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Posts from the ‘Isaan’ Category

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.

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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.

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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

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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.

 

GUEST NEWS CONTRIBUTION: Sakon Nakhon Court Jails Villagers For Forest Encroachment

2015 October 22
by The Isaan Record

By Anne Sadler and William Lee

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Residents of Jatrabiab village and one of their lawyers gather for an Isaan-style lunch in the shadow of the Sakon Nakhon courthouse. Relatives and friends of all ages flocked to the scene of the day’s proceedings in a show of support.

SAKON NAKHON – The ongoing clash between the government’s forest reclamation policy and community land rights in the Northeast came to a head on October 21st. Standing before the provincial court in Sakon Nakhon Province, nine villagers from Jatrabiab village — each convicted with encroaching on protected forests — listened as the judge handed down their sentences.

For six of the nine villagers, the verdict was disheartening. Each must abandon their land, pay a fine ranging from 10,000 to 20,000 baht, and submit to a form of probation for at least a year. Still, they fared much better than three of their neighbors.

Mrs. Kong Phongsakbun, Mr. Bunsom Phongsakbun, and Mrs. Surat Srisawat share 40 rai of land in an area the government has deemed “reserve forest.” For working on this land, Mrs. Kong and Mr. Bunsom received a sentence of three years in prison, while Mrs. Surat received two and a half years.

Wednesday’s sentencing is the latest chapter in a saga that began in 2012, when Thai authorities arrested 34 Jatrabiab villagers — largely rubber farmers—for trespassing in a reserve forest.

Prosecutors’ initially lacked the willpower to take substantive action against the accused. The villagers’ court cases lay dormant for some time, but were revived after the 2014 military coup thrust into power an active junta bent on pushing its “master plan,” which includes a commitment to swiftly increase Thailand’s forest cover to 40% — up from the present nationwide proportion of 33%.

A primary government strategy to reach this goal has been to reclaim illegally used forestlands, though villagers across Isaan argue that the forests are being used legally. They say the borders of reserve forests, national parks and protected areas, which the government mandates must be free of human activity — were drawn with people’s livelihood inside them.

Holding back tears, 51-year-old Mr. Phakdi Srisawat, the husband and son-in-law of the trio facing jail time, was overcome by the judge’s ruling. “It is unfair, I don’t know what to do,” he said, struggling to find words. Mr. Phakdi now faces the daunting task of collecting a total bail of more than one million baht, without a job or land to leverage, since his land was also confiscated.

While distressed about the fate of her grandparents and mother, 27-year-old Ms. Saowalak Srisawat fears most for her father. “Without my mother, my father is broken-hearted,” she said. “In this way, he suffers more than my mother.”

Mr. Thanomsak Rawatchai, one of the three lawyers representing the villagers, expressed disappointment with the verdict. “What the judge gave to the villagers, it’s too much,” he said.

Though nearly all of the villagers pled guilty to avoid harsher sentences, they maintain their arrests were unjust. By their account, they have owned the land in question for decades, and have the tax records to prove it. Mr. Phakdi asserts his wife’s parents had lived on their land for at least 34 years.

In a narrative difficult to substantiate, villagers claim that the Royal Forest Department (RFD) — a government agency responsible for managing forest resources — agreed to provide them with land titles in 2012. It turned out to be a deceptive ploy, they allege, as the RFD collected and submitted their signatures to the police. The police then arrested all those listed as “trespassers.”

RFD officials emphasize that the target of the reclamation policy are investors: wealthy landowners exploiting the forests for personal gain. Furthermore, NCPO Order 66 requires that poor or landless people living on reserve land prior to June 2014 not be adversely affected. However, evidence suggests the reality is the reverse.

Even considering Thailand’s ever-changing political system, the legal definition of an “investor” is remarkably inconsistent. In an interview earlier this month, Sakon Nakhon RFD officials stated that those with more than 50 rai of land qualify as investors. Some villagers claim it is 30 rai. On Wednesday, for the judge, it was 25 rai.

“What law does the judge use to send people to jail for 25 rai of land?” said Mr. Laothai Ninnuan, an advisor to the Isaan Farmer Association who has worked with the Jatrabiab community for over 30 years. “The law states that they can have 50 rai. The judge just made that law up,” he claimed.

Following Wednesday’s hearing, all but one of the 34 villagers involved, a juvenile at the time of his arrest, have received sentencing. Most of those facing jail-time are in varying stages of the appeals process.

Mr. Thanomsak stressed that judges have the wrong attitude about the relationship between villagers and forestland. While judges think of villagers as catalysts of environmental destruction, Mr. Thanomsak explained that, in reality, their communities have been able to sustain themselves and the land for decades.

