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Isaan Under Contract – A Push For Stronger Regulation of Contract Farming

2015 December 24

Contract farming is a common choice amongst farmers in the Northeast due to its low start-up costs and potential financial advantages. But farmers report that the system is ridden with problems and many producers involved find themselves to be in severe debt and feel controlled by the companies they work for. A recently proposed contract farming protection act pushes for more regulation and is supposed to be reviewed in January 2016.

GUEST CONTRIBUTION by Elyssa Eull, Kaori Nagase, Lindsay Palmisano and Annie Sadler

The Khammi family started contract fish farming in 1998 when a representative from Charoen Pokphand Foods (CPF) came to their village and offered them to contract fish farm. Pictured are their fish baskets, roped off along the Chi River in Mahasarakham Province.

The Khammi family started contract fish farming in 1998 when a representative from Charoen Pokphand Foods (CPF) came to their village and offered them to contract fish farm. Pictured are their fish baskets, roped off along the Chi River in Mahasarakham Province.

MAHA SARAKHAM – Shortly after the sun settled deep into the horizon on the other side of the Chi River, the sky turned to an inky black and the structures of fish baskets, corrugated tin shacks, and wooden walkways became shadows on the water. A pickup truck backed down to the river’s edge with two large water tanks filled with baby fish. Every family member quickly took up their position and the fish were scooped out of the tanks, weighed, and poured into baskets in the river all by the beam of a giant flashlight.

Wilaiwan Khammi, a second generation fish farmer, operates an independent fish farm with her extended family. For three years, they have been successfully selling their fish to an independent market vendor at the local market in their hometown, Baan Din Dum in Maha Sarakham Province.

But this independence is newfound. Ms. Wilaiwan and her family used to be contract fish farmers for Charoen Pokphand Foods (CPF).

Contract Farming – A Broken Promise?

Contract farming is a system in which agricultural production is based on an agreement between a farmer and an agribusiness company. Large firms, such as CPF, outsource their production to individual farmers, supposedly sharing both the risks and responsibilities associated with agricultural production.

Although contract farming is a common choice amongst farmers, the system seems to be ridden with problems.

It became popular in Thailand in the early 1980’s when CPF first began contracting outside farmers. All across the country, contract farmers are producing anything from vegetables and rice to cash crops and livestock. CPF claims on their website that there are 200,000 contract farmers nationwide, however other data suggests that this number is much larger.

A CPF broker visited Ms. Wilaiwan’s village years ago promoted contract fish farming as a profitable future. The company offered to cover the initial start-up costs including the fish, feed, and infrastructures in return for the producers to provide a certain quality and quantity of fish throughout the four month harvesting period.

This promise of a consistent buyer was appealing for the 300 – 400 people in the village who leapt at the chance to create a stable form of income.

For the first few years, low start-up costs and an increase in family income had the villagers under CPF’s spell. However, reality struck when the fish started dying. The cause of death remains unknown but many affected farmers claim that CPF sold them fingerlings (baby fish) of sub-par quality.

As the company refused to claim responsibility, farmers were uncompensated for these losses, and were unable to sell the entirety of the fish that they had paid for at the beginning of the season.

Ms. Wilaiwan paid 130,000 baht on average for 10,000 fish, which would last her a season. But the price of fish feed from CPF was consistently more expensive than other companies. CPF charged her 600 baht for one sack of fish feed, while other companies would sell one sack for just 400 baht, Ms. Wilaiwan claimed.

Contract fish farmers are often tempted to sell to other contractors, who offer higher prices. But many felt restricted by the contract that kept them from making their own business decisions.

Farmers report that they were verbally threatened that if they are caught breaking contractual regulations, the company can refuse to supply them another shipment of fingerlings.

Despite this, Ms. Wilaiwan said that she and her fellow producers “were not afraid, but frustrated. We felt sad because there was this option to make more profits for our families, but we couldn’t choose it. You have to sell to CPF even though you’re not happy or satisfied.”

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After growing nil and tap tim fish under contract with CP for several years, Wilaiwan Khammi found a fish seller that did not require a contractual agreement, which prompted her to begin preparations to start her own fish farming business.

Fish farmers, who had not signed a contract but had only a verbal agreement with the contractor, were able to leave the contracting system once they stopped experiencing success. Today, of the once 300 – 400 contract fish farmers, only five or six producers remain in Baan Din Dum village.

Ms. Wilaiwan was able to end her contract with CPF and pay off her debt of 1 million baht by seeking out financial assistance from her extended family. This help also provided her the funds to start her independent fish farming business.

As the average debt of contract fish farmers is 300,000 baht ($8,400 USD), this ability to have an immediate, full financial release is unusual. Many other producers in the village had to return to rice and vegetable farming to pay of their debt and cut their ties with CPF.

Push for Regulation

Ubon Yuwah, a coordinator of the Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN), is leading efforts to create more protection for contract farmers, as the current lack of governmental regulation leaves much room for farmers to be exploited, he said.

Earlier this year, he submitted a proposal to the government for a contract farming protection act that was drafted in partnership with several organizations. The act is supposed to increase government regulation, which would in turn boost fairness for all parties involved in the system.

But passing such a law faces many difficulties as there are different types of contract farming systems and varying levels of exploitation that the farmers are subjected to, Mr Ubon said.

The proposed legislation will require written contracts – verbal agreements are common in the contract farming business – and a registration with a local government office. The binding nature of the contract is supposed to help strengthen compliance on both sides of the agreement while clearly outlining farmers’ rights and consequences for breaching the contract.

Passing the Burden to Their Children

In Khon Kaen Province, contract chicken farmer Phikul Rongbutsri pulled back the blue tarp tucked around the doorway of a tin building that extends to the far end of her property. Within the darkness of the building, rows of metal cages slowly come into sight, lit by light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. The sound of 25,000 chickens ruffling their feathers fills the room, as the chickens packed tightly in each cage come into sight.

After signing a contract with Sriviroj Farm (SF), a large agribusiness corporation that works in partnership with CPF, Ms. Phikul’s father started contract chicken farming by taking out a 700,000 baht (over $19,400 USD) loan from the state Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC). It covered the construction of open-air chicken barns and the first shipment of chickens and chicken feed from SF.

The operation seemed to run smoothly and its profits allowed Ms. Phikul to slowly chipped away at the debt from her father’s original investment. But after a few years, her business turned into an endless source of debt.

Ms. Phikul was told to upgrade her chicken barns into closed buildings with a cooling system and new cages, an investment of four million baht ($112,000 USD). SF threatened to not send her new chicks if she would not upgrade her barns at costs that would have spiralled her debt out of control, she said.

“Farmers here don’t dare to speak up for themselves because they’re afraid of the company,” says Suwit Innamma, AAN representative and Coordinator of the Nongbua Subdistrict Chicken Farmers. Mr. Suwit educates farmers of their rights, and collects data from farmers to present to policy-makers.

Ms. Phikul did speak up herself but now “the company now sees her as a radical and a violent person because she’s asking for her rights,” Mr. Suwit said.

Lacking the money to pay for the system, Ms. Phikul claimed she was forced to offer her land title as collateral, which the company used to take out a loan on her behalf and construct the new building in her backyard.

“I know that they are taking advantage of us, but at this point, I just cannot do anything” she said. “Once you step on a tiger’s back, you cannot get down.”

In their 2014 Sustainability Report, CPF states that seven percent of their contract farms were “successfully transferred to the successive generations.” On their website the company advertises that the contract farming system provides farmers with increased stability and a chance to build a farming business worthy of passing on to their children.

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Phikul Rongbutsri, raises 50,000 chickens every season in two identical barns on her property in Khon Kaen Province.

Indeed, Ms. Phikul’s farm will be passed on into the hands of her children. But rather than passing down a proud family business, she is passing down the burden of debt to her children.They have few other options but to work as chicken farmers in order to pay off the family’s debt, she said.

“I’ll have to train them. After school, I’ll have to ask them to help me to farm so they learn how to do it,” she shared with an air of heavy disappointment.

Ms. Phikul blames her dire financial situation on the lack of transparency about the contract and the loans she was forced to take out. She claimed that SF manages her loans and deducts payments from her profit whenever they buy her chickens, without specifying how much.

“I have no idea. They come, pick up the chickens, they carry them and transport them to weigh somewhere else,” she said when asked how much profit she had made from selling a day’s worth of chickens.

This was not always the case; employees who came to pick up her chickens used to weigh them right in front of her eyes. Once she started to notice that the numbers on the receipt did not match up with her notes, the company abruptly stopped weighing them in front of her, she claimed.

There is a host of literature written by NGO’s and academics that make recommendations on how to improve the contract farming system. Multiple reports state that farmers should have the right to be present at the time of weighing.

Ms. Phikul was also not given a formal agreement with protection clauses because the company is “afraid that farmers will have the rights and check on each part,” claimed Mr. Suwit.

Unmentioned Risks

Contracting companies also seem to have mislead fish farmers by failing to mention the difficulties farmers might encounter in the contract farming scheme.

Uthai Chaihan, a past fish farmer in Maha Sarakham, raised fish on a contractual basis with CPF for just one year, and claimed that, “the salesmen just promoted contract fish farming, and the company didn’t say anything about the risks.”

He invested 200,000 baht ($5,600 USD) but after three months all of his fish died, he claimed. “I still have debt and still worry,” he said advising anyone who intends to invest in fish farming to “be independent and invest on your own.”

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It takes about 57 days for the chicks to mature to selling size, and Phikul Rongbutsri receives a load of them from Sriviroj Farm, a large agribusiness corporation, four times per year. This barn holds 21,000 to 23,000 chickens in the hot season and 25,000 chickens in the cool season.

“The company and farmers could share the risk and responsibility, if there’s any loss or damage,” Mr. Uthai said adding that a formal contract with clearly laid out terms would be beneficial to farmers.

Mr. Ubon from the Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN) puts his hopes on the contract farming protection act that is expected to be reviewed in January 2016. If the new legislation passes, the contract farming system may be regulated in a way to provide farmers with sufficient information about their rights and prevent companies from taking advantage of misinformed producers.

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Khon Kaen Green Market Celebrates One-Year Anniversary

2015 December 18
by The Isaan Record

By Megan Brookens

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Diversity at the Khon Kaen Green Market extends beyond the products offered. Farmers both young and old, male and female migrate to downtown Khon Kaen each Friday to set up shop. Photo credit: Kaori Nagase

KHON KAEN – Vibrant colors blur as the market crowd grows, and the tantalizing scent of frying fish fills the air as the sky darkens. A few people with microphones shout out their deals in the middle of the street, customers and vendors exchange goods along each side, and buyers try to get the most for their money.

Every Friday evening between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. the Khon Kaen Green Market pops up near Nikon Samran Road. It might appear just like any ordinary market in the Northeast but the Khon Kaen Green Market, which celebrates its first anniversary on December 18, is of a different kind.

While other markets in the city mostly sell produce conventionally grown with the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the Khon Kaen Green Market strives to sell only chemical-free products, creating healthy and safe options for the city’s people. The wide variety of products sold includes fresh fruits and vegetables, naturally dyed fabric, carefully prepared snacks, floral teas, and even some herbal cosmetics and soaps.

Today, Khon Kaen residents are celebrating one year of having increased access to healthy food. Organic farmers and vendors are also celebrating a year of having a reliable place to sell their products.

