities in the Northeast have a special responsibility, as the region is Thailand’s poorest, explains Alongkorn Akkasaeng, Assistant Dean at Mahasarakham University’s College of Politics and Governance. Unlike universities in Bangkok, universities here offer education to a high number of students from low-income families.
“Khon Kaen University needs to decide if it wants to make profit or support society by offering education,” Dr. Alongkorn said.
Students might not be the only group affected by universities’ transition to an autonomous status. Even though university administrative staff and lecturers receive a slightly higher salary in the autonomous system, they may be granted fewer benefits, as they are no longer employed as civil servants.
“In public universities, almost all employees are civil servants who are better off in terms of health care and retirement plans. Essentially, I think privatization is a process to reduce costs and spending on the social welfare of employees, including professors and lecturers,” said Dr. Yutki.
However, the push to privatize Thailand’s universities has not met significant opposition. If done right, autonomy from the government’s bureaucracy can translate into a more efficient university administration system and might consequently improve the quality of education, explained Sathaporn Reungtham, Assistant Professor at Khon Kaen University’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.
“The only problem is that until now the university’s administrators have failed to answer how the autonomous status will exactly improve the university’s situation. There is a lack of accountability that makes me not very hopeful about this whole process,” Dr. Sathaporn said.
After the coup in 2006, seven universities were hastily made autonomous, including the country’s oldest educational institution, Chulalongkorn University, in spite of student protests. At that time, only Khon Kaen University withdrew its bid for autonomous status in response to public opposition.
This time around, it seems like Khon Kaen University’s administrators seized the moment to change the university’s status without public scrutiny.
In a bid to prevent protest from students or faculty, wrote Dr. Yukti, “it is clear that the administrators of universities want to take advantage of the military rule.”
Following last year’s military coup led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, several presidents of major universities were appointed to the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), the military junta’s rubber-stamp parliament.
Student activist Mr. Phayu claimed, “Khon Kaen University President [Kittichai Triratanasirichai] volunteered to become a member of the NLA only to propose this autonomy bill and then raised his hand to pass it.”
OP-ED: Draft Constitution Neglects Minority Rights of Millions
By John Draper, Guest Contributor
In the draft constitution, there is no explicit mention of minorities or minority rights, making this constitution the only one in ASEAN to not have a provision for such rights. In addition, Thai is not specified in the constitution as the national language, meaning there is no recognition of other languages, nor a framework for supporting minorities along ethnolinguistic lines.
Together, these omissions make the proposed Thai constitution the most backwards in ASEAN and the one least compliant with treaty obligations in the area of linguistic human rights, namely the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, all of which have been ratified by Thailand.
In the Northeast, this affects approximately 18 indigenous ethnicities, primarily the Thai-Lao, the Northern Khmer, the Khorat, and the Phu Thai, as well as several million integrated Thai-Chinese.
Using standard predictions of language death rates proposed by a leading authority on language, David Crystal, it is likely that all those ethnolinguistic groups with populations of less than 500,000—all but a handful in the Northeast—will experience the erasure of the language aspect of their identities by 2100. This basically means that while the song forms of these minorities may survive into the next century, their children will not understand those songs. This represents a massive loss of Thai cultural heritage in the Northeast.
Section 5 of the constitution includes the standard provisions against discrimination based on race : “The Thai people, irrespective of their origins, sexes or religions, shall enjoy equal protection under this Constitution.” Also under the heading of “Human Rights,” Section 34 states: “Unjust discrimination against a person on the grounds of the difference in origin, race, language, sex, gender, age, disability, physical or health condition, personal status, economic or social standing, religious belief, education or training, or constitutionally political view shall not be made.”
However, there is passing mention of the concept of ethnicity. Chapter 2: Directive Principles of Fundamental State Policies, mentions, in Section 83 (5): “The State shall strengthen local community in the following matters…: (5) protection of indigenous and ethnic groups to maintain their identities with dignity.”
While such recognition is an advance on the former constitution in terms of specificity, it has essentially been the position of the National Economic and Social Development Board in its five-year plans as implemented by state ministries such as the Ministries of Education and of Culture for the past 15 years.
