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Posts from the ‘Isaan Lives’ Category

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.

 

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Isaan Lives – Somkit Singsong: “Thaksin put the nation on sale and Lee Kuan Yew bought it.”

2015 October 15
by The Isaan Record

Among a wilderness of green shrubbery, Somkit Singsong sat in front of a small clay hut outside his village in Khon Kaen province. Sporting a beard akin to Vietnamese revolutionary leaders, Somkit recounted the days when there was a bounty on his head. “They came for me at the crack of dawn. Helicopters with spotlights hovered over the village. They wanted to kill me,” he said calmly.

From a rural Isaan childhood to student activism in Bangkok and six years with the communist armed struggle, the 65-year-old is now leading a green development project in his Northeastern home. But the life of Somkit will forever be linked to Thailand’s turbulent times of the 1970s.

Somkit’s rural Isaan upbringing distances him from most student activists in 1970s, who tended to come from the urban middle class. Somkit’s university education likewise made him different from most of those Isaan villagers who left their rice fields to fight with the communists during that period.

A prolific writer and co-founder of the Isaan Writers’ Association, Somkit has published several novels, short stories, and poems. Most of his writing belongs to a genre of literature known as wannakam phuea chiwit or “Literature for Life,” which features strong protest themes.

A child of rural Isaan, Somkit Singsong went to study at Thammsat University in Bangkok, took up student activism, and spent six years in the forest with the communist movement. Today, the 66-year-old is leading a green development project in his Northeastern home.

A child of rural Isaan, Somkit Singsong went to study at Thammsat University in Bangkok, took up student activism, and spent six years in the forest with the communist movement. Today, the 65-year-old is leading a green development project in his Northeastern home.

His most famous work remains the words to a song that became the anthem of the political movements of the 1970s. Along with fellow student activist Visa Kanthap, he wrote the lyrics to the song Khon Kap Khwai (“People and Buffalo”) that would later be made famous by Caravan – a folk-rock band that itself grew out of the pro-democracy protests of 1973.

“Every year on October 14, I organize an anniversary event in my home to remember the protests,” said Somkit. “We play ‘People and Buffalo’ because it helps people understand society and has now become part of history itself.”

Village Childhood and City Education

Born into a rice farming family, Somkit spent his childhood in Sap Daeng village, Khon Kaen province. In the early 1960s, he followed a family member to central Thailand to attend middle school on the Thonburi side of the Chao Praya River. Sarit Thanarat – the military dictator who had seized power in 1958 – had just drank himself to death, Somkit remembered.

Somkit shared his high school years with someone who would play a fateful role in Thailand’s politics decades later and pave the way for another military coup. “Suthep Thaugsuban was in the same year. We were friends back then,” he remembered. “After high school, Suthep failed the entrance exam for Thammasat University while I scored as the second best,” Somkit said, with a mischievous grin on his face.

Rewarded with a scholarship from the National Education Council, he enrolled in the newly-established Journalism and Mass Communications program at Thammasat University in 1969. The stipend of 1,500 baht covered his semester tuition fees and bankrolled a comfortable life in Bangkok.

Throughout the 1960s, a military junta had maintained its grip on power and formed an economic and anti-communist partnership with the United States. The Northeast hosted tens of thousands of US military personnel stationed there to support the American proxy war in Vietnam. In return, the US government gave Thailand major financial and development aid.

Bringing Activism to the Countryside

In the late 1960s, resistance to military rule reached a boiling point among university students. In the highly politicized atmosphere at Thammasat University, Somkit formed his own political creed and the sharp-tongued Northeastener soon became a leader among student activists.

“I had the feeling that Thailand was not free, but a colony of America,” Somkit said, explaining his motivation to join the budding student movement. “We talked often about independence and how to end inequalities in Thai society,” he said.

On October 14, 1973 a student-led uprising swept the military rulers out of government and launched a three-year democratic interlude for Thailand. After the unexpected victory, Somkit quit his studies, left the capital and returned to his home in the countryside.

Somkit said he felt frustrated with the attitudes of people in Bangkok. “I had a vision to build the society of my dreams in my home village,” he said, adding that the state gave too little support to the country’s rural population. He began organizing development projects around his village and engaged in politics by joining the central committee of the Socialist Party of Thailand.

“In the countryside, students were seen as the heroes of the time,” he recalled, “so I travelled around and gave speeches explaining politics to villagers.” But hostility against students and progressives was also rising. “The local bureaucrats hated me and called me a national security risk, a traitor, and a communist,” Somkit said grimly.

Into the Arms of the Communists

On October 6, 1976, the military dictatorship regained power with a bloody crackdown on students and protesters at Thammasat University. The shockwaves of the massacre reached Somkit’s village a couple of days later. State and paramilitary forces were hunting down communists and all of those branded “enemies of the state,” and they soon surrounded the area. Left with no other choice, the then-26-year-old fled his home, hiding in the townhouse of a friend until undercover communist agents offered him safe passage to a base in the Dong Mun forest, north of Kalasin province.

Somkit claimed that prior to this he had no connection to the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT), which had launched a guerrilla war against the state from the Northeast in 1965. “The CPT had spies all over Isaan back then, and I realized only later that they had kept an eye on me after I returned from Bangkok,” he said.

Immediately after the massacre of October 6, the CPT invited all dissidents to join the armed revolutionary struggle, accusing the Bangkok establishment and American government of backing the killings. About 3,000 students, leftist intellectuals, and farmer and labour leaders followed the communist call and fled into the forests.