Throughout the day, dozens of Jatrabiab villagers sat in an outdoor structure adjacent to the courthouse, gathered in solidarity for the nine awaiting their sentences. When asked about the large turnout of supporters, Mr. Phakdi choked out just one word —“happy”— before succumbing to silence.

For now, the trio remains behind bars, awaiting bail. “We will continue to fight; we will find a way to get them out,” said Ms. Saowalak. “But today, I don’t know what to do.”

The State Prosecutor’s Office was not available for comment, citing official business.

Anne Sadler studies English Literature at Davidson College (North Carolina) and William Lee majors in Environmental Science at Tulane University of Louisiana.

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.”

Northeasterners Mark 50th Anniversary of the Communist Armed Struggle

2015 August 13
by The Isaan Record

NAKHON PHANOM – Fifty years ago, Comrade Tang fought for communism in the first violent clash between communist fighters and Thai security forces. Last week, at 88 years old, he marked the anniversary with a call for democracy.

"Nabua - A historical village“ reads the sign at the village entrance.

“Nabua – A historical village“ reads the sign at the village entrance.

In the early morning on August 7, villagers and local politicians flocked through the gate of Nabua’s village temple to commemorate the incident that came to be known as the “Day the First Gunshot Rang Out.” Against the military’s demands, the crowd of 250 not only celebrated the former communists, but also rallied for freedom from the current military rule in Thailand.

On August 7, 1965 Nabua, an ethnic Phu Thai village, made headlines all across Indochina when Thailand’s first-ever physical confrontation between communist fighters and Thai security forces occurred. According to eyewitnesses, eight communist villagers were involved, one of whom was shot dead during the incident after the town was surrounded by state forces.

Nabua villagers give alms in the local temple to mark the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the "Day the First Gunshot Rang out".

Nabua villagers give alms in the local temple to mark the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the “Day the First Gunshot Rang Out”.

Comrade Tang, one of these eight villagers, sits on the tiled floor of the temple’s sala and greets every newcomer with an excited glance.

“This is the second year we were not allowed to have a big celebration and our funding was cut,” he said in an interview, dressed in a pearly-white uniform and sporting black-rimmed glasses. “In the past, the military would join in to celebrate our shared political history, but now they are coming in to control us.” Before he could begin the ceremony, he rose from his seat to greet two military officers who came to observe the event.

Villagers have been commemorating the incident for the last fourteen years with large events featuring political debates, lectures, and cultural performances. But, for the second year in a row, military officials asked them to keep the event small and banned any political conversation. In addition, the event’s funding from the local government was cut by half this year, from 20,000 to 10,000 baht, according to village leaders.

Comrade Tang greets two military officers who came two observe the event and took photos of the audience.

Comrade Tang greets two military officers who came two observe the event and took photos of the audience.

Among the event’s guests were 150 students from Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University. Their lecturer, Wichan Sittitham, had organized a lecture the day before the ceremony to encourage his students to learn about their region’s political history.

“The power of the older generation here is giving me goosebumps,” said Rotchana Ngaolakon, a third-year student in the university’s Public Administration program. “Like Comrade Tang, he is only a farmer, but he followed a strong ideology against oppression. Even up to today, he is still demanding to return democracy to the people.”

Comrade Tang, whose full name is Chom Saenmit, delivered a speech to the students at the event at the university’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. He is determined to help teach students and others in his region about the often-ignored realities of the communist movement’s history in Isaan.

Comrade Tang speaks to an audience of villagers, students and local politicians. Behind him is a portrait of the communist villager who was shot dead in the clashes on August 7, 1965.

Comrade Tang speaks to an audience of villagers, students and local politicians. Behind him is a portrait of the communist villager who was shot dead in the clashes on August 7, 1965.

“It was good to have the event at Rajabhat University yesterday to talk about the political meaning of [August 7],” he says. “But, the problem is that these kind of events at universities are not easily accessible for other villagers.”

Despite the military’s order to avoid political topics, speakers at the anniversary event stressed the need for a return to a democratic system in Thailand.

Former MP and Pheu Thai politician Paichit Sriwarakham, dressed in traditional Isaan garb, praised the people of Nabua for setting an example in opposing dictatorship 50 years ago. “People should stay united in demanding democracy,” he told a cheering audience.

“We have been fighting for democracy for a long time and it’s time to deliver it to the people,” said Comrade Tang in his speech. “In the past, the state killed many people in our village, in their homes, and in their fields.” As he began recounting the anti-communist suppression in the 1960s and 70s, however, the moderator quickly interrupted him and announced the next program item, an ethnic Phu Thai dance performance.

