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

2015 December 17
by The Isaan Record

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

By Jamie Rudd

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

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

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

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

Changing Face of the Wetlands

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buffalo Raising: Livelihoods in the Wetlands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Challenging Enduring Stereotypes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Threatened By Development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fearing a Life Away From the Wetlands

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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A Special Report: Red Shirts – Dead or Alive?

2015 December 15
by The Isaan Record

First published on Prachatai English

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thaksin as a “Symbol of Awakening”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Supporter of Primaries

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

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

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

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

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

3. Various Approaches to the “Waiting Game”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015 October 22
by The Isaan Record

By Genevieve Glatsky, Jaime Webb, and Megan Brookens

KoVit Profile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

GUEST EDITORIAL: A Long Way from Home – Isaan Villagers’ Experience of Farmwork in Israel

2015 October 15
by The Isaan Record

Since the early 1990s, tens of thousands of Northeastern Thais have left their farms at home to work as agricultural laborers in Israel, often facing exploitation by manpower agencies and employers. Despite a recent push to improve the working conditions of Thai farmworkers in Israel, their situation often remains precarious.

By Matan Kaminer

A Thai farmworker sits in his bed room in the residential area of a farm in Moshav Yavetz, Israel. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum for Activestill.org

A Thai farmworker sits in his bedroom in the residential area of a farm in Moshav Yavetz in central Israel. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestills.org

Over 22,000 migrant workers, mostly from Isaan, are at work on farms in Israel. Although they are but a small percentage of the total number of Isaan villagers who migrate to work abroad, the Israeli agricultural sector has become completely dependent on their labor.

In some rural settlements, Thais now outnumber Israelis, and in modern Hebrew tailandi has become almost a synonym for “farmworker.” Though wages in Israel are much higher than those in Thailand, workers’ labor rights are often violated and living conditions are sometimes atrocious, as has been documented by Israeli NGO “Workers’ Hotline” and the international organization Human Rights Watch.

I interviewed three Isaan villagers who have worked in Israel about their migrant experience. Though the durations of their stays in Israel are spread over two decades, the picture they present is in some ways very similar: the work is hard and one pays a personal price for going abroad for so long. At the same time, working in Israel has enabled our interviewees to achieve financial goals that would have been impossible otherwise.

However, my three interviewees differed greatly in some aspects of their experience – demonstrating that much depends on the particular farm on which one happens to be employed when in Israel.

Thai labourers on a cabbage field on a farm at the Israel-Gaza border. Photo credit: Oren Ziv for Activestill.org

Thai laborers on a cabbage field on a farm at the Israel-Gaza border. Photo credit: Oren Ziv / Activestills.org

Large-scale labor migration from Thailand to Israel began around 1993, when the Israeli government took steps to end the massive participation of Palestinian workers in the labor market. These workers, coming from the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, were judged to be too rebellious following the Palestinian Intifada (uprising) of 1987-1991, and plans were made to replace them with workers from developing countries. The government began allowing farmers to recruit workers from Thailand, and they quickly became the majority of workers employed on Israeli farms.

Until 2012, in order to obtain work in Israel a Thai laborer would have to contract with a local manpower agency in Thailand. This agency would connect with a manpower agency in Israel , and the worker would then be eligible to receive a visa for a five-year work contract. Careful to prevent the possibility of workers settling in Israel permanently, Israeli authorities limited each worker to one five-year work period, and disallowed married couples from being in the country at the same time.

Manpower agencies charged workers exorbitant fees, ranging up to 370,000 baht. Workers would often spend their first year in Israel working off the debts incurred in order to pay this fee.

In 2012, the Israeli and Thai governments signed a bilateral agreement aimed at cutting out the middlemen who were charging migrants these exorbitant fees, replacing Thai manpower agencies with the International Organization for Migration, a non-profit intergovernmental group. Today the problem of exorbitant fees has been become less severe and migrants pay around 75,000 baht, which go to the IOM and manpower agencies on the Israeli side.

A residential structure used by Thai farmworkers in Sde Nitzan at the Israeli border to Egypt. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestill.org

A residential structure used by Thai farmworkers in Sde Nitzan at the Israeli border to Egypt. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestills.org

However, many other problems associated with migrant life continue. A report recently released by Human Rights Watch found that workers are subject to dangerous and unhygienic living conditions, extremely long working hours, and substandard medical care.

Officially, Thai migrants in Israel are protected by Israeli labor laws, including those regulating the minimum wage and overtime hours. However, a study conducted by myself and Noa Shauer of the Israeli non-governmental organization Kav La’oved (Workers Hotline) found that in 2013, none of the migrants who reported their work conditions to the organization were paid according to the law. Their average wage for regular hours stood at around 70% of the legal minimum. Overtime for work of more than ten hours a day, which is quite common in the agricultural sector, was paid at only 55% of the legal requirement. Human Rights Watch reached similar conclusions.

