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Posts from the ‘Red Shirts’ Category

NEWS IN BRIEF: Red District Movement Expands into Khon Kaen

2012 January 24
by The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN – This past Sunday morning, Red Shirt politicians, DJs, local leaders, and hundreds of villagers gathered in Ubolratana district’s Khok Glang Nong Lai village to celebrate the opening of 68 newly minted Red Villages, as well as the inauguration of the province’s first official Red District.

“I hereby open this Red District, [made up of] Villages for Democracy that are safe from drugs and that have strong community economies,” Khon Kaen MP Thanik Masripitak said to cheers and the nearby boom of fireworks. Mr. Thanik is the Pheu Thai MP spearheading the movement’s expansion into Khon Kaen.

Villagers from Nong Lai Village receive a blessing as they represent their community in a processional that officially marked their village's opening as Red.

Mr. Thanik’s remarks reflect the same platforms that the movement has in its birthplace, Udon Thani. There too, the movement’s chief architect and local Red Radio DJ, Ms. Ratanawan Suksala, began opening Red Districts last year not just as a show of organizational power (as its earlier incarnation, the Red Village movement), but to help fight drug use and to ensure local economic stability.

But where in Udon Thani many of the villages in these Red Districts had been previously inaugurated as Red, in Khon Kaen’s Ubolratana district, prior to Sunday’s ceremony only three villages had been established. This sudden surge of support, Red District Officer and local businessman Sirisak Nojit explains, is a sign of the country’s changing political tides.

“Before people were scared [to show themselves], but now time has passed and people are showing that they’re red,” he said.

Here in Ubolratana, at least, that showing has been quite strong. At least 70-80% of a district’s inhabitants must agree to a Red title before the district can be inaugurated, Mr. Sirisak explained. And in Ubolratana, he said, the figure was closer to 90%, with every village collectively approving the informal door-to-door referendum.

In the coming months, more Khon Kaen Red Shirts will be showing their colors. Phra Yun district is scheduled to be inaugurated on February 19, to be followed soon after by the Nai Muang sub-district of Khon Kaen city.

[Note February 20, 2012: Though Ubolratana was inaugurated as a Red District by MP Thanik, the Federation of Red Villages does not currently recognize the district as Red.]


Red Village Thwarted, a Community Divided

2012 January 11
by The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN – In Non Reuang, an unassuming Northeastern village located just 15 kilometers north of Khon Kaen city, fallow rice fields line pothole-ridden roads made dusty with windswept topsoil. Here, most residents are looking to have those roads repaved. Others are interested in having the local elementary school’s bathrooms renovated. These are the daily concerns of a small provincial town in which everyone knows everyone else.

But on December 23, Non Reuang made headlines when a group of concerned citizens successfully torpedoed plans to establish the community as a Red Village, just one day before its proposed inauguration ceremony. A village-wide vote saw 160 votes cast against the Red Village’s establishment and, as a result of a Red Shirt boycott, none cast in support.

The Red Village movement, conceived in the run up to last year’s July 3 election, has seen hundreds of villages throughout the Northeast name themselves “Red Villages for Democracy” in an attempt to demonstrate organizational power and scale. But in places like Non Reuang, the movement has strained community relations and deepened political divides.

The lead up to the village’s public referendum inspired unneighborly behavior of all kinds which has raised questions about the social net worth of redrawing rural landscapes into two-toned political maps. Red Shirts accuse the opposition group of voter intimidation, dissemination of libelous and misleading information, and even assaulting a Red Shirt supporter in front of the polling station. The opposition, on the other hand, claim that Red Shirts from other villages were brought in to artificially inflate support and that the Red Village movement is a Trojan Horse, the beginning of a Red conspiracy to dominate all levels of local government.

In light of all the squabbling and finger pointing that has come out of the last month, Village Leader and self-proclaimed “middle-man” Samran Srivichan has grown concerned that the disagreement seriously undermines the community’s well-being. “For the Red Shirts, [the Red flag of the Red Village movement] is a symbol of unity, but if everyone is not behind it, then it is not a unifying symbol,” he said. And to Mr. Samran, there are very practical advantages to having his community unified, or at the very least, capable of civility.

“Unity is very important for all of us,” he said. “If we want to build a house or a road, we can do it. We can work together. If we are not unified, then people are not willing to do this.”

Though Non Reuang is the first village in Khon Kaen to successfully oppose a Red Village’s establishment, Mr. Samran is certainly not the first to express concerns about the movement. In June of last year Army Chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is much despised amongst the Red Shirts for the May 2010 military crackdown that left dozens of unarmed Red Shirts dead, criticized the Red Villages for their potentially destabilizing effects. Gen. Prayuth’s emphasis on the importance of national unity can be heard in Mr. Samran’s own criticisms. “I don’t want there to be signs that break our unity,” the village leader said. “We should just have flags and posters of the king and queen.” Indeed, Mr. Samran has no fewer than 16 posters of King Bhumibol Adulyadej adorning the exterior walls of his home.