In terms of how this applies to the Northeast, it should be noted that the Thai state in the past has admirably tackled the issue of race in the region – on paper. Its 2011 report to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination under the UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, available here, is remarkably enlightened. Building on Mahidol University’s 2005 Ethnolinguistic Map of Thailand project, it declares Thailand to be a multi-ethnic, pluralistic country and acknowledges the existence of 62 ethnic groups in Thailand, belonging to five language families.
In an approach informed by the latest research and detailing the state’s evolution of the understanding of the ethnic issue since the 1990s, it first lists and describes in detail three main ethnic groups in Thailand: the mountain peoples or “Persons on the Highland,” the “Sea Gypsies,” and the “Malayu-descended Thais.”
It then describes a fourth group, “other ethnic groups,” under the heading “Ethnic Groups in the Northeast,” with a detailed table listing all the ethnic groups in the Northeast except for Thai-Chinese. This is reproduced below:
Table 3: No. of Ethnic Group Population in the Northeast (Esan) by Language Family Group
Crucially, the Thai Lao identity is recognized in this 2011 report for the UN Committee in a way not seen outside academic circles and in doing so undoes nearly a century of the systematic erasure of the largest minority identity in Thailand. This erasure, via a program of assimilation, began in the late 19th century with the consolidation and annexation of the Khorat Plateau and was accelerated in the 1939-1942 hyper nationalism-driven 12 State Cultural Mandates which changed the name of Siam to Thailand, made Thai the national language, and disappeared by diktat all the minority identities in Thailand. The historical treatment of the Thai Lao and their crucial importance to understanding Thai political development, including in the Thaksin era, has recently been highlighted in the English-speaking public sphere by the anthropologist Charles F. Keyes.
The 2011 report’s description of the situation in the Northeast is sympathetic to the problems of the region’s other minorities. In particular, the Kuy, Yogun and Bru are mentioned as facing extinction.
However, the description regarding the relationships between the peoples of the Northeast is somewhat unusual, “Even though there are diverse ethnic groups in the Esan region… due to the generosity and kind-heartedness of the Esan people in general, as well as their experience of interrelating with people of diverse ethnicities, the Esan people of different ethnic groups mingle well and always welcome people from other places. This background is like a special force that unites them and creates a drive for them to relate more with people in the other regions.”
Nonetheless, submitted as it was in 2011, it completely overlooks Thai-Thai Lao interactions, including widespread destruction in the Northeast in May 2010, mainly focusing on violence against symbols of Thai national rule, including the arson of provincial administrative halls. Indeed, it might be argued that the prevention of additional ethno-political violence in May 2014 was one of the unstated reasons which drove the Thai military to intervene in its May 22 coup.
The draft constitution of 2015 is obviously a retrograde step compared to the progressively-minded report to the UN committee combatting racism. It ignores the more normative constitutions of its neighbors regarding minority rights; is apparently oblivious to the pattern of pluralistic progress put in place since the 1997 Constitution and developed in partnership between major Thai universities, UN organs such as UNESCO and UNICEF, as well as indigenous organizations themselves such as the Tribal Assembly of Thailand and the Inter Mountain Peoples Education and Culture in Thailand Association; and it overlooks its treaty obligations.
Thailand cannot portray itself as a pluralistic country in its reports to supra-national organizations such as the United Nations while failing to put in place organic legislation or at least constitutional safeguards to support minority ethnolinguistic rights, such as the stalled draft of National Language Policy. Nor can it, according to its own draft constitution, grant any measure of autonomy to the Thai Malayu, who now exercise limited elements of Sharia law in the three southern provinces collectively named the Deep South, without providing for autonomy for the Thai Lao and other major minorities such as the six million Khon Mueang of the North.
The discrepancy between the “Thainess” of the draft constitution and the hard-won scientifically-based developments in Thai academia, Thai concepts of pluralism, and Thai understanding of their own history as embodied in the 2011 report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, is obvious. It represents a massive reality gap between how radical conservative elements of Thailand’s socio-political spectrum portray the country to its own people in local media and how Thailand could—and still can—develop itself in this crucial field of minority rights in partnership with the international community.