A Thai agricultural worker  in his residency in Moshav Yavetz, Israel. The small caravan holds eight beds, separated by curtains and closets. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum for Activestill.org

A Thai agricultural worker in his residency in Moshav Yavetz, Israel. The small caravan holds eight beds, separated by curtains and closets. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestills.org

Thai migrant workers’ weak negotiation position in Israel is in part due to the “bound” nature of their employment. Clauses in their contracts, as well as their linguistic isolation and lack of acquaintance with the country, make it very difficult for workers to change employers’ behavior.

Thus, even when migrant workers are aware of the substandard nature of the conditions of their employment, there is little they can do to improve their situation. Many migrants say that the working conditions, together with the long hours and sadness of missing home and family, are behind the prevalence of alcohol and drug abuse among workers.

Some point to drug and alcohol abuse as a possible factor behind the nocturnal deaths of workers, known in Thai as lai tai. These mysterious deaths are also known in Isaan, and some consider them to be caused by evil spirits such as phi mae mai or “widow ghosts.”

Between 2008 and 2013, 43 Thai men perished this way in Israel, yet there has been no systematic investigation into their cause of death. The lack of interest displayed by the Israeli authorities in this case is symptomatic of the general lack of public or state concern for migrant workers’ welfare.

While the workers I spoke to corroborated many of the findings mentioned above, they spoke of the experience of working in Israel as a generally positive one. They said the work enabled them to acquire property and make other monetary gains in life that otherwise they could not have achieved.

The first of my interviewees, Joe – a pseudonym – in his forties, lives in a village near Chumphae in Khon Kaen province. He received us on the ceramic-tile floor of his two-story house and later took us to a field where he grows sugarcane – a field bought with money he earned while working in Israel in the 1990s.

Joe’s distant relatives, Maew and Jaey (also pseudonyms), live in a village in Udon Thani province that has sent many workers to Israel over the years. Their stories exemplify the wide variety of working conditions found in Israel.

A Thai farmworker shows a small notebook displaying his working hours in Moshav Ahituv in central Israel. Thai farmworkers are advised to keep track of their working time and the hourly wage paid by their employers. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum /Activestill.org

A Thai farmworker shows a small notebook displaying his working hours in Moshav Ahituv. Thai farmworkers are advised to keep track of their working time and the payments received from their employers. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestills.org

Maew, also in her forties, worked on a farm in the hyper-arid Jordan Valley, near Jericho in the occupied Palestinian territories. She worked up to 14 hours a day tending vegetables in greenhouses and made between 35,000 and 45,000 baht a month, of which she was able to save about 25,000 to send home to her family. In employing her for such long hours for such low pay (by Israeli standards), her employers violated the local minimum wage law and possibly other laws as well.

Maew’s younger relative Jaey made the same wages, but working only six hours a day milking cows near Acre in Israel’s north, in proximity to urban centers and in a much milder climate zone.

One cause for the difference may be the fact that Maew worked on a moshav or collective settlement, and Jaey on a kibbutz or communal settlement; the latter tend to be both wealthier and more committed to the historic humanistic values of the Israeli “labor settlement” movement.

The co-existence of such huge disparities in labor and wage conditions is clearly an effect of the “bound” employment regime. If workers could freely choose whom to work for, conditions would undoubtedly equalize, with better results for workers like Maew.

A female Thai farmworker picks pomegranates on a farm in Sde Nitzan,Israel. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum for Activestill.org

A female Thai farmworker picks pomegranates on a farm in Sde Nitzan,Israel. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum for Activestills.org

Although she is aware of these disparities, Maew did not react to them with anger or indignation. She told me that she was glad of the opportunity to work long hours and make as much money as possible to send home, and did not see the fact that her relative Jaey had made the same amount of money working about half the hours as unjust.

Maew and Jaey also touched upon another interesting and troubling issue. They told me that villagers in the area who had worked in Israel were approached by lawyers claiming that they could get access to Israeli “tax refunds” for them.

According to Maew, hundreds of locals had signed papers for these lawyers but none had seen any money. Their story corroborates reports of Israeli lawyers representing Thai workers to sue the employers for severance pay – another legal requirement that is often unheeded.

The NGOs are worried that these lawyers may be engaged in unscrupulous practices vis-à-vis their clients – a concern that Maew’s story seems to strengthen, as villagers signed up and never heard anything back or received any money, and as they may have been misinformed as to the nature of the legal proceedings.

Thai workers on a tractor on the way to start their working day in the early morning. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestill.org

Thai workers on a tractor on the way to start their working day in the early morning. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestills.org

Labor migration is a global phenomenon, linking countries across the world in a chain of human movement that embodies both opportunity and exploitation. The workers I spoke to – who did not know me well and may have hesitated to be completely forthright – spoke of working in Israel as, overall, a positive experience.

