Isaan Under Contract - A Push For Stronger Regulation of Contract Farming

Contract farming is a common choice amongst farmers in the Northeast due to its low start-up costs and potential financial advantages. But farmers report that the system is ridden with problems and many producers involved find themselves to be in severe debt and feel controlled by the companies they work for. A recently proposed contract farming protection act pushes for more regulation and is supposed to be reviewed in January 2016.

GUEST CONTRIBUTION by Elyssa Eull, Kaori Nagase, Lindsay Palmisano and Annie Sadler

The Khammi family started contract fish farming in 1998 when a representative from Charoen Pokphand Foods (CPF) came to their village and offered them to contract fish farm. Pictured are their fish baskets, roped off along the Chi River in Mahasarakham Province.

The Khammi family started contract fish farming in 1998 when a representative from Charoen Pokphand Foods (CPF) came to their village and offered them to contract fish farm. Pictured are their fish baskets, roped off along the Chi River in Mahasarakham Province.

MAHA SARAKHAM – Shortly after the sun settled deep into the horizon on the other side of the Chi River, the sky turned to an inky black and the structures of fish baskets, corrugated tin shacks, and wooden walkways became shadows on the water. A pickup truck backed down to the river’s edge with two large water tanks filled with baby fish. Every family member quickly took up their position and the fish were scooped out of the tanks, weighed, and poured into baskets in the river all by the beam of a giant flashlight.

Wilaiwan Khammi, a second generation fish farmer, operates an independent fish farm with her extended family. For three years, they have been successfully selling their fish to an independent market vendor at the local market in their hometown, Baan Din Dum in Maha Sarakham Province.
But this independence is newfound. Ms. Wilaiwan and her family used to be contract fish farmers for Charoen Pokphand Foods (CPF).

Contract Farming – A Broken Promise?

Contract farming is a system in which agricultural production is based on an agreement between a farmer and an agribusiness company. Large firms, such as CPF, outsource their production to individual farmers, supposedly sharing both the risks and responsibilities associated with agricultural production.
Although contract farming is a common choice amongst farmers, the system seems to be ridden with problems.

It became popular in Thailand in the early 1980’s when CPF first began contracting outside farmers. All across the country, contract farmers are producing anything from vegetables and rice to cash crops and livestock. CPF claims on their website that there are 200,000 contract farmers nationwide, however other data suggests that this number is much larger.

A CPF broker visited Ms. Wilaiwan’s village years ago promoted contract fish farming as a profitable future. The company offered to cover the initial start-up costs including the fish, feed, and infrastructures in return for the producers to provide a certain quality and quantity of fish throughout the four month harvesting period.

This promise of a consistent buyer was appealing for the 300 – 400 people in the village who leapt at the chance to create a stable form of income.

For the first few years, low start-up costs and an increase in family income had the villagers under CPF’s spell. However, reality struck when the fish started dying. The cause of death remains unknown but many affected farmers claim that CPF sold them fingerlings (baby fish) of sub-par quality.

As the company refused to claim responsibility, farmers were uncompensated for these losses, and were unable to sell the entirety of the fish that they had paid for at the beginning of the season.

Ms. Wilaiwan paid 130,000 baht on average for 10,000 fish, which would last her a season. But the price of fish feed from CPF was consistently more expensive than other companies. CPF charged her 600 baht for one sack of fish feed, while other companies would sell one sack for just 400 baht, Ms. Wilaiwan claimed.

Contract fish farmers are often tempted to sell to other contractors, who offer higher prices. But many felt restricted by the contract that kept them from making their own business decisions.

Farmers report that they were verbally threatened that if they are caught breaking contractual regulations, the company can refuse to supply them another shipment of fingerlings.

Despite this, Ms. Wilaiwan said that she and her fellow producers “were not afraid, but frustrated. We felt sad because there was this option to make more profits for our families, but we couldn’t choose it. You have to sell to CPF even though you’re not happy or satisfied.”

After growing nil and tap tim fish under contract with CP for several years, Wilaiwan Khammi found a fish seller that did not require a contractual agreement, which prompted her to begin preparations to start her own fish farming business.

After growing nil and tap tim fish under contract with CP for several years, Wilaiwan Khammi found a fish seller that did not require a contractual agreement, which prompted her to begin preparations to start her own fish farming business.

Fish farmers, who had not signed a contract but had only a verbal agreement with the contractor, were able to leave the contracting system once they stopped experiencing success. Today, of the once 300 – 400 contract fish farmers, only five or six producers remain in Baan Din Dum village.

Ms. Wilaiwan was able to end her contract with CPF and pay off her debt of 1 million baht by seeking out financial assistance from her extended family. This help also provided her the funds to start her independent fish farming business.

As the average debt of contract fish farmers is 300,000 baht ($8,400 USD), this ability to have an immediate, full financial release is unusual. Many other producers in the village had to return to rice and vegetable farming to pay of their debt and cut their ties with CPF.

Push for Regulation

Ubon Yuwah, a coordinator of the Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN), is leading efforts to create more protection for contract farmers, as the current lack of governmental regulation leaves much room for farmers to be exploited, he said.

Earlier this year, he submitted a proposal to the government for a contract farming protection act that was drafted in partnership with several organizations. The act is supposed to increase government regulation, which would in turn boost fairness for all parties involved in the system.

But passing such a law faces many difficulties as there are different types of contract farming systems and varying levels of exploitation that the farmers are subjected to, Mr Ubon said.

The proposed legislation will require written contracts – verbal agreements are common in the contract farming business – and a registration with a local government office. The binding nature of the contract is supposed to help strengthen compliance on both sides of the agreement while clearly outlining farmers’ rights and consequences for breaching the contract.

Passing the Burden to Their Children

In Khon Kaen Province, contract chicken farmer Phikul Rongbutsri pulled back the blue tarp tucked around the doorway of a tin building that extends to the far end of her property. Within the darkness of the building, rows of metal cages slowly come into sight, lit by light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. The sound of 25,000 chickens ruffling their feathers fills the room, as the chickens packed tightly in each cage come into sight.

After signing a contract with Sriviroj Farm (SF), a large agribusiness corporation that works in partnership with CPF, Ms. Phikul’s father started contract chicken farming by taking out a 700,000 baht (over $19,400 USD) loan from the state Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC). It covered the construction of open-air chicken barns and the first shipment of chickens and chicken feed from SF.