A voter for the Red Shirt-backed Pheu Thai government, Mr. Samran said that the opposition to the Red Village’s establishment was partially due to poor procedure. Many complained that they did not know about the Red Shirts’ plans until a mid-December village meeting devolved into shouts and name-calling. It was then that Mr. Samran proposed that the village hold a public referendum on the matter.

Though Ms. Ratanawan Suksala, a leading proponent of the Red Village movement in Isaan, told the Isaan Record last month that at least 70% of a given community must be in support of the Red Village in order for it to be inaugurated, the eleventh hour bickering in Non Reuang casts some doubt on the rigorousness with which that figure is assured, if at all.

Phaiboon Sornsakda, Mr. Samran’s assistant, wondered if the Red Shirts thought the July 3 general election results were justification enough to inaugurate the village. “Around 70% of the village voted for Pheu Thai,” he said. “We can vote for Pheu Thai politicians, but that doesn’t mean we are voting for Red Shirts.”

While Pheu Thai’s most fervent supporters come out of the Red Shirt movement, the party’s populist platforms also attract many votes from rural farmers who do not directly identify with the Red Shirt movement.

Despite Non Reuang’s dispute, nearby Wang Taw village is set to be inaugurated as a Red Village later this month. For both Mr. Paiboon and Mr. Samran, this should appease upset Non Reuang Red Shirt supporters and according to Mr. Samran, “that’s the end of the story.”

However, just 50 meters down the road, at a house lined with Red flags and whose walls are decorated with a photo collage of a Red Shirt rally, a group of Red villagers have more to say. Sanong Chaiyatha, easily the most outspoken Red Shirt in the village, considers the Wang Taw concession to be totally inadequate. She had wanted to found the Red Village in Non Reuang as a way to receive donations from the movement’s considerable largesse in order to fix the village’s crumbling roads and renovate the elementary school’s dilapidated bathroom. Now that the Red Village proposal has been decisively quashed, her village will have greater difficulty finding funds from the Red Shirt movement.

Nevertheless, Ms. Sanong said she would continue her search for funds elsewhere and, now, is left waiting. “Soon, I hope [Mr. Samran] will retire, so that a new village leader will make new decisions to help make the village a better place,” she said.

Though Non Reuang did not officially turn Red this December, it is now certainly a different place to live.

In Udon, Red Villages Grow into Red Districts

2011 November 19
by The Isaan Record

UDON THANI – As Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is losing popular support, facing fierce criticism for her management of the massive floods plaguing Bangkok, her strongest supporters, the Red Shirts, are finding new ways to strengthen their movement and prepare for the worst. With fears of a looming coup, Red Shirt leaders in Udon Thani are quietly launching a project to consolidate their constituents. Just recently, they began inaugurating entire Districts as Red territory.

“We don’t know if there is going to be a coup or not,” said Sa-ngad Hanarong, a villager from Prajak Silapakhom, a freshly named Red District. “But the purpose [of the Red District] is not to fight. The purpose is to be stronger and keep track of what’s actually going on.”

Prajak Silapakhom was inaugurated as a Red District on October 9. The district, on the outskirts of the city of Udon Thani, is comprised of a total of 41 villages, all of which are Red. Since then, nearby Non Sa-at was the second district to celebrate its Red inauguration on November 1.

The Red District project is an expansion of the Red Village movement that saw hundreds of villages across the Northeast officially title themselves Red Villages for Democracy. But while the Red Villages were scattered shows of support, the Red Districts boast specific objectives and a newfound network of local leaders.

According to Ms. Ratanawan Suksala, the mastermind behind the Red District model, the project is organized around three main goals. It seeks to teach democratic values, initiate anti-drug campaigns, and promote village-level entrepreneurship.

To promote education about democracy, with each inauguration ceremony, for example, comes a two-day lecture series from pundits and Red Shirt leaders. But once the festivities come to a close, so too does this informal schooling.

For Ms. Ratanawan, a former secretary to Member of Parliament (MP) Surathin Pimanmekin and a current consultant to the Red Radio station 106.75, it is the network created by the Red District that helps unify the movement’s goals even more.

“[Before Prajak Silapakhom District was inaugurated,] some people were confused…and influenced by different ideas. But since we have started the Red District, the people seem like they understand more what we are doing,” she said. “I feel like we’re walking together in the same direction.”

In some ways, the model does encourage democratic practices at a local level. Each village is asked to elect ten representatives who attend meetings and relay messages between their constituents and other Red Shirts. And each village also gathers to vote on a local entrepreneurial project.

“I feel like we know more about democracy now. I realize how much I can do,” reflected one Red District resident.

In order to stave off drug use, the Red District model also encourages each village to establish a network of local guards to monitor drug presence in the village. “We’ll hire them on shifts and pay them as guards. We want to give them the responsibility of a job and teach them that working is better [than unemployment],” said Ms. Ratanawan about her future plans. She aims to find funding through private donations.