Yet even this must be understood against the background of the alternative – either going to work elsewhere in Thailand or abroad, where conditions and pay are often worse, or being mired in unemployment and poverty back home in Isaan.

Compared to some of their neighbors, those villagers who are given the opportunity to do backbreaking work for below-minimum pay, thousands of kilometers from home, for years on end, may be the lucky ones.

Matan Kaminer is a Ph.D student in anthropology at the University of Michigan. His research is on Thai migrant farmworkers in Israel. Additional reporting and translation by Disaraporn Phalapree.

The Value of Village Health Volunteers In Times of Universal Health Care

2015 September 17
by The Isaan Record

For 35 years, Thailand’s primary healthcare system has rested on the shoulders of a legion of Village Health Volunteers. Now that Thailand has had universal healthcare for some years, is this model – which was originally established to boost poor rural communities’ access to essential healthcare – obsolete?

By Zoe Swartz, Mariko Powers, and Katie Mathieson

Mekhala Nonsiri, 47, has high blood pressure and can barely walk due to calcium deficiency in her bones. There is a chance that her health will improve if she continues to take medication, but for the moment the help of Ms. Uthumporn is all she can count on.

Mekhala Nonsiri, 47, has high blood pressure and can barely walk due to calcium deficiency in her bones. There is a chance that her health will improve if she continues to take medication, but for the moment the help of Ms. Uthumporn is all she can count on.

KHON KAEN – Mekhala Nonsiri sits in the doorway of her two-room rented home in a slum community of Khon Kaen. She suffers from a calcium deficiency in her bones that makes walking nearly impossible. Living with a disability in an urban slum is already a challenge, but without the daily visits of a Village Health Volunteer (VHV) her life would be much harder.

Ms. Nonsiri lives in Theparak 5, one of Khon Kaen’s shanty communities. Set back from the slum’s narrow thoroughfare by an even narrower alley, her home overlooks the train tracks. Like everyone here, she is accustomed to pausing conversations amid the deafening clamor of passing trains.

Ms. Mekhala has plenty to fret over, but one thing she does not have to worry about is eating lunch. Each day, Uthumporn Srichai a Village Health Volunteer, checks on Ms. Mekhala and brings her a meal, free of charge. The 52-year-old has been a VHV for six years and looks after 15 disabled residents in Theparak 5 and its neighboring slums.

In her community, Ms. Uthumporn and the other nine VHVs serve as liaisons between villagers and the formal health sector. They provide basic services such as checking blood pressure, health consultations, first aid, and sometimes transportation to the hospital.

Thailand established this healthcare delivery system in 1980 after the country’s ratification of the Alma Ata Declaration, an international agreement to promote the health of all people.

In the 1980s, transportation in rural areas – where the bulk of the population lived – was difficult. Medical care was costly – prohibitively so for the poor. It made sense for communities to develop ways to take care of their own health.

Thailand in 2015 is quite different. According to the United Nations Development Programme, the number of impoverished households in Isaan dropped from 3.4% in 1996 to less than 1.3% by 2009. Northeastern people are more educated and urbanized.

Most importantly, a low-cost universal healthcare system was put in place in 2002.

Nevertheless, the VHV program continued to expand. There were 700,000 VHVs in 2005; now there are more than a million, each working with seven to twelve families in every community in Thailand. VHVs are expected to systematically coordinate their work with government public health policies.

The national budget for the VHV program is over 7.2 billion baht (US$240 million) annually, which includes funds for the 600-baht monthly stipend volunteers have received since 2001.

Given the changes in Thailand’s poverty demographics and the expansion of access to the healthcare system, are VHVs still necessary?

Dr. Amorn Nondasuta, Thailand’s former Permanent Secretary of Public Health, was in charge of the national primary healthcare program from 1983 to 1986. Now 87 years old and retired, it was under his watch that Thailand’s community health volunteer program was initiated 35 years ago.

The mission of the program has always been to expand “community access” by placing primary healthcare into the hands of villagers and creating “health autonomy,” Dr. Amorn says in an email to The Isaan Record. He originally hoped to see “the people fully in control of their own health, via behavior change or health planning and management.” But this mission, Dr Amorn admits, “has not been fully realized so far.”

A 1997 report found that the use of VHVs declined as Thailand urbanized and access to medical services improved. As a result, “more and more people self-refer into this level of care,” the report states.

“City people have many choices to visit doctors, so they don’t use VHVs,” says Vanarat Kongkam, who oversees the VHV program in Khon Kaen municipality.

Proponents of the program point out that the VHV program is closely tied to community development, a role that cannot be fulfilled by formal health services alone.