The operation seemed to run smoothly and its profits allowed Ms. Phikul to slowly chipped away at the debt from her father’s original investment. But after a few years, her business turned into an endless source of debt.

Phikul Rongbutsri, raises 50,000 chickens every season in two identical barns on her property in Khon Kaen Province.

Phikul Rongbutsri, raises 50,000 chickens every season in two identical barns on her property in Khon Kaen Province.

Ms. Phikul was told to upgrade her chicken barns into closed buildings with a cooling system and new cages, an investment of four million baht ($112,000 USD). SF threatened to not send her new chicks if she would not upgrade her barns at costs that would have spiralled her debt out of control, she said.

“Farmers here don’t dare to speak up for themselves because they’re afraid of the company,” says Suwit Innamma, AAN representative and Coordinator of the Nongbua Subdistrict Chicken Farmers. Mr. Suwit educates farmers of their rights, and collects data from farmers to present to policy-makers.

Ms. Phikul did speak up herself but now “the company now sees her as a radical and a violent person because she’s asking for her rights,” Mr. Suwit said.

Lacking the money to pay for the system, Ms. Phikul claimed she was forced to offer her land title as collateral, which the company used to take out a loan on her behalf and construct the new building in her backyard.

“I know that they are taking advantage of us, but at this point, I just cannot do anything” she said. “Once you step on a tiger’s back, you cannot get down.”

In their 2014 Sustainability Report, CPF states that seven percent of their contract farms were “successfully transferred to the successive generations.” On their website the company advertises that the contract farming system provides farmers with increased stability and a chance to build a farming business worthy of passing on to their children.

Indeed, Ms. Phikul’s farm will be passed on into the hands of her children. But rather than passing down a proud family business, she is passing down the burden of debt to her children.They have few other options but to work as chicken farmers in order to pay off the family’s debt, she said.

“I’ll have to train them. After school, I’ll have to ask them to help me to farm so they learn how to do it,” she shared with an air of heavy disappointment.

Ms. Phikul blames her dire financial situation on the lack of transparency about the contract and the loans she was forced to take out. She claimed that SF manages her loans and deducts payments from her profit whenever they buy her chickens, without specifying how much.

It takes about 57 days for the chicks to mature to selling size, and Phikul Rongbutsri receives a load of them from Sriviroj Farm, a large agribusiness corporation, four times per year. This barn holds 21,000 to 23,000 chickens in the hot season and 25,000 chickens in the cool season.

It takes about 57 days for the chicks to mature to selling size, and Phikul Rongbutsri receives a load of them from Sriviroj Farm, a large agribusiness corporation, four times per year. This barn holds 21,000 to 23,000 chickens in the hot season and 25,000 chickens in the cool season.

“I have no idea. They come, pick up the chickens, they carry them and transport them to weigh somewhere else,” she said when asked how much profit she had made from selling a day’s worth of chickens.

This was not always the case; employees who came to pick up her chickens used to weigh them right in front of her eyes. Once she started to notice that the numbers on the receipt did not match up with her notes, the company abruptly stopped weighing them in front of her, she claimed.

There is a host of literature written by NGO’s and academics that make recommendations on how to improve the contract farming system. Multiple reports state that farmers should have the right to be present at the time of weighing.

Ms. Phikul was also not given a formal agreement with protection clauses because the company is “afraid that farmers will have the rights and check on each part,” claimed Mr. Suwit.

Unmentioned Risks

Contracting companies also seem to have mislead fish farmers by failing to mention the difficulties farmers might encounter in the contract farming scheme.

Uthai Chaihan, a past fish farmer in Maha Sarakham, raised fish on a contractual basis with CPF for just one year, and claimed that, “the salesmen just promoted contract fish farming, and the company didn’t say anything about the risks.”

He invested 200,000 baht ($5,600 USD) but after three months all of his fish died, he claimed. “I still have debt and still worry,” he said advising anyone who intends to invest in fish farming to “be independent and invest on your own.”

“The company and farmers could share the risk and responsibility, if there’s any loss or damage,” Mr. Uthai said adding that a formal contract with clearly laid out terms would be beneficial to farmers.

Mr. Ubon from the Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN) puts his hopes on the contract farming protection act that is expected to be reviewed in January 2016. If the new legislation passes, the contract farming system may be regulated in a way to provide farmers with sufficient information about their rights and prevent companies from taking advantage of misinformed producers.

Khon Kaen Green Market Celebrates One-Year Anniversary

By Megan Brookens


Diversity at the Khon Kaen Green Market extends beyond the products offered. Farmers both young and old, male and female migrate to downtown Khon Kaen each Friday to set up shop. Photo credit: Kaori Nagase

KHON KAEN – Vibrant colors blur as the market crowd grows, and the tantalizing scent of frying fish fills the air as the sky darkens. A few people with microphones shout out their deals in the middle of the street, customers and vendors exchange goods along each side, and buyers try to get the most for their money.

Every Friday evening between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. the Khon Kaen Green Market pops up near Nikon Samran Road. It might appear just like any ordinary market in the Northeast but the Khon Kaen Green Market, which celebrates its first anniversary on December 18, is of a different kind.

While other markets in the city mostly sell produce conventionally grown with the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the Khon Kaen Green Market strives to sell only chemical-free products, creating healthy and safe options for the city’s people. The wide variety of products sold includes fresh fruits and vegetables, naturally dyed fabric, carefully prepared snacks, floral teas, and even some herbal cosmetics and soaps.

Today, Khon Kaen residents are celebrating one year of having increased access to healthy food. Organic farmers and vendors are also celebrating a year of having a reliable place to sell their products.

The Green Market was established last year through the collaboration of many groups, including the municipality, vendors, and consumers interested in purchasing safer foods. While customer demand was crucial in starting the Green Market, there was also significant demand from producers, as many lacked a venue to sell and promote their organic goods.

Josh Macknick, a 35-year-old restaurant owner and Khon Kaen resident of seven years, involved himself in starting the Green Market in 2013 for the desire to know where his food was coming from.
After a year and a half of meetings with the municipality and collaborating with community organizers, the mayor of Khon Kaen gave the project a green light.

Mr. Macknick and other market organizers used the waiting time to focus on how to maximize the success of the market. They toured giant organic farms, home gardens, and other organic markets in order to strategize and learn best practices.