For Comrade Tang, the annual celebration is the only opportunity to get public recognition of what he views as a decades-long struggle against dictatorship. After the collapse of the Communist Party of Thailand in the early 1980s, Comrade Tang had returned to a life as a rice farmer in his village. “We realized that without these commemorative events, the history of our political struggle would be lost,” he said in an interview.

Students from Rajabhat Sakon Nakhon University listen Comrade Tang talking about the political history of Nabua.

Students from Rajabhat Sakon Nakhon University listen Comrade Tang talk about the political history of Nabua.

On the temple’s lush grounds, small groups of students congregated to speak with former communist fighters. Ms. Rotchana, one such student, felt aggrieved by the absence of the communist movement in her history classes.

“The Nabua incident is not often talked about in our society, but it is an important slice of history for the Phu Thai and people in Isaan. And for us students, we get to learn about something that is not covered in our university books,” she said, adding that her parents did not want her to attend the event.

Former village teacher Santayakon Jitmat and students from Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University perform revolutionary songs on a small stage on the temple ground.

Former village teacher Santayakon Jitmat and students from Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University perform revolutionary songs on a small stage on the temple ground.

Thailand’s education system is known for its elite-focused, narrow treatments of the country’s political history. Public Administration student Anuwat Saelim said that this breeds political apathy among students. “The ones who are interested in politics and people’s movements, like Dao Din, are seen as radicals, as society’s black sheep,” he said, referring to the Northeast student group that has recently organized protests against the military government.

“In the past, young people grabbed a gun and fought [for their beliefs],” said Mr. Anuwat.

“Today, the few students who dared to write protest signs are hunted down by the state. The ruling class must be really afraid of us.”

Isaan Poor Targeted by Junta’s Forest Policies

2014 October 19
by Evan Gershkovich

Guest contributor, Evan Gershkovich, reports on how the government’s new forest policy impacts the poor far more than the rich landowners and resort operators the government claims to be targeting.

SAKON NAKHON-On October 1, 37 villagers of Jatrabiap village were arrested and held on bail for charges of illegally reclaiming and occupying a section of Phu Phan Reserve Forest. This past June a task force of park officials, soldiers, and police cut down 18 families’ rubber tree farms totaling 383 rai (151.4 acres), in Non Jaroen village in the same reserve. According to a local activist, officials plan to clear-cut a total of 10,000 rai of rubber trees in the area by the end of the year, a move that could deprive 700 households of income.

These actions are in line with a policy of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) which came to power through a coup in late May. According to Laothai Ninuan, an advisor to the Assembly of the Poor and to the Northeastern Network for Development of the Poor on Land-Forest Issues based in the area, state authorities are in the process of evicting more than 50 Northeastern communities from forest areas.

The increasingly aggressive attitude on the part of state authorities is part of a trend that has either removed or aims to evict more than 50 Northeastern communities from forest areas and threatens the livelihoods of what one forestry official has estimated to be as many as two million people throughout the country.

A Jatrabiap villager surveys the remaining and destroyed rubber trees; authorities plan to cut down the rest by the end of the year.

A Jatrabiap villager surveys the remaining and destroyed rubber trees; authorities plan to cut down the rest by the end of the year.

In June, the NCPO issued Order 64, which calls for an end to deforestation and forest encroachment. The order aims to regulate corrupt and large-scale commercial operations in reserve forests. Order 66, issued three days later, requires that the poor or landless people living on reserve land prior to Order 64 not be adversely affected.

The attorney representing Jatrabiap villagers, Tanom Sakrawaschai, does not believe that Order 66 has actually functioned as an effective check on Order 64.

“In practice, Order 64 has mostly been enforced against common villagers rather than large-scale investors,” says Mr. Tanom.

Villagers have little way to respond to evictions. With the help of Mr. Laothai, Non Jaroen villagers sent a petition to the Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRC) demanding the NCPO call off plans to destroy the remaining rubber trees. The NHRC has received over a dozen of such petitions.

A meeting in Bangkok with the NCPO and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment on August 10 where the NCPO was urged to change its policy regarding forest encroachment.

Apparently unsuccessful, four days after the Bangkok meeting, Mr. Palinchai Sonsoe, the head of Phu Phan District, issued an order for Jatrabiap villagers to vacate the land they used to grow rubber trees. When they refused, Mr. Palinchai issued a warrant for their arrest.

