KHON KAEN – Under a temple pavilion, 60 Red Shirt villagers watched a projected image of a candle on a screen. A military staff member asked everyone to close their eyes, sit silent and meditate while she read aloud.
“How was it that we kept a hold on our country and avoided being colonized by another country? It was because our king protected our nation,” she recited.* “If any outsiders come to destroy our country, we will fight until we die. We need to protect our land and we need to love each other as a united country.”
After the brief meditation, a group of soldiers led the villagers in a synchronized dance, chanting the names of fruits and swaying their hips from side to side.
These activities were all part of a training recently conducted in Khon Kaen as part of an extensive tour of three-day events in villages across Isaan. The military government has convened these training camps, complete with lectures, performances, and physical exercises, with the aim of dissolving the political tension that they cite as the reason for the May 22 coup. But villagers here say the event avoided discussing the country’s political rift altogether and failed to address the economic concerns of the people of the Northeast.
This “Project to Strengthen Stability at the Village Level,” organized by the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), kicked off each morning at 8 a.m. with a salute to the national flag. Military staff and speakers gave lectures on topics covering their aims for reconciliation and the importance of the monarchy in Thailand. At night, the military held villager-versus-soldier soccer matches, served dinner, and screened the nationalist movie “The Legend of King Naresuan.”
The village-level events comprise the second phase of the military’s campaign to unify the country. In late May, the junta ordered the creation of so-called “reconciliation centers” in every province in order to help stabilize the political situation. They have now taken their reconciliation efforts to the doorsteps of the former government’s supporters.
“The intention of the event is to dispense with the colors in the community and provide a unity program,” said the head trainer of the event. He estimated that the sixteen trainings he presided over had been 80% successful.
When asked whether any participants expressed opposition to the coup or military government, he replied, “They wouldn’t dare!” And, if any do, he said, “Well, we’d just go back and do it again.”
Villagers and community leaders, however, said that the event did not address their most pressing concerns.
“All we want is democracy and there’s never going to be more democracy that results from a coup,” said a community leader after the reconciliation training. “No government born out of a coup has ever governed democratically.”
Representatives from three villages attended the event, and nearly all the villagers present were Red Shirts who no longer feel free to express their political views. Red flags, t-shirts and posters are no longer on public display in their homes, but the villagers have not given up their loyalty to the self-described pro-democracy group.
Though the head trainer claimed that the event was held in order to end the Red and Yellow divide, the speakers did not once address color-coded politics.
“The military wanted people to know what they were doing and ensure that people don’t oppose them. That’s their version of ‘reconciliation,’” said a village leader who attended the training. “The other activities were secondary, like relieving stress by singing songs.”
The training also failed to answer the villagers’ questions about the new government’s stance on agricultural subsidy programs and other welfare policies that these villagers consider pivotal to the process of reconciliation.
“What are the people’s problems in Isaan? The price of rice and the prices of the other crops they produce. If we can sell these well, then we have liquidity,” said one fruit seller in the village, who asked to go by the name Joy.
The soldiers devoted one session to the Sufficiency Economy, a royally-backed initiative that encourages farmers toward sustainability and moderation. They booked Martin Wheeler, an Englishman who lives as a farmer in Isaan, to charm the crowd with slapstick jokes as he praised the farming model in fluent Isaan, the regional dialect.
But according to the community leader, his village knows well the tenets of the Sufficiency Economy, and he and his neighbors are impatiently waiting to hear how the new government will support their agricultural work. With rice now selling for as little as 12 baht per kilogram in the local market, many rice farmers here are just breaking even.
“Villagers don’t know who to depend on now,” said the community leader. “We don’t see any transparency in the way the military rules and we have no way to scrutinize this government.” At the same time, he does not feel he can speak openly about his opposition to the coup.
The military will conclude their village-level reconciliation trainings at the end of this month. According to the head trainer, the next phase of reconciliation will entail an internal review of the villagers’ evaluations of the events.
*Note: Names were removed from this piece to protect the sources.