Fruits and vegetables in conventional markets across Thailand contain chemical pesticide residues. According to a study done by the Thailand Pesticide Alert Network in 2014, out of 118 samples of fruits and vegetables, 46.6% had excessive amounts of chemical pesticide residues, including 100% of oranges, 69.2% of guavas, 58.3 % of apples, 53.8% of kale, and 50% of basil. In addition, 62% contained chemicals from more than one pesticide. Photo credit: Elyssa Eull

Fruits and vegetables in conventional markets across Thailand contain chemical pesticide residues. According to a study done by the Thailand Pesticide Alert Network in 2014, out of 118 samples of fruits and vegetables, 46.6% had excessive amounts of chemical pesticide residues, including 100% of oranges, 69.2% of guavas, 58.3 % of apples, 53.8% of kale, and 50% of basil. In addition, 62% contained chemicals from more than one pesticide. Photo credit: Elyssa Eull

In Thailand, as well as other countries, organic markets have been gaining popularity in the last decade, particularly in major cities where access to clean, fresh food is more limited. When the Green Revolution swept Thailand in the 1970s, many farmers transitioned from traditional subsistence farming to chemical agriculture, reducing the supply of organic food.

In the early 1980s, many local NGOs, community organizers, and farmers formed the Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN) to promote sustainable agriculture activism in Thailand. The AAN facilitates forums for farmers to share their experiences and advocates for sustainable agriculture policies, including the promotion of organic farming.

Currently, the AAN supports organic and sustainable agriculture movements in Thailand. It spreads awareness of the risks of using chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. It also advocates for stricter regulations because many banned chemicals are still widely available and used in Thailand, AAN members say.

In the past decade, the number of organic farmers has increased, but organic produce still makes up about only 1 percent of the food market in Thailand, with 50 percent of organic products being exported.
According to a study by the Ministry of Commerce, organic agriculture farmland accounted for 314,000 rai (50,000 hectares) in 2013, a 13.9 percent increase from 2012. The ministry plans to promote Thailand as the ASEAN hub of organic farming and trade by 2020.

While producers value organic farming for different reasons, many list health as the primary motivation. Some farmers have been growing organically their whole lives, but others – such as Surritrat Palapan, who runs a farm twenty kilometers outside of Khon Kaen, ended up switching to organic after many years of chemical use.

Mr. Surritrat attended a university training seminar about the benefits of growing in season and using fewer chemicals. “My father had gotten sick directly from the chemicals I was using,” he said. “He had high levels of toxins in his blood and I decided that this kind of farming wasn’t worth it.”

The AAN links chemicals commonly used for farming to various ailments ranging from minor skin rashes and chest pain to cancers, dangerous infections, diabetes, and even death from chemical poisoning. These toxins are dangerous to both the farmer and the consumer as they can be transmitted through pesticides sprayed in the air, residue from fertilizer in water sources, and the ingestion of treated crops.

Mr. Surritrat takes pride in the fact that his products do not harm his customers’ health. “If I make customers happy and healthy, I feel good about my job,” he said with a smile.

Panida Kanhakun, a 54-year-old customer, comes to the Green Market every Friday after work because she too is conscious of her health. “I would buy more organic products if they were available more often, and not just on Fridays,” she said. Ms. Panida said she feels more connected to her food since she knows where it is coming from.

Although all Green Market vendors have products that are chemical-free, the market hosts farmers who are diverse in the products they sell and the agricultural methods they use. For example, some use compost from organic material instead of chemical fertilizer and others use plants instead of chemicals to make dye for their products.

Some vendors have attained certifications from organizations like the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), and Organic Agriculture Certification Thailand (ACT), but the majority of participating farmers originally had no idea where to start the complex certification process.

According to the organizers of the Green Market, the majority of vendors are currently held accountable to organic standards by a participatory guarantee system (PGS), most commonly defined by IFOAM as a “locally focused quality assurance system.” This system certifies producers based on “active participation of stakeholders” and is “built on a foundation of trust, social networks and knowledge exchange.”

Green Market organizers make it their mission to disperse knowledge about the various types of certifications and provide support in the certification process, with the hope of ultimately inspiring other farmers in the region to follow suit.

“Our PGS process is actually quite strict,” said Mr. Macknick. “A member of the Khon Kaen Food Safety Board, myself, and an AAN representative visit the farms where we run through a seventeen-point qualifying questionnaire and inspection,” he continued.

Mr. Macknick explained that each farmer must meet with the certification committee individually. The committee tests one kilogram of soil and one or two items growing at each farm in a lab.

Some vendors at the Green Market are not officially certified because of the lengthy vetting process, but have been approved by the Green Market team. Random testing at the market is also done regularly to ensure that products are truly chemical-free.

While vendors from the Green Market can ensure that their own agricultural methods are safe, there can be other factors outside of their control. Sometimes protecting crops from contamination can be difficult, especially for farmers located near the city or close to chemical farms. A strategically placed road or blockade might be the only thing keeping the chemicals from getting into their crops.

In Maha Sarakham Province, a quaint organic farm of five rai stands out amidst fields of mono-cropping. For the owners of the farm, Green Market vendors Ting Palangjai and her younger sister, organic farming is a way of life. “This food we grow is like medicine for both the consumer and the producer,” Ms. Ting said proudly.


Ting Palangjai navigates her farm with ease, meandering through the many varieties of plants that she grows. She explains that her integrated agricultural approach replenishes the soil naturally.

Ms. Ting and her sister grow many local varieties of plants that are well suited to the climate of Isaan and require few extra inputs, such as irrigation or fertilizers. Her farm is teeming with plants of every color, intertwining in symbiotic patterns. Oddly shaped purple wildflowers have recently sprouted in the wooded areas between her cropland, possibly from the rich nutrients in the soil.

While Ms. Ting’s primary focus is on subsistence farming and leading a self-sufficient life, she sells peanuts and rice at the Green Market when she grows more than she and her family can eat themselves. She also sells passion fruit drinks, herbal snacks, and sesame seeds when they are in season. Ms. Ting believes that it is important to grow her own food because she wants to avoid consuming the chemicals that are used to grow produce at conventional markets

As its first year of operation comes to an end, the Green Market team wants to continue to focus on getting their farmers certified as organic, and to start educating consumers more about the dangers of chemicals in food sold in general markets. This education about the benefits of organic farming can start in local schools, Mr. Macknick said.