“VHVs are the role models of people in the communities. They are dedicated to many social causes. They become respected and may be elected headman,” says Waraporn Chukhanhom, Secretary to the Director of Public Health for Khon Kaen City District.

Government officials working with VHVs echo this sentiment and insist that the program still plays a crucial role for Thailand’s healthcare system. From the beginning, says Ms. Vanarat, the program was “exclusively designed to give poor people access to healthcare.”

In many cases, lack of transportation is an additional barrier to medical care. For rural residents in remote communities in Isaan, traveling to the hospital can be particularly burdensome. In order to tackle this problem, the VHV program in Isaan has established “Happy Pavilions” – small healthcare stations where volunteers provide basic care close to rural residents’ homes.

“The Happy Pavilion program works well,” Ms. Waraporn says, adding that it helps vulnerable populations “reduce the cost of hospital visits.”

As VHVs are members of the communities they serve, they know the day-to-day struggles of their neighbors and can track the general well-being of the families under their care. They can support people with mobility challenges by assisting them, giving baths, or providing diet-appropriate meals.

Most important, say proponents, the volunteers help villagers navigate the medical bureaucracy and personalize healthcare. When Ms. Mekhala first started to have trouble walking, she couldn’t afford to buy a wheelchair. With the support of her VHV, Ms. Uthumporn, she was able to secure municipality funds to purchase one.

The VHV program also provides basic healthcare training to selected villagers. In this way, they can serve as a bridge to the formal health system and actively support preventive healthcare in their communities.

This role as a bridge is especially profound for Somphaan Sonphromma, a 50-year-old resident of Khok Si, a village eight kilometers outside of Khon Kaen City. She is one of the village’s twenty health volunteers educating people on how to prevent mosquito-borne illnesses, such as dengue. One of Ms. Somphaan’s weekly tasks is to visit her assigned families and distribute fish and chemicals that destroy mosquito larvae.

Ms. Somphaan [here standing with her daughter] spends most of her day working in the fields, but every two hours she stops what she is doing to care for her elderly mother. . Her mother’s hand is tied to the bed so that she does not rip out her feeding tube. Most VHVs work a separate full time job and only spend a few hours a week volunteering. Thailand’s Potential Support Ratio is rapidly falling, according to the data from the United Nations. By 2025, the number of working-age adults potentially available to support the population aged 65 years or more will be reduced by half, compared to 2006.

Ms. Somphaan [here standing with her daughter] spends most of her day working in the fields, but every two hours she stops what she is doing to care for her elderly mother. Her mother’s hand is tied to the bed so that she does not rip out her feeding tube. Most VHVs work a separate full time job and only spend a few hours a week volunteering. Thailand’s Potential Support Ratio is rapidly falling, according to the data from the United Nations. By 2025, the number of working-age adults potentially available to support the population aged 65 years or more will be reduced by half, compared to 2006.

“VHVs and villagers live in the same community, so volunteers know people’s problems better than the doctor and can work to help one another” says Jitti Chertchoo, the headman of the slum community Theparak 5.

The localized volunteer service model is effective in Thailand because it mirrors what is already culturally practiced – villagers taking care of family members and supporting the well-being of the community.

NEW SECTION: LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

2015 September 13
by The Isaan Record

The Isaan Record is happy to announce a new section in the publication: Letters to the Editor. We invite readers to share their thoughts by sending comment to editor@ir.isaanrecord.com. Please be aware that any published letter or comment might be subject to editing for clarity. (We apologize for republishing a Letter to the Editor from the other day, but The Isaan Record wanted to better highlight this new section.)

 

Observations about Northeasterners and Ethnicity

I have been traveling to Isaan quite often, especially during the past few years. But I do not consider myself a traveller, but a traveller-cum-anthopologist. I love observing, jotting down, and, most importantly, talking with the locals. I could notice a big difference in various parts of the region.

Northeastern Thailand, or Isaan, is a most squabbling territory where the issue of inter-ethnicities, primarily against central Thai ethnicity, comes into sight. Northeasterners are of more ethnically related to Laotians as shown in cultural manifestation of language and rituals.

The people in those days may have appreciated a more patriotic sense of being Lao than Thais. However, when Marshall Pleak Phibunsongkhram was in office, Thailand declared a nationalist propaganda through state decrees or rattaniyom (รัฐนิยม). Non-Thai people were pushed to be Thais. Northeasterners underwent ethnic persecution in that the Thai government terminated their ancestral identities, yet cultivating central Thai practices. For instance, schools could only teach Thai, not Lao.

Chon-klum-noi (ชนกลุ่มน้อย) or ethnic minorities are pervasive in Isaan. The word chon-klum-noi is pejorative, implying that the people lack ability to survive by themselves, considered government’s liability. As for main occupations, “previous” Northeasterners depended largely on agriculture and sadly, as the terrains are arid, here comes emigration. Those who are “breadwinners” move to Bangkok where they are promised a higher income or high enough to send remittances home, even if their jobs are often of the working-class.