There is question as to who benefits from the rubber trees. Local authorities claim that investors hire the farmers to tap the rubber. Mr. Palinchai does not believe that the villagers can afford to grow rubber trees on their own.

“Growing rubber trees is not done by the poor,” he said. “It is done by investors who hire the villagers to work for them.”

When asked for evidence that investors had hired the villagers to work for them, Mr. Palinchai could not produce any.

Local villagers used to grow cassava and sugar cane. In 2001, local authorities introduced rubber saplings into the area as part of the agricultural policy of the first Thaksin Shinawatra administration.

Contrary to government claims, villagers say they own the trees and now the income of many families depends solely on rubber.

Ms. Sunan Singwong, a 28-year-old farmer in Jatrabiap village, says that families started with one rai and then gradually added one rai at a time. Ms. Sunan claims that relatives working in other provinces provide money to help grow more rubber trees.

According to Mr. Laothai, an average family in Jatrabiap village has a modest holding of about 15 rai. Each month, a family typically makes about 1,000 baht per rai from the harvest of rubber. With two people working the average of 15 rai of trees, they can expect to earn less than 300 baht a day.

While not the poorest of the poor, these families are not getting rich either. It is for this reason that Mr. Laothai argues that villagers are by no means the wealthy landholders that NCPO Order 64 aims to target and ought to be protected by Order 66.

Although the Non Jaroen and Jatrabiap villagers claim to have been living on their land for generations, the area was named Phu Phan National Park in 1972. After negotiations with villagers and NGOs in 1993, cabinet ministers issued a resolution allowing the Agriculture Land Reform Office to allocate land to villagers.

But now the government seems to be revoking that resolution. Mr. Palinchai insists that he will follow the NCPO’s order. “I have to seize all reserve forest area,” he says. “The rubber trees must be cut and destroyed.”

The NCPO policy, though, has made land tenure uncertain and threatens the livelihoods of two million people throughout the country. Ms. Sunan has little doubt about the resolve of the government. “I think the government will cut down more of our trees and seize our land,” she says. “But we are poor. From what I’ve heard about [the NCPO] order, they say that if we are poor we should be able to keep our land.”

Dr. Komsan Rueangritsakul of the Royal Forest Department’s Bureau of Community Forestry Management acknowledged the problems with the NCPO order in a previous interview.

“This problem is an old, old problem, but our first priority is to ensure that no more forest land is converted for commercial use,” he told Khao Sod English. “There are two million people in protected forested areas in Thailand, and they are not criminals, they are farmers.”

Mr. Laothai fears that the criminalization of villagers in the Northeast will continue. He also worries that he himself might be arrested.

“It’s not that I’m scared for myself,” says Mr. Laothai. “I’ve been fighting dictatorship for a long time. We’ve had a lot of coups in Thailand. But if I go to those areas, the villagers will be in even more trouble than they already are; the military will think that I’m trying to spark a political movement in the area.”

His fear is not uncommon in the climate of martial law. The ban on discussion of politics in groups of five or more and the frequent “summons” of other AOP leaders has given many like Mr. Laothai pause.

“I just need to be careful,” he says.

Dr. Sataporn Roengtam, a professor of Public Administration at Khon Kaen University, believes that the targeting of villagers by district officers will continue unless the government’s policy is clarified and protects the rights of the poor.

“In Isaan, there are a lot of poor farmers who only plant a few rai of rubber trees, but the local authorities don’t make a distinction between the poor and the large-scale businesses run by corrupt people who are taking land from the state – that’s who the policy was meant for,” he said in an interview.

Like villagers, Dr. Sataporn feels there is a disconnect between policy makers and people on the ground. “I’ve spoken to a lot of people about this, and I really do think that higher government officials really mean this policy for large commercial operations; it’s the lower level government officials who are using this policy to take advantage of poor people. And this is a big problem in Thailand right now.”

The first court hearing in the case against Jatrabiap villagers is scheduled for November 21. The attorney, Mr. Tanom, is uncertain about the outcome of the case; Ban Jatrabiap is located in Phu Phan National Park, he notes, and the 1993 Cabinet resolution does not allow the growing of rubber trees.

Mr. Tanom worries that the court may decide to issue severe penalties, which could include up to fifteen years in prison, confiscation of land, and fines of up to 150,000 baht per rai in violation.

––

Phinitnan Chanasabaeng contributed reporting.