The Green Market was established last year through the collaboration of many groups, including the municipality, vendors, and consumers interested in purchasing safer foods. While customer demand was crucial in starting the Green Market, there was also significant demand from producers, as many lacked a venue to sell and promote their organic goods.

Josh Macknick, a 35-year-old restaurant owner and Khon Kaen resident of seven years, involved himself in starting the Green Market in 2013 for the desire to know where his food was coming from.

After a year and a half of meetings with the municipality and collaborating with community organizers, the mayor of Khon Kaen gave the project a green light.

Mr. Macknick and other market organizers used the waiting time to focus on how to maximize the success of the market. They toured giant organic farms, home gardens, and other organic markets in order to strategize and learn best practices.

Many fruits and vegetables in conventional markets across Thailand contain chemical pesticide residues. According to a study done by the Thailand Pesticide Alert Network in 2014, out of 118 samples of fruits and vegetables, 46.6% had excessive amounts of chemical pesticide residues, including 100% of oranges, 69.2% of guavas, 58.3 % of apples, 53.8% of kale, and 50% of basil. In addition, 62% contained chemicals from more than one pesticide

Many fruits and vegetables in conventional markets across Thailand contain chemical pesticide residues. According to a study done by the Thailand Pesticide Alert Network in 2014, out of 118 samples of fruits and vegetables, 46.6% had excessive amounts of chemical pesticide residues, including 100% of oranges, 69.2% of guavas, 58.3 % of apples, 53.8% of kale, and 50% of basil. In addition, 62% contained chemicals from more than one pesticide. Photo credit: Elyssa Eull

In Thailand, as well as other countries, organic markets have been gaining popularity in the last decade, particularly in major cities where access to clean, fresh food is more limited. When the Green Revolution swept Thailand in the 1970s, many farmers transitioned from traditional subsistence farming to chemical agriculture, reducing the supply of organic food.

In the early 1980s, many local NGOs, community organizers, and farmers formed the Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN) to promote sustainable agriculture activism in Thailand. The AAN facilitates forums for farmers to share their experiences and advocates for sustainable agriculture policies, including the promotion of organic farming.

Currently, the AAN supports organic and sustainable agriculture movements in Thailand. It spreads awareness of the risks of using chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. It also advocates for stricter regulations because many banned chemicals are still widely available and used in Thailand, AAN members say.

In the past decade, the number of organic farmers has increased, but organic produce still makes up about only 1 percent of the food market in Thailand, with 50 percent of organic products being exported.

According to a study by the Ministry of Commerce, organic agriculture farmland accounted for 314,000 rai (50,000 hectares) in 2013, a 13.9 percent increase from 2012. The ministry plans to promote Thailand as the ASEAN hub of organic farming and trade by 2020.

While producers value organic farming for different reasons, many list health as the primary motivation. Some farmers have been growing organically their whole lives, but others – such as Surritrat Palapan, who runs a farm twenty kilometers outside of Khon Kaen, ended up switching to organic after many years of chemical use.

Mr. Surritrat attended a university training seminar about the benefits of growing in season and using fewer chemicals. “My father had gotten sick directly from the chemicals I was using,” he said. “He had high levels of toxins in his blood and I decided that this kind of farming wasn’t worth it.”

The AAN links chemicals commonly used for farming to various ailments ranging from minor skin rashes and chest pain to cancers, dangerous infections, diabetes, and even death from chemical poisoning. These toxins are dangerous to both the farmer and the consumer as they can be transmitted through pesticides sprayed in the air, residue from fertilizer in water sources, and the ingestion of treated crops.

Mr. Surritrat takes pride in the fact that his products do not harm his customers’ health. “If I make customers happy and healthy, I feel good about my job,” he said with a smile.

Panida Kanhakun, a 54-year-old customer, comes to the Green Market every Friday after work because she too is conscious of her health. “I would buy more organic products if they were available more often, and not just on Fridays,” she said. Ms. Panida said she feels more connected to her food since she knows where it is coming from.

Although all Green Market vendors have products that are chemical-free, the market hosts farmers who are diverse in the products they sell and the agricultural methods they use. For example, some use compost from organic material instead of chemical fertilizer and others use plants instead of chemicals to make dye for their products.

Some vendors have attained certifications from organizations like the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), and Organic Agriculture Certification Thailand (ACT), but the majority of participating farmers originally had no idea where to start the complex certification process.

According to the organizers of the Green Market, the majority of vendors are currently held accountable to organic standards by a participatory guarantee system (PGS), most commonly defined by IFOAM as a “locally focused quality assurance system.” This system certifies producers based on “active participation of stakeholders” and is “built on a foundation of trust, social networks and knowledge exchange.”

Green Market organizers make it their mission to disperse knowledge about the various types of certifications and provide support in the certification process, with the hope of ultimately inspiring other farmers in the region to follow suit.

“Our PGS process is actually quite strict,” said Mr. Macknick. “A member of the Khon Kaen Food Safety Board, myself, and an AAN representative visit the farms where we run through a seventeen-point qualifying questionnaire and inspection,” he continued.

Mr. Macknick explained that each farmer must meet with the certification committee individually. The committee tests one kilogram of soil and one or two items growing at each farm in a lab.

Some vendors at the Green Market are not officially certified because of the lengthy vetting process, but have been approved by the Green Market team. Random testing at the market is also done regularly to ensure that products are truly chemical-free.

While vendors from the Green Market can ensure that their own agricultural methods are safe, there can be other factors outside of their control. Sometimes protecting crops from contamination can be difficult, especially for farmers located near the city or close to chemical farms. A strategically placed road or blockade might be the only thing keeping the chemicals from getting into their crops.

In Maha Sarakham Province, a quaint organic farm of five rai stands out amidst fields of mono-cropping. For the owners of the farm, Green Market vendors Ting Palangjai and her younger sister, organic farming is a way of life. “This food we grow is like medicine for both the consumer and the producer,” Ms. Ting said proudly.

Ms. Ting and her sister grow many local varieties of plants that are well suited to the climate of Isaan and require few extra inputs, such as irrigation or fertilizers. Her farm is teeming with plants of every color, intertwining in symbiotic patterns. Oddly shaped purple wildflowers have recently sprouted in the wooded areas between her cropland, possibly from the rich nutrients in the soil.

While Ms. Ting’s primary focus is on subsistence farming and leading a self-sufficient life, she sells peanuts and rice at the Green Market when she grows more than she and her family can eat themselves. She also sells passion fruit drinks, herbal snacks, and sesame seeds when they are in season. Ms. Ting believes that it is important to grow her own food because she wants to avoid consuming the chemicals that are used to grow produce at conventional markets

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Ting Palangjai navigates her farm with ease, meandering through the many varieties of plants that she grows. She explains that her integrated agricultural approach replenishes the soil naturally.

As its first year of operation comes to an end, the Green Market team wants to continue to focus on getting their farmers certified as organic, and to start educating consumers more about the dangers of chemicals in food sold in general markets. This education about the benefits of organic farming can start in local schools, Mr. Macknick said.

“We are currently focused on starting school farms at the 11 schools under the Municipal government’s authority,” he said. Green Market organizers hope that focusing on the consumer will create more demand, inspiring other farmers to start growing or producing organically.

Mr. Macknick and his fellow market organizers hope that in the coming years, the Khon Kaen Green Market will have “a greater impact on the local and regional community at large, whether it be through informing more people of dietary dangers and benefits, inspiring a positive view and greater appreciation of agricultural workers, or just making it trendy to go green,” he said.

GUEST CONTRIBUTION: Buffalo Raising Revived In Face Of Threat To Wetlands

2015 December 17
by The Isaan Record

Villagers around Kaeng Lawa Lake in Khon Kaen Province make a good living from raising and selling water buffalo and the fertilizer from their manure. However, development projects proposed by business investors and the Royal Irrigation Department threaten to destroy the wetlands that the villagers and buffalo depend on. 

By Jamie Rudd

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There are currently 1,689 water buffalo in the Kaeng Lawa wetland, providing steady income for 116 households. However, according to the Department of Livestock Development, the number of buffalo has decreased 18% per year nationally.

The sunlight began to turn golden over the Kaeng Lawa wetlands in Khon Kaen Province, and Bunchuay Inthong set out on her nightly journey to retrieve her water buffalo. She donned a wide-brimmed hat to keep the rays of the descending sun from her eyes and grasped the hand of her young niece, “Nam Cow,” as they made their way to the wetland pasture.

A number of their neighbors were already there, using small sticks and strong voices to coax the large community herd of water buffalo into their smaller family clusters. Ms. Bunchuay joined them, laughing as several of the young calves ran around her, searching for their mothers. Eventually, her group solidified – a troop of 15 in the large convoy of livestock heading home for the evening.

In Ba Daeng village, many people have made a comfortable living by raising buffalo, but recently there is growing concern that development projects will infringe on the buffalos’ wetland habitat, making their way of life impossible.

Changing Face of the Wetlands

The Kaeng Lawa Lake wetlands are a natural habitat for water buffalo that provides the animals with plenty of plants to eat and marshes to bathe in, making buffalo-raising a fairly hands-off job.

Villagers say the importance of this ecosystem is often overlooked by those who view the lake as a potential source of profit, or a quick fix to water scarcity – namely, business investors and government agencies that have proposed major projects in the area in recent years.

The wetlands have already undergone significant damage from water management projects headed by the Royal Irrigation Department (RID). In the 1970s the RID identified Kaeng Lawa Lake as a good source of water for the nearby city of Ban Phai, and converted the lake into a reservoir. This interference severely altered the landscape, causing unnaturally long periods of flooding in the area, Ba Daeng residents say.

This forced many buffalo raisers to keep their herds on plots of land and rice fields at home – rather than by the lake ­– for several months a year during the rainy season, where they must closely monitor the buffalo and supply them with food and water that is normally provided by the wetlands.

As a result, the number of buffalo these individual villagers can raise is limited by the amount of land they own and whether they are capable – economically and physically – of caring for the animals for three continuous months.

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Wetlands are critical ecosystems that support a wide variety of vegetation and wildlife. They are one of the fastest disappearing environments in the world and today make up only 7.5% of Thailand’s landmass.

Buffalo Raising: Livelihoods in the Wetlands

Back at the house, 50-year-old Ms. Bunchuay locked the gate to the pen she keeps her herd in overnight. In the morning she will return to lead her buffalo back to the fields. This has been her routine for the past 18 years – a quiet way of life that has allowed for harmonious coexistence of buffalo, human, and land alike.

“It’s a pretty easy lifestyle,” she said, “With cows, you have to feed them and tie them to something so they don’t wander away. But buffalo are different; you can just let them go.”

Ms. Bunchuay noted that one of the biggest advantages of raising buffalo – besides the reliable profits villagers can earn from selling them – is that it allows them time for additional financial pursuits, like weaving, rice farming, and fishing.

“We make around 120,000 baht a year from selling buffalo and compost from their manure,” Ms. Bunchuay said. “This, in addition to the 50-60,000 baht we make from selling our rice and my husband’s salary as headman, allows us to comfortably handle our expenses. We can afford to pay for insurance and our daughter’s college tuition, and we don’t have any debt with the BAAC (Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives).”