“We are currently focused on starting school farms at the 11 schools under the Municipal government’s authority,” he said. Green Market organizers hope that focusing on the consumer will create more demand, inspiring other farmers to start growing or producing organically.

Mr. Macknick and his fellow market organizers hope that in the coming years, the Khon Kaen Green Market will have “a greater impact on the local and regional community at large, whether it be through informing more people of dietary dangers and benefits, inspiring a positive view and greater appreciation of agricultural workers, or just making it trendy to go green,” he said.

Buffalo Raising Revived In Face Of Threat To Wetlands

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.

Guest Contribution by Jamie Rudd

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.

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.

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.

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. 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.

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.



A Special Report: Red Shirts – Dead or Alive?

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.

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

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

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.

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

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

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”

One 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”

Ajan Toi, leader of Red Shirt group Chak Thong Rob in Ubon Ratchathani.

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.

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

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

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

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.

No Light in the Northeast’s Grey Economy as Thailand’s Economic Outlook Darkens

Thailand’s economic downturn is often discussed in terms of GDP, national markets, and investment statistics, but behind the numbers, individuals employed in the country’s enormous informal economy are feeling deep financial strain. At the Aorjira market in Khon Kaen, vendors struggle to turn enough profit to support themselves and keep their small businesses afloat.

By Mariko Powers and Zoe Swartz

The Aorjira Market has been a mainstay for Khon Kaen shoppers for decades. But now, vendors at the market say that customers have significantly curbed their spending in the past year.

The Aorjira Market has been a mainstay for Khon Kaen shoppers for decades. But now, vendors at the market say that customers have significantly curbed their spending in the past year.

Fluorescent lights flicker as customers weave through the narrow alleys and islands created by stalls at the Aorjira market, the largest food market in Khon Kaen. Vendors showcase everything from silver fish to hanging red meats, robust leafy vegetables, vibrant fruits, and countless bags of rice. The bustling traffic and diversity of products suggest that the market is thriving, but vendors behind the stalls face deep financial uncertainty.

“It’s difficult to sell rice because customers buy less,” says Ms. Nawarat Tapbun, a 72-year-old native of Khon Kaen, who has been selling rice at this market for fifty years. “The whole economic system is suffering now,” she says, shaking her head. Since last year’s coup, she has been struggling to turn the profits she had known in previous years. What she used to be able to sell in one day now takes her two.

Ms. Narawat is not alone. The vast majority of Thailand’s workforce – over 64% in 2013 – make their living in the informal sector. These self-employed workers, including vendors, tuk-tuk drivers, and farmers, are more vulnerable to economic fluctuations because they often lack social protection – and they are feeling the brunt of the recent economic downturn in the Northeast.

Ms. Aumpai Koetphon, 64, who owns a shoe and accessories shop at Khon Kaen’s downtown bus terminal, has been struggling to keep her business open, as well.

“I have to think about how to pay the rent and people aren’t buying much from my store,” she says, citing politics as the source of the poor economy in Thailand. “It’s been getting worse and worse. The government keeps promising a better economy, but nothing has happened,” she says.

In interviews with dozens of market vendors in Khon Kaen, salespeople report that their daily income has decreased as much as 50% since the coup last year. Paul Collier, an economics professor at Oxford University, has estimated that, in general, coups cost a country 7% of a year’s income when tracked over time.

While it is difficult to translate the junta’s rule directly to reduced incomes, Ms. Panee Srikaew, 47, who makes her living selling lottery tickets outside the market, can link her losses to current government policy. A new policy standardizing the price of lottery tickets at 80 baht diminished vendor’s profits to 4 baht per ticket. Ms. Panee used to make 500 baht per day in sales, and now has an income of 200 baht a day.

Mr. Titipol Phakdeewanich, a political science lecturer at Ubon Ratchathani University, says that the current situation is more complicated than the military government’s economic strategy. Falling exports, declining property values, and the performance of global markets have buffeted the country independent of the current regime.

“It’s not just the coup that made the situation worse,” he says. “We’ve never had a good plan for economic growth. Successive governments haven’t done a good job of promoting the Thai economy – they blame the previous government and never learn from each other. We see now that everything is based on political expedience.”

This lack of strong economic planning came at a cost, which is now reverberating in Khon Kaen’s informal sector. Ms. Nawarat leads a simple life by the train tracks in one of the city’s slum communities. Her already frugal lifestyle has not changed much since the coup, however, she feels that her financial situation is deteriorating.

For 50 years, she has been selling sticky rice at the market every day from 3 a.m. until 9:30 a.m. and managed to set aside about 200-300,000 baht in savings. But this roughly equals the debt she racked up from investment losses and loans she received to start her and her children’s rice business.

Ms. Narawat is proud to have successfully chipped away at her family’s debt – once almost a million baht – but she still fears she will not be able to support herself and her husband through their old age. At 72-years-old, Ms. Nawarat plans to work until she is no longer able, but she knows that those days are coming to an end. “I’m worried my savings will run out before I die,” she says.

Hers is a familiar story in the debt-ridden Northeast. In recent years, Thailand’s household debt spiraled to a level “among the highest in the region and well above average for a country in the upper-middle income range,” a 2014 Bank of Thailand report finds.

Household incomes in Isaan are the lowest in Thailand, so additional losses in earnings carry a significant impact. Pictured above: Ms. Narawat Tapbun, 72.

Household incomes in Isaan are the lowest in Thailand, so additional losses in earnings carry a significant impact. Pictured above: Ms. Narawat Tapbun, 72.

Ms. Nawarat used to be confident that she could turn a profit on any purchase she made. She earned money, for example, by buying a fish for 100 baht, grilling it over her charcoal stove, and selling it for 140 baht. Now, she counts every penny twice before making a purchase and tends to stick only to her staples that she knows will sell well.

Currently, Thailand is the slowest growing economy in Southeast Asia and has been stagnating in and on the verge of recession for several years. The country’s economic outlook has continued to fall since the 2014 coup, with Thailand’s finance ministry cutting its economic growth forecast from 5% down to 2.7%.

Many vendors in the market now resort to depleting their savings, leaving nothing to fall back upon. Ms. Aumpai has already closed one of her shops and is using her dwindling savings to keep her shoe store afloat. “If this one doesn’t get better by the end of the year, I will close this one too,” she says, gesturing to the rows of sneakers, sandals, and flats lining the walls. “I don’t have a plan for what I will do if this one fails.”