Evan Gershkovich is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok. Follow Evan on Twitter @EvanGershkovich

Eviction on the Horizon for Chaiyaphum Community

2014 September 1
by The Isaan Record
Baw Kaew villagers recently celebrated the fifth anniversary of their community’s re-establishment. Standing in front of their eviction notice, villagers intend to continue to fight peacefully for their land.  Photo credit: Wilder Nicholson, Bowdoin College

Baw Kaew villagers recently celebrated the fifth anniversary of their community’s re-establishment. Standing in front of their eviction notice, villagers intend to continue to fight peacefully for their land.
Photo credit: Wilder Nicholson, Bowdoin College

CHAIYAPHUM—As part of the military government’s new forestry policy, the 277 residents of Baw Kaew village in Khon San District received a thirty-day eviction notice on August 26.

The notice, issued by the Forest Industry Organization (FIO), cited Order 64/2557 of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), which seized power in May. The order instructs government agencies to eliminate deforestation and incursion on forest reserves nationwide.

After villagers were originally removed from the Samphaknam Mountain Reserve Forest in 1978 by the FIO, the area was replanted with eucalyptus trees, used primarily in the paper pulp industry.

Sixty-four households returned to the Khon San Forest Project in 2009 to re-establish a village. Their protest of FIO policy highlights the plight of thousands in the Northeast and throughout Thailand facing eviction.

The community had been actively involved in working with a community land title scheme under the Abhisit and Yingluck administrations.

In the few days following the eviction notice, the villagers from Baw Kaew have submitted petition letters to six organizations, including the NCPO, the Secretary of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), the Office of the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRC), the Chaiyaphum Provincial Governor, and the Commander of the Second Regional Army. More than eighty-percent of residents signed the petition, which calls for a cancellation of the eviction notice and for recognition of the community’s right to their land.

In July, the military used threats and arbitrary arrest to evict more than a thousand villagers in Buri Ram province. International human rights NGOs at the time voiced concern at the worrying trend. The Asia director of Human Rights Watch, Brad Adams, condemned the evictions.

“Instead of resolving a land issue through legal means, the military is using its wide-reaching martial law powers to bludgeon human rights protections,” he said in a statement released on July 19.

There is no compensation or assistance for relocation available to those facing eviction. If the villagers choose to stay when their thirty-day notice has passed, they will likely face arrest.

Baw Kaew villagers claim this is the third eviction threat they have received since 2009.

Community members have no intention of leaving the land they believe is rightfully theirs, and plan to engage in nonviolent protests to fight eviction.

While the country is under martial law, it is unclear whether protests will be tolerated by the military government.

Among those who established Baw Kaew in 2009, Suwan Daiphukieow, a woman in her sixties, says, “Where should I go? I have nowhere to go. I’m going to keep on doing what I’m doing for as long as I can.”

Suwan Daiphukieow has lived in the Khon San Forest Project area for over sixty years, five of which have been in Baw Kaew.  Photo credit: Emma Tran, Tulane University

Suwan Daiphukieow has lived in the Khon San Forest Project area for over sixty years.
Photo credit: Emma Tran, Tulane University

Ms. Suwan has no family or friends outside of the area to turn to.

“I am quite scared, but I don’t know what to do because we have no other land,” she continued. “If they want us to leave, they must find us a place to live.”

Pramote Phonphinyo, adviser to the Land Reform Network of the Northeast, states that villagers may have evidence that could help prove they own the land. Even with the evidence, there is no guarantee that villagers will be permitted to stay. He says their future remains uncertain.

Mr. Pramote estimates that as many as fifty communities across the Northeast are vulnerable to the military’s new eviction policy.

 

On September 25 families who have lived in the Khon San Forest` for generations are scheduled to be forcibly removed. Photo credit: Wilder Nicholson, Bowdoin College

On September 25 families who have lived in the Khon San Forest for generations are scheduled to be forcibly removed.
Photo credit: Wilder Nicholson, Bowdoin College

 

On August 26 the FIO posted eviction notices on villagers’ homes, citing NCPO Order 64/ 2557.  Photo credit: Kate Cowie-Haskell, University of Rochester

On August 26 the FIO posted eviction notices on villagers’ homes, citing NCPO Order 64/ 2557.
Photo credit: Kate Cowie-Haskell, University of Rochester

 

Emma Tran is an undergraduate at Tulane University and Jenny Dunn is an undergraduate at the University of Washington-Seattle. Both study International Studies and are presently studying at the Council Study Center at Khon Kaen University.

Khon Kaen Model Raises Questions in the Northeast

2014 June 12
by The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN – Since the May 22 coup d’état, Thailand’s military has tried to sweep the country clean of weapons to quell fears of a violent uprising. But in Isaan, the heartland of the Red Shirts, some of the soldiers’ actions have raised doubts about the military’s intentions. Red Shirts here believe that the military may be wrongly framing peaceful Red Shirts as violent terrorists in a high-profile legal case, which could set the stage for a wider crackdown on Red Shirts in the region.