A number of agricultural communities have been transforming into industries, small or middle-sized. The emergence of a nouveau riche is observed too. People, inclusive of ethnic minorities, get higher and higher educations.

I speculate that because of the readjustment of social construction, there comes the new middle class, who are self-reliant and even can give the nation substantial economic contributions. Their way of thinking is also changing in that, since they are already have that “potential,” they need more of self-government.

The problem is: our military regime now assumes “centralization” in which the power is monopolized by the government. I opine that it is contradicting to social reality of the present-day Isaan.

Patrick Huang


                      

False Front Rings Familiar in the Northeast

2015 September 13
by The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN – In the Northeast, most people were always doubtful. They laughed at the reconciliation trainings that came to their villages. They mocked a constitution drafting process that purported to include their voices. Very few here believed that the military had any intention of swiftly returning Thailand to a democracy. The news that the military rejected its own constitution draft comes as just another sign of the junta’s insincere rule.

Last Sunday, the military government’s hand-picked National Reform Council (NRC) voted down the blueprint for Thailand’s new political system in a process that the military itself had initiated.

After overthrowing an elected government last year, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has argued that constitutional reform is necessary to lift the country out of its chronic cycle of political instability. While the need for reform is recognized across the political spectrum, critics throughout the country and around the world question the military government’s commitment to returning the country to democracy.

The defeat of the charter draft is salt in the wounds of those who saw the drafting process as illegitimate and regarded the government’s efforts to seek citizen participation through public forums as nothing but a false front.

In March, one chairman of a public forum in the Northeast revealed to The Isaan Record that he saw the public participation campaign as “just window-dressing” and expressed no hope for genuine inclusion of people’s voices.

Others embraced the chance to give input to the drafting process, even while admitting that there were little chances that the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) considered their suggestions.

Tul Prasertsilpa, President of the Citizen’s Anti-Corruption Network Khon Kaen, participated in the public forums and is incensed over the defeat of the constitution draft.

“In the Five Rivers, some members are using the reform process to their own benefit,” he claims, referring to the military government’s five major bodies, two of which – the NRC and CDC – are now defunct after the rejection of the charter draft.

He suggested that Prime Minister Prayuth was not decisive enough in his leadership and failed to control the voting process. “Now he can’t follow the roadmap as promised and in the future no one will listen to him anymore,” Mr. Tul said in an interview with The Isaan Record.

The majority of military members in the NRC voted against the constitution draft, leaving the CDC’s Chairman Borwornsak Uwanno to thank the sole three military members who gave their support to the draft. He hinted at pressure from military superiors to vote no.

“It really should have passed, it was a solid draft,” said Wasan Chuchai, Secretary and Committee Member of the Khon Kaen provincial branch of the Lawyers Council of Thailand. He reflects concerns that political meddling played a role in the rejection of the draft and accused “some politicians” of influencing the vote.

However, many suspect the rejection of the constitution was orchestrated by the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) in order to postpone handing power back to a civilian government.

“The constitution draft wasn’t democratic and neither was its down voting,” said Siwat Sriphokhakun, a lecturer at the College of Local Administration at Khon Kaen University. He believes its rejection was coordinated to extend the NCPO’s rule.

The substance of the charter draft had drawn criticism from both political camps as it allowed for an appointed prime minister and included a provision for a “crisis panel” empowered to overrule executive and legislative decisions.

“The charter draft was a tool of military dictatorship and not a vehicle for the will of the people,” said Dr. Wiboon Shamsheun, a former Pheu Thai vice minister from Kalasin. “Constitutional reform must ensure people’s liberties and rights and establish the rule of law,” Dr. Wiboon said.

“That’s what real reform must look like – and not what the PDRC thinks reform is,” he added.

The People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) staged mass protests against the former elected government demanding the implementation of a vague set of reforms before elections. The movement’s leaders argue that Thailand is not ready for electoral democracy, a claim that conservative forces have historically clung to in their opposition to a democratic system for Thailand.

Screenshot from a video produced by Bangkok-based activist group Resistant Citizen urging people not to accept the constitution.

Screenshot from a video produced by Bangkok-based activist group Resistant Citizen urging people not to accept the constitution.

For Sutin Klangsaeng, a member of the Pheu Thai party-list from Maha Sarakham, the rejection of the charter draft comes as a mixed blessing. “At least now we don’t have to vote on an undemocratic constitution in a referendum,” he said.

In the run-up to the NRC’s decision on the draft, pro-democracy activists across the country had started to prepare a strategic response in the case of a referendum. Some called for an outright voting boycott, while others argued it would be better to participate by voting no or spoiling the ballot.