Like many in the village, Ms. Bunchuay learned how to raise buffalo from her parents. Her livelihood depends on water buffalo in much the same way that farmers have depended on the animals for centuries to plow their fields and fertilize the soil with their manure. While the advent of modern agricultural technology has made buffalo labor superfluous, a large market for buffalo products, including their meat and the natural compost they produce, has emerged. A single bag of manure can be sold for 35 baht, and an adult buffalo can fetch as much as 60,000 baht.

Villagers around Kaeng Lawa can earn over 400-500 baht a day from manure sales and say that customers come from as far as the south of Thailand to buy fertilizer in bulk.

Buffalo and beef meat consumption domestically is fairly low – a Khon Kaen University study reports that per capita consumption is only 0.86 kg per head per year – but neighboring countries have a great demand for both buffalo meat and breeding buffalo, the Thailand Buffalo Strategic Plan 2012-2016 reports.

Thai water buffaloes are exported for slaughter to other Southeast Asian nations and Hong Kong. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that buffalo and beef exports garnered $4,5 million in 2002. Buffalo are also used to produce milk, cheese, and leather.

Buffalo raisers foster herds ranging in size from around 10 to nearly 100 animals. Most start small, allowing their herds to grow over time – an easy enough task, as water buffalo are fairly self-sufficient. Female buffalo usually give birth to two calves in three years without the need for artificial insemination.

Challenging Enduring Stereotypes

Despite the profits and the relatively undemanding nature of the trade, buffalo-raising is not a popular profession nationally. According to the Thailand Buffalo Strategic Plan 2012-2015, in 2011 there were only 271, 112 buffalo-raising families in the country, a significant decrease from the 451,283 households in 2002.

The majority of these buffalo-raising families – 228, 842 or 84% – live in the Northeast, the region where farming is most predominant. This close link between Isaan and buffalo-raising likely plays into the national stereotype that the culture of Isaan is “backwards” and that its people are “as stupid as a buffalo” – a common Thai insult.

In addition to the phase-out of buffalo in farming, villagers suspect that the stigma surrounding the livelihood may be connected to the decline in buffalo-raising.

“Our ancestors raised buffalo, but now our children go to college and don’t want to continue the practice,” said 56-year-old Chanda Singna, a Ba Daeng local. “They believe that raising buffalo is something only people that can’t succeed academically or professionally do.”

According to Ms. Chanda, this perspective is shared by Thailand’s urban population and the broader public, which perpetuates the notion that buffalo-raisers and farmers are uneducated and unsuccessful. Yet, those that continue the practice argue that their way of life is both culturally and financially valuable.

“Having buffalo is like having credit,” Ms. Bunchuay said. “Banks are much more willing to give loans to people who own buffalo because they know they’ll be able to pay them back.”

And for those with larger herds, loans are rarely necessary. When big expenses come up, buffalo-raisers usually sell a portion of their herd to cover the costs. Many long-term buffalo raisers find that the trade enables them to send their kids to university and even retire on the profits from selling their herds.

Somwang Khonchai is one such retiree. The 63-year-old woman has been raising buffalo her entire life, but decided to sell her herd last year to have more time for her grandchildren. For now, she is content to live off of the 360,000 baht she got for her small herd and is happy that she sold them to someone in her community, comforted knowing that her former livestock are never far away.

“I was very sad to sell the buffalo,” Ms. Somwang said. “I cried a lot. Raising buffalo is what allowed me to support my family on my own. My husband died when I was 34 but I was still able to take care of my kids and build a big house using money from the buffalo. It’s a very sustainable occupation and an occupation that I loved.”

Buffalo raisers in Ba Daeng praise the benefits of the trade. They see it as a rewarding livelihood that provides a high level of financial security and freedom to those it employs – hardly resembling the negative images of poor, struggling farmers that buffalo-raising is often associated with.

But Ms. Somwang worries that the profession may not be around much longer if certain development projects move forward.

Threatened By Development

The RID currently plans to expand the Kaeng Lawa reservoir by dredging much of the communal land that locals keep their buffalo on. The RID has owned this land since the 1980s when the water management project was completed, but has reluctantly allowed villagers to continue raising their buffalo there for the time being.

The buffalo-raising profession has also been threatened by investors, who have shown significant interest in turning the reservoir and its surrounding areas into a tourist destination. Neither of these plans leaves room for the traditional livelihoods of locals, their buffalo, or the wetland they depend on.

“If the wetland is destroyed, the people here won’t be able to raise buffalo anymore,” said Jarunpis Jantasri, a community organizer in Khon Kaen Province.

Ms. Jarunpis, who has been working as the collaboration coordinator between the Department of Environmental Quality Promotion and the local wetland preservation group, sees the traditional livelihoods the wetland supports as superior to the professions encouraged by new development trends, for instance, jobs in the cash cropping and tourism industries.

Like many Ba Daeng villagers, Ms. Jarunpis argued that these occupations are far less sustainable and profitable than raising buffalo. However, she worries that policy makers will not realize the value of buffalo raising in time to preserve the practice.

Villagers have urged the RID to not dredge the communal land around the lake, which would destroy the habitat buffalo live on and force buffalo-raisers to sell all their buffalo or keep what few they can on their personal land year-round. They are instead requesting that the office grant them the easement rights to the area so that they can raise their animals there legally. But the RID refused, citing concerns that the buffalo-raising community would expand and pollute the lake, making it an undesirable source of water for Ban Phai City.

According to a representative of the Regional Irrigation Office 6 Khon Kaen, who requested not to be named, “the reason villagers can still raise buffalo there is because the RID is also trying to help them. But it is only a verbal agreement, it can’t be done legally.” As the villagers have no official agreement with the RID, they are in danger of losing the land at any time.

For Ms. Bunchuay, this is a terrifying thought. If her community is deprived of the wetlands, she knows that their way of life and their main source of income will be taken with it. Most villagers would only be able to keep a few buffalo on their private land, and would have to look for other sources of revenue. For some, this could mean factory work in the city – a hard way of life that Ms. Bunchuay knows all too well.

Raising buffalo has given Ms. Boonchuay a flexible work schedule, allowing her time during the day to carry out her duties as a village health volunteer and to help her husband on their rice farm.

Raising buffalo has given Ms. Bunchuay a flexible work schedule, allowing her time during the day to carry out her duties as a village health volunteer and to help her husband on their rice farm.

Fearing a Life Away From the Wetlands

As a young woman, Ms. Bunchuay spent 10 years in Bangkok working in a weaving factory. She often logged 12-hour days, and Sunday was her only day off ­– when she wasn’t working overtime. But even with the extra pay and the money that her husband made as a minibus driver, she found that they still struggled to make ends meet. So when the opportunity came, Ms. Bunchuay moved her young family back home to Ba Daeng to raise buffalo and never looked back.

“Sometimes I have dreams that I’m back working in Bangkok,” she said. “They’re horrible dreams. I can’t imagine ever returning to that kind of life.”

Ms. Bunchuay and her neighbors have been working hard to preserve their wetland home. With the help of Ms. Jarunpis, they have written numerous letters to the RID about their concerns and are collecting data to demonstrate the ecological and economic importance of leaving the wetlands – and the way of life it supports – alone.

“The development projects in this area are designed in response to the expansion of cities and businesses,” Ms. Jarunpis said. “They ignore the livelihood of farmers and don’t consider how local people will be effected.” In her opinion, this is the first thing that needs to change. “The government should be supporting existing resources and ways of life,” she said. “And that starts with the wetlands.”

Jamie Rudd studies Anthropology at the University of Rochester. Joseph Pylvan-Franke studies Linguistics at the University of Rochester and contributed reporting to this story. 

 

 

 

 

 

A Special Report: Red Shirts – Dead or Alive?

2015 December 15
by The Isaan Record

First published on Prachatai English

Updates on the situation of the anti-establishment Red Shirt supporters in the North and Northeast, 2015: how their ways of thinking and living have changed since the 2014 military coup

“Red Shirts” is a well-known term in Thai politics referring to groups of people who share a similar ideology, yet it also includes people from a spectrum of political ideologies. They include supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the Pheu Thai Party, supporters of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), several autonomous anti-establishment red-shirt groups, individuals in activist and intellectual circles, and many more who may not identify themselves as “Red Shirts” per se but share certain fundamental ideas with the other groups. Despite these differences, the Red Shirts’ power base is presently outside of Bangkok.

As the Red Shirts’ struggle has been going on for many years, Prachatai felt it was important to offer readers an update on their situation, through interviews with members of different groups based in the provinces of Maha Sarakham, Ubon Ratchathani, and Chiang Mai.

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Clothes line and a rice field at a Red Shirt village in northeastern Thailand.

The Red Shirt leaders who Prachatai got to talk to in these areas come from diverse backgrounds. In fact, a majority of them have just been “born into politics” – meaning that they became interested and started to take an active role in politics only between 2009 and 2010. Before that, many of them voted for the Democrat Party or other political parties but never Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party.

After the 2006 coup, many of these leading groups did not immediately come out to protest against what had happened. They were rather in a state of “Let’s wait and see. Let’s listen to what different sides have to say first”. Others decided to come out right away to protest against the junta but were only able to mobilize small numbers, with their main activity being the distribution of leaflets. Some were well-respected ‘old leftists’, who believed that the new power groups, such as the Thaksin group were less threatening than the established elites. Some of the leaders we interviewed were happy to have their names disclosed while others preferred to stay anonymous.

Another interesting aspect Prachatai found is that there are similarities as well as differences between these Red Shirt groups in terms of their origins and operations – something we, as outsiders, may hardly know about. Yet these interviews are far from representative of the movement as a whole; rather they are pieces in the jigsaw of a larger picture.

1. Intense Military Control of Areas in Different Provinces After the 2014 Coup
After the 2014 coup Red Shirt leaders have been under the strict military control. Some of them have been summoned by military order for “attitude adjustment”. Some were detained in military camps for a few days while others were detained for seven days. Some have been repeatedly summoned, especially if their presence was spotted at political events, even though they might not have been the event organizers themselves. Among the leaders in some areas such as Ubon Ratchathani, who would typically draw huge crowds, four to five still have to report to the military every Monday.

There are also activists whose names are on the military’s “attitude adjustment” list, and who are required to inform the military in advance of any public seminars they are going to hold, or seek their permission if they wish to travel abroad. In the latter cases, they are required also to report to the military every time they come back to the country, with airport immigration officials told to check and copy every single detail in their passports to see which places they have travelled to, and whether they were given permission to travel to those places.

Yet, according to the interviewees, none of them said they were intimidated or abused by the military.

Just after the military took power, a large number of Red Shirt leaders were on the run or in hiding as they feared for their safety. In Ubon Ratchathani and Chiang Mai there was a phenomenon of “taking hostages” – that is, if the army could not find the persons they were looking for, they would detain family members of Red Shirt activists in military camps so that the targeted activists would come out from hiding and hand themselves in.

2. Knowing the Origins and Backgrounds of Red Shirt Groups in Different Provinces and Their Political Stances

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“Yao” (left) and Khaikhoei Chanpleng, two Red Shirt leaders from Maha Sarakham.

Khaikhoei Chanpleng, one of the leaders in Maha Sarakham, stated that he and others have taken on a leadership role after the government crackdown on Red Shirt demonstrators in 2010. Not only did the crackdown see the Red Shirts badly defeated, but it also saw, subsequently, the widespread emergence of various Red Shirt groups or factions in the northeastern provinces.