On May 23, soldiers raided an apartment building in Khon Kaen city and arrested around twenty people allegedly involved in a terrorist plot. The military claims the plot, known as the ‘Khon Kaen Model,’ was designed to incite violence in Khon Kaen. In the following days, they arrested additional suspects in their homes, bringing the total number of the accused to twenty-four.

Soldiers reported that they seized grenades, ammunition, and gas tanks at the site of the apartment building. After interrogating the suspects, the military announced what they found to be the Khon Kaen Model’s master plan: mobilize anti-coup supporters, disarm authorities, force financial institutions to give money to the poor, and declare a nationwide “zero debt” policy.

It’s the kind of story that plays right into the conservatives’ two biggest fears: militant Red Shirts and Thaksin’s populism.

The Khon Kaen Model case preceded the military’s nationwide call to civilians to dispose of all firearms. On June 3, the military ordered that all handguns, legal or illegal, be surrendered or thrown away within a week, or else gun owners risked facing up to 20 years behind bars. According to one 2011 report, there are an estimated ten million civilian firearms in the country, which lands Thailand in tenth place worldwide for the most guns in civilian possession.

Red Shirts and those close to the accused in the Khon Kaen Model case insist it is not a clandestine plan of a militant revolt, as the military claims, but part of a broader campaign for social justice and equality. A relative of one of the arrested explained that the group only gathered that day to discuss Red Shirts’ peaceful responses to the coup.

She and many others interviewed by the Isaan Record asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.

A staff member of the apartment building, who saw the arrests take place, also said the group seemed to be meeting peaceably. “In the media, the reports were overblown. What happened from what I saw was they didn’t rent a whole floor, they weren’t staying two months, they just stayed one day, and weren’t even sleeping there. There was never any plan to stay for a long time.” The staff member never saw any weapons enter or leave the apartment building.

A relative of another of the accused described how more than a dozen soldiers arrived at her house in a village outside of the city a few days after the arrest. The soldiers did not produce a warrant, but they searched her entire house. They left without finding any weapons but confiscated only a red hat and a United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) form, she claimed.

Relatives and villagers close to the defendants told Benjarat Meethien, the lawyer of the accused, that soldiers have been searching the homes of at least some of the men awaiting trial. The wives feel threatened by these unexpected visits, and they think their husbands are innocent. “The villagers told me that when soldiers armed with guns enter the villages unannounced, it terrifies them,” said Ms. Benjarat.

Beyond the families of the accused, other Red Shirts around Khon Kaen wonder about the implications of this case. “The news accounts of the ‘Khon Kaen Model’ have gone overboard,” said one Red Shirt organizer, who knows a handful of the men involved in the case. “But the military has never been on our side.” He fears that cases like this one could give credence to more arrests of Red Shirts in the region, even though the majority of Red supporters are nonviolent.

Still, a number of small Red Shirt groups that organize “defensive trainings” have cropped up over the years, which the military could perceive as a threat to their rule. One source explained her anger over the arrests on May 23, but she also described her involvement in an underground defense training that taught her and a hundred others how to use BB guns, in case of attack.

The defendants’ lawyer expects the trial to take place at the end of June. At the time of writing, none of the accused had been released on bail. In the military court system, there are no appeals.

Opposition to Military Coup in Khon Kaen

2014 May 25
by The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN—On May 24, the second full day after the overthrow of the caretaker government by a military coup, there was a greater military presence in Khon Kaen, as well as signs of resistance to the  National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). In the span of three hours, at least three independent anti-coup activities took place around Khon Kaen, including two at Central Plaza shopping mall and one at Khon Kaen University.

On May 23, it was reported that about 100 soldiers were visible midday at key intersections of the city. Yesterday, military security appeared to be significantly heightened, with as many as an estimated 500 soldiers in the city and almost 100 posted outside of Central Plaza alone.

At approximately 5 p.m. on May 24, witnesses say a student group was halted by the authorities at Central Plaza. At least six of the students were reportedly detained. Shortly after, a loud altercation between two female activists and military authorities ensued, attracting a large crowd of onlookers inside the front entrance. The incident only quieted down after officials assured the activists that the students had been released.

At that same moment, another group of protesters attempted to unroll an anti-coup banner reading, “No to the Coup Constitution of 2007. Bring Back the 1997 Constitution.” Military officials wrestled the banner away from protesters and confiscated it.