Those affected by the hurting economy are adapting to a reduced income by curbing their own spending. Ms. Aumpai says that she stopped eating out as much as she used to and is cutting any unnecessary expenses. As the customer base of the small merchants at the Aorjira market is made up of mainly self-employed people, their reduced spending perpetuates a cycle of reduced sales.

In September, Thailand’s consumer confidence fell to a 16-month low and showed only slight improvement in October, according to a survey by the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce (UTCC). Ms. Aumpai says she wants “the government to make the economy better” but has little faith that this will come to pass.

In August, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha reinstated Mr. Somkid Jatusripitak, who steered the economic ship of the Thaksin government, as minister of finance and deputy prime minister. The junta’s decision to install Somkid suggests an uncertain economic vision, which both rejects and relies on the very policies that the military government once condemned as heedless populism.

After adding Mr. Somkid Jatusripitak to its economic team, the military government approved a 136 billion baht (about $3.8 billion) stimulus package including the revival of the village fund program, once one of the Thaksin government’s key stimulus programs.

Ms. Aumpai continues to run her businesses for now, but sees financial ruin on the horizon.

Ms. Aumpai continues to run her businesses for now, but sees financial ruin on the horizon.

As Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy, Thailand’s position as a hub of tourism and manufacturing helped clench its status as an upper middle-income country. However, with incomes falling, consumer spending stagnating, and household debt on the rise, Thailand’s long-established veneer of stability is wearing away.

Dr. Titipol says that, in general, Thailand struggles to become a fully industrialized economy because investment in the country still relies on cheap unskilled labor – which is rapidly becoming less expensive in neighboring states. As a result, Thailand is losing its competitive edge. Dr. Titipol asserts that Thailand needs to take labor reform “more seriously.”

“We still have other strengths that Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar don’t have, like infrastructure,” Dr. Titipol explains, “we should be able to use this to support the economy and produce labor that will fill the market.”

Despite this dismal economic situation, life continues as usual at the market. Vendors still arrive at 3 a.m. to set up their booths and donate alms into the shining bowls of young monks in their rust-orange robes. Although Ms. Narawat concedes that conditions are not ideal, she has no intention of leaving her stall. “It’s not about happiness,” she states seriously, “it’s about making a living.”

Isaan Lives - "I believe the villagers will protect me."

Guest contribution by Genevieve Glatsky, Jaime Webb, and Megan Brookens

KoVit ProfileA 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 Profile 2“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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Village Childhood and City Education

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

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

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

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

Bringing Activism to the Countryside

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

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

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

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

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

Into the Arms of the Communists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Failed Revolution and Finding a New Mission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scorning Politics, Continuing Activism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

“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.

“My life is hard but then I look around and see that other people have it worse than me,” says Ms. Uthumporn. Her budget request letter to the municipality did not ask for much in the way of resources. She knows that the most valuable thing she can offer is her time. Here, she checks to make sure the food that the school donates will not be too spicy for her patients. Amphon Phosanit used to work transporting and selling vegetables in remote provinces. Five years ago he lost his left arm in a car accident when he swerved to avoid a shipping container that fell off an eighteen-wheel truck in front of him. Now he drives Ms. Uthumporn to the places she volunteers. He earns 50 baht to cover the cost of gas, and 5 Baht for every meal they deliver. Knocking on the door of each patient's house every day can take a long time, but that closeness is what Ms. Uthumporn thinks makes this program important. “We are closer to each other than we are to doctors. We see the real conditions of the community, but doctors and nurses see the patient only at that moment,” Ms. Uthumporn says. Ms. Uthumporn smiles, saying “seeing people in the community healthy makes me happy. If I had to choose between helping the community or helping myself, I would help the community.” Phanom Seemuang, 76, has problems with her vision. Like many of Ms. Uthumporn’s patients, she lives alone and doesn't have family around to take care of her. In the corner of the house, Ms. Phanom has a small stove for cooking on days when Ms. Uthumporn cannot bring her meals. Ms. Phanom lives here alone. The railroad connecting Nong Khai to Bangkok runs 15 yards outside her front door. Many houses here are dilapidated structures made of plywood and sheet metal, but the community has made some improvements. After petitioning the government to be recognized as a legal settlement, the community was granted legal status ten years ago. Jitti Chertchoo, the headman of Theparak 5 community, says the challenge these days is “the government thinks that children should not be here in the slum.” Mekhala Nonsiri’s husband works as a gardener in downtown Khon Kaen and her children work at a store, so Ms. Uthumporn helps take care of her during the day. With Ms. Uthumporn’s assistance she is in the process of registering for a disability card and received money to buy a wheel chair. Many of Ms. Uthumporn’s patients receive 800 baht in disability benefits a month from the municipality. Sustained declines in birth and death rates during the last three decades of the 20th century have left Thailand facing a rapidly growing population of older persons. Almost a third of Thailand’s population will be over the age of 60 by the year 2050. Women constitute the majority of Thailand’s older population and face disadvantages relative to men, including lower levels of literacy, longer periods of widowhood, living alone with significantly lower household income, higher levels of morbidity and disability, and lower likelihood of receiving formal retirement benefits or social security support, according to the United Nations. 
[Pictured above Ms. Uthumporn visits her patient Amphorn Khanwijit] Diabetes is a growing problem in Thailand; according to the WHO,  one in 13 adult Thais has diabetes. Udom Majundaeng, the president of the VHVs in Theparak 5, does what he can to continue to help the community - such as providing health consultations and helping residents document their conditions - despite his own struggles with the disease. Basket weaving is a common source of income for the elderly and disabled of Theparak 5. A basket takes a whole day to make and might sell for 50 baht, less than $1.50. For elderly residents living alone, like 75-year-old Samai Moongjuaklang, these baskets are means to a livelihood. “After I got in the car accident, I didn’t want anyone in my family to take have to care of me, so I moved here to Khon Kaen. I would be a burden to my family and I didn’t want my grandma taking care of me and washing dishes for me - I wanted to take care of myself” Mr. Amphon says. Encouraged by Ms. Uthumporn, Mr. Amphon took up singing. Some nights he can make up to 1,000 baht singing in the market for coins. A true caregiver, Ms. Uthumporn sees the potential in everyone she works with. Despite living in the center of the city's activities along the rail road tracks, access to public services can be confusing, especially for those not living near extended family.
Sustained declines in birth and death rates during the last three decades of the 20th century have left Thailand facing a rapidly growing population of older persons. Almost a third of Thailand’s population will be over the age of 60 by the year 2050. Women constitute the majority of Thailand’s older population and face disadvantages relative to men, including lower levels of literacy, longer periods of widowhood, living alone with significantly lower household income, higher levels of morbidity and disability, and lower likelihood of receiving formal retirement benefits or social security support, according to the United Nations. [Pictured above Ms. Uthumporn visits her patient Amphorn Khanwijit]

False Front Rings Familiar in the Northeast

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.

