Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Isaan’ Category

Isaan Farmers Rally in Support of Government’s Rice Policy

2014 February 18
by Sally Mairs

Rice farmers at Khon Kaen's pro-government rally on Monday.
Rice farmers at Khon Kaen’s pro-government rally on Monday.

KHON KAEN— Rice farmers are taking center stage in the political battle wreaking havoc in Thailand, as the debate shifts to the government’s controversial rice-pledging policy. In Bangkok, hundreds of farmers on Monday besieged Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s temporary headquarters, demanding their long overdue payments for last year’s rice crops. Meanwhile, in the Northeast, rice farmers gathered in the city of Khon Kaen to stage a counter-demonstration in support of the caretaker government and its rice subsidy program.

“We are not protesting about not getting money,” said Charoensab Jampathong, a 65-year-old farmer from Ban Phai district who participated in Monday’s pro-government demonstration. “We came here to support all the government officials who are working really hard to get money for us.”

An estimated 400 farmers gathered in front of Khon Kaen’s provincial hall on Monday morning and marched to nearby branches of the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC), Krungthai Bank, and the Government Savings Bank (GSB) to voice their support for the government and its rice-pledging scheme over loud speakers.

“They came here to say thank you to us,” the Director of BAAC’s Khon Kaen province branch, Thanoo Tosajja, said. “This is the first time that has happened.”

Leaders of the pro-government demonstration also met with the provincial governor in Khon Kaen on Monday.

“We told the governor that we support him as a government official, and would like him to communicate to the government that we like the rice-pledging program,” said Bhutdhipong Khanhaengpon, a radio DJ in Khon Kaen who participated in Monday’s rally.

The demonstration of support from farmers in Khon Kaen stands in stark contrast to the activity of farmers in Bangkok, who over the past month have blockaded major highways in several parts of the country, filed a court complaint to claim compensation from the government for delayed rice payments, and on Monday, breached barricades to Prime Minister Yingluck’s temporary headquarters.

The divergent reaction of the Central Thai farmers protesting in Bangkok and their upcountry counterparts is symbolic of larger political rifts dividing the country. Whereas Bangkokians have taken to the streets over the past four months to protest against the government, their Northern and Northeastern neighbors have, for the most part, remained loyal to Prime Minister Yingluck and her social policies.

Both demonstrations by farmers, in Bangkok and Khon Kaen, are in response to the government’s delay in paying 130 billion baht to an estimated one million farmers for last year’s rice crops. The payments have been stalled in part by the caretaker government’s limited borrowing-powers, but are also the result of accumulated losses from the government’s ill-fated rice subsidy scheme.

In 2011, Prime Minister Yingluck’s government implemented a rice-pledging policy under which it purchased rice from Thai farmers at almost 50 percent above the market rate, and reduced exports to the rest of the world in an attempt to spike global prices. The plan backfired when other countries boosted their production to fill the void and unseated Thailand as the world’s number one rice exporter. Now, the government is struggling to sell its premium rice on the market without facing big losses.

A survey from the University of Thai Chamber of Commerce shows farmers earning, on average, almost three times as much money from rice sales as they did before the pledging policy was implemented. According to data from the BAAC, approximately 70 percent of farmers in Khon Kaen province have not been paid for last year’s rice sales. Yet many farmers still applaud the scheme for the tangible benefits it has brought to their lives.

“We don’t have to worry about money anymore,” said Kongsri Matsombat, a 56-year-old rice farmer from Nong Bua Kham Mun Village. “We never thought that rice farming could make us happy like this.”

“I was able to build and repair my house because of the rice-pledging program,” said 46-year-old rice farmer Banjob Chaisaenta.

Waraphon Buapin, 39, said she would still like the policy even if the government lowered its purchasing price.

“If 15,000 baht per ton is too much for the government to handle, we will still be happy even if the price is a bit lower,” said Mrs. Waraphon.

Academics, economists, and global agencies like the International Monetary Fund have voiced concern over the rice policy since its induction in 2011.

Khon Kaen University Professor of Agricultural Economics Nongluck Suphanchaimat says the policy has benefited farmers financially, but the overall program is fiscally unsustainable and has been gravely mismanaged. Instead of interfering with the market, Dr. Nongluck suggests the government end the rice-pledging scheme and focus on subsidizing technological advances for farmers.