One onlooker shook her head and said, “The coup will never end, it has happened more than fifteen times [in Thailand] already.”

Ms. Suratda, a thirty-seven-year-old small business owner, expressed frustration, saying that she thought a lot of people in Khon Kaen are unhappy about the coup but are too afraid to come out.

Ms. Chawthip, a forty-nine-year-old owner of a tutoring center, said, “I don’t like the coup.” More people would be protesting, she said, but “we are afraid of guns. Soldiers have guns, but the people don’t.”

Military officials at the scene refused to make any comment to The Isaan Record.

A second protest group relocated to a restaurant in the mall where they displayed a sign that read, “Get out military, give back democracy.” This declaration led military authorities to rush and intervene. A protest leader refused to accompany authorities for talks elsewhere, prompting a military official to sit with the leader at an adjoining table in the restaurant.

A member of this group said their protest was to bring back democracy. “Our demand is for elections and equality of all votes regardless of who the person is. We don’t want a constitution that further limits democracy. The people have to be the sovereign power.”

A third group had travelled down from Namphong District and had planned to assemble at the park across from Central Plaza. They were unable to carry out their demonstration due to confusion between the various protest groups. The leader of this group said, “The age of dictatorship is over. Any advanced country is democratic, like Japan, Germany, or the US.”

Thailand is rated in the top eight countries in the world for number of coups; it is once again caught in the vicious cycle of coups, new constitutions, elections, and now another coup, he explained.

A fourth protest group met at Khon Kaen University’s Faculty of Law. It included members of the student activist group Dao Din, as well as several members from the Namphong group. Together they performed a Thai version of The People’s Song in front of a bust of Pridi Phanomyong whom they recognize as the “Father of Thai Democracy.” The performance was recorded and will be posted on social media outlets.

Mr. Jatupat, a leader of the group, said the goal of the video is to encourage people to be brave. “In this situation, we have to wake up the people; this is a song for those who are oppressed.”

There were other signs of opposition to the coup in the city. Along Chonnabot Road outside of Khon Kaen University, one piece of graffiti showed a broken peace symbol and the words, “Resist the Coup.” Another said, “MILITARY: Don’t Mess [in politics].”

None of the groups protesting in Khon Kaen seemed to be connected to the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD). Many, however, identified themselves as red shirts or as sympathetic to the UDD cause.

There appeared to be little coordination between the groups yesterday. Among those protesting, there was some surprise to see other groups protesting as well.

Yesterday’s anti-coup activities come in the wake of twenty-one people who were arrested for allegedly preparing violent acts in Khon Kaen on May 23, as reported by the Mass Communication Organization of Thailand (MCOT).

There is reportedly an anti-coup protest scheduled for 4:30 p.m. in Khon Kaen on May 25.

PISA Thailand Regional Breakdown Shows Inequalities between Bangkok and Upper North with the Rest of Thailand

2014 February 21
by The Isaan Record

Guest Contributor: John Draper

As reported previously in The Isaan Record, there are clear inequalities in Thai students’ academic achievement, and these are easily seen in official Ordinary National Educational Test (O-NET) Results by province. These results have been seen to broadly follow ethnolinguistic and class groupings, with Bangkok, home to wealthier ethnic Central Thais, noticeably outperforming other areas and ethnicities. This was visible in the fact that 15-16-year old Central Bangkok students achieved a mean score of 50.6/100% in the Thai language in 2010, compared to a mean of 39.0/100% for the median northeastern province, Mahasarakham – a difference of nearly 12%.

In an article in The Nation on December 5th, 2013, it was revealed that Thai students’ results in the Organization for Economically Developed Countries’ Programme for International Student Tests (PISA) had improved from 2009-2012. This test also looks at the achievement of Thai 15 year olds, with Thailand being one of 65 countries and economies involved.

The 2009 results were 421 in reading, 425 in science, and 419 in mathematics. The recently released 2012 results were 441 in reading, 444 in science, and 427 in mathematics. However, Dr. Sunee Klainin, the manager of the PISA Thailand Project, attributed the higher scores to the performance of demonstration schools and the Princess Chulabhorn’s College schools. She also pointed out that half of Thai students tested did not achieve a Band 3 or higher in mathematics, while around a third did not achieve a Band 3 in science or reading.

What do these scores mean? The definitions of the PISA levels for reading and mathematics are available here. There are six bands for mathematics. Students testing in Band 3 or lower – half of Thai students aged 15 – means they have little problem-solving ability in mathematics.

Likewise, in reading, a third of Thai students aged 15 are not able to relate a text to everyday knowledge and find and link multiple parts of a text.