Anti-drug campaigns are a touchy subject for the Red Shirts after exiled former Prime Minister and Red Shirt icon Thaksin Shinawatra instigated the most violent anti-drug campaign in Thai history that left 2,500 citizens dead. But in Baan Phonthong, Mr. Sa-ngad’s village in Prajak Silapakhom District, there is little concern.

“Everyone is welcoming of this [anti-drug campaign] because we have a plan. If we find people who are doing drugs we want to send them to rehab therapy,” Mr. Sa-ngad explained.

As for the local entrepreneurship stimulus program, the Red District model encourages each village to vote on one product that its residents believe they could create and sell at the greatest profit. Then, the residents focus their resources on producing their chosen good. The program mimics Mr. Thaksin’s successful One Tambon One Product (OTOP) program that encouraged each sub-district, known in Thai as a tambon, to do the same.

Ms. Ratanawan, however, claims that her project is much stronger since it can more effectively distribute profits. She hopes that ultimately villages will petition the government for stimulus money that can prop up their entrepreneurial pursuits. Mr. Sa-ngad’s village has voted to produce woven reed mats while his friends in the next village are focusing on mudmee silk.

But it is not just Udon Thani that is moving towards the Red District model. “Any province can do the same as long as they are Red Shirts and they stick to the same principles,” Ms. Ratanawan said.

Indeed, MPs and provincial Red Shirt representatives from Roi Et, Kalasin, and Khon Kaen have also begun planning to integrate their Red Villages into Red Sub-districts and Districts.

“When people [in Red Districts] get together and work together…they feel stronger and more united. What our country lacks is a sense of unity,” Khon Kaen MP and Red District proponent Thanik Masripitak said. Just last week, Mr. Thanik led a meeting of close to 300 Khon Kaen Red Village representatives to talk about the reconfiguration. At the request of the rice farmers and agricultural workers that make up the majority of these Red villagers, further meetings, he explained, will be postponed until after the rice harvest.

And though the Red District movement is gaining traction amongst many MPs, not everyone is happy with the shift.

Kwanchai Praipana, a prominent Udon Thani Red Radio DJ, part of the Red movement’s old guard and a man whom Ms. Ratanawan laughingly calls her “enemy,” thinks the move is just a way for Pheu Thai MPs to consolidate the power of the Red Shirt movement.

“Representatives want to have the masses on their side,” he said in an interview last month. “That’s why they do this. They take the Red Shirts who are not as truly passionate about democracy onto their side.”

Mr. Kwanchai’s alternative to the Red District movement takes the power away from Parliamentary Representatives and keeps it in the hands of the people, he claims. The so-called “Udon Lovers Model” encourages villagers to join Mr. Kwanchai’s Khon Rak Udon club (for a monthly fee) so they can meet at local radio stations and coffee shops to discuss the political matters of the day.

“Setting up Red Shirt villages – why is that important? It just interferes,” Mr. Kwanchai said.

For Mr. Thanik, however, Kwanchai’s grousing is little more than personal vanity. “As far as I know, Kwanchai doesn’t support the Red Villages because he’s afraid it’s going to steal his thunder,” the Khon Kaen MP said. Where Kwanchai looks to expand the Udon Model throughout the Northeast, Mr. Thanik thinks that does little more than maintain the status quo. “Just because we’ve won [the election] doesn’t mean we should stop. We should draw attention to who we really are and what more we can do.”

It’s what these Red Districts can do, though, that has got some people worried. Establishing a system of civil-society institutions that, in some ways, parallel pre-existing governmental mechanisms can appear to be a direct threat to the Bangkok establishment. What message does it send when a populist, self-proclaimed pro-democracy movement sees it fit to do its own policing, found its own local craft co-operatives, and develop its own political curricula?

The Red villagers of Baan Phonthong, however, know exactly what message they want to send. Speaking on behalf of an assembled crowd of 40 villagers, Mr. Sa-ngad told reporters that, “Everyone would like to say that we’re waiting for the day when we own our real freedom… And we want Thaksin back as soon as possible!”

Though the organization of Red villagers is being reshuffled and expanded, their battle cry remains the same.

Khon Kaen Reds Out on Bail

2011 August 27
by The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN – Three Red Shirt prisoners were released on bail from Khon Kaen Central Prison yesterday evening, a little over one week since four newly-elected Pheu Thai government representatives offered their parliamentary status as surety for their release.  All three suspects had been detained on charges related to last year’s May 19 arson and violence in Khon Kaen city.

Mr. Jiratrakul Sumaha, Mr. Adisay Wibulsek, and Mr. Udom Khammul were met at the prison’s front gates by several hundred Red Shirt supporters, relatives and three Members of Parliament – all of them there to celebrate the release.