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.

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.

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.

Isaan Lives – "It's better to give than to receive"

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.

VIDEO & FEATURE: Life After Eviction

Eight months after the implementation of the Thai government’s Master Plan to reforest the country, villagers in Isaan bear the burden of a flawed policy at the cost of their livelihood and health.

KALASIN – Three thousand rubber trees lie fallen on top of each other as if nothing more than a row of toppled dominoes. A slender man with calloused hands and laugh lines around his eyes gazes at the field that was once his life savings, primary source of income, and home. It is now covered in weeds, destroyed in the name of environmental conservation and reforestation.

Mr. Paiwan Taebamrung, 46-years-old, recounts the circumstances under which it all happened. A district officer came fully armed to his house at night demanding Mr. Paiwan leave his property. The smell of whiskey was in the air. Three days later, the officer returned with the village headman. Mr. Paiwan watched as dozens of officers cut down 30 out of 36 rai of his rubber trees.

The Master Plan, rolled out by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) shortly after the coup last year, purports to target commercial investors who own and exploit thousands of rai to grow rubber, cassava, and other cash crops.

Villagers claim they are not at all investors – only poor families trying to make a living on land they have worked their whole lives.

“Many impoverished villagers who have lived in the forest for decades have been identified as investors,” explains Dr. Nattakant Akarapongpisak, a lecturer in the Faculty of Politics and Government at Maha Sarakham University.

This was the case with Mr. Paiwan. “They labeled me an investor and told me I had to move out. My family has been working on this land for 47 years.” Mr. Paiwan’s house was deemed an illegal structure, and he and his wife have had to move in with his elder sister.

Now, eight months after his eviction, the repercussions of the Master Plan are as strong as ever. Mr. Paiwan and his wife have had to find work as day laborers making the minimum wage of 300 baht per day.

“It is hard to make ends meet,” he says, “and I feel frustrated I am not working my own land. I worked in the South for 20 years to save up enough money to buy the rubber trees.”

According to the Internal Security Operations Command, farmers in 68 provinces are facing similar charges and evictions. What began as an admirable goal of achieving forest cover in Thailand within 10 years has now turned into a laundry list of human rights violations.

The International Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) clearly outlines the right to work, and protects people from deprivation of their means of subsistence. Barring access to land directly contradicts the principles the Thai state has sworn to uphold.

"Right now I work as a laborer, tapping the rubber for someone else in this village because they seized my farmland. I cannot work there anymore."

“Right now I work as a laborer, tapping the rubber for someone else in this village because they seized my farmland. I cannot work there anymore.”

With his land seized, Mr. Pongsamai Silawan, a resident of Kalasin province, lost his primary means of income. He soon discovered that his meager salary as a day laborer was not enough to support his family.

“I have to sneak onto my land to tap for rubber,” the 52-year-old Mr. Pongsamai says. He recounts the events of a day following his secret tapping. As he was cooking rice, he heard the dogs barking. “I dropped everything. The officers were coming,” he says. “When the dogs bark, I am ready to run.”

If caught, Mr. Pongsamai could face up to four years in prison.

Mr. Pongsamai faces a dilemma. “Between being afraid and having no food, which would you choose?” he asks. He has had to cut back on many expenses. “I can’t afford food from the market. I must scavenge for it in the forest. I don’t have money for my motorcycle, and I am even in debt to the gas station.”

In the nearby village of Jatrabiab, in Sakon Nakhon Province, the government has taken a more direct approach. Labeled as “investors,” 34 villagers have been charged with trespassing and encroachment.

Charges have piled up in some families. The Srikham family had three members charged for encroachment. Ms. Khamlamun Srikham was called in to the Royal Forestry Department (RFD) under the pretext of registering her land in order to receive land titles.

She had wanted to divide the land she farmed into three parts – one for herself, and two parts for her daughters who could have land titles in their own names as an inheritance.

Yet soon after, Ms. Khamlamun and her two daughters were all charged for trespassing. The key piece of evidence behind the charges was the very information Ms. Khamlamun had provided to the RFD.

“We trusted [the RFD representative] as a government employee, that he would allocate the land to us,” Mr. Chai Thongdeenok explains. “But the RFD truly tricked us villagers. Now we have no rights and cannot use the land.”

Ms. Khamlamun’s eldest daughter was charged even though she’s been working in Bangkok for over 20 years. She now has to cover transportation costs to and from Bangkok to attend court hearings.

For Amorn, Ms. Khamlamun’s younger daughter, what hurts the most is the effect the charges have had on her father. “He used to talk and laugh. But since the court case he is quiet and doesn’t say much,” she says. “I believe everyone who’s been charged is suffering from depression.”

As her husband looks on, Ms. Khamlamun Srikham passes the time weaving, no longer able to engage in farming.

As her husband looks on, Ms. Khamlamun Srikham passes the time weaving, no longer able to engage in farming.

Charges have been often exaggerated, say many of those arrested, adding even more pressure on these fragile families. When Ms. Khamphai Todkaew was brought to court, she found that she had been charged with farming 36 rai of land, when she only owned four rai.

These discrepancies in charges are not anomalies – of the 34 people charged, 25 reported being charged with incorrect property amounts.

Ms. Khamphai’s husband, Mr. Prasert, offered to be charged in her place, and thought he had reached an agreement with the police to such effect. Yet when the case was brought before the judge, the court charged both husband and wife.

They were presented with two choices: either fight but risk four years in prison if found guilty, or give up and suffer a reduced penalty of two years. In the absence of adequate legal advice, they opted not to fight the charge and instead plead guilty.

The arrests of both the mother and father have shaken the entire family. The eldest son, Lerdsak, 23 years old, has fallen apart emotionally. After 10 days in a psychiatric ward, he has returned home but is still at risk. “Every day now my brother has to take psychiatric medicines to manage his condition,” says his brother, Jakkrit. “He cannot work and we must spend a lot of time taking care of him.”