Thailand cannot continue to dumb down its own population and aim to assimilate rather than integrate and equalize. Further, in recent high-level support for the concept of pan-Thainess based on pseudoscience it risks more than becoming a pariah state; it invokes a specter of xenophobia and the march to authoritarianism buoyed by the chauvinism, which harbors the conceit of the natural leadership of a superior race.
The draft constitution suggests valuable political reforms and is a major intellectual work in its own right. While the promise of reconciliation is there, its inward-looking nature and the lack of any appreciation for minority rights will be its own undoing in the years to come unless it is itself reformed as a matter of urgency.
After having read this article, you may at first see the Thai military as the “bad guys.” This would, however, be to fall into the trap of dualism. The Thai military developed Thainess through the filters of British imperialism, French colonialism, Italian fascism, and German Nazism, as well as the bushido concept and Japanese imperialism. More recently, their institutional memory includes some of the worst forms of counter-insurgency and psychological warfare imaginable, acquired during the dirty wars of the Cold War period. And most recently, fourth generation warfare and the technology that facilitates the surveillance state have informed Thai military thinking.
One result of this mentality is that the study of Chakri-period dynastic history in Thailand has been criminalized through the lese majéste laws, seemingly against the wishes of those the law would seek to protect. This death of history – a history dominated by the interactions of an absolute monarchy (and now a strong form of constitutional monarchy) with peoples now minorities in Thailand – has supported processes of assimilation rather than equalization. All this has been documented in the academic literature, a literature that cannot in its entirety be read or studied in Thailand.
Still, the Thai military is not “the enemy”. It is a product of a system and consists of individuals, ones that does not necessarily understand why it is a tragedy that many Thai Lao children reject the “Lao” part of their identity nor why it is a tragedy that the majority of Thai Lao children’s cultural identity has been erased to the extent that they do not know they used to have a civilization including a rich literary heritage. In the quest to portray Thailand as a utopia of Thainess, those in the Thai military may not understand these tragedies because the study of history in Thailand has been turned into a pseudo-science and because the study of its sister science, philosophy, is not promoted as part of a holistic education.
You may, on having read the article, feel that what has happened and that what is happening in Thailand constitutes a crime – a crime against humanity. You would not be alone. Cultural genocide was written into the draft Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and removed at the last moment because of the sensitivities of the period and of the crime itself. Alternative names for what is happening in Thailand, known to some reading this introduction, are ethnocide and linguicide.
This does not mean the Thai military is guilty of a crime. The Nuremberg Trials essentially made the point that individuals are guilty of crimes, not peoples or institutions. And, those of you who are familiar with Buddhism know that it teaches absolute compassion for the human condition. In fact, individuals in the Thai military, as epitomized by General Prayut, appear to be desperately engaged in a war on endemic, embedded corruption in the Thai polity in bid to stave off sanctions by the West due to the appalling crimes against human rights taking place in Thailand every minute of every hour of every day, including the trafficking and slavery of minority children.
In this bid, the Thai military as an institution is also taking on the “cleaning house” of an entire country. General Prayut himself, and in some ways the whole socio-political system, have been demonstrating signs of increasing cognitive dissonance due to the enormity of this task of attempting to purge corruption from one of the world’s most corrupt states. Thailand is corrupt if only because of the accidents of history, its geographical position and the size of its population. But, the underlying psychology of Thai client-patronage networks which support corruption existing within a social system prioritizing Buddhist values and thereby rejecting materialism and promoting a path towards goodness also creates such a dissonance. Still, the pervasive extent of political, bureaucratic, police and military corruption is perhaps only just being appreciated by the Thai establishment, which seeks to promote such goodness.
In the words of a Thai metaphor, the eyes of some in the Thai military are likely only now, because they have sought to implement broad reforms not seen in a generation, being brightened regarding the massive task before them. This may be a sudden psychological shock for some of them. On issues such as slavery in the fishing industry, on forest reform, on education, and even on the pricing of lottery tickets, the Thai military seems both exasperated and at a loss. For this, in the Buddhist tradition, they deserve compassion.
