On December 15, 2015, the Thai Supreme Court sent eight Red Shirts activists to prison for charges related to the arson of the Ubon Ratchathani Provincial Hall in 2010, which I wrote about here. The court reversed the Provincial and Appeals Court decisions which dismissed serious charges, including terrorism. The verdict increases the number of imprisoned Ubon Ratchathani Red Shirts to 12 in total, eight of whom were given at least 33 years behind bars.
Among these eight is an outspoken leader of a local independent Red Shirt group called “Chak Thong Rop” [Hoisting the Battle Flag] named Phichet Thabutda, or better known among local Red Shirts as Ajan Toi.
Phichet ran a local radio station and hosted a popular radio talk show commenting on politics and bread-and-butter issues. At the peak of the fateful Red Shirt protests in 2010, Phichet was one of the most influential leaders of Ubon Ratchathani Red Shirts and was able to mobilize hundreds if not thousands of Red Shirts to join the protests at the Phan Fa and Ratchaprasong intersections rally sites in Bangkok. He was arrested right after the 2010 crackdown and detained until mid 2011 for several charges including masterminding the arson. The provincial court later gave him a one-year imprisonment verdict, but the cases were not concluded because of appeals.
In 2012, when national politics cooled down under the new elected government, he ran for the president of the Ubon Ratchathani Provincial Administrative Organization. Despite losing at the ballot, he garnered nearly 130,000 votes, largely from his Red Shirts followers. Since then, he became involved in NGO projects addressing community economic needs and problems. After the 2014 military coup, he was one of the Red Shirt leaders summoned and detained for several days by the junta and was made to report to the local military base every Monday until the court’s decision.
The December 15 verdict came as a shock to him and many observers. Phichet, however, remained calm despite the blow.
A few moments after the Supreme Court verdict, he gave an interview to Prachatai in which he made a curious reference to the Phi Bun (Holy Man) Rebellion. The rebellion occurred at the turn of the twentieth century when Siam, the ruling kingdom over small polities in the region, reformed the taxing system in a time of widespread economic hardships (see also a recent Isaan Record interview with an Isan historian ).
The oft-cited premise leading to the uprising was that there was a widely circulated prophecy that a series of ill-fated events would occur unless villagers joined the movement led by incarnated thevada (gods), who would be their saviors. Local villagers started to do as instructed in the prophecy and joined the rebellion.
Toem Wiphakphotchanakit’s book entitled History of Isan [prawattisat isaan] serves as a ubiquitous reference for the history of the region from the Siamese rulers’ perspective. In his book, Toem dedicates 16 pages (pages 432-448) to the discussion of Holy Man Rebellion in Ubon. However, Toem makes little effort to give details about the rebels and he does not make clear whether there were any other underlying causes for the rebels besides the local villager-turned-rebels’ desire to have the perfect life promised by the prophecy.
As the son of a secretary to the Bangkok-installed Ubon Provincial Commissioner at the time of the Holy Man uprising, Toem painted a picture of the Holy Man rebels and their followers as that of an exploitative relationship between the power-mongering, subversive rebel leaders and gullible, superstitious villagers in Ubon.
During the interview with Prachatai, the reporter asked Phichet why the court reversed the lower court decisions of one-year imprisonment to a life sentence (which was reduced to 33 years and 4 months). Here is his response:
“I think they see me as a leader and thus can’t escape any responsibility. They didn’t say it explicitly, but it went against the judgments by primary and appeals courts. This is unusual. But I do understand it’s the court’s consideration. It’s not a problem. Our forefathers and foremothers from 111 years ago weren’t as lucky as I am. My grandfather was accused of being a Phi Bun rebel. He was beheaded. I’m much luckier, just getting sent to jail for the rest of my life.”
The underlined sentences are linguistically significant. In the first sentence, the kin term our forefathers and foremothers [pu ya ta yai khong rao] introduces additional potential actors into the discourse. But without explicitly elaborating on the actors and how unlucky they were, Phichet instead introduced another actor—my grandfather [pu phom], who was accused of being a Phi Bun rebel and was punished with death.
We are then invited to make an inference to the forefathers and foremothers, just like his grandfather, who were accused of being the Phi Bun rebels. Only with this inference can another inference be made about “not as lucky as I am.” That is, his imprisonment is “luckier” than their ancestors’ beheading.
The passive structure “was accused” in the second sentence allows Phichet to direct our attention to the victims of punishment without committing himself to giving details about the allegations and without explicitly stating who “accused” them.
But why did he make a connection to the rebels at all? In the official historical account, the Holy Man rebels were derided as nothing more than local masses misguided by foolish fantasies about future “better lives”. What do we make of Phichet’s seemingly trivial reference? Why was Phichet comfortable to refer to the rebels given the rebellion’s tainted image?
In essence, as a Red Shirt, Phichet sees himself and his ancestors as having one thing in common—an experience of injustice. Though on different occasions his ancestors and the Red Shirts were accused of serious offenses and persecuted by the powers-that-be. This reading fits nicely with Phichet’s other comment in the same Prachatai interview:
“What do I say? We don’t need to beg for anyone’s mercy. We know in our hearts if we’re right or wrong. But we also know what the standards are. [I] don’t accuse or blame them. This is good. They followed the law and used the harshest measure against me. What about others who have done things in a similar way—who took over the airports and occupied the Government House? How would you judge them? If they wanted to execute me tomorrow, it would be fine with me. But I hope they would use the same standard [with them].”
Phichet is expressing his skepticism about the justice system. Phichet makes us curious by putting the Phi Bun rebels in the discourse of double standards, which has been a main proclaimed grievance of the Red Shirts. His reference to the rebellion serves as an invitation to the audience to consider a connection between past and present. Essentially, Phichet draws a historical connection between the Red Shirt grievances and struggles and those who long came before them. This in turn underscores the long-standing internal colonial tension between Bangkok and its hinterland and, at least to Phichet, the importance of the Red Shirt movement as something much more than “Thaksin’s pawns” in the pro-establishment rhetoric.