From left to right: Udom Khammul, Adisay Wibulsek, and Jiratrkul Sumaha.

A fourth prisoner, Mr. Sutas Singuakhaw was denied bail, though his lawyers assured the assembled crowd that Mr. Sutas would most certainly be bailed out in September.

The prisoners’ release came on the same day that a Mahasarakham judge denied the bail requests of nine detained Red Shirt prisoners and just one day after an Ubon Ratchathani court sentenced four Red Shirt protesters to 34 years in prison for their part in the destruction of Ubon’s provincial hall.

When asked how the Ubon court’s decision bodes for those released today in Khon Kaen, Party List MP and Isaan Red Shirt leader Dr. Cherdchai Tantirin said, “We never know what’s going to happen. Whatever is happening behind the scenes can change.”

Khon Kaen’s Red Shirt prisoners are just four of around 100 Red Shirt suspects still awaiting trial for charges related to last year’s bloody protests in Bangkok and the provinces. But after nine Pheu Thai representatives secured bail for 22 Red Shirt prisoners in Udon Thani on August 16, their success ignited a nationwide initiative to release untried Red Shirts still detained on charges from last summer’s violent Red Shirt protests.

“It’s just not fair for them to be in there for too long, it’s too much,” said Pheu Thai representative Pongsakorn Amnopporn as he came to bolster his fellow MPs’ bail request last Thursday. “The representatives are supposed to help their people.”

Pheu Thai MPs Mukda Phonsombat (far left), Cherdchai Tantirin (center), and Thanik Masripitak (far right) field questions from the press.

According to Dr. Cherdchai, before the July 3 election secured a Pheu Thai majority in Parliament and voted Ms. Yingluck Shinawatra in as Prime Minister, Red Shirts had little opportunity for mobility. “Now, the time has come when the government lets the representatives be free and do what they want to do – to do their jobs,” he said.

Dr. Cherdchai’s job, however, has involved a bit more work than was at first expected. Over the course of the last eight days, there have been three separate meetings at Khon Kaen’s provincial court in which the required number of MPs to assure the prisoners’ release fluctuated from four to six and then back again to four. In the end, Pheu Thai Party List MPs Dr. Cherdchai, Dr. Yaowanit Piengket, Thanik Masripitak and Khon Kaen Constituency MP Mukda Phonsombat offered their positions as surety. Additionally, 500,000 baht was provided by local business woman (and niece of Ms. Mukda) Pu Warada for each of the prisoner’s release.

Dr. Cherdchai said that Ms. Pu would be reimbursed by the Pheu Thai party by this coming Tuesday.

As dusk fell across the city, an impromptu Red Shirt caravan made its way from the provincial prison to the municipality’s Spirit House so that the recently released prisoners could perform a merit making ritual.

“I am extremely happy – the most happy I have ever been in my life,” Mr. Jiratakul said upon emerging from the temple. “I am so impressed with the Red Shirt brothers and sisters that have always been by my side.”

The suspects’ trials are expected to begin in early 2012.

Thaksin’s Red Birthday Bash

2011 July 27
by The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN – Though July 26 does not mark a Thai festival or a royal birthday or even a Buddhist holy day, the city’s largest temple was filled to capacity yesterday morning with close to 600 Red Shirts observing a most unlikely holiday: exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s 62nd birthday. For the third year in a row, Nong Waeng Temple played host to a United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship’s (UDD) merit making ceremony for its beloved Mr. Thaksin.

Red supporters pay their respects.

In a post-election climate typified by cautious optimism amongst the Red Shirts, the city’s first major UDD gathering was not to celebrate the Red-supported Pheu Thai party’s “landslide victory,” nor presumptive Prime Minister (and Mr. Thaksin’s youngest sister) Yingluck Shinawatra’s endorsement by the Election Commission, but a birthday party.

“Many people still see [Mr. Thaksin] as the best Prime Minister they ever had,” local Red Radio DJ Numchaiya explained yesterday. “People haven’t seen what Yingluck is capable of, so Mr. Thaksin is still very important.”

Thongbai Phanmai, a Mahasarakham Red Village leader, agreed. In between making donations to the temple and buying some UDD-branded merchandise, Ms. Thongbai explained that Mr. Thaksin has done a lot for the Red Shirts. “He didn’t take anything, he gave a lot to poor people,” she added.

But it is more than just Mr. Thaksin’s populist legacy that brought people to Nong Waeng Temple’s expansive main sanctuary. Dr. Somchai Phatharathananunth, a scholar of the Red Movement from Mahasarakham University, explained in a phone interview that Mr. Thaksin’s image among Red Shirts has grown far beyond his social welfare policies. “At the moment, Thaksin is quite far away from them, but they still love [him]…. He’s a kind of symbol, a support.”

Indeed, for much of the UDD’s membership, the 2006 military coup that tossed the popularly elected leader from office has made Mr. Thaksin into a symbol of the Thai elite’s disregard for one of the most basic principles of representative democracy – that an elected leader has the right to lead the country.