At least three families have had a family member see a doctor or have been admitted to the hospital for psychiatric illnesses. This not only puts an added strain on state mental health facilities, but burdens families with medical payments and extra care of loved ones.

Jakkrit, 21, Lerdsak, 23, and Tannika Todkaew, 26. “It is like we have lost the main pillars of our family, leaving just us three.”

Jakkrit, 21, Lerdsak, 23, and Tannika Todkaew, 26. “It is like we have lost the main pillars of our family, leaving just us three.”

Despite negotiations with representatives of the RFD, farmers in Jatrabiab were denied access to their land during the legal proceedings. A survey of families shows that 75% of those charged are barring access to their primary source of income, resulting in an average loss of monthly income of 50-80 percent per capita.

The absence of a steady primary income source, court fees, and agricultural loans have resulted in insurmountable debt. Collectively, the charged villagers owe around 4.2 million baht, or 180,000 baht per person on average.

Even under the best circumstances, it would take a farmer almost a decade to pay off this debt even without interest. When external factors such as available workdays, health and family expenses, and unexpected expenditures are taken into account, it is unlikely that families can ever repay it.

Land evictions of this type in Thailand have rarely met positive outcomes. The prospects of compensation from the state are low, says Dr. Nattakant, drawing comparisons with the Khor Jor Kor program in 1992. According to Dr. Nattakant, under the 1992 program, government officials stated that there would be just and appropriate compensation measures. However, the funding never came and the land the government allocated was already occupied.

Today, military rule exacerbates the situation, argues Dr. Nattakant. “Officials have blocked villagers any access to help from their allies, including media, NGOs, activists, and academics. Some of the villagers have been received death threats if they tell the media about their plight.”

The eviction notice placed by the NCPO in Sakon Nakhon village.

The eviction notice placed by the NCPO in Sakon Nakhon village.

The military makes it nearly impossible for villagers to share their concerns with larger society. “The use of martial law or Section 44 of the interim constitution and the repeated summoning processes,” says Dr. Nattakant, “clearly violate the rights of local people to resist, or even question the implementation of the plan.”

Despite international condemnation and statements issued by the United Nations Office of the High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR), the NCPO has failed to protect the rights of the poor. As of last November, over 500 forest encroachers had been prosecuted and 300,000 rai of land had been seized.

Under the NCPO’s approach, many more will suffer like Mr. Pongsamai and the Todkaew children, as they are pushed off their land and further into the margins of Thai society.

Feature by Sarah Sanbar who studies International Relations at Claremont McKenna College. She is a student-journalist on the CIEE Khon Kaen study abroad program.

Video by Margaret Kierstead who studies Journalism at George Washington University. She is a student-journalist on the CIEE Khon Kaen study abroad program.

Thailand's Drought Lets Rice Farmers' Debt Grow

In the debt-ridden Northeast, many rice farmers struggle to make ends meet after the government shut off the irrigation systems leaving them without the profits of the second annual rice crop. But for the military government, the drought might help its economic strategy.

Outside her Khon Kaen home, rice farmer Sumatra Sodatoom sits in the shade of a longan tree. In April, Ms. Sumatra is usually off selling her second rice harvest of the year. But this year, the government closed the country’s irrigation system early, preventing many farmers in the dry Northeast from planting the off-season rice crop they have come to depend on.

Late last year, the military government announced through the village loudspeaker in Nong Kha village that it would close the taps of the area’s irrigation system. In February, the Royal Irrigation Department warned that Thailand would be hit by its worst drought in decades after water levels sank to a 15-year low.

"Everything would be much better if the government had given us a price guarantee for our rice. Instead of talking about cheap loans, they should make sure we get a good price for our crops," says 31-year-old rice farmer Sumatra Sodatoom.

“Everything would be much better if the government had given us a price guarantee for our rice. Instead of talking about cheap loans, they should make sure we get a good price for our crops,” says 31-year-old rice farmer Sumatra Sodatoom.

After the main rice crop is harvested, Thai rice farmers with access to irrigation often grow a second or off-season rice crop. Like many other rice farmers in the Northeast, Ms. Sumatra needs the income from the second annual harvest to pay off her debt.

Her family owes 800,000 baht (roughly $23,000) to the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC). Ms. Sumatra’s personal debt amounts to 280,000 baht (about $8,600) from loans she took out for her undergraduate degree.

“Next year our debt situation will get even worse than it is already because we will have to pay off the lease for our tractor,” says 31-year-old Ms. Sumatra.

Her family racked up debt during a failed investment in chicken contract farming, and they are not alone. According to Nong Kha’s Headwoman Bua-ngoen Plamsin, almost all of the village’s 165 households are in debt to either the BAAC or the village fund program.

For rice farmer Thonglam Thongnoi and his family of four, this year’s prospects are particularly gloomy.

“I can’t pay my debt because I don’t have the income from a second rice crop,” he says. “I’m devastated. Money-wise there is no hope for us this year.”

In 2013, the Northeast held the highest debt-to-income ratio in the country, at 65 percent, according to data from the National Statistical Office. The figure captures the average percentage of consumers’ monthly income that goes toward paying debt. In comparison, the South’s debt-to-income ratio in the same year was 42 percent.

Khamphong Wongwai, a 50-year-old rice farmer and seamstress from Yasothon province, says that she holds debt with both the BAAC and the village fund. She uses the loans to invest in her rice farming, for daily spending, and to pay for her children’s education.

“This year the price of rice is not good and chemical fertilizer has stayed expensive," says Khamphong Wongwai. a 50-year-old rice farmer and seamstress from Yasothon province. Photo credit: Jeremy Starn

“This year the price of rice is not good and chemical fertilizer has stayed expensive,” says Khamphong Wongwai. a 50-year-old rice farmer and seamstress from Yasothon province. Photo credit: Jeremy Starn

Ms. Khamphong has mainly short-term loans with the BAAC, which can be taken out before the rice-growing season and must be paid back with interest after the harvest. She finds herself trapped in a cycle of loans: She takes out a new loan every season for the same amount and she is only ever able to pay off the interest.

“For the profit I make from my rice, I pay everything I have to the bank, but my debt never decreases,” Ms. Khamphong says.