If you understand and agree with the basic premises in this postscript and sympathize with the sentiments expressed in the article above, you may feel a moral obligation to help those determined to spread and develop a Thainess based on the fundamental premise of a multi-ethnic state which recognizes the reality of both triumphs and tragedies in Thailand’s own history – one that cannot at present be argued for by Thai ethnic groups because of the overwhelming discourse of pan-Thaism currently being produced by the Thai military. Furthermore, in the ultimate tragedy, the majority of these minorities not only do not know – cannot know – their own histories, they do not know they have rights under treaties like the one mentioned in the article.
If, after reading the article, you do want to help, please post it to lists, to websites, to Facebook, and to friends and colleagues via email. Requests to post the article to websites should be directed to the original copyright owner, The Isaan Record (firstname.lastname@example.org). The Thai military needs to be helped to understand that there is an alternative future for Thailand which does not rest upon rejecting a model constructed of both pluralism and of individual rights and responsibilities in favor of totalitarian authoritarianism. It needs to understand the draft constitution must be amended to include minority rights, and it needs to understand why.
John Draper is a project manager with the Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalization Programme at the College of Local Administration at Khon Kaen University and writes for the Khon Kaen School.
In the debt-ridden Northeast, many rice farmers struggle to make ends meet after the government shut off the irrigation systems leaving them without the profits of the second annual rice crop. But for the military government, the drought might help its economic strategy.
Outside her Khon Kaen home, rice farmer Sumatra Sodatoom sits in the shade of a longan tree. In April, Ms. Sumatra is usually off selling her second rice harvest of the year. But this year, the government closed the country’s irrigation system early, preventing many farmers in the dry Northeast from planting the off-season rice crop they have come to depend on.
Late last year, the military government announced through the village loudspeaker in Nong Kha village that it would close the taps of the area’s irrigation system. In February, the Royal Irrigation Department warned that Thailand would be hit by its worst drought in decades after water levels sank to a 15-year low.
After the main rice crop is harvested, Thai rice farmers with access to irrigation often grow a second or off-season rice crop. Like many other rice farmers in the Northeast, Ms. Sumatra needs the income from the second annual harvest to pay off her debt.
Her family owes 800,000 baht (roughly $23,000) to the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC). Ms. Sumatra’s personal debt amounts to 280,000 baht (about $8,600) from loans she took out for her undergraduate degree.
“Next year our debt situation will get even worse than it is already because we will have to pay off the lease for our tractor,” says 31-year-old Ms. Sumatra.
Her family racked up debt during a failed investment in chicken contract farming, and they are not alone. According to Nong Kha’s Headwoman Bua-ngoen Plamsin, almost all of the village’s 165 households are in debt to either the BAAC or the village fund program.
For rice farmer Thonglam Thongnoi and his family of four, this year’s prospects are particularly gloomy.
“I can’t pay my debt because I don’t have the income from a second rice crop,” he says. “I’m devastated. Money-wise there is no hope for us this year.”
In 2013, the Northeast held the highest debt-to-income ratio in the country, at 65 percent, according to data from the National Statistical Office. The figure captures the average percentage of consumers’ monthly income that goes toward paying debt. In comparison, the South’s debt-to-income ratio in the same year was 42 percent.
Khamphong Wongwai, a 50-year-old rice farmer and seamstress from Yasothon province, says that she holds debt with both the BAAC and the village fund. She uses the loans to invest in her rice farming, for daily spending, and to pay for her children’s education.
Ms. Khamphong has mainly short-term loans with the BAAC, which can be taken out before the rice-growing season and must be paid back with interest after the harvest. She finds herself trapped in a cycle of loans: She takes out a new loan every season for the same amount and she is only ever able to pay off the interest.
“For the profit I make from my rice, I pay everything I have to the bank, but my debt never decreases,” Ms. Khamphong says.
In recent years, household debt in Thailand has spiraled. Bank of Thailand data shows that debt levels rose from 61 percent of the gross domestic product in 2009 to 85 percent in late 2014, making Thailand’s household debt the highest in Southeast Asia.