Some broke away from the larger groups. Some were new with their own particular characteristics. Some are affiliated with the UDD. There are also those who have adopted the slogan of “Love Thaksin” yet remain autonomous as a group and dare to remain critical even towards those on the same side.

Khaikhoei works together with another leader of the group, identified merely as Yao. According to Yao, when the mass Red Shirt demonstrations led by the UDD first took place in 2010, they did not yet know each other. But just like many other ordinary demonstrators, they often went on their own motorbikes to gather at the provincial hall – the main protest site in Maha Sarakham – to listen to speeches, and that was how they got to know each other.

Later, after the crackdown, Khaikhoei and others were arrested and charged with burning down the provincial hall. In fact the only damage done was to a tamarind tree, and a telephone box outside the hall, rather than the actual building. Tires were also burned on the footpaths. After 8 months in jail, he was found not guilty and eventually acquitted.

Thaksin as a “Symbol of Awakening”

“We are not doing it for the (Pheu Thai) party or for Thaksin. We are doing it for the masses, for our children and grandchildren. We have lost our rights and liberties. We have lost our democratic system. You must ask yourself, ‘how in 80 years [since the forced change from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy] were we able to have democracy for only seven years?’ I can tell you I’m not doing it for you but for your children. Well, even for your children, it might not be in time,” said Khaikhoei.

When asked about Thaksin, he replied “I’m not disappointed with Thaksin as there’s nothing to be disappointed about. And I’m not naive about him either. People in Isaan like him but they are not naive. The reason why people here are happy to help him is because we think we – the people – could rely on him”.

He continued by giving some concrete examples of Pheu Thai’s policies.

Similarly, according to Yao, “(Thaksin) is a symbol of awakening. Without him, we would not have been where we are today. People would not have been able to be better off financially. In my opinion, however, he’s still not fighting hard enough. He is still worried about his own interests. If he is not worried about his own interests.”

Supporting a Primary Vote: Pheu Thai Must Listen to People’s Demands

The only criticism this Red Shirt group in Maha Sarakham has made against the Pheu Thai Party is that the MP candidates it puts forward are often not who the people want. Without doubt, the group still votes for Pheu Thai MP candidates in elections.

The group thinks that the party should set up a system, which takes into account people’s preferences for MP. However, whilst many villagers agree with such an idea, no one has really pushed for it to happen.

When asked why they disliked some Pheu Thai MPs, Yao responded: “It was difficult for people to have access to them. Every time we go, it’s always the wife who comes out and says the MP is not there. The way the wife talked to us is just like a queen. We, the people, don’t seem to matter much in their eyes.”

Loss of faith in the UDD and in “Non-Violence

Khaikhoei and Yao went on to criticize the UDD heavily, both in terms of their strategy and leadership structure.

“Are we discouraged at all? Every time we fight, we face the same thing over and over again. And all they say is to use non-violence, non-violence, and non-violence. We have used and experimented with it before and it always ends up with us being killed,” insists Khaikhoei.

“At the Red Shirt demonstration at Aksa, actually we did not agree with the idea of going to Aksa. We held a meeting and thought that it would be better for us to organize demonstrations in our own provinces. But then the UDD decided to hold a rally there and people thought that if we gathered there, nobody would dare to disperse us (as it is located near the Crown Prince’s Palace – editor’s note). When the villagers saw the rally on television, they wanted to go. They pushed us to go with them. As leaders, we had to respond to the villagers’ demand, so we had to go,” said Yao.

She also added that a large number of her fellow villagers still mainly listen to the key (UDD) leaders. But for her, the UDD leaders at the local level are “not that great anymore”. She also insisted that the UDD should change its management structure since its leaders with decision-making power often come from outside Isaan while the majority of Red Shirts, who make up the bulk of the UDD, are Isaan villagers.

“If we are to ever take to the streets again, it must be only for a real change”

Prachatai_Red_Shirts2One of the leaders in Maha Sarakham Province works quietly with his small group. Not much detail was revealed. He seems to be highly cautious and his way of thinking tends to be similar to that of the old leftists who joined the now-defunct Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) in the late 1970s, though he has become interested in politics only in recent years.

After the 2006 coup, he was still at the stage of “let’s listen to different sides first in order to analyze the situation.” But once he came up with his own analysis and joined the Red Shirts, he began to study Thai political history, from the Boworadet Rebellion and the 1932 Revolution onwards, as well as the history of people’s revolutions in other countries.

 “We don’t want quantity but quality – those with 100 per cent firm ideology and a clear mind”. He described the group’s approach thus, before adding that his group wouldn’t criticize different approaches from other Red Shirts. He also said if there is ever another Red Shirt demonstration, he himself and his group would, however, not take part unless it leads to a real change.

“The UDD won’t get anywhere since if they’re only aiming at reform, at an election; we would end up being in the same old cycle of ignorance and blindness. Some villagers also agree. They say they don’t want this anymore; the aim is too low.”

The “Chak Thong Rob” (or the People’s Warrior Alliance): a Large-Scale Red Shirt Coalition and Pride in “Isaan, our home”
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Ajan Toi, leader of Red Shirt group Chak Thong Rob in Ubon Ratchathani.

Chak Thong Rob is another Red Shirt group, based in Ubon Ratchathani, with a large number of supporters. It is led by a man identifying himself as Ajarn Toi whose life experiences differ starkly from many other leaders in the region. As a rich businessman, he lived in many countries before deciding to give that up to look after his mother back in Issan.

As he is Isaan-born, he holds a very strong sense of regional identity. He feels that Isaan people, even though they make up the largest regional population in the country, have always been oppressed and looked down upon throughout Thai history.

Therefore, he would like to restore not only the history of the Isaan people’s movements, which can be traced back to the Phu Mi Bun Revolt (also known as the Phi Bun Revolt) in 1902, an uprising of Isaan people against the rule of the Chakri Dynasty but also to the local yet unique languages of the region. With his Isaan pride, he also said this was actually the first time he had agreed to give an interview in the language he sarcastically called “Bangkok Thai.”

Asking what made him become interested in politics, he responded: “It is in my DNA perhaps. Looking back 111 years ago, my grandfather was killed by Krom Luang Sappasit in the so-called ‘Phi Bun revolt’, in Trakan Phuet Phon District (north of Ubon Ratchathani),” Ajarn Toi said. He pointed out that since this was only two generations back, it was not difficult for such stories to get passed on.

“So we have seen unfairness and injustice since our grandmother and grandfather’s times,” he added.

His starting point as a Red Shirt leader was when he worked as a DJ for a community radio station, which had, as it turned out, helped him gain a lot of popularity. Initially the content of the programme was soft, restricted to anything one could think of for a radio talk show, like discussions about everyday life and so on.

It was only some time later that his focus shifted to politics. Yet, no matter how passionate his political discussions often were, he was always careful that he did not get into trouble under Article 112 of the Thai criminal code or the lèse majesté law.

As his popularity increased, resource allocation became easier. A two million baht donation he received was spent on setting up two new radio stations, which also enabled the formation of his Chak Thong Rob group in 2007. By 2010 many members of the group had also joined the UDD.

During the crackdown on large-scale protests that started that year in the heart of Bangkok and later spread to other provinces including Ubon Ratchathani, there were attempts to burn down provincial halls by protesters. Ajarn Toi became one of the accused. He was detained for 15 months in prison before being found not guilty, thus acquitted.

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Ajarn Toi shows photos of the Red Shirt caravan when the group traveled from Ubon Ratchathani to join the demonstration in Bangkok

“If you ask me whether people have changed at all? I think so. They have become more vigilant. I have seen it myself. I was imprisoned while my comrades got killed or injured. From just my group alone, almost 500 members were charged with burning down the provincial hall. Police made such indiscriminate and harsh allegations. Some families were split. Some went on the run. Some had themselves ordained as monks. Some fled to other countries. When Yingluck’s government was in power, we told them to withdraw all arrest warrants which had no back-up evidence, but they did nothing.”
Criticizing Thaksin Amidst Those Who Love Him

“Our group is huge. In 2010 we were able to mobilize people to join the protests (in Bangkok), and we travelled in as many as one hundred buses. People also donated a lot of rice, which filled up an entire 10-wheeled truck. We were able to stay in Sanam Luang for a month without any problems. Don’t forget that Red Shirts are huge in numbers; some are terrible, some are good. Some Red-Shirt MPs even put their feet up while performing their duty in the Parliament – do you think that’s appropriate? Some of them were able to mobilize a lot of people and then tried to please Thaksin by calling him ‘master’ or ‘father’. I think that’s so pathetic.”

When asked how he managed to deal with those who loved Thaksin given that he also harshly criticized Thaksin and Pheu Thai, Ajarn Toi replied: “The villagers really do love Thaksin. It’s not that I don’t love him. But to love him doesn’t mean that we are his slaves. We can be fellow partners. When I see what is right, I say it. What I see something is not right, I also say it. Thaksin is not God. If I give my honest opinions, is it then my fault?”

Fang-Mae Ai-Chai Prakan: the Three Districts of Hardcore Red Shirts in Chiang Mai

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The office of Red Shirt Khon Rak Fang-Mae Ai-Chai Prakan group in Chiang Mai province which also runs a community radio station.

Speaking of the “Red Shirt zones”, one would definitely think of Chiang Mai, particularly the three remote districts of Fang, Mae Ai and Chai Prakan. The group, called Khon Rak Fang-Mae Ai-Chai Prakan (or ‘People who Love Fang-Mae Ai-Chai Prakan’) was formed in 2007-2008. One of the group leaders is an ex-farmer who used to a member of the CPT in the 1970s.

In 2010 when the UDD called for a mass demonstration in Bangkok, villagers in this area got together to organize a Buddhist ceremony in order to raise funds to cover transportation costs so that they could take part in the demonstration.

“We went (to join the protest in Bangkok) five to six times, using the funds we raised by ourselves. Once we managed to go in nine buses. The highest number was 20 buses for one trip. That was in 2010. At that time we already had some support from the MPs,” the leader said.

Fundraising through events such as Buddhist ceremonies, Chinese banquets, and musical concerts was so well-supported by the local villagers that the group had some money to spare for setting up a community radio station. The station was run under the slogan of “People’s radio station by people’s money”, with a broadcast range covering all three northern districts.

After the 2014 coup, just like any other community radio station, army personnel attempted to confiscate their radio transmitters. But unlike other stations, the group managed to keep its equipment. The station continues to operate at present. However when it comes to political issues, they have been reduced to merely reading the news, instead of having hard discussions.

Apart from these activities, the Khon Rak Fang-Mae Ai-Chai Prakan group also operates a lottery to raise funds within the community. According to one of the group leaders, the reason why they were able to be the very first leaders who could sustain their leadership was because they tried to keep their financial system as transparent as possible. He explained that this includes setting up a committee comprising of members from different sectors to take care of financial matters.

Later the structure of the group expanded – very rapidly –with a committee for each district and each sub-district (the former comprised of 15-16 members). The purpose of this structure was to enable collective organization of local villagers, swift distribution of news and information, transparent and effective management of resources, and to provide assistance on various matters e.g. donations for people affected by big floods in the southern part of Thailand etc.