On the downside, said Mr. Sutin, the country now has to tolerate extended military rule, which might send Thailand’s economy into a downward spiral and further taint its international image.

“The longer their rule lasts, the more they want to stay in power and the country will keep straying off its democratic path,” Mr. Sutin added.

According to the military government’s rules, it must set up a new constitution drafting body within 30 days, which will have to present a new charter draft within 180 days. The NCPO postponed national elections to 2017 the earliest, after it had pushed back the election date several times.

Mr. Siwat expressed little hope for the new draft to be more democratic than the failed one. “It will limit people’s power again and if it fails a referendum, the process will just start all over again,” he said.

In the Northeast, many would like to see a return to the so-called “People’s Constitution” from 1997, which some regard as Thailand’s most democratic charter. This seems unlikely as the military government regards this constitution as the precondition for the rise of what the NCPO sees as corruption-ridden, populist governments.

The military justified its coup against a democratically elected government with the imperative to end an alleged political deadlock that paralyzed the country’s constitutional bodies. However, now the military seems to be trapped in its own cul-de-sac while desperately seeking ways to legitimize its rule.

For Dao Din student activist Chaturapat Boonyapatraksa, who is awaiting trial for his participation in an anti-coup protest, the rejection of the charter has proven military rule a dead-end street. Its claim of working more efficiently than a civilian government has been reduced to absurdity, he said.

“Their image is damaged now and people will begin to understand that the NCPO can’t keep promise,” he said. Mr. Chaturapat hopes that an organized opposition movement will help bring the military rule down.

“Society is slowly realizing that the military dictatorship is limiting people’s freedom and rights. It will take some time, but eventually, we won’t be able to take it any longer,” he said.

 

Voices from Isaan: The Failed Constitution Draft

2015 September 9
by The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN – Despite their relief about the rejection of the constitution draft, people in the Northeast are dismayed by the undemocratic drafting process and the prospect of extended military rule.

On Sunday, the military-appointed National Reform Council (NRC) voted down the charter draft that the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) had been writing for almost a year. According to Prachatai, at least 85 million baht (about $2.35 million) was spent on the entire process.

In Khon Kaen, people support the rejection of the draft constitution, but criticize the delay of a return to electoral democracy. In March, people in the city voiced their skepticism of the drafting process and some called for a return to the 1997 constitution. This sentiment was echoed by many when The Isaan Record talked to people at the city’s new bus terminal about the failed constitution draft.

“I just got the news and I am so happy that it was rejected,” said soft-spoken Sirilak Phonsuwan, a 60-year-old rice farmer from Sakon Nakhon. “It just wasn’t a good constitution and we grassroots people and farmers would not have benefitted from it,” she said, describing herself as “grassroots” despite Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s insistence to replace the term with “people with little education.”

Surasak Baojanya, a 53-year-old veteran and security guard at the city’s new bus terminal also agrees with the rejection of the charter. “It was not democratic anyway, and they were drafting it only for themselves and not for the people. I was a soldier myself but I am not agreeing with what they are doing now,” he said.

He criticized the high number of constitutions that Thailand has gone through without ever becoming a full democracy. “It might be a good idea to go back to the 1997 constitution and amend it, that’d be more democratic. We don’t need another drafting council, what we need are elections,” he said before raising his hand in a military salute.

Retired civil servant Thanatat Satanakho also favors a return to the so-called “People’s Constitution.” “Whatever they can come up with, it won’t be more democratic than the 1997 constitution,” he said. “And there still is no reconciliation, the country is as divided as ever. I see more problems in the future with this current government,” he added.

Another retired civil servant, Wanna Koetsiri agrees with the rejection of the charter but for different reasons. “If we had elections now the old politicians would come back,” the 67-year-old said. “I want new politicians and not the ones who started this whole mess. That’s why we need to reform the country first. It might take quite long, maybe two years,” she added before walking away to buy a bus ticket to Bangkok.

“I want them to set up a new drafting council but it shouldn’t take them longer than 6 months to write a new constitution, said 21-year-old Phonpichaya Phiriya-anatakun, a Local Administration student at Northeastern University in Khon Kaen. “Thailand is a weak democracy, and I want it to grow stronger soon,” she added.

Most interviewees agreed that the state funds used for the drafting process were poured down the drain. “It was a waste of time and resources to set up this drafting committee and then reject the charter,” said retired teacher Surasak Samroeng.

“I want Thailand to become a fully developed democracy without this never-ending cycle of coups. People are sufficiently educated for a democratic system,” he added.

 

Isaan Lives – “It’s better to give than to receive”

2015 September 7
by The Isaan Record

The Isaan Record unveils today a new section called “Isaan Lives.” It will feature the stories of Isaan people—the low, the mighty; the rich, the poor; the actively engaged and those just carrying on with their work and lives.