“The government should set different strategies to assist  farmers in each region, mainly to reduce costs and focus on rice quality,” said Dr. Nongluck. “For example, the Northeastern farmers need improvements in water resources, farm equipment, good seeds, and quality fertilizer.”

The rice-pledging policy is due to expire on February 28th because the caretaker government does not have the power to extend it.

Looking ahead, the caretaker government hopes to pay farmers through a series of bank loans and a gradual sale of the 17 million tons of rice stockpiled in state warehouses.

Yet between investigations of the subsidy program by Thailand’s anti-corruption agency, the recent collapse of a trade deal with China, and a serious struggle to secure loans from Thai banks, the prospect of repaying farmers any time soon looks grim.

Although a five billion baht loan was secured from GSB on Sunday, this is only a fraction of the money owed to farmers, and the bank has already received a backlash from its labor union and customers.

Yet for the time being, Isaan farmers remain patient.

“I believe that no matter what the Constitutional Court, or any other body against Yingluck’s government tries to do, Yingluck’s government is still going to get formed and then we will get our money,” said Prasit Charoensuk, 66, from Nong Bua Kham Mun Village. “I don’t agree that we should try to protest because it’s only going to put Yingluck’s government in a worse situation.”

Share

In Uphill Battle, Isaan Language Taught in Schools

2014 February 10
by Sally Mairs

KHON KAEN—It has been banned from Thai classrooms for over 100 years, but the local language of the Northeast, referred to as “Thai Lao,” “Isaan,” or often just plain “Lao,” is making a comeback.

Eleven municipal schools in Khon Kaen have started teaching students how to read and write in Thai Lao, thanks to an E.U.-funded project known as The Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalization Program (ICMRP). Two years after receiving a 20 million baht grant, ICMRP has achieved some notable successes, but formidable challenges lie ahead.

Starting last May, Khon Kaen municipal schoolteachers began teaching the script of Thai Lao, known as Tai Noi, to students ranging from grades four to eight.

The principal challenge so far has been most teachers’ unfamiliarity with the written form of the language. Although the majority of people in the Northeast still speak Thai Lao, the literacy rate of the language is close to zero, save for a few elders, academics, and monks. There have been no new major works of literature written in Thai Lao for almost a century, and scholars have just embarked on the complicated process of adapting the antiquated alphabet, Tai Noi, to modern times. As a result, many teachers in Khon Kaen’s municipal schools have recently learned the alphabet for the first time themselves.

“I was trained for only a month before I started teaching my own class,” said Udomsarp Lurngubol, a Thai language teacher at Suansanook Municipal School who started teaching Tai Noi to his seventh grade students this semester. Mr. Udom stopped the class in December to make time for boy and girl scout activities, and he has already forgotten how to write the ABC’s in Tai Noi script.

Mr. Udomsarp said he would like to see the program continue, but he doesn’t feel confident in his ability to teach the subject. “It would be better to have someone else come to my class once a week and teach it than to have a rookie like me who is starting at the same level as the students,” said Mr. Udom.

Some teachers, parents, and children in the Khon Kaen community have asked why it’s necessary to learn Tai Noi script in the first place.

For Professor Chob Desuankok, who studies the history of Northeastern Thailand, teaching children how to read and write in Thai Lao is about more than achieving literacy. It’s about reclaiming the cultural roots of the Northeast.

“People in Bangkok who say that their 300,000 votes are better than one million votes in the Northeast are looking down on our intelligence,” said Professor Chob. “But revitalizing Tai Noi will show that we have our own literature, our own teachings, our own ethics. Our voice will be made equal by this.”

Professor Chob added, “We want our kids to understand who they are, and why they have to keep on being Isaan people.”

Others see the promotion of Thai Lao literacy as way to increase academic results across the board. On national education tests, the Northeast is consistently one of the country’s lowest-scoring regions. ICMRP project officer John Draper said this could be because most Northeastern children are taught in a language that is not their mother tongue.