Accepting New Conditions: Villagers and Leaders in a State of Confusion

When asked about the local atmosphere, another group leader said that the current atmosphere is still something new and that they still do not know how to plan their strategies.

“To be frank, in this current situation, people are still afraid, they don’t know what to do. What we are facing right now is something new, we still don’t know how to handle it. We were not prepared for it. Villagers are in a state of confusion, so are the leaders. Different leaders say different things. Once they have learnt and understood where the main problems lie in, things will be easy. However, they are generally told to keep quiet.”

‘Dap Chit’ – A Panorama of the Chiang Mai UDD

Not far from the city of Chiang Mai, Senior Sergeant Major Pichit Tamoon, also known as ‘Dap Chit’, one of the UDD leaders in Chiang Mai who coordinated with several groups in various districts, was adamant that the villagers had not changed.

“They are frustrated and unable to communicate. The media they consume is one-dimensional. They might have a Facebook or Line account, and primarily use them for media consumption. I’m not saying that these people lack critical thinking skills. However, the reliability of these media outlets is still questionable. Some information communicated via these channels is just rumour, which is dangerous for them.”
When asked about the development of the UDD in his area, he said that the seeds were sown since the case of Thaksin. From then on, the villagers began to comprehend the concepts of freedom, liberty, equality and fairness.

In 2010, a year after the formation of the Chiang Mai UDD in 2009, there was a UDD general assembly in Bangkok. The Chiang Mai UDD then started fundraising.

“At the time, there was no financial support from the main group. The group helped pay for petrol only after we had arrived. The villagers raised about 300,000 to 400,000 baht. They really wanted to attend the event.” He said that 2010 was the most fruitful year of the Chiang Mai UDD. There are 26 districts in Chiang Mai. Yet, there were more than 30 UDD groups in the province. In some districts, there were more than 3 groups; each group had different ideas regarding financial management – but not political ideology.

Big Supporter of Primaries

In spite of his role as a coordinator between various UDD groups, Dap Chit was not well liked among some Pheu Thai politicians. This is largely due to his demand that Pheu Thai Party hold “primaries” for their candidates.

“We had to accept the fact that 60-70 per cent of Red Shirts are Pheu Thai Party supporters. Those who long for social reform regardless of the political party in power might probably be about 20% of the Red Shirts in Chiang Mai. This is my guess-timate from those whom I have come across. Almost all leaders at the district level ally themselves with the Pheu Thai Party. Only a few of them don’t.”

“I give you one example. In 2011 I was heavily attacked – from all sides – for supporting primaries. The party was also not happy with me at all. In fact, this idea didn’t come from me. The very first person who mentioned it was Mr. Thaksin himself – that was in 1999 when the Thai Rak Thai party had just come into being. I just felt that in 2011 once the election was over, the Red Shirts had become nothing in the eyes of the party. Those who were given some importance were the 7 – 8 key Bangkok-based leaders. So this is why I think we need to give more power to the people.”

“My question is: why does the Pheu Thai Party have to monopolize its own people? It’s like we are fighting for equality and against injustice but it appears that there is nepotism within our own party. If the party can get rid of nepotism and adjust to serve the people better, it would be great. In terms of management, let it be dealt with separately. But when it comes to selecting MP candidates, the party must make sure that people are happy about it.” At that time, claimed Dap Chit, there was a huge support for primaries among red shirt people, especially those in Isaan, as they really felt frustrated with the current system of the party.

When asked about the possibilities of increasing that 20 per cent, he said that this kind of thing would come naturally. At the moment he often goes to visit the party’s canvassers. He said that these people have become increasingly interested in ideas such as transformation through non-violence, as well as rights and liberties.

3. Various Approaches to the “Waiting Game”

Given this difficult situation facing these groups, what turned out to be the hardest question of all in these interviews was: what do the groups plan to do now? In response, one of the leaders of the Fang-Mae Ai-Chai Prakan group said: “What we can think of now is to sustain our collective forces. We, as a group, try to keep in touch. We meet on different ceremonial occasions. Now we also have this community welfare fund, in which some 3,000 of us are members. We still stick together.”

As for Khaikhoei, he explained: “We often meet on ceremonial occasions like merit-making events. Currently we are working with the elderly. We see that many of them are still far behind when it comes to knowledge about politics. If we work with them, they will be the ones who pass on their knowledge to their children. Additionally we also work with local Buddhist abbots. Here, monasteries have long played a supportive role in people’s movements. They have always helped organise charity events such as robe offering ceremonies and so on. If Thaksin were to owe somebody, the one to whom he owed the most would be the abbots.”

As for Dap Chit, he believed that speaking to local villagers is an important task. Even though they are already active politically, they still need “courage” to continue.

“We can’t do much at the moment. So we just do what we can. (If you) ask why I have to go visit the villagers every week, it’s because they need courage. They need someone to go and talk to them. They know everything but they just want somebody to talk to. Be it funerals, religious ceremonies, birthday parties, you name it, when they invite me to give a speech I always go,” said Dap Chit.

Among these Red Shirt leaders, the approach that Ajarn Toi follows is the most unconventional. This could perhaps by explained by his background as a businessman. By focusing on a way to make a living, he has to come up with his own business model, which according to him, if successful, would benefit not only him but also the villagers. He described his project in detail, saying that it is the kind of model that would contribute to a fair distribution of wealth.  In other words, it would enable participating villagers to establish themselves.

“(In the current political climate) there is no use talking. It’s just like hitting a wall. What we need to think about now is how to empower our fellow red shirts; how to help them make a living. The economy does matter. Many political activists fail because they are too extreme to the point that they simply ignore the importance of it, but it is highly essential for villagers,” insists Ajarn Toi.

Rising Political Movement in the Northeast Defies Military Rule

2015 December 10

KHON KAEN – Today, about 80 activists, academics, and villagers from the Northeast and Bangkok pushed the boundaries of the military government’s restrictions on political gatherings by attending a political seminar in Khon Kaen City, despite efforts by the authorities to block the event.

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Activists, lawyers, and academics gathered together with Northeastern villagers at a political seminar under the name “Unsettling Isaan’s Lands – The People’s Fate after the Coup” in Khon Kaen City.

On Thursday morning, student activists from Khon Kaen University’s Dao Din group opened the doors to their meeting house to host an ad hoc seminar under the title “Unsettling Isaan’s Lands – The People’s Fate after the Coup,” organized by the “Neo E-Saan Movement,” or the New Isaan Movement.

Initially, the seminar was to be held at the city’s Kosa Hotel, where organizers had booked a meeting room. However, yesterday the booking was cancelled after the hotel management received an order from military officials, according to the seminar’s organizers.

The “Neo E-Saan Movement” an emergent umbrella group of Isaan activists, was founded in March at a seminar at Thammasat University with a fiery declaration to oppose military rule and defend Northeasterners’ interests against the central government’s perceived dominance over the region.

The crowd of about 80 people included villagers and activists from all across the Northeast dressed in black hoodies with the word “Commoner” in white letters. They were joined by Bangkok academics and members of the student group of the New Democracy Movement, including well-known student activist Sirawith Seritiwat, who was recently briefly arrested on a trip to the controversial Rajabhakti Park.

On stage, Kornchanok Saenprasert, a former Dao Din member and Director of the Center for Human Rights Law for Society, criticized the heavy restrictions on freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest under the current regime.

“The military junta has no legitimacy whatsoever to govern this country,” he said,“and they have to stop bullying people who are simply asking for their rights to be respected.”

Sanan Chusakul, a well-known Isaan writer and social activist, said that the suppression that society is currently experiencing will ultimately cause people to rise up and protest.

“The history of suffering in Isaan has moved people beyond fear,” he said, “and they have the will to rise up to oppose the powerful forces in Bangkok.”

However, he believes that the people’s movement must have patience and keep mobilizing on small scale until the conditions are favourable for a large-scale uprising.

New_Isaan

Military officials from the 23rd Military Circle Command and police officers asked the event’s organizers to refrain from holding any public protests.

Chan Makan, a 18-year-old high school student from Udon Thani City who attended the event, learned about it on Facebook. “I am curious to find out what direction our country’s politics is heading,” he said, adding that he learned much from the discussions the event facilitated between villagers from across the region.

Kanika Laophim, a 36-year-old market vendor from Kalasin Province whose village is affected by an oil and gas exploration site, travelled to Khon Kaen to educate herself about her community’s rights.

“I am glad I came here to exchange views with many people from communities who face very similar problems to my village,” she said.

At 1:00 p.m., the event was briefly interrupted when Lieutenant Colonel Pitakphon Choosri from the 23rd Military Circle Command and six police officers approached the organizers and requested the activists to refrain from protesting outside of the vicinity of the house.

In the afternoon, about 40 activists from Dao Din and the New Democracy Movement group staged a protest at the Democracy Monument in downtown Khon Kaen. They held up signs and attempted to place a military leather boot on top of the monument, but security officials prevented them from doing so and seized the boot.

After the activists read a declaration calling for a return to democracy, a constitution drafting process that includes the voices of the common people, and more self-government for the Northeast, the protest dispersed peacefully.

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Student activists from Khon Kaen and Bangkok held a peaceful protest in the name of the “Neo E-Saan Movement” at Khon Kaen City’s Democracy Monument. Photo credit: Thai Lawyers For Human Rights.

GUEST EDITORIAL: What Mushrooms Tell Us About Isaan’s Ecological Future

2015 December 7

What do mushrooms and Isaan people have in common? They both flourish in difficult places, and are resilient enough to make those places home. Both have been affected by changes in recent decades that were as much economic as ecological: exploitation of labor and forest lands, migration of working people and the disappearance of mushroom habitats.

By Peera Songkünnatham

20140704_101714

Freshly picked het ko which belong to the diverse fungi family of russulaceae, with over 1,900 known species worldwide.

One thing has remained constant, though – Isaan people’s love for picking edible wild mushrooms. This article is a celebration of the joys of picking mushrooms, but also a warning, as the places one found mushrooms before might no longer be there.

Isaan was where I first learned to pick mushrooms, last year during my ethnographic fieldwork. Somewhere in Khueang Nai District, Ubon Ratchathani Province, some way in from a two-lane asphalt road beyond a temple and some rice paddies and rubber fields, stood a eucalyptus forest. Tall, equally spaced, in orderly rows, left and right.

On one side, a sign read “Forest Industry Organization | 1983 Plot,” and on the other “1984 Plot.” A monopolistic state enterprise, the Forest Industry Organization started introducing eucalyptus plantations in 1975 to rehabilitate national reserve forestlands as well as to accommodate fast-growing demands for fuel wood. In effect, plantations like this one were saved from being cleared, yet at the same time they were slated for logging for state revenue. Thirty years of monopoly, however, did enable thirty years of flourishing of forest undergrowth.

At first glance, you wouldn’t expect a bounty of edible mushrooms in a eucalyptus forest. How could they grow on land devoted to a single species? Yet, there they were – in groups or alone, by termite hills, hidden under a bush or dry leaves, or barely above ground. I would learn to appreciate mushrooms in all their distinct varieties – some aromatic, some more phallic than others, mushrooms of all the tints of the rainbow plus white, grey, and black. There were even het phoeng yu-ka, bitter and crunchy purple mushrooms growing on eucalyptus bark.

We were there as casual pickers, our end goal was to cook a big spicy pot of mushrooms that day to share with our families. It was like an adventure game with our team as tutorial, our eyes as skill, our shovel as equipment, our long sleeves and pants as armor, and a lot of luck as a fun variable.