In late March, the BAAC announced a debt relief program for 818,000 farmers, including those affected by government restrictions on growing off-season rice.
Dr. Titipol Phakdeewanich, a political scientist at Ubon Ratchathani University who researches the country’s rice policy, suggests that debt relief programs miss the point.
“There have been debt suspension programs in the past, but I think it is more important that we find sustainable ways to help indebted farmers by supporting them to generate higher income rather than writing off their debt,” he says.
Some say that rice farmers’ burgeoning debt is partly caused by ripple effects of the previous government’s controversial rice subsidy scheme that guaranteed farmers rice prices at up to twice the market rate.
“Under the rice scheme, many farmers invested everything they had to boost their yields,” observes Kunlapasorn Chuengrungruangphat, an employee at a rice mill in Yasothon. “But now with the prices down behavior hasn’t changed. They keep investing and their debt grows.”
The previous government’s rice policy was widely popular among rice farmers in the Northeast. It pushed up rural incomes and pulled many out of debt, at least temporarily.
“My life got much better,” says Pai Kaewbunruang, a Khon Kaen farmer recalling the period. “I didn’t really buy anything but instead gave money to my children and I paid off my debt with the BAAC. It was like a huge burden was lifted from my shoulders.”
The military government that came to power through a coup last year condemned the rice subsidy as a “populist policy” and retroactively impeached former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra over her alleged involvement in the scheme.
In place of the rice subsidy program, the military government has paid 1,000 baht per rai to small-scale farmers, a policy it characterized as “non-populist.” The policy, though, has left farmers more vulnerable to the ebbs and flows of the market.
The world market price for Thai rice are at its lowest since June last year. With the current global oversupply of rice, prices for the grain are not expected to rise any time soon.
Ms. Khamphong, who grows jasmine and sticky rice on her 12 rai of land, says, “The current government doesn’t support farmers. I don’t think they help with anything because the price of rice is still low.”
Under former government’s rice subsidy scheme, she earned 70,000 to 80,000 baht from selling her rice. But since the coup, her annual income has plunged to 40,000 baht.
While rice farmers struggle with high debt, low market prices, lack of state support, and an indirect ban on production for this season, the country’s drought might actually help the military government’s economic strategy.
As a result of the rice subsidy scheme, Thailand has 17.8 million tons of stockpiled rice. With less rice produced this dry season, the military government can clear out stockpiles to reduce storage costs. The last thing it wants is to buy more rice from Thai farmers.
Yields of the off-season rice is expected to drop by 43 percent to its lowest level in 15 years, according to the Office of Agricultural Economics.
In Nong Kha village, Assistant Village Headman Prasit Thangwon wonders why the government prohibited use of irrigation. “The water is there,” he insists. “People who work at the dam tell us that there was enough water for us to plant a second rice crop.”
Without the income from the second rice crop, many farming families have to depend on the financial support from their children, many of whom work in the cities. Others have sent family members out to work in the sugar cane industry or at local factories.
Mr. Pharat says that the government advised people in the village to switch to other crops that consume less water. “They tell us to grow chili or corn instead, but how can this make up for my loss in profit this season?” he asks, “And if everyone grows corn then the price will go down too.”
KHON KAEN – In late January, about 250 Northeasterners from six provinces gathered at the conference room of the Petcharat Garden Hotel in Roi Et to participate in the drafting process of Thailand’s twentieth constitution. The military government claims to be seeking citizen participation in drafting the constitution, but these public forums to gather input from Thais across the country seem to be nothing but a false front in the Northeast.
Last November the military government appointed a 36-member committee headed by legal scholar Bavornsak Uwanno from the conservative King Prajadhipok’s Institute (KPI) to draft a new charter. This so-called Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) was given a four-month window to propose a draft before sending it for approval to the National Reform Council (NRC). And Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha stressed that the drafting process would focus on the public’s participation.
In a country that cannot seem to seriously commit to one constitution, the military government’s announcement that it would scrap the 2007 constitution and start anew startled no one. However, their stated commitment to draw input from the voices of everyday Thai citizens seems peculiar for a regime that has suspended all democratic processes and put a lid on public opposition.