“For villagers, they know that Thaksin came from elections. They support the people who win an election. [They feel] he has the right to run the country,” Dr. Somchai said.

Mr. Thaksin has been living in self-imposed exile in Dubai since a 2008 Supreme Court decision found him guilty on corruption charges and sentenced him to a two-year prison sentence. For many of his supporters, this exile has only inflated his image as a victim of an undemocratic system. They believe he is entitled to a second chance.

For Ms. Thongbai, it is plain and simple. “He deserves to come back, he wants to come home,” she said.

Still, despite having all the trappings of growing into an out-and-out birthday celebration, Khon Kaen’s UDD leadership chose to postpone a scheduled concert event on the banks of Kaen Nakhon Lake, just a stone’s throw from Nong Waeng’s golden stupas.

“[The Red Shirts] want to celebrate,” Mr. Numchaiya said, “but I think it is better to wait until the government is formed.”

Would they celebrate then? “Absolultely,” he said.

Off the Radar, Red Villages Wait

2011 July 16
by The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN – As the Election Commission continues to delay its endorsement of Pheu Thai’s prime ministerial candidate Yingluck Shinawatra, Red Shirts in Khon Kaen are collectively lying in wait.

Much like the Red Village movement in the rural Northeast, urban Khon Kaen slums and neighborhoods have been quietly morphing into Red Villages of their own. Their transformations, however, were never marked by inaugural festivities (like those in the countryside) but rather gradually determined through ongoing political discussions about shared hopes and dreams.

Reuters recently reported that 320 Red Villages in Khon Kaen and Udon Thani provinces have registered with the regional offices of the United Front for Democracy (UDD), the official title of the Red Shirts. The Red Village movement, however, is not new. Over the past three years, more and more Red Shirts have begun to call their communities Red, many never registering with UDD offices.

While Reuters reported that 100 of these Red Villages were launched in Khon Kaen, a UDD media coordinator, who asked to remain anonymous, estimates that the total number of Khon Kaen Red Villages is far greater. Of the 2,000 villages in the whole province, he said, 500 call themselves Red Villages.

Ta Wan Mai Red Village shows its colors.

And, according to Amnuay Warayot, a leader of the unregistered Red Village Ta Wan Mai in Khon Kaen city, around 92 Red Villages have emerged in the city alone over the past three years.

Despite media attention on rural Red Villages, leaders of this community insisted that unofficial Red Villages like their own are practically identical. “There is absolutely no difference between our [unregistered] Red Community and those Red Villages in the countryside,” said Ms. Amnuay’s co-leader, Chaw-an Kwammun.

Now, Ta Wan Mai and hundreds of other Red Villages are waiting to hear if they can finally celebrate Ms. Yingluck’s election to the premiership.

“We won’t celebrate because Yingluck is not yet the Prime Minister,” said Ms. Amnuay. “We only know that Pheu Thai has the highest score in the polls. We will celebrate when she is truly elected.”

Last Wednesday, the Election Commission held back endorsements for 142 members of Parliament, including Pheu Thai’s Ms. Yingluck, who is expected to be named Thailand’s next Prime Minister. The Election Commission will announce its next round of endorsements this Tuesday.

Sitting under a community pavilion, surrounded by a lush and well-manicured garden, Ms. Amnuay recalled how her 145-household community used to live in a rundown slum. Mr. Thaksin’s Ban Mankong project, an initiative launched in 2003 to remedy housing problems in poor communities, granted them the funds to relocate to well-built homes in a secure community.

“The Ban Mankong project made our dreams come true,” she said. “We declared ourselves a Red Community when Thaksin was exiled two years ago because we loved him in our hearts. Now, we have bigger houses and access to facilities.” Ms. Amnuay estimates that ninety-nine percent of Ta Wan Mai residents are Red Shirts. And, just as in the rural Red Villages, Red flags line the rows of homes in the community, waving alongside national and royal flags, too.

Yet other self-proclaimed Red Villages in Khon Kaen city do not have Mr. Thaksin to thank for cleaner, safer, and more secure housing. Instead, they simply hope that Ms. Yingluck will also create opportunities for them.

Ms. Banjong Khunsen, an inhabitant of the unofficial Red Village Therapak One, still lives in a slum beside the railway. She and her neighbors believe in Mr. Thaksin because, “he has the right policies for poor people.” She is confident that Ms. Yingluck has the same goals as her brother and wants to see change in her community soon.

“We don’t use flags in our community, but our hearts have turned Red,” Ms. Bangjong said. She estimates that ninety percent of the residents of Therapak One are Red Shirts.

Ms. Banjong explained that before Mr. Thaksin was elected, her community was not closely knit. However, after Mr. Thaksin was exiled in 2007, villagers began to communicate with each other more, talking about politics and their dreams for the future. They have considered themselves a Red Village for many years.