Het ra-ngok sell for about 120 baht per kilo in the city market.

We were not “professional” mushroom pickers who go in the wee hours hunting for mushrooms in specific spots, walking for hours on end with only brief pauses for rest. By the time we went there, the professionals were already sitting under thatched stands by the main road, showcasing their pricey picks. Het pluak – whose long roots grow from termite hills – were the most coveted, some years fetching 300 baht per kilo. Then there were het ra-ngok, their white shells and orange tips glistening like salted egg. These sold for about 120 baht per kilo in the city market, but half that price or less by the roadside. The friend who took me there estimated that the monetary value of the mushrooms from this forest alone – less than 200 rai –  is about one million baht per year.

Several decades ago, forests stood right next to many villages in Isaan and villagers relied on the forest for food. Whenever they went in the forests surrounding their village, they would come out with baskets so full of mushrooms that they didn’t care when they spilled.

Once home, a couple of elderly villagers would sit and look at the pick and hold them up one by one, shaking their head and throwing away suspicious ones, keeping only those they knew were edible and tasty. Few kinds were “trusted” back then – a large majority was tossed out to rot.

Not so anymore – those forests virtually no longer exist. During the 1980s, many of the remaining forests in Isaan were declared degraded and villagers could then legally clear the land for crops and obtain land titles.

As the region’s population leaped from 6.8 million in 1952 to 12 million in 1970, and to 19 million in 1989, forests were cleared for farming. Northeastern Thailand’s sprawling forests covered 102,667 square kilometers in 1952, but by 1973 the number was halved, and almost halved again by 1982. All this time, despite the deforestation, there was less land to farm per person: the ratio decreased from 1.88 rai per person in 1952 to 1.57 in 1989.

What this decrease in number does not account for is the fact that most Isaan people by then had turned to seasonal labor, often in faraway places, or started up small businesses, sometimes replacing their rice agriculture.

With forests cleared, mushrooms still thrived on the edges of irrigated rows of crops and in the extant forests preserved by monks. Due to the scarcity of forestlands, more people flocked to the remaining forests farther away, ultimately leading to increased local knowledge of mushrooms and local competition in these areas.

The morning we went mushroom picking, we had arrived about 6 a.m. – later than many other groups. Villagers within an hour‘s radius in all directions came here, with license plates from Ubon Ratchathani, Sisaket, Yasothon, and Amnat Charoen provinces.

Sometimes we walked for ten minutes without spotting anything but poisonous mushrooms. Once I came upon a big red mushroom, so big it was falling apart. But my friend’s uncle told me it was already too old I should leave it on the soil so it could spread again.

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The author’s first pick of the morning.

After a couple of hours, we returned to the pickup truck. The most popular question was “man bo? (were you lucky?).” It was a little like discussing the lottery. We showed one another our picks, ate some pork floss sandwiches, and prepared to return home.

This was in mid-2014. When mushroom season came again in 2015, I returned to the forest only to find all the eucalyptus trees logged, felled to feed a burgeoning industry. Minor branches were discarded where they were cut, blocking most walking paths. Only a small portion of the forest was left intact. Most mushroom pickers have now gone elsewhere.

What lies ahead? This uprooted eucalyptus forest will probably be overtaken by nearby villagers in order to cultivate cash crops. But things may turn out differently. A growing number of Thais embrace the cause of forest conservation. Many times, however, conservation is framed as a struggle between non-human nature and (urban) human greed, a frame which excludes foraging and other indigenous uses of forests. If picking mushrooms becomes a “cool” hobby like it has in the U.S., how would young Thais’ imagination of forest conservation be reconfigured? I hope that young conservationists cultivate a nuanced kind of understanding of forests, one where humans are neither greedy encroachers or scrupulous conservers.

Foragers’ relationship to forests will still remain strong. Picking mushrooms is still very much associated with the traditional, rural way of life in Thailand. This year, Matichon Online reported on luk thung star Pai Pongsathorn’s mushroom picking trip with his mother, indicating a loyalty to his cultural origins.

This sense of rootedness is not only good for nostalgia, but also food for imagining a future. Conservationists, for example, could translate their cause in ways that resonates with this sense of rootedness in order to develop better demands of environmental protection policy.

Maybe one of the traits Isaan people possess that mushrooms lack could help us both flourish, and that is memory. Villagers told me that many ecological resources might soon become things of the past: tasty marsh-dependent bullfrogs, lowland buffers for seasonal floods, precious hardwood now being stolen overnight to meet Chinese demand.

But there is hope. Villagers I met have made local agreements to not disturb the village’s san pu ta (ancestral shrine) forest area, and to not smoke out one particular kind of wasp nest, for example. Memory, inherent in these initiatives, forms the basis for reaching community solutions to upcoming ecological scarcity. When we realize that the places we found mushrooms before are no longer there, we may mourn. But we may also remind ourselves to make a place – or rather leave a place – for the mushrooms to flourish.

Peera Songkünnatham was born and raised in Sisaket City. After studying Anthropology and Sociology at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, Peera is now striking out a path as a freelance writer and translator based in their hometown.

 

No Light in the Northeast’s Grey Economy as Thailand’s Economic Outlook Darkens

2015 November 7

Thailand’s economic downturn is often discussed in terms of GDP, national markets, and investment statistics, but behind the numbers, individuals employed in the country’s enormous informal economy are feeling deep financial strain. At the Aorjira market in Khon Kaen, vendors struggle to turn enough profit to support themselves and keep their small businesses afloat.

By Mariko Powers and Zoe Swartz

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The Aorjira Market has been a mainstay for Khon Kaen shoppers for decades. But now, vendors at the market say that customers have significantly curbed their spending in the past year.

Fluorescent lights flicker as customers weave through the narrow alleys and islands created by stalls at the Aorjira market, the largest food market in Khon Kaen. Vendors showcase everything from silver fish to hanging red meats, robust leafy vegetables, vibrant fruits, and countless bags of rice. The bustling traffic and diversity of products suggest that the market is thriving, but vendors behind the stalls face deep financial uncertainty.

“It’s difficult to sell rice because customers buy less,” says Ms. Nawarat Tapbun, a 72-year-old native of Khon Kaen, who has been selling rice at this market for fifty years. “The whole economic system is suffering now,” she says, shaking her head. Since last year’s coup, she has been struggling to turn the profits she had known in previous years. What she used to be able to sell in one day now takes her two.

Ms. Narawat is not alone. The vast majority of Thailand’s workforce – over 64% in 2013 – make their living in the informal sector. These self-employed workers, including vendors, tuk-tuk drivers, and farmers, are more vulnerable to economic fluctuations because they often lack social protection – and they are feeling the brunt of the recent economic downturn in the Northeast.

Ms. Aumpai Koetphon, 64, who owns a shoe and accessories shop at Khon Kaen’s downtown bus terminal, has been struggling to keep her business open, as well.

“I have to think about how to pay the rent and people aren’t buying much from my store,” she says, citing politics as the source of the poor economy in Thailand. “It’s been getting worse and worse. The government keeps promising a better economy, but nothing has happened,” she says.

In interviews with dozens of market vendors in Khon Kaen, salespeople report that their daily income has decreased as much as 50% since the coup last year. Paul Collier, an economics professor at Oxford University, has estimated that, in general, coups cost a country 7% of a year’s income when tracked over time.

While it is difficult to translate the junta’s rule directly to reduced incomes, Ms. Panee Srikaew, 47, who makes her living selling lottery tickets outside the market, can link her losses to current government policy. A new policy standardizing the price of lottery tickets at 80 baht diminished vendor’s profits to 4 baht per ticket. Ms. Panee used to make 500 baht per day in sales, and now has an income of 200 baht a day.

Mr. Titipol Phakdeewanich, a political science lecturer at Ubon Ratchathani University, says that the current situation is more complicated than the military government’s economic strategy. Falling exports, declining property values, and the performance of global markets have buffeted the country independent of the current regime.

“It’s not just the coup that made the situation worse,” he says. “We’ve never had a good plan for economic growth. Successive governments haven’t done a good job of promoting the Thai economy – they blame the previous government and never learn from each other. We see now that everything is based on political expedience.”

This lack of strong economic planning came at a cost, which is now reverberating in Khon Kaen’s informal sector. Ms. Nawarat leads a simple life by the train tracks in one of the city’s slum communities. Her already frugal lifestyle has not changed much since the coup, however, she feels that her financial situation is deteriorating.

For 50 years, she has been selling sticky rice at the market every day from 3 a.m. until 9:30 a.m. and managed to set aside about 200-300,000 baht in savings. But this roughly equals the debt she racked up from investment losses and loans she received to start her and her children’s rice business.

Ms. Narawat is proud to have successfully chipped away at her family’s debt – once almost a million baht – but she still fears she will not be able to support herself and her husband through their old age. At 72-years-old, Ms. Nawarat plans to work until she is no longer able, but she knows that those days are coming to an end. “I’m worried my savings will run out before I die,” she says.

Hers is a familiar story in the debt-ridden Northeast. In recent years, Thailand’s household debt spiraled to a level “among the highest in the region and well above average for a country in the upper-middle income range,” a 2014 Bank of Thailand report finds.

Household incomes in Isaan are the lowest in Thailand, so additional losses in earnings carry a significant impact. Pictured above: Ms. Narawat Tabbon, 72.

Household incomes in Isaan are the lowest in Thailand, so additional losses in earnings carry a significant impact. Pictured above: Ms. Narawat Tapbun, 72.

Ms. Nawarat used to be confident that she could turn a profit on any purchase she made. She earned money, for example, by buying a fish for 100 baht, grilling it over her charcoal stove, and selling it for 140 baht. Now, she counts every penny twice before making a purchase and tends to stick only to her staples that she knows will sell well.

Currently, Thailand is the slowest growing economy in Southeast Asia and has been stagnating in and on the verge of recession for several years. The country’s economic outlook has continued to fall since the 2014 coup, with Thailand’s finance ministry cutting its economic growth forecast from 5% down to 2.7%.

Many vendors in the market now resort to depleting their savings, leaving nothing to fall back upon. Ms. Aumpai has already closed one of her shops and is using her dwindling savings to keep her shoe store afloat. “If this one doesn’t get better by the end of the year, I will close this one too,” she says, gesturing to the rows of sneakers, sandals, and flats lining the walls. “I don’t have a plan for what I will do if this one fails.”

Those affected by the hurting economy are adapting to a reduced income by curbing their own spending. Ms. Aumpai says that she stopped eating out as much as she used to and is cutting any unnecessary expenses. As the customer base of the small merchants at the Aorjira market is made up of mainly self-employed people, their reduced spending perpetuates a cycle of reduced sales.

In September, Thailand’s consumer confidence fell to a 16-month low and showed only slight improvement in October, according to a survey by the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce (UTCC). Ms. Aumpai says she wants “the government to make the economy better” but has little faith that this will come to pass.

In August, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha reinstated Mr. Somkid Jatusripitak, who steered the economic ship of the Thaksin government, as minister of finance and deputy prime minister. The junta’s decision to install Somkid suggests an uncertain economic vision, which both rejects and relies on the very policies that the military government once condemned as heedless populism.