Under the title “Finding a Solution For Thailand: Weaving People’s Power to Reform Thailand” the CDC and the NRC launched a series of public forums to engage citizens. These two-day events toured ten cities across the country, including the three Northeastern provinces of Roi Et, Udon Thani, and Surin.
Early announcements indicated that villagers would be randomly picked through the house registration system. But in Khon Kaen fewer than ten villagers accepted the invitation to join the forum in Roi Et and the bulk of participants were recruited through the personal connections of the organizers. Sompong Pratoomthong, Chairman of the KPI’s Center for Civic Development in Khon Kaen and an organizer of the forums, suggested public interest in the event was low.
At the event in Roi Et, Chairman Wanchai Watanasap urged the attendants to respect each other’s opinions and warned that there cannot be any conflict among the participants. Then he divided the crowd into eight discussion groups and sent them off with a moderator and a notetaker.
In one of the small groups, the moderator kicked off the discussion by asking about the participants’ vision for Thailand after the new constitution was in place. The room remained silent until a young man raised his hand and said, “I don’t want any more coups.” The moderator quickly responded that such concerns would require private conversations with the organisers.
Among the most prominent civil society groups in the Northeast, many are debating the merits of participating in the public forums at all. Some, like Suvit Kulapwong, General-Secretary of NGO CORD Isan, reject the legitimacy of the military-installed government and the charter drafting process.
“They talk about reform, but this is just gibberish. This reform process is not for the people, but for the elites in power who are trying to reorganize their relationships and clear their conflict,” said Mr. Suvit, referring to the prolonged rivalry between the country’s conservative establishment and the camp of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Among those who oppose the constitution drafting process, the belief prevails that without lifting martial law and allowing freedom of expression, there cannot be an open dialogue on the contents of the new charter. Under the current circumstances all participation is to no avail.
“The main point of a democracy is to acknowledge the voices of the people,” said Jakrapong Thanavorapong, an activist working to protect natural resources in Isaan. “We are not participating in the public forums because we don’t believe a new constitution can offer any solutions to the problems in Isaan.”
But Wipattanachai Pimhin, a civil society leader from Khon Kaen’s Nam Phong District, is not convinced that participation is futile. He chose to participate in the public forums. “We are not obeying the military junta, but the forums are the only channel for us and the people to give input to drafting process,” he said. However, he admits that the chances of the CDC considering civil society’s suggestions are low.
Each public forum concludes with a list of suggestions purportedly compiled by the participants to be considered for the constitution. However, some participants in Khon Kaen voiced concerns that the government has already finished drafting a constitution and will ignore public opinion.
Supot Thongnerkhaw, one of six group chairmen of the public forum in Roi Et, said that he has zero hope that any of their suggestions will make it into the constitution. “In my opinion, the whole process is just window-dressing. The CDC and the NRC most likely already have a draft in the drawer. If our suggestions fit in, fine, but if not, they will just ignore them,” Mr. Supot said.
While the forums convey to the public that the constitution drafters are interested in broad-based participation, Titipol Phakdeewanich, Political Scientist at Ubon Ratchathani University, believes their main purpose lies elsewhere. “The goal is to give legitimacy to the drafting process,” Mr Titipol reasons, “so they can show the international community that the constitution is based on popular will.”
Political observers have noted that the CDC is composed of members of the conservative elite who were involved in the drafting of the military-backed 2007 constitution. Some members reportedly participated in or supported last year’s anti-government protest, which raises concerns over the nonpartisanship of the drafting body.
Mr. Titipol argues that the members of the drafting committee mainly represent Thailand’s old generation. He is trying to engage students through public seminars at his university, but many of them believe that their voices do not matter, and they fear potential repercussions from the authorities if they express dissenting opinions.
“There are people in their sixties and seventies writing Thailand’s new constitution, but any drafting process should include younger people. After all, this charter is mainly written for the younger generation. We live in the 21st century and we don’t want see Thailand move backwards in time, do we?”
Community members, lawyers, academics, and students from the Northeast and Bangkok convened this Friday to kick off a new political movement to defend the rights of Isaan people under martial law.