At this early stage of language revitalization, the teachers in Khon Kaen lack basic resources like an instruction manual on how to teach Tai Noi, or a standard-reference dictionary, which is still being created. Progress has been stalled by disagreement among academics over the spelling of many words, and on issues like whether or not tone marks—which weren’t included in ancient manuscripts, but are used in the spoken language—should be included.

Khon Kaen University linguistics Professor Rattana Chantao doesn’t think it is possible to reach agreement on these issues any time soon, so she has decided to forge ahead on developing a 600-word dictionary for primary school students in Khon Kaen. In her opinion, tone markers must be added to make the Tai Noi script accessible to young people.

“Without tone markers, it’s too difficult to learn,” said Professor Rattana. “Revitalization encompasses many concepts, and I think it means adapting to changes in the culture and the language.”

Although the project relies heavily on backing from the E.U.’s External Action Service, which funds 90% of the project, coordination between the Thai municipalities and the foreign agency has proven difficult.

Mr. Saran Paonariang, who works in Khon Kaen Municipality’s Education Department, said that adjusting to the European style of accounting has been a challenge.

Furthermore, E.U. funding has been temporarily delayed because of uncertainty over an internal audit, said ICMRP project officer Mr. Draper. Mr. Draper attributes the delay in funding to cross-cultural differences between the two agencies.

“The municipalities know little about the E.U., and the E.U. has little experience working with Thai municipalities,” said Mr. Draper. “I would describe the slippage in terms of problems with the socio-political interface that results from any principal-agent contractual relationship between two entities who do not really know each other.”

The delay in funding, as well as numerous changes in staff on both the E.U. and the Thai side of the project, have had an even more detrimental impact on other parts of the program financed by the grant. There has been only marginal progress in the municipalities of Chum Phae, Ban Phai, and Phon, which were tasked with designing and installing signs in Thai Lao, manufacturing traditional Isaan-style school uniforms, and curating an online database of Isaan cultural performances.

This bureaucratic stagnancy is not just a consequence of the difficulties posed by international collaboration. A draft of a National Language Policy, which was approved by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, recognizes Thai Lao as a regional language and supports bilingual education for children of ethnic groups, like many in Isaan, whose mother tongue is different from Central Thai. Yet, all progress on implementing the policy has been frozen since the dissolution of the government in December.

Revitalizing Isaan language literacy is proving to be an uphill battle. But for ICMRP project officer Mr. Draper, the biggest achievement has been a small, but essential one: the creation of a community of activists, historians, and linguists in Khon Kaen who are united around the cause of promoting Isaan culture, language, and identity.

The new sign to the entrance of Khon Kaen University, which was erected last month, captures the budding community-mobilization around this goal. It has the name of the University written in Standard Thai, English, and for the first time, Tai Noi.

“Thousands of people are going to ask, ‘what is that language doing there?” Mr. Draper said. “Sooner or later that is going to have a positive effect on promoting Thai Lao identity and the real history of the Northeast.”

 

 

Early Election Results Show Drop in Voter Turnout

2014 February 3
by The Isaan Record

Voting in Thailand’s general election proceeded without disruption in 89 percent of constituencies yesterday, including the entirety of the Northeast, but initial results show voter turnout in Isaan to be significantly lower than the rate in 2011.

Although not all advanced ballots have been counted due to interferences by protesters last week, preliminary results show that only 56 percent of eligible voters in the Northeast voted on Sunday, compared to the 72 percent that voted in the last general election in 2011.

Yet, these election numbers reveal a higher turnout rate in the Northeast than in the Central and Northern regions of the country, which had turnout rates of 42 percent and 45 percent respectively.

The turnout rate in Isaan ranged from 72 percent in Nongbua Lamphu Province, to 43 percent in Sisaket Province. Results for all other Northeastern provinces can be viewed here.

An official announcement of election results will be delayed due to the obstruction of voting in many parts of Bangkok and the South, say Election Commission officials. In addition to blocking candidate registration in a number of constituencies and disrupting early voting last week, anti-government protestors halted voting in 69 out of 375 constituencies on Sunday. By-elections in those constituencies are required by law to be held within three weeks.

With the main opposition Democrat party boycotting the election, the ruling Pheu Thai party is expected to win by a landslide.