After adding Mr. Somkid Jatusripitak to its economic team, the military government approved a 136 billion baht (about $3.8 billion) stimulus package including the revival of the village fund program, once one of the Thaksin government’s key stimulus programs.

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Ms. Aumpai continues to run her businesses for now, but sees financial ruin on the horizon.

As Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy, Thailand’s position as a hub of tourism and manufacturing helped clench its status as an upper middle-income country. However, with incomes falling, consumer spending stagnating, and household debt on the rise, Thailand’s long-established veneer of stability is wearing away.

Dr. Titipol says that, in general, Thailand struggles to become a fully industrialized economy because investment in the country still relies on cheap unskilled labor – which is rapidly becoming less expensive in neighboring states. As a result, Thailand is losing its competitive edge. Dr. Titipol asserts that Thailand needs to take labor reform “more seriously.”

“We still have other strengths that Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar don’t have, like infrastructure,” Dr. Titipol explains, “we should be able to use this to support the economy and produce labor that will fill the market.”

Despite this dismal economic situation, life continues as usual at the market. Vendors still arrive at 3 a.m. to set up their booths and donate alms into the shining bowls of young monks in their rust-orange robes. Although Ms. Narawat concedes that conditions are not ideal, she has no intention of leaving her stall. “It’s not about happiness,” she states seriously, “it’s about making a living.”

 

INTERVIEW: Luk Thung – The Sound of Political Protest and Isaan’s Cultural Revival

2015 October 30
by The Isaan Record

Book author James Mitchell talks about Thailand’s most popular music.

In an excellent new book, James Mitchell traces the evolution of the Thai music genre luk thung (literally, “child of the fields”) from its working class origins to becoming Thailand’s most popular music. The Isaan Record talked to the author about how luk thung energized the revival of Lao-Isaan identity and culture in Thailand from the 1990s on, and how it came to play a vital role in the protest music of the country’s color-coded political conflict.

IR: How did you come to write a book about luk thung?

JM: The book is based on my Ph.D. thesis, but it is very much different. Before it was published by Silkworm, it was rejected by major ethnomusicology series because it was too multi-disciplinary for them. It mixes politics, it mixes history and there is only one chapter on music ethnology and perhaps that was not “heavy” enough for them.

In the making of the book, I collaborated with Peter Doolan, who runs the Thai music blog Mon Rak Pleng Thai and Peter Garrity, who is a passionate luk thung fan. This book would have never come about without them. Nick Nostitz contributed a couple of photos and more to the original article on the use of music by the Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts.

James Mitchell with Phongsri Woranut, a female luk thung superstar of the 1960s and '70s. Phongsri became known for her involvement in the genre of phleng kae ("dueling songs").

James Mitchell with Phongsri Woranut, a female luk thung superstar of the 1960s and ’70s. Phongsri became known for her involvement in the genre of phleng kae (“dueling songs”).

IR: Is luk thung known outside of Thailand and is it considered an area of academic interest?

JM: Luk thung is an area that has not really become mainstream in the academic world and hopefully this book will change this a bit. It is becoming a far more well-known music genre and there are many more international luk thung fans than before. Through my website Thai Music Inventory, I’ve been contacted by people in Germany, Australia, USA and elsewhere who are fans of Thai music rather than academics.

IR: How did you become interested in luk thung and was it easy to gain access to the scene?

JM: It really was because of my wife, who I met in 2002 in Khon Kaen. After we got married and moved here, I started working at Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts at Khon Kaen University. The Dean of the Faculty, Chaloemsak Phikunsri, got me started with luk thung. He gave me some old books and articles on the topic, such as Anek Nawikamun’s “Phleng Nok Sathawat (“Songs Outside the Century”).

At first, it was frustrating to get people to talk to me. I tried to go everywhere in Bangkok to make connections. I tried to ask major music companies for introductions to singers but no one was interested. It is about maintaining control over their artists and their music. They seem to not want to give anything away if they don’t see an upside to it. And for academic work, they don’t see any upside to it.

But when I communicated this to my friend, Ajan Jenwit Phikap at Khon Kaen University, he immediately said , “Oh, I know a really famous luk thung artist.” He took me to meet Soraphet Phinyo right away. Soraphet became the main case study of my book and that’s how it all started.

4.5 job joy at veteethai p112

The luk thung mo lam duo Job and Joy holding garlands known as phuang malai given to them by their fans at concerts. Singers have to be ready to accept the garlands at any time and are expected to hold them for as long as possible. This is an important aspect of star-fan interaction in luk thung, writes James Mitchell in his book. Photo credit: Peter Garrity

IR: In the book, you highlight the interaction between luk thung singers and fans as a reflection of Thai society.

JM: Apart from the concerts sponsored by TV and radio stations, luk thung artists also perform at funerals, weddings, and ordination ceremonies. At concerts, all the big luk thung fans are up front, and are mostly known by name to the singers. In one amazing picture that didn’t make it into the book, two famous singers hand Peter Garrity a birthday cake. They bought it themselves and presented it to him at their concert. You’d think it should be the other way around. These reciprocal relationships are not specific to luk thung, but you certainly do not see the same kind of relationships in Thai pop, in which artists are much more standoffish.

IR: You argue that luk thung became a main driver for the revival of Isaan culture in Thailand. Can you explain what that means?

JM: Yes, and I say revival only because I am thinking back to when Isaan culture was quite strong but successive Thai governments, and that goes back to the 19th century, have put their stamp down on Isaan culture – like discouraging the use of Isaan language in both spoken and written form.

The oral nature of Isaan culture contributed to not only the success of the luk thung music industry, but the entire entertainment industry. Isaan performers now really are everywhere, like all the comedians from the Northeast who often started performing on luk thung stages. Luk thung created this space for Isaan people to move into jobs in the entertainment industry.

Puu Yai Lii

The cover of the record “Phu Yai Lee” by Saksri Sri-akson (1961), a song that was of unparalleled popularity in Thai music. The song is inspired by a 1959 mo lam performance in Ubon Ratchathani about an archetypical local Isaan official, who was not used to central Thai language and was easily confused by government edicts.

IR: Around what time did the Isaan cultural influence on luk thung become noticeable?

JM: This began as early as the 1950s with Benjamin and Saksri Sri-akson. Saksri was a big star in nightclubs with her song “Phu Yai Lee,” which was a phenomenon. In the 1950s and ’60s these artists were not playing so much on the Isaan identity yet, but from the early 1970s on the whole genre of luk thung isaan, or luk thung mo lam, began to develop. Around 1981-2 this really took off big time.

This development might have been linked to the large of numbers of Isaan people who migrated to central Thailand looking for work. It reached a certain point where the Isaan audience became the most important audience in Bangkok and of course also for the bands touring throughout the countryside. It might also be related to the many Isaan migrants going to work overseas and then starting to come back, which meant that their social upward mobility and their economic standing improved. They started to have more money to spend on records and concerts and that began in the early 1980s.

IR: Luk thung used to be the music of the working class, how did it move into the mainstream of Thai music?

JM: The real shift of luk thung becoming big business and rising in status took place after 1976. It was especially fueled by the rise of Phumphuang Duangjan, the big star of the 1980s.

The cover of Chaophya Magazine (November 1982) showing singer and songwriter Soraphet Phinyo and luk thung star Nong Nut Duangchiwan. The title of this issue, "num na khao – sao na kluea," refers to Soraphet and Nong Nut’s hit duet "Rice Farming Boy, Salt Farming Girl."

The cover of Chaophya Magazine (November 1982) showing singer and songwriter Soraphet Phinyo and luk thung star Nong Nut Duangchiwan. The title of this issue, “num na khao – sao na kluea,” refers to Soraphet and Nong Nut’s hit duet “Rice Farming Boy, Salt Farming Girl.”

Oddly enough, as I write in my book, Soraphet Phinyo’s singing partner Nong Nut Duangchiwan was actually a bigger star than Phumphuang for two or three years in the early 1980s. But by 1984 Phumphuang became the dominant luk thung star until her death in 1992. She added dancing to her stage acts and her voice was just very powerful and sexy – before that most female luk thung singers were more sweet and nice. She was also really the first person to combine luk thung with Thai pop.

In 1989 and 1991 the royal patronage over luk thung began with “50 Years of luk thung” celebrations and Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn became involved with it. She actually wrote the lyrics to the song “Som Tam,” the big Phumphuang hit, which explains how to make som tam.

IR: You write that the usual portrayal of luk thung as an apolitical genre is a misperception, why is that? 

JM: Craig A. Lockert wrote a very good book, Dance of Life: Popular Music and Politics in Southeast Asia, which looks at political use of music throughout the region. He concluded that luk thung could not be used for political purposes because of the extravagant lifestyles of the artists and all the commercial trappings of modern luk thung – like all the dancers, the wonderful costumes, the commercialized lyrics. But when I saw luk thung artists perform at Red shirt protests, it became clear to me that the concert really was part of the protest.

IR: Does that mean that luk thung became politicized through the Red Shirt protests?

JM: No, it was not the first time for luk thung to carry politicized messages. In the 1950s, before it was called luk thung, it was called phleng chiwit (“songs of life”), which is not be confused with phleng phuea chiwit (“songs for life”). Phleng chiwit is a very early version of luk thung; the songs were sung in rural accents using rural themes, and they were highly political. So much so that the songwriters were put in jail or they were threatened.

During the 1970s phleng phuea chiwit was the dominant protest music, but from what I have found even during that time luk thung was used a lot for protests, for example by the communist insurgents.

So, luk thung has always been political, but it has always been heavily censored too. It has been the music of the working class and of the poor, but it wasn’t until the Red Shirts that the working class could really be open about their criticism of the establishment in public.

Red Shirt luk thung singers in a hang khruang ("dancing revue") in Khao Yai in November 2009. Photo credit: Nick Nostitz/Agentur Focus

Red Shirt luk thung singers in a hang khruang (“dancing revue”) in Khao Yai in November 2009. Photo credit: Nick Nostitz/Agentur Focus

IR: Have only the Red Shirts made use of luk thung music or did the Yellow Shirts incorporate it in their protests too?

JM: When the Yellow Shirts and the other offspring groups used luk thung it was clear that they didn’t have any real connection to the music. They use it because it is popular and it is party music, so all the yellow luk thung songs are either very patriotic songs or they are party songs.

The Red Shirts were able to use luk thung with what might be the main focus of this genre, namely themes of sadness and mourning. For example, they were able to write all these songs about Thaksin and his absence. And really, the theme of absence is what luk thung is all about. But not only songs about Thaksin, also mourning songs for Red Shirts who were killed during protests or about the absence of democracy. For the Yellow Shirts, there were never these kinds of songs. When the yellow side used luk thung, it wasn’t professional luk thung singers performing, but more Thai pop stars or old luk krung singers – it always felt quite token.

IR: Given the political nature of many luk thung songs, has the scene been affected by last year’s military coup?

JM: There have been less luk thung concerts since the coup. At least, during the martial law period, I think it was difficult to put concerts on at night. However, the regime has made up for this by using luk thung concerts as “rewards” for certain communities or as a propaganda tool.

There aren’t any political songs being put out in Thailand right now. It is amazing to me how successful the junta has been in oppressing political expression. All the political artists are pretty scared at the moment. The only political songs that are being released at the moment come from overseas, for example from the band Fai Yen. They are pumping out music all the time and some of their songs are luk thung.