“We’ve been waiting for this time for so long, almost five years. We want our favorite politicians to win,” she said in anticipation of the Election Commission’s upcoming announcement of endorsed candidates.

Grichawat Lowatcharin, a lecturer on Local Government at Khon Kaen University, explained that this kind of community-based organizing is largely influenced by decentralization policies launched in the early 1990’s.

In 1994, the Tambon Administration Organization (TAO) took on the role of a local governing body. Since then, each village nationwide has elected two representatives every four years to serve on the TAO council. Representatives discuss their concerns and vote to allocate their council’s funds accordingly.  Each tambon, also known as a subdistrict, is composed of about a dozen villages or communities.

“Before, villagers had to wait for provincial or district officers to visit them infrequently. Now, the TAO is at the village level and the administration is made up of representatives of each village. The villagers have learned more about the democratic process partly because of these local elections in their communities,” Mr. Grichawat said.

Mr. Grichawat added that Thai Rak Thai’s OTOP campaign (a stimulus program that promotes one local industry from each tambon) and microfinance investments complemented the decentralization policies, teaching communities to manage themselves financially.

Through this Red Village movement, many rural and urban community members have shown that they are not only capable of managing their communities financially, but also ideologically.

This weekend, they are sitting tight, anticipating Tuesday’s announcement. As the news breaks, Red Villagers throughout the city will call each other in a haphazard phone chain to report the updates and make plans to gather.

“Right now, we’re just waiting. We’re waiting for the government to be approved. We want to see what the UDD will do [after the endorsement announcement]. Then, we will follow,” said Ms. Banjong. “We’re ready to participate, together.”

Where Have All the Students Gone?

2011 June 17
by The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN – Khon Kaen University’s lone May 19 Red Shirt demonstration was something exceptional. Though there were the well-known calls for an end to double standards, the requisite declarations of love to capital-D Democracy, and one young man sporting the macabre face-paint of a corpse, the student rally could not have been more unconventional. In the heart of one of the largest and reddest provinces in the country, these students were missing one thing the Red Shirt movement almost never lacks: numbers. At a school of 24,000 undergraduates, 14 showed up.

“This has to do with Thai society,” student leader Patiwat Saraiyaem, 20, said of his pro-democracy group’s small turnout. “Society doesn’t really teach young people to do good for the country…. The education system doesn’t teach young people to be aware of the people around them.”

May 19 marked the one-year anniversary of the bloody military crackdown on Red Shirts who had stormed the streets of Bangkok to demand a fair election.

Granted, May 19 comes late in the University’s summer holidays and many students had been home for several weeks by the time the group Sumkiawdao congregated in front of KKU’s student center. Still, even by its members’ own estimates, the group was operating near full strength. On a good day, Mr. Patiwat told reporters, Sumkiawdao would not see more than 20 students in attendance.

This, KKU’s Associate Professor of Sociology Buapun Promphakping says, is in marked contrast to student involvement in the Black May protests of 1992. Almost everyday for a month, Dr. Buapun led student activists on the six-kilometer motorbike ride to downtown Khon Kaen to protest Army Commander Suchinda Kraprayoon’s appointment to the Prime Ministership. Back then, Dr. Buapun says, more than 20 percent of the student body was politically active. Now, he estimates, the number is less than half that.

And what’s to blame for this decline? “It’s consumerism,” said Dr. Buapun. “Education in Thailand is for promoting people’s status so they can make more money. And if you ask students what their priority is, they’ll say it’s money.” This consumerism, Dr. Buapun went on to explain, is the direct result of the last twenty years of Thailand’s explosive economic development and rapid modernization.

The rise of consumerism is a common explanation for student disengagement on university campuses, but former KKU Student Union President (and one-time Red Shirt arrestee) Mr. Yanyong Piwphong offered another, more insidious interpretation. “There are some people that you might think are red, but most people do not want to show themselves as red.” According to Mr. Yanyong, there is significant institutional and social pressure against overt political expression.

Though discussions of Thai politics in KKU’s English classrooms have sometimes inspired shouts of “I hate Thaksin,” or its equivalent, an antiestablishment remark is almost never heard. According to a KKU English teacher who prefers to remain anonymous, only one of this teacher’s hundreds of students has ever betrayed Red Shirt sympathies. In hushed tones, a first-year medical student confided that though he would like to publicly express his left-wing beliefs, he fears the academic repercussions it may have.

Even Sumkiawdao’s membership was less than fully confident in publicizing their associations. At their May 19 demonstration only eight of its members were wearing red and several refused to give their names when interviewed.

In recent days, student activism has been thrust into the spotlight after an anti-hazing group at Mahasarakham University sparked controversy when its video of a June 5 hazing protest went viral. In response, MSU President Supachai Samappito told ASTV Manager that the anti-hazing protesters were “too knowledgeable,” and that “they [had] been studying human rights too much….”