Ironically, it was the state’s anti-communist witch-hunt that drove Somkit into the arms of the communist fighters. He was never one of them, he stressed, but an ardent defender of socialist revolution – a fine distinction that seems to be lost on most people these days, he complained.

Somkit received a warm welcome at the CPT’s base, and his involvement with the Socialist Party led others to regard him as a senior party member. “They treated me with so much respect, but I was really just a boy,” Somkit said.

After the CPT leadership invited Somkit to a major cadre meeting in Laos, he embarked on a weeklong trek to the border, where he was flown by helicopter to Muang Xai in Oudomxay province. “It was pure indulgence,” said Somkit. “There were servants, free cigars, and the fridge was filled with wines from Europe,” he added.

Somkit felt proud to meet high-ranking communist leaders like Udom Srisuwan, the communist party’s major theorist, and Phayom Chulanont, a Thai army defector. (In a historic twist, Phayom’s son would later lead military operations against communist fighters and be appointed Interim Prime Minister under the 2006 military coup.)

Failed Revolution and Finding a New Mission

Somkit never saw much good in the armed struggle and soon felt his work with the CPT was fruitless. He disliked the hierarchical structures of the organization and criticized it for allying with China and adopting a Maoist ideology – a move that would isolate the party from other communist movements in Southeast Asia.

When China’s foreign policy flipped in the late 1970s and the Chinese regime became friendly with the Thai government, the CPT was cut off from the Chinese support that had financed its activities. Soon after, ideological disputes between the party leadership and student activists eventually drove the students to part ways with the communist movement and return to the cities.

Most students abandoned the revolutionary struggle feeling jaded, but Somkit returned to his village hoping to continue where he had left off. He initiated several development and environmental projects and established a publishing house in Sap Daeng village. “The CPT was falling apart, but for me it really all had just started,” he said.

Somkit begrudgingly acknowledges that the experience of the faltering communist revolution and the return of military rule in the 1980s left its mark on his generation of leftists. Many fell into a state of political shock following their return from the forests. While some of them would reemerge in the country’s nascent NGO scene years later, they tended to turn their backs on political organizations, often taking a stance against representative democracy.

After Somkit made rural Isaan the center of his life again, he retreated from politics and turned to environmentalism. Along the way, political disillusionment crept into his life.

Somkit had a final fling with electoral politics as a candidate in a local election, but failed to win. “I didn’t have money to give to anyone – the ones who had cash bought all the votes,” he said. “Maybe it’s for the better; in parliament I might have turned into a bad person.”

The dirt road that leads to Somkit's environmental development project, which is located a few kilometers outside of his home village Sap Deang in Khon Kaen province.

The dirt road that leads to Somkit’s environmental development project, which is located a few kilometers outside of his home village Sap Deang in Khon Kaen province.

Scorning Politics, Continuing Activism

A motor scooter came rumbling down the dirt road leading to Somkit’s development project, which lies between two fields far from Sap Daeng village. Somkit’s son climbed off his motor scooter, put down a bag with ice and cheap beer, and disappeared behind the clay hut to prepare lunch. The thirty-something-year-old is taking care of his father, whose health has declined in recent years.

Today, it seems former activist Somkit has not even a glimmer of faith in Thailand’s political development. “If I look at the future of this country, all I see is darkness,” he said. “Just look around you, is there light anywhere here?”

Somkit scorns national politics and while he does not approve of last year’s coup, he calls the current military government “the best of the worst.”

Thai politics has always been a stage “for those who seek benefits and power,” Somkit said, but corruption and nepotism escalated when Thaksin Shinawatra entered the scene.

“Thaksin put the nation on sale and Lee Kuan Yew bought it,” Somkit said, referring to the controversial deal between Thaksin’s family and the Singapore-owned Temasak Holdings in 2006.

The Shinawatra family’s sale of its share in the telecommunications giant Shin Corp to an investment arm of the Singaporean government incited major public outcry over what was regarded as an unfair tax exemption for the powerful family. Thaksin was accused of “selling out” national assets. The controversy surrounding the sale added momentum to the anti-Thaksin protests that precipitated the 2006 military coup.

Somkit also has little respect for the recent political agenda of some fellow student activists from the 1970s. “The radical leftists really thought they could use Thaksin to overthrow the capitalist system and the monarchy,” he said, mentioning two prominent red shirt leaders.

“I was once a socialist and anti-monarchy,” he said, “but then, I realized that there is no other king in this world that is working as hard as ours.” Somkit discovered his love for the country’s royal institution through his newfound passion to defend the environment, a mission that the monarch always supported, he said as his son returned from cooking. The fried cobra dish he served was in no time discovered by hungry red ants.

In a way, history played a joke on many members of Somkit’s generation. Once leaders of the country’s most progressive forces longing to foment a revolution, today many seem stuck without any political vision. And as many political observers have noted, these former student activists today often find themselves cheering those who try to freeze society’s progress.

In Somkit’s view, things are “just different now” and he has moved on from his past of political activism. “The world’s big issues today are environmental,” he claimed. “Political problems make up only a small part of it.”

As Somkit picked a few red ants off some pieces of fried cobra, a construction worker trudged out of the thick green undergrowth to hand Somkit a bill.

Next to the clay hut, Somkit is building an education center for organic agriculture. And the 65-year-old continues to think about new projects that focus on chemical free farming and he vows to fight against the influence of global agribusiness on Thailand’s farmers.

“The farmers are committing suicide by putting chemical fertilizers into their fields,” he said. “What we need is a new Green Revolution.”