BANGKOK- On Friday morning, Khon Kaen University law students from the activist group Dao Din, gathered sleepily after a long train ride to the capital, before walking into a conference room at Thammasat University. Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, one of the students who staged a three-finger salute protest at Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s speech in Khon Kaen last December, briefed the students on the security protocol for the day, in case the seminar was shut down.
“Make sure you move villagers to a safe location if anything happens,” he told his peers before the seminar began.
Over sixty people joined the seminar under the name,“Isaan in the Middle of Bangkok: Peoples’ Life in the Center of Development.” Isaan community groups, students, academics, and lawyers discussed the effects of martial law and the immediate need to repeal it. They declared “New Isaan,” as an emergent political movement in opposition to military rule. Despite the students’ preparation for potential military intervention, the seminar was held without interruption.
The need for the security plan echoed the same climate described by Isaan villagers who feel the daily effects of martial law. Representatives from over ten communities across the Northeast joined the seminar, including those from the gold mine affected area in Loei Province, the forest community that was evicted from Kao Baat, village of Non Din Daeng District in Buriram Province, the potential natural gas sites in Kranuan District of Khon Kaen Province and Kalasin Province, a water transferal project in Roi Et Province, the potential industrial zone in Nam Phong District of Khon Kaen Province, the Phu Pan National Park in Sakon Nakhon Province, and the potential Pong Khun Phet Dam in Chaiyaphum Province.
According to Mr. Jatupat, the seminar was held in Bangkok because it is the country’s center of power and home of the decision makers that Isaan people struggle against.
Villagers expressed many common sentiments, including living life in fear and the disconnect between Bangkok and the Northeast. Porntip Hongchai, a forty-five-year-old activist from the gold mine area in Loei province, described her frustration.
“People in Bangkok hold these stereotypes against us Northeasterners. They think we’re poor and stupid; that we have nothing. We’re good singers or just a joke in the media, but our homes are for mining and industry. They don’t listen to us at all. The New Isaan won’t be obedient to those in power any more.”
Many members described the military presence and surveillance in their communities that came with martial law. They claimed that the military uses the law to negotiate villager compliance with industry interests.
“National security agencies and soldiers still have the mindset that villagers who remain in the forest are communists. They’ve made our relationships with local authorities worse,” said thirty-two-year-old Paitoon Soisod of Kao Baat.
“It’s clear that the military and the company are working together,” added fifty-nine-year-old Pakon Srakangtoom, a villager from Kranuan District.
In their testimonies, villagers stated that they have always had issues with past governments, but the limits on demonstration and expression have now made it nearly impossible for them to defend their rights.
“I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel with regards to martial law,” said Mr. Paitoon, “the fear is deeply embedded into our hearts, but we continue to fight. If we don’t fight, we’ll die.”
To which moderator, Kornchanok Saenprasert, responded, “Now the situation is, if you fight, you’re dead. But if you don’t fight, you’re still fucking dead.”
The morning panel concluded with Ms. Porntip reading “The Declaration for the New Isaan” (read it here), a powerful reckoning with the Central region’s dominance over the Northeast and call to arms against the military government. Student activists played “The Song of Commoners ” while members of the seminar sang along.
During the afternoon panel several lawyers and academics, both from Bangkok and the Northeast, discussed the historic context of martial law and the continual conflict between Bangkok and the Northeast.
“The government always tells the people they should sacrifice the environment they depend on for the rest of the country,” said Bencharat Chua, lecturer of Human Rights and Peace Studies at Thammasat University. She continued, “Now they ask them to sacrifice their right to protest for the peace and harmony of the country.”
As the event came to an end, twenty-seven-year-old organizer Suttikiat Khontchaso thanked the participants for joining. “Even those who weren’t invited,” he said referring to the four alleged plainclothes military representatives that were present taking pictures of the event.
“This is the day we establish New Isaan, a movement for Isaan people to join,” Mr. Suttikiat concluded, “Isaan is historically the birthplace of political movements, and ours is no different. We hope that this movement can serve as an example to people in other regions.”