The Isaan Student Union and the Thai Student Union, however, came to the protesters’ defense in an open letter calling for an end to the SOTUS system (Seniority, Order, Tradition, Unity, Spirit) of freshman indoctrination. The groups claim that the system infringes on the rights and freedoms of Thailand’s freshmen.

The MSU kerfuffle, though not explicitly about student political demonstrations, does provide some insight into University administrators’ conception of student expression on Thai campuses. In what very well may have been the MSU president’s most revealing remark, Mr. Surachai said “If students complain about [the hazing], Thailand will be in a terrible way.”

If the simple act of expressing dissent is enough to endanger the very foundation of the entire country, then it’s little wonder students retreat into easy consumerism and intimidated silence.

One Year Gone: Closure Slow to Come in Khon Kaen’s Courts

2011 June 8
by The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN – Most days Prasatiphon Sumaha comes alone. She drives in from Mahasarakham to see her brother, to tell him about their niece and how things are at home. He complains about his asthma (it has been getting worse in recent days) and asks about his case.

But today is a bit different. Inspired by the local Red Radio station to show their support, 40 some odd Red Shirts are milling about, chatting with reporters, and watching battleship-gray school buses maneuver through the chainlink and steel at the prison’s entrance.

Ms. Prasatiphon’s brother, 51 year old Jiratrakul Sumaha, is just one of 19 UDD-members awaiting trial or serving time in Khon Kaen Central Prison for the violence that erupted throughout the city last May 19. Thirteen people were wounded, seven buildings were burned or seriously damaged, and one man was killed, shot at close range with a shotgun.

For the last eleven months, Ms. Prasatiphon hasn’t had much good news to report. On July 1, her brother was arrested and charged with terrorism, arson, and conspiracy for the destruction of Khon Kaen’s provincial hall. He has been held without bail ever since. After months of denied appeals and disappointments, Ms. Prasatiphon remains emphatically pessimistic. “ We don’t want to hope because we don’t want to be let down again,” she told reporters.

May 9 of this year, however, offered the most hope the family has seen in close to a year. Much to the surprise of Ms. Prasatiphon, the prosecution chose to drop the terrorism charges against Mr. Jiratrakul and his two co-defendants, opening up the possibility for all three men to make bail. Their next court appearance is set for July 25.

Suwijak Mongkolsaowin, the head prosecutor in the case, declined to comment for this article.

Bureaucratic delays and judicial feet-dragging are par for the course in a country that appears to be as certain about the path to national reconciliation as it is capable of assembling an open-and-shut case from the 2010 unrest.

The convictions in the May 19 vandalism of three Bangkok Bank branches in Khon Kaen city, however, are about as close as the province has come to swift justice in the last year. Security-camera feeds provided prosecutors with enough damning evidence to strike plea bargains with eight different UDD demonstrators on April 1. Now, all eight men are serving between six and eighteen months in prison and they owe anywhere from 1.8 to 8.3 million baht in mandatory recompense for their crimes.

Udom Khammul, the sole defendant in the May 19 torching of the National Broadcasting Services of Thailand’s Khon Kaen affiliate, has encountered many of the same delays as Mr. Jiratrakul. Terrorism charges were also dropped against Mr. Udom on May 9 and he, too, is awaiting a July 25 court date in order to have his bail request reconsidered.

Then there are the multiple unresolved cases surrounding the attempted invasion by Red Shirt demonstrators onto MP Prajak Klaewklaharn’s property on the evening of May 19. Mr. Prajak is a member of the Bhumjaithai party and currently in the thirteenth position on its party list for the July 3 election.

According to the Human Rights Watch report, demonstrators had started to force open the property’s front gate when Sanya Hakhamdaeng, a personal aide to Mr. Prajak, opened fire with a shotgun. Thirteen demonstrators were wounded and Khon Kaen native Songsak Srinongbua, 33, was killed. Subsequently, ten Red Shirts were arrested and charged with trespassing, arson, destruction of private property, and violation of the Emergency Decree and Mr. Sanya was charged with murder.

Though Mr. Sanya’s case is currently in appeals, a Khon Kaen lawyer familiar with the case reports that Mr. Sanya was sentenced to 6 years and 4 months in prison and ordered to pay a 500,000 baht fine. The fate of the ten Red Shirts arrested in the case has not yet been decided. Although earlier this year the trespassing, arson and destruction of private property charges were dropped for lack of evidence, all of the ten accused were convicted for illegal assembly under the Emergency Decree and are awaiting sentencing.

The results of all of these cases are cast into further doubt by Yingluck Shinawatra and the Pheu Thai party’s continued pussyfooting around last month’s amnesty proposal for those, “who committed offenses after the Sept 19, 2006 coup d’état.”

Amnesty is more than just a newspaper headline to Ms. Prasatiphon. “If Pheu Thai is elected, they will look into [Jiratrakul’s case] more,” she said as she waited to see her brother. “But what we really want is proper justice because we believe in his innocence.”