What about the regional breakdown for Thailand? To date, this has not been included in the PISA 2012 regional data sheet (available here), which lists regional breakdowns for 14 of the PISA countries and economies. In fact, the regional breakdown for Thailand has never been publicly reported in the media. However, a regional breakdown was reported in a technical document published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the ASEAN Secretariat in late 2013.[i] (Also available from a web link on the OECD Centre for Development website, here).

 

Figure: PISA scores in Thailand, by subject and region

Math

Level

Math/BKK

Science

Science/BKK

Bangkok

450

2

455

Central

400

1

-50

416

-39

Upper North

445

2

-5

449

-6

Lower North

412

1

-38

415

-40

Upper Northeast

420

1or2

-30

422

-33

Lower Northeast

412

1

-38

410

-45

South

397

1

-53

409

-46

National Average

419

 

 

425

Source: The Institute for the Promotion of Teaching Science and Technology (IPST).

Note: PISA scale was set such that approximately two-thirds of students across OECD countries score between 400 and 600 points. Gaps of 72, 62 and 75 points in reading, mathematics, and science scores, respectively, are equivalent to one proficiency level.

 

In math, the average Bangkok student scores half a PISA level higher than almost every other regionally-based student except in the Upper North, where Chiang Mai has been an academic powerhouse for some time. The Upper Northeast fares slightly better than the Lower Northeast likely because it includes the major urban centers of Khon Kaen and Udon Thani. Interestingly, the average Central region student also scores very low compared to the average Bangkok student, and this may be because of differences in the quality of the schools. One possible explanation for the much lower average score for a student in the South is because it includes the war-torn provinces of Yala, Narathiwat, and Pattani.

In science, there is a similar pattern. The average Bangkok student scores half a PISA level higher than almost every other regionally-based student except in the Upper North and the Upper Northeast, with the Upper Northeast still well behind Bangkok.

Can we correlate the statistics with ethnic identity? It certainly looks like the scores of the Northeast Thailand students can be correlated with the Thai Lao ethnolinguistic identity. In the Lower Northeast, where there are a million ethnic Khmers, the scores are lower, but without a detailed understanding of which provinces are included, it is difficult to say. What is interesting is that the average student from the Central Thai ethnolinguistic identity also scores low outside Bangkok.

One of the standard explanations for these differing scores is poverty. Poverty is certainly a factor in tertiary enrollment in Thailand.[ii] While poverty is also a factor in PISA achievement, the 2012 PISA figures note that the socio-economic background (class) of Thai students has an impact on both performance and the performance gap that is actually better than the OECD averages. Another issue then may be the inequality of access to resources, especially in more rural areas populated by ethnic minorities.

In response to the poor Thai PISA 2012 results, Professor Gerald Fry made five recommendations in an article in The Nation of December 23, 2013. He suggests additional factors in the low scores may be a lack of equity in resource allocation, an emphasis on quantity (buildings and personnel) rather than the quality of people, the lack of a strong reading culture, and a lack of expenditure on Research and Development. He also notes there is the possibility that students may be scoring low because their first language is not Thai. In other words, they may simply not understand the written instructions or how to write the short analyses in Thai required by the PISA tests.

Overall, the Thailand regional breakdown and the country PISA scores make for tragic results. Thailand is a whole PISA level behind the OECD averages of 494 for mathematics, 496 for reading and 501 for science. As also pointed out by Professor Fry in his article, it is also behind Vietnam, a newcomer to the PISA tests and a developing country compared to Thailand’s status as a newly industrialized country.

The gap in PISA levels is the difference between 15-year-old Thai children being able to solve problems or not. And, for the first time we can see from the PISA statistics themselves where those differences are geographically. They are the same kind of differences that can be seen in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey results from 2011 for Thai Primary 4 and Thai Secondary 2 students’ scores, as reported in The Nation on December 12, 2012.

There is an urgent need for a public discussion of these regional figures and what they mean for the future of the Thai education system. This public discussion should be constant and sustained until the scores of the children of the Northeast – and those of the other regions stricken by poor results – can equal the scores of the children of Bangkok.

 

About the Author: John Draper is currently a lecturer at the College of Local Administration at Khon Kaen University and is assigned to the Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalization Programme (ICMRP; see www.icmrpthailand.org and www.facebook.com/icmrpthailand).

 


[i] OECD. (2013). Southeast Asian Economic Outlook 2013: With Perspectives on China and India. Available at http://books.google.co.th/books?id=c8vri8vPvmIC&pg=.

[ii] Ibid., p. 207.