The Dao Din student activists were also hopeful about this new movement’s potential. Mr. Jatupat said,“I hope that New Isaan will be able to create change. People should not just receive the policies that are handed to them. They should create their own future.”
Ancient Isaan Script to be Revitalized in New Public Effort
The Khon Kaen Municipality, Khon Kaen University and the Isan Culture Maitenance and Revitalization Program are collaborating to create programs to teach the Isaan heritage script, Tai Noi.
KHON KAEN– In Northeast Thailand fourteen million people speak the Isaan language in their homes, however, the language lacks a writing system and it is not taught in public schools. In a recent effort, Khon Kaen University (KKU), the Khon Kaen Municipality, and the Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalization Program (ICMRP) hope to reconcile the disconnect.
On 27-28 February, Khon Kaen Municipality and the Department of Culture at KKU held a two-day seminar as the culmination of a three-year effort to develop a syllabus and resources to teach the Isaan language using the Tai Noi script, an initiative supported by ICMRP. The university and the Khon Kaen Municipality signed a memorandum of understanding that will enable schools to teach the Isaan language using the ancient script. The event was attended by approximately 100 people from schools, temples, universities, and municipalities in Khon Kaen Province.
The Tai Noi script dates back to the Sukothai period, and accommodates the six tones of Isaan, allowing the speaker to pronounce the language more accurately than when Thai phonetics are used.
Supporters of the effort to formally teach the Isaan language argue that forging a connection to the region’s written past will help create a living culture of literacy in Isaan, as well as boost people’s pride in Isaan’s heritage. Many have argued that Northeasterners have been historically looked down upon by other Thais, especially those in Bangkok, and the impulse to bolster Isaan’s cultural uniqueness is a means to mitigate such discrimination.
The project is limited to eighteen schools in four municipalities in Khon Kaen Province, and works with a dialect of Isaan originally derived from the Vientiane sub-family of Lao. There are also efforts on behalf of Georgia State University to create a Thai-English-Isaan dictionary.
The university’s support of the project was surprising to some because the Thai educational system has historically emphasized the exclusive use of Central Thai and English for instruction. The Thai state has long insisted on the unity of people within the kingdom under the ethno-national concept of “Thai-ness.” State support, however small, for the countries’ minorities and various ethnic groups is uncommon.
According to John Draper, the coordinator of ICMRP, recognizing and preserving Thai cultural diversity is necessary and not divisive.
“Most Isaan people, whose culture started as Lao and is now a mix of Thai and Lao, would still not like to be called ‘Lao’ by outsiders, though among family and friends they would be more likely to describe their language, festivals, food, and music as ‘Lao.’ The danger comes when people stress differences over similarities in order to create ethnic conflict and disunity, or when people stress similarities over differences to go beyond what is a reasonable level of nationalism.”
Dr. Peerasit Kamnuansilpa, founder and former dean of the College of Local Administration at KKU also validated the necessity of the initiative, “The MOU will bring all participating organizations to work together and achieve the goal of revitalizing the cultural identity and values of the Northeast region.”
Few people have learned Tai Noi as it has traditionally only been used by monks in village ceremonies, according to Dr. Udom Basri, a scholar of Tai Noi and Isaan at Maha Chulalongkorn Buddhist University. This has posed a challenge to common people who might use the script.
“Only monks can learn it, or people who go to temples to learn from the monks. But, now new monks don’t know how to learn Tai Noi. Now, palm leaf manuscripts have been put away like treasures and cannot be touched. This project is important both for new monks who want to read manuscripts and for villagers who want to read the manuscripts.”
Now that instruction in the mother language of most people in the Northeast has gained support both from KKU and the municipality, greater cultural development within Isaan is a possibility.
“We need to look at the Northeast as rich in culture rather than looking at it as a region of poverty,” says the mayor of Khon Kaen, Teerasak Teekhayuphan, “In Thailand, we note that the Southerners speak in their own language fluently and gracefully in social contexts. This is the same in the North. However, our children are shy about doing this. We need to create a future where they are also proud of their identity, and we look forward to working with Khon Kaen University to do this.”