IR: Do you have plans for another book?

JM: A lot of my current research has been on old Thai records in the 78 rpm format and I plan to publish a complete discography of Thai 78s, which has never been done for any Southeast Asian country. I find these records through collectors, especially buy and sale forums on the internet. There is a lively scene of Thai record collectors, but the part of 78 format collectors is quite small and specialized.

I am also planning to write more articles and I would like to write something on Fai Yen. I didn’t cover them in my book and I keep discovering new protest music that I missed. I’m also planning an article on Sayan Sanya. Chris Baker quite rightly points out that the book misses out on some of the biggest stars, such as Sayan, simply because they are not from Isaan. In the end the book became a triangle of luk thung, Isaan culture, and politics with a focus on the Red Shirts. Of course, in the future there could also be a second, updated edition of the book or perhaps a new, more comprehensive history of luk thung.

______________________________________________________________________

Luk_Thung_CoverLuk Thung: The Culture and Politics of Thailand’s Most Popular Music

By James Leonard Mitchell

Published: September 2015. 214 pages. Silkworm Books. 625 baht.

James Leonard Mitchell completed his Ph.D. from Macquarie University in 2012 and is currently a lecturer at Khon Kaen University and an adjunct research fellow at Monash University, Australia.

GUEST CONTRIBUTION: Isaan Villagers and Students travel to Mine-Affected Communities in Mexico

2015 October 29
by The Isaan Record

By Rebecca Goncharoff

This Friday, two representatives of a village affected by a gold mine in Loei Province and two members of Dao Din – a student activist group at Khon Kaen University – will travel to Oaxaca, Mexico, to meet with communities from across North America and Oaxaca state that are also protesting large-scale mining projects.

The Educational Network for Global and Grassroots Exchange (ENGAGE), a coalition of former study abroad students, raised the money to cover the Thai participants’ travel costs through an online crowdfunding campaign and several fundraising events in Khon Kaen City. It also received a grant from the Global Greengrants Fund, a charity that supports environmental actions around the world.

The exchange was organized by ENGAGE and Servicios Universitarios Y Redes de Conocimientos en Oaxaca A.C. (SURCO), a Mexican community organizing network, after 300 masked men attacked Na Nong Bong, the gold mine-affected village in Loei, in May of last year.

“After learning about this blatant disregard for human rights in Thailand, ENGAGE felt it necessary to take action and support the villagers who have been fighting the mine for years,” says Rachel Karpelowitz, former ENGAGE Network Coordinator.

Na Nong Bong villagers have been fighting to close the gold mine located less than a kilometer from their homes for almost a decade. They say that the chemical waste produced by the mine has contaminated local streams and water sources used for farming and household purposes, leading to illness and reduced crop yields. In 2009, the Ministry of Public Health advised residents not to drink water from nearby sources or eat local vegetables.

Two students from the Dao Din human rights activist group will also join the exchange. Dao Din has been supporting the villagers in their efforts to close the gold mine for over seven years.

During the two-week exchange the Thai participants, joined by representatives of Canadian First Nations groups and an Appalachian community organizer, will travel to different indigenous communities in Oaxaca state in an effort to share strategies and experiences among mining resistance activists.

Mexico_Story

The exchange participants gathered in Na Nong Bong village in Loei Province last Sunday for a traditional baci ceremony. Over 50 villagers came to tie strings on the wrists of the four people traveling to Mexico in order to wish them good luck on their journey. The Lao ritual symbolizes the calling of the khwan, or soul, from wherever it might be roaming, back to the body during a time of transition.

The participants argue that multinational mining companies threaten their local lands, communities, and cultures. Organizers hope the exchange will strengthen grassroots movements against the environmental contamination and violence brought about by extraction projects.

“It is critical that communities around the world, that people—who rarely are given choices about how the lands they live on are used—share experiences, explore strategies, and create coordinated action on a global level,” says Jonathan Treat, Director of Delegations for SURCO.

The two Na Nong Bong villagers traveling to Mexico – Phrattrapron Kaenjumpa, 35, and Surapan Rujichaiyavat, 44, were selected by fellow community members to represent the village in the delegation. Both were among those activist leaders hog-tied and beaten in the last year’s attack. Feeling unsafe ever since, the villagers are eager to learn new strategies to defend themselves against the mining company, Tungkum Ltd., and its allies.

“We need to learn how we can protect ourselves,” says Mr. Surapan, hopeful that he can learn from the experiences of Mexican anti-mining activists. “There might be times in the future when we will have to face similar situations [as the communities in Mexico].”

The Na Nong Bong villagers’ fear for safety resonates in San Jose del Progreso, a small town south of Oaxaca City. In March 2012, Bernardo Vazquez, a local activist, was assassinated after actively opposing a Canadian silver and gold mining project in his community.

The Dao Din students traveling to Mexico, Suttikiat Khotchaso, 27, and Jutamas Srihutthaphadungkit, 20, are hopeful that they will be able to share what they learned in Mexico by bringing back strategies for grassroots organizations in Northeastern Thailand.

“Sometimes old methods or strategies no longer apply,” Ms. Jutamas says. “We might not be using the best strategies because we don’t know how other people in other areas are doing things. It will be good to learn from other peoples’ experiences and then improve our own.”

Under the military government in Thailand, Na Nong Bong villagers and Dao Din activists have all faced threats. Villagers were ordered to stop organizing under martial law, and then under Article 44 of the Interim Constitution, which bans political activity in groups of five or more people. In June, seven Dao Din students were detained for 12 days after protesting the military regime.

Despite their continued struggle for human rights and against dictatorship, the delegates still fret over the details of international travel. “I’ve never been on an airplane before,” says Ms. Jutamas with a shrug, “what if I mess it up?”

Rebecca Goncharoff is a freelance writer living in Khon Kaen.

GUEST CONTRIBUTION: Isaan Lives – “I believe the villagers will protect me.”

2015 October 22
by The Isaan Record

By Genevieve Glatsky, Jaime Webb, and Megan Brookens

KoVit Profile

Kovit Boonjear currently lives in the Langsunpattana slum community in Khon Kaen. He has been a community activist in Isaan since 1983.

A train roared past as Kovit Boonjear, a man with a long pony-tail and mischievous look in his eyes, smoked a cigarette behind his modest home in one of Khon Kaen’s slum communities. “I never give interviews,” he said with a smile and more than a hint of irony.

A 60-year-old Isaan transplant from the south of Thailand, Kovit is sparing with his words – not because he does not enjoy conversation, but as a matter of safety. He has been a community rights activist since 1983, a contentious career path in the eyes of the stringent Thai military regime. Freedom of speech and assembly are limited and many of Kovit’s allies and friends have been temporarily detained and fear arrest. With over 30 years of experience, he is well accustomed to the risks that come with the job he has dedicated his life to.

Despite his poor upbringing, Kovit and his siblings all attended school. His father worked tirelessly as a security guard and waiter so that he could send his children to live with their mother in Bangkok, where there were more educational opportunities. His older brother became involved in an activist group while in law school and inspired Kovit to follow a similar path.

During the 1960s and 1970s, when Kovit was starting his law degree, Thai student activism was gaining strong momentum. Several universities had programs that sent students to work with marginalized rural communities so that they could better understand the challenges faced by Thailand’s poor.

As a freshman at Ramkhamhaeng University School of Law, Kovit stayed with a construction worker who was building a school in Bangkok. Because his host’s family didn’t have national identification cards his children were unable to attend the school their father spent so many hours building. The irony resonated with Kovit. “It made me think that if people invest their time in something, they should also profit from the value,” he said.

According to Kovit, his passion for supporting marginalized people stems from this early experience. Seeing first-hand the injustices faced by the urban poor, particularly regarding their lack of access to education, he felt compelled to leverage his own educational opportunities to fight for their rights.

He took his first job after college at the International Foster Care Organization Khon Kaen and he has called the Northeast home ever since. Kovit’s work now revolves around supporting marginalized communities, such as Khon Kaen’s slum residents and villagers resisting a mining company in Loei Province. Kovit uses his experience as a lawyer to navigate the complex legal system to ensure communities’ rights are upheld.

“The law is changing for the benefit of government officers, politicians, and businessmen,” said Kovit, shaking his head in dismay, “not for the poor.” Even with a law degree, he still spends vast amounts of time studying to keep up with ever-changing Thai policy.

Kovit values his high level of formal education, but believes that he can learn the most from personal exchange with people. Understanding the lives of everyday people has always been at the crux of his organizing strategy.

“When the villagers are wet, I am wet. When the villagers are hungry, I am hungry. I never consider myself an outsider. I consider myself a part of the community,” he said as he shared a meal with his neighbor, made from vegetables grown in his own garden.

“I listen. I talk with people,” he said. “The best way to make change happen is by casually stopping by.” Whether working in the rice fields with villagers or laughing over a glass of whiskey, Kovit can often be found discussing social justice issues with those around him.

He has worked closely with the community leaders in Wang Saphung subdistrict of Loei Province in their decade-long struggle to close a gold mine located less than a kilometer from their village. Villagers claim that the mine’s chemical discharge has caused illness and environmental contamination, and that the mining company’s henchmen initiated an attack on the village last May. In response to the tense situation following the attack, Kovit lived in the community for a year to help the villagers create mining-resistance strategies.

Kovit looks toward the gold mine with villagers in Wang Saphung, Loei Province. In 2009 the Ministry of Public Health tested local water sources for contaminants and consequently advised villagers not to drink the water or eat locally grown vegetables and fish.

Kovit looks toward the gold mine with villagers in Wang Saphung, Loei Province. In 2009, the Ministry of Public Health tested local water sources for contaminants and consequently advised villagers not to drink the water or eat locally grown vegetables.

“Kovit helped us organize and provided critical information. He was especially helpful after our village was attacked and decisions were being made rapidly,” said Surapan Rujichaiwat, the leader of Khon Rak Ban Koed (People Who Love Their Home), an organization of concerned villagers that has been advocating for the closure of the gold mine.

It is one of Kovit’s primary goals to ensure that communities can sustain their movement without his assistance by identifying leaders and developing a long-term strategy. “I try to accomplish two things in the communities I work with: education and organization. This gets them to think on their own,” Kovit said.

His nonviolent resistance tactics help villagers’ mobilizing efforts to gain momentum. However, as Kovit draws increased attention to communities’ struggles, he too faces heightened risk. He claims his name often appears at the top of the military’s list of people to monitor.

In 2013, he learned that fighting against resource development projects garners the attention of more than just the military. A military officer began following Kovit under the pretense of protecting him from a $10,000 bounty on his head, Kovit claimed. While this could just have been an intimidation tactic, Kovit suspects that the bounty was issued by the mining company.

Despite the threats, Kovit remains undeterred. He has already recruited 18,000 signatures for a petition he is circulating against current Thai mining policy. His goal is to garner 20,000 supporters.

“We have to be careful all the time. One thing I really believe is that the villagers will protect me,” he said.

Moving forward, Kovit seeks to expand his impact outside of Thailand. He is currently working on a website that will spotlight mining-affected communities throughout all ASEAN countries. The effort is one more step in the direction of increasing public understanding of marginalized peoples’ experiences.

Genevieve Glatsky studies International Relations and Megan Brookens majors in Urban Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Jaime Webb studies Music and Philosophy at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.