If it is justice that Ms. Prasatiphon wants, then as it stands now, Pheu Thai’s proposal for amnesty alone will not do the trick.

UDD Predicts Northeastern Vote

2011 May 24
by The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN – Pheu Thai will win 80 of Isaan’s 126 constituency MP seats in the upcoming election, Northeastern Red Shirt leaders projected this past Sunday. Approximately 150 UDD provincial and district level leaders met at Khon Kaen University’s Mo Din Daeng Hotel to share their election forecasts and formulate their campaign strategies.

Khon Kaen’s UDD president Veeravasak Sanglang assured reporters that the figures were “80% accurate” even though their projections were largely speculative and not based on any official poll data. “These people are the leaders of their districts and provinces,” Mr. Veeravasak said of the assembled representatives, “so they know the problems and issues in their [voting districts].”

The day’s proceedings were not without controversy. As early morning provincial caucuses gave way to short presentations of each province’s results, the meeting’s atmosphere grew contentious at times. While Kalasin and Nong Bua Lamphu’s delegations were able to thump their chests and draw applause for their provinces’ expected shutouts, Nakhon Ratchasima’s dismal predictions were met with jeers and early exits to lunch. That Pheu Thai should only win one of a possible 15 seats in the region’s largest province was felt by many to be an indication of poor organizing on the part of Khorat’s Red leader, Ms. Parda.

A recent Khon Kaen University poll (analysis here and here), though only designed to predict party-list results, corroborates this skepticism. 41.3% of intended Khorat voters said they’d be voting for Pheu Thai – a figure which only the most spectacularly effective gerrymandering could account for should Ms. Parda be correct. Nevertheless, Ms. Parda was adamant, “The Ruam Chart Pattana Puea Pandin party is very strong,” she told reporters.

The Khon Kaen Red Shirt president agrees. “Last election, the competition wasn’t this strong,” Mr. Veeravasak said. “This election, the opposite parties are trying to buy support… we need a stronger strategy to win this election.”

Still, Mr. Veeravasak’s proposed strategies appear to be just good old-fashioned grassroots campaigning. “Pheu Thai candidates have to go into these areas and build close connections with people and at the same time, Red Shirts will have to build strong connections in these communities to support the candidates,” he said.

With just under six weeks until the July 3 election, Pheu Thai and the UDD are fighting for every seat possible, especially in their strongholds.

Pheu Thai Kicks off Campaign Season in Isaan

2011 May 1
by The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN – The campaign slogans might have been written in red, but Saturday night’s United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship rally couldn’t have been any clearer: vote for the blue and white of Pheu Thai.

On a stage crowded with local Pheu Thai MPs and candidates alike, speakers extolled the virtues of the party’s recently announced platform and mocked their political opponents, the Democrats. In his characteristically light-hearted style, Red Shirt spokesperson Nattawut Saikua delighted the assembled crowd of over 10,000 by speculating that in a past life current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had been a public toilet frequented by the Pheu Thai Party. “It’s no wonder that in this life we have to keep cleaning up the Democrats’ crap,” he said.

The Red crowd listens to Nattawut Saikua on Saturday night.

Amidst explanations of Pheu Thai’s proposed minimum wage hike, a credit-card program for farmers, and promises to give tablet PCs to schoolchildren, Mr. Abhisit became an object of near constant ridicule for Mr. Nattawut. The southern-born UDD firebrand repeatedly criticized the Prime Minister’s administration for the rising national debt, the escalation of the Cambodian border dispute and an insufficient response to last month’s flooding in the south.

In what would become a common refrain for all of the evening’s speakers, Mr. Nattawut asked his audience to reflect on exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s time in office. “Thaksin is the best Prime Minister we ever had – we lived happily…. Now what do we have?” he asked with a shrug.

The most anticipated speaker of the evening, however, was not the charismatic Mr. Nattawut, but Mr. Thaksin himself. Calling in from Dubai, the former Prime Minister covered similar ground, repeating the party’s campaign promises and disparaging the Democrats. “If the current political party wants to buy your vote,” he said, “you have to think that 500 Baht is not enough. The Democrats have cost this country so much more.”

Mr. Thaksin concluded his address by uncomfortably lip-synching to a Thai country song about missing home, asking his supporters if they want him to return (their enthusiastic response indicated that they do), and then signing off amid fireworks and chants of “Pheu Thai, Pheu Thai.”

As the rally wound down, local UDD leader Phoprak Udomporn told reporters that he was confident in Pheu Thai’s chances in Khon Kaen. “We’ll win all ten seats,” he said with a smile. To ensure that they do, Khon Kaen’s Red Shirts will be focussing on smaller, constituency-specific gatherings from now on. Saturday night’s rally, he said, will be the last of its size in the province until July.

[UPDATE: May 25, 2011 – “Mr. Saikua” has now been changed to “Mr. Nattawut.”]