We debut with the work and life of a Village Health Volunteer who takes care of the underprivileged in a slum community that is both in the center of Khon Kaen City and yet still on the margins of Thai society.

By Zoe Swartz, Mariko Powers, and Katie Mathieson

The United Nations reports that the Thai government, in response to the country’s aging population, has started to provide social welfare assistance of 300 baht per month to older persons having an annual income of less than 10,000 baht. With many of their patients over the age of 60, Uthumporn Srichai and Amphon Phosanit address caring for an impoverished, aging population through alternative means.

The United Nations reports that the Thai government, in response to the country’s aging population, has started to provide social welfare assistance of 300 baht per month to older persons having an annual income of less than 10,000 baht. With many of their patients over the age of 60, Uthumporn Srichai and Amphon Phosanit address caring for an impoverished, aging population through alternative means.

KHON KAEN – “My life is hard but then I look around and other people have it worse than me,” says Uthumporn Srichai standing in a narrow alley of the slum community she calls home. To make a living, she works nights as a cleaner, but she spends her days as a Village Health Volunteer (VHV) looking after the people of her community.

On a daily basis Ms. Uthumporn visits the elderly, the sick, the crippled, and the mentally ill. She sees infants, children, and alcoholics. She also sees a community that is becoming more developed and unified.

Ms. Uthumporn thought her life would turn out much differently. Growing up in a rural village near the Cambodian border, she always wanted to become a teacher. But after she graduated with a BA in Education she could not pass the teacher certification test after computer skills were added to the requirements.

Ms. Umthumporn, who is single and without children, could have lost heart when her dream did not come true. Instead, she measures her life not as the teacher she could have been, but by the lives she impacts today.

“It is better to give than to receive,” says the 52-year-old, who has been a VHV for six years and receives a monthly stipend of 600 baht. She says the service she delivers to her community makes her happy and gives her confidence.

Each day, Ms. Umthumporn begins her work by delivering free lunches, donated by a local school, to disabled residents in her community and nearby neighborhoods. Amphon Phosanit, her friend and patient, is always with her providing her transportation and company.

“I realized that there were many people with disabilities who I could help, so I wrote a proposal for a budget to deliver food,” says Ms. Uthumporn, who started the new lunch delivery program a few months ago.

But she does more than deliver meals. She also visits patients to check their blood pressure and blood sugar, reminds them to take medicine, and sometimes helps them get to the hospital.

As Ms. Uthumporn and Mr. Amphon walk the narrow streets of Theparak 5, the pair are recognized and greeted with warm smiles and small talk from everyone they pass. While many VHVs only volunteer a few hours a week, Ms. Uthumporn dedicates a large portion of her day to serving her neighbors.

Theparak 5 is a slum community alongside the railroad tracks in Khon Kaen, tucked away on the margins of urban society. Many of the residents here make a living weaving baskets that sell for 50 baht apiece. Once a squatter settlement, it is now legally recognized by the government and residents have access to running water and electricity, although some still cannot afford them.

Like many other residents of the community, Ms. Uthumporn left her home in Buriram sixteen years ago to look for work in the city, eventually finding a home in the slums along Khon Kaen’s railroad tracks.

Without family networks to support them, many slum residents have limited options for home care when they become sick or immobile, a need Ms. Uthumporn recognized. “We treat each other like family members. I don’t treat them as a patient,” she says.

Ms. Uthumporn received VHV training six years ago and completed a six-month certification program in which she learned how to take care of peoples with disabilities and how to lead the blind.

This training also taught her the confidence to act proactively during crises, she says. One time, when a neighbor suffered a brain aneurism, she was the first to respond.

While eating breakfast together, the neighbor told her that he had a headache. She recalls that he had already drunk a small bottle of rice whiskey that day. He then sat down and coughed up blood. She called an ambulance and other VHVs to assist her. They administered first aid for thirty minutes before the ambulance arrived.

With no family to take care of him it was left to Ms. Uthumporn to be by his side. The man died in the hospital later that day, but Ms. Uthumporn says she “felt prepared for the situation” and is grateful that she could be there to help.

Thinking beyond how she can help others, Ms. Uthumporn makes it possible for them to help themselves– like Mr. Amphon, her driver, patient, and friend, who lost his left arm in car accident five years ago.

“I used to have a girlfriend who helped take care of me, but we broke up. We used to drink a lot,” says Mr. Amphon who rents a space in Ms. Uthumporn’s house.

She encouraged him to get sober during Buddhist Lent, and she helped him secure disability benefits from the government. “I didn’t have a disability card so I didn’t know what benefits I should be getting from the government until I started renting from Ms. Uthumporn,” he says.

Ms. Uthumporn supports Mr. Amphon in many ways. “She helps me take baths and she washes my hair,” Mr. Amphon says. “She and many others convinced me to be a better person by abstaining from drinking during Lent.”

