Saplings of democracy in Isaan


Photo by Danuchat Boon-aran

By Chainarong Setchua

All over the country, we are seeing students organizing themselves to protest against the dictatorship and demand democracy. It is a phenomenon that hasn’t been seen since the student protests of 14 October 1973.

The movement has been hailed as the “rise of Thailand’s new generation” in the country, whereas some foreign media outlets have been using the term “youth quake.” A good proportion of the so-called youth quake occurred within the Isaan region.

At Khon Kaen University, Maha Sarakham University, Ubon Ratchathani University, Nakhon Phanom University, Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University, and Udon Thani Rajabhat University, the gatherings took on the atmosphere of a show of force, and were as well attended as any of the university protests in Bangkok.

At some of these protests, secondary school students could be seen standing shoulder to shoulder with university students in the front-most rows.

It’s fair to say that this phenomenon has materialized in Isaan due to the following conditions.

Firstly, the young men and women in Isaan who make up this movement were mostly born in 1997 or later. They are part of the Generation Z and have grown up with democracy as the ideological norm for all of their lives. They do not share any of the twelve values promoted by the government of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) [after the coup in 2014], even while the current government tries to force the dictatorial value system down their throats.

We have to understand that Gen Z grew up in the age of full digitization. They receive and consume a wide range of information from many different sources, including the democratic ideals that have manifested in various ways all over the world. They do not receive information only from traditional media outlets controlled directly or indirectly by the government, and they are capable of critically examining the information they receive for themselves.

This is plainly evidenced by their rejection of the dictatorship’s twelve-step program in favour of democracy. In practical terms, the organization of these protests within the grounds of educational institutions is also a rejection of the dictatorship, which has repeatedly tried to foist these totalitarian values on them through the education system. The young are showing that they want Thai society to be democratic.

Secondly, aside from their access to more comprehensive information and greater practice in critically evaluating that information, the youth of Gen Z seem to place a premium on participation. This is in line with current global trends, where the voices of the young are being heard more and more, whether it concerns politics, society, or the environment.

This preference for participatory models is a key factor in spurring these young women and men to organize themselves into a movement. Their protests are about demanding the right to political participation because they, too, are part of society, and also feel the consequences of an undemocratic political system. As students in particular, they experience the lack of democracy most keenly by being forbidden to express their political views. They and their peers often have their rights violated, such as by being unlawfully arrested and charged, being summoned for questioning, and so on.

You have to understand that all these young people are first-time voters, and of course, many of them voted for the party which they thought would use their votes to solve the problems that they see with this country. When the party, which many of them supported, was dissolved in a way which they saw as unjustified, they moved to protest against their votes being effectively declared null and void by the prevailing political system.

In any case, their protest should not be viewed narrowly as a partisan show of support for a certain political party. It is a demand to be heard, a claim to their rightful place at the table. They are demanding nothing less than to have their right to political representation respected.

Thirdly, for the new generation of Isaan, the protests are also about the problems they face owing to the absence of democracy. For them, having their basic rights infringed upon has been part of their everyday lives for the past decade.

The most severe human rights violations occurred during the NCPO’s tenure at the helm. Cases in point include the gold mine in Wang Saphung district of Loei province, and the drilling for petroleum which has caused untold suffering to locals in many parts of Isaan such as Kalasin, Khon Kaen, and Udon Thani. That is to say nothing of the forest reclamation policy and the irresponsible expansion of the sugar industry in Isaan, as well as the continuing negative effects connected to the poorly conceived dams of earlier years which have badly affected the lives of many Isaan people.

Prior to the coup, many of those studying in Isaan universities began organizing themselves into groups according to the issues that they saw affecting Isaan. Some of these groups got directly involved with the activism of the locals in the affected areas. Many interesting independent activist groups sprang up from among university students all over Isaan; Dao Din, Nok Natang, Med Sai, Thien Khai, to name just a few. All of these independent student groups formed spontaneously to help locals deal with the injustice they were facing from government policies.

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Some of them were able to merge their activism with their studies, and use their time in the field with locals as a basis for the academic research. They got involved in training citizen journalists, making documentaries, and films, all while they were also helping to fight for the rights of these locals.

The rising up of the new generation in Isaan is predicated on the fact that Isaan is not receiving justice from the developmental policies of previous administrations, and especially not during the time of the military dictatorship.

It is therefore unfair to say that the rising up of the new generation in Isaan is only a youth movement, or that it is only limited to students. They are acting as a proxy for all of Isaan.

Strategically, it should be noted that they are proposing concrete solutions rather than simply protesting for the sake of it. Their proposals include measures such as rewriting the constitution with the participation of the people, reverting to having elected senators who don’t get to vote on who becomes prime minister, and demanding accountability from politicians.

Tactically, it is interesting that their movement does not contain any clear leadership or hierarchy. Unlike with previous student uprisings or protests, there are no charismatic firebrands to single out. Instead they appear to be organizing themselves by networking throughout their institutions and making decisions by consensus. In many institutions there is not even a leading organization, yet the activities are successfully organized and carried out.

Their activities tend to be non-confrontational, are organized at short notice, and tend to focus on making themselves seen and heard, to show that they are a force. They are not fixated on successfully carrying out the activity itself, which can lead to conflict. They know that they are in it for the long haul.

The main challenge facing the young people of Isaan is achieving momentum and sustainability for their movement in the long term. They must learn the lessons of similar movements from across the globe, and effectively adapt them for use in their own contexts. At the same time, they must guard against infiltration and having external conditions placed upon them by the authoritarian regime.

Today, the movements of young people in Isaan, and all over Thailand, are merely the beginning. The road to their objectives is a long one, but what they have created is a valuable stepping stone for Thai society to move forward upon. Their protests are the sproutings of the seeds of democracy in this land.

One day this country will be a democracy in the way that they wish for. Sooner or later, it will come, and all of us have to support the young people as they take up the fight. We must not leave them to fight alone.

This op-ed translated from Thai and edited by The Isaan Record.

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Dr Chainarong Setthachua is a lecturer and ecology expert at Mahasarakham University. He has been involved in environmental and human rights activism in Thailand and the lower Mekong region for more than 30 years.