Ms. Uthumporn supports Mr. Amphon in many ways. “She helps me take baths and she washes my hair,” Mr. Amphon says. “She and many others convinced me to be a better person by abstaining from drinking during Lent.”

In the small living area they share, Mr. Amphon pulls out a rudimentary portable speaker with his right hand and plugs in a USB drive with recordings of his favorite songs. Ms. Uthumporn bought him the speaker and encouraged him to use his talents to work as a street musician at nearby markets.

“My life is a lot better now because [Ms. Uthumporn] helped me to go out and get a job for myself. Without her I would be homeless, just wandering around and sleeping at night by the trains,” he says.

Mr. Amphon then sings a ballad into a microphone, the tinny sound of a keyboard and synthesizer drums ticking alongside his voice. He sings with confidence as Ms. Uthumporn looks on, smiling.

GUEST NEWS CONTRIBUTION: High Speed Train Plan Moves Forward Despite Community Concerns in Khon Kaen

2015 September 3
by The Isaan Record

By Kelsey Magill and Nancy Chong

KHON KAEN – On Wednesday morning, representatives of the Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning met with local community leaders in Khon Kaen to discuss the development of the new high speed rail system.

The public forum was held as part of an environmental impact assessment (EIA), which requires project planners to consult with potentially affected communities before moving forward.

The Governor of Khon Kaen Province, Kamtorn Tawornsatit, and the Deputy Director-General of the Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning, Chaiwat Tongkamkoon, welcomed members of the public, including representatives of the thirteen communities of the Khon Kaen Slum Network.

In his opening speech, Governor Kamtorn voiced his support for the project, saying it will improve the quality of life for local residents and reduce pollution. He expects economic integration with neighboring countries to increase since the train line will serve as a connection between China, Laos, and major transportation and tourism hubs in Thailand.

The plan to construct a high speed rail began in 2010, and includes five routes radiating from Bangkok. Khon Kaen will serve as one stop on the Bangkok-Nong Khai route, which also include stations in Nakhon Ratchasima, Udon Thani, and Nong Khai. Construction is expected to begin in December 2015 and completed in early 2018.

During the open meeting, representatives from local slum communities handed a letter to government officials in which they called for fair treatment, transparent communication, and involvement in the planning process as development moves forward.

In the letter, the Khon Kaen Slum Network proposes that “the project should consider the impact on the communities along the train track” and that “the people need to be involved in every part of the process.” The letter also advocates that the high speed rail project should use only 20 meters beyond the track, rather than the proposed 40 meters, allowing slum villagers to remain living on the rest of the land.

Representatives of the Khon Kaen slum network present a letter voicing concern over the effects of the high speed rail to the Deputy Director-General of the Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning.

Representatives of the Khon Kaen slum network present a letter voicing concern over the effects of the high speed rail to the Deputy Director-General of the Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning.

Jitti Cherdchoo, an adviser to the Four Regions Slum Network, said within the current plan an estimated 600 households will be displaced in Khon Kaen alone.

When asked about the necessity of 40 meters of land in areas where community members reside, Deputy-Director Chaiwat said that they “will use as little land as possible.” However, he added, the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) has the right of way to the land and in some areas settlements “are illegal.”

Deputy Director-General of the Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning, Chaiwat Tongkamkoon, reminds villagers concerned about losing their homes that many of them are living on SRT land illegally.

Deputy Director-General of the Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning, Chaiwat Tongkamkoon, reminds villagers concerned about losing their homes that many of them are living on SRT land illegally.

Members of the Khon Kaen Slum Network argue that the high speed rail system does not need the full 40 meters on both sides because the track gauge is only 1.43 meters wide, while the government insists that it serves as safety measure in case of train derailment.

Eli Elinoff, a postdoctoral fellow in Asian Urbanisms at the Asia Research Institute in Singapore, says that the space around the track deemed necessary for a high speed rail system has varied under different government administrations. Designs drawn up first by the Yingluck administration stipulated the project would only use 20 meters on each side of the tracks. The military government’s plan encompasses 40 meters of land on each side.

Villagers are worried about facing eviction if the high speed rail system project moves forward. Yom Aedaeng, a resident of the Theparak 5 community, expressed concern as her home is located within 40 meters of the existing track. “I’m not sure where to move,” she said, “I just want a place to stay.”

As the timetable for the project’s completion and possible eviction of surrounding communities remains unclear, Mr. Jitti said, “it feels like we’re being pressured. It’s not fair because when the government wants to do something, they should ask the people first, not the other way around.” He plans to travel to Bangkok to voice his concern to higher authorities at the Ministry of Transportation.

Kelsey Magill studies at George Washington University and Nancy Chong studies International Relations at American University. They are student journalists studying in Khon Kaen for a semester.