In recent years, household debt in Thailand has spiraled. Bank of Thailand data shows that debt levels rose from 61 percent of the gross domestic product in 2009 to 85 percent in late 2014, making Thailand’s household debt the highest in Southeast Asia.

In late March, the BAAC announced a debt relief program for 818,000 farmers, including those affected by government restrictions on growing off-season rice.

Dr. Titipol Phakdeewanich, a political scientist at Ubon Ratchathani University who researches the country’s rice policy, suggests that debt relief programs miss the point.

“There have been debt suspension programs in the past, but I think it is more important that we find sustainable ways to help indebted farmers by supporting them to generate higher income rather than writing off their debt,” he says.

Some say that rice farmers’ burgeoning debt is partly caused by ripple effects of the previous government’s controversial rice subsidy scheme that guaranteed farmers rice prices at up to twice the market rate.

“Under the rice scheme, many farmers invested everything they had to boost their yields,” observes Kunlapasorn Chuengrungruangphat, an employee at a rice mill in Yasothon. “But now with the prices down behavior hasn’t changed. They keep investing and their debt grows.”

The previous government’s rice policy was widely popular among rice farmers in the Northeast. It pushed up rural incomes and pulled many out of debt, at least temporarily.

“My life got much better,” says Pai Kaewbunruang, a Khon Kaen farmer recalling the period. “I didn’t really buy anything but instead gave money to my children and I paid off my debt with the BAAC. It was like a huge burden was lifted from my shoulders.”

“I had brought the rice seeds already, but when they announced that there was not enough water I had to sell the seeds again. I bought them for 15 baht per kilogram and sold for 7, so I am at loss," says Pharat Saphromma, a rice farmer in Khon Kaen's Nong Rua district.

“I had brought the rice seeds already, but when they announced that there was not enough water I had to sell the seeds again. I bought them for 15 baht per kilogram and sold for 7, so I am at loss,” says Pharat Saphromma, a rice farmer in Khon Kaen’s Nong Rua district.

The military government that came to power through a coup last year condemned the rice subsidy as a “populist policy” and retroactively impeached former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra over her alleged involvement in the scheme.

In place of the rice subsidy program, the military government has paid 1,000 baht per rai to small-scale farmers, a policy it characterized as “non-populist.” The policy, though, has left farmers more vulnerable to the ebbs and flows of the market.

The world market price for Thai rice are at its lowest since June last year. With the current global oversupply of rice, prices for the grain are not expected to rise any time soon.

Ms. Khamphong, who grows jasmine and sticky rice on her 12 rai of land, says, “The current government doesn’t support farmers. I don’t think they help with anything because the price of rice is still low.”

Under former government’s rice subsidy scheme, she earned 70,000 to 80,000 baht from selling her rice. But since the coup, her annual income has plunged to 40,000 baht.

While rice farmers struggle with high debt, low market prices, lack of state support, and an indirect ban on production for this season, the country’s drought might actually help the military government’s economic strategy.

As a result of the rice subsidy scheme, Thailand has 17.8 million tons of stockpiled rice. With less rice produced this dry season, the military government can clear out stockpiles to reduce storage costs. The last thing it wants is to buy more rice from Thai farmers.

     The government water pump in Nong Pheu village in Khon Kaen's Nong Rua district.

The government water pump in Nong Pheu village in Khon Kaen’s Nong Rua district.

Yields of the off-season rice is expected to drop by 43 percent to its lowest level in 15 years, according to the Office of Agricultural Economics.

In Nong Kha village, Assistant Village Headman Prasit Thangwon wonders why the government prohibited use of irrigation. “The water is there,” he insists. “People who work at the dam tell us that there was enough water for us to plant a second rice crop.”

Without the income from the second rice crop, many farming families have to depend on the financial support from their children, many of whom work in the cities. Others have sent family members out to work in the sugar cane industry or at local factories.

Mr. Pharat says that the government advised people in the village to switch to other crops that consume less water. “They tell us to grow chili or corn instead, but how can this make up for my loss in profit this season?” he asks, “And if everyone grows corn then the price will go down too.”

Khon Kaen University Student Artist Convicted for Lese Majeste

This week, Patiwat Saraiyaem was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for lèse majesté because of his role in the play, “The Wolf Bride.” Patiwat is the most recent student to have been imprisoned under the law, and has been an advocate for Isaan peoples’ rights and democracy for years.

Bank with a pa kha ma, a Thai traditional cloth for males, which he remembers his grandfather always wore when Bank was young.

Bank with a pa kha ma, a Thai traditional cloth for males, which he remembers his
grandfather always wore when Bank was young.

On Monday, the criminal court sentenced Khon Kaen University student Patiwat Saraiyaem and activist Pornthip Munkong to five years in jail for their involvement in a satirical play that was deemed “damaging to the monarchy.” The court reduced the sentence by half for their admission of guilt.

Since last year’s military coup, the number of lese majeste prisoners may have reached a historic high, according to iLaw, a Bangkok-based human rights advocacy group. Mr. Patiwat is the first student known to be convicted since the 1980s.

Mr. Patiwat was arrested last August for acting in the play, “The Wolf Bride,” that was performed at Thammasat University in October 2013. The play was set in a fictional kingdom in which Mr. Patiwat starred as the Brahmin advisor to the king. The production was part of a commemoration of the 40th anniversary of 1973 student protests.

Mr. Patiwat, who goes by “Bank,” is a twenty-three-year old student at Khon Kaen University’s Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts. His peers and teachers describe him as a devoted advocate of democracy, a talented performer, a one-of-a-kind character with a wild wit.

Bank grew up in Sakon Nakhon, in a village not far from the Phu Phan mountain range, an area that once served as the central base of Thailand’s Communist Party during the sixties and seventies. His uncle joined the communist movement when he was young, and it was his political views that sparked Bank’s early interest in social welfare.

“I learned from my family and my community about the people’s movement in Isaan and their struggle for citizens’ rights,” Bank said in an interview with The Isaan Record in May 2014.

Bank moved to Khon Kaen in 2010 to enroll in Khon Kaen University’s Folk Music and Performance Program — a decision he made against his family’s wishes. He wanted nothing more than to be a performer of mo lam, an eclectic style of folk music native to Laos and Northeastern Thailand.

During university holidays, he would not go home like other students, but stayed on campus instead. In his village, people ridiculed him for wanting to become a mo lam performer, to them a sure path into poverty.

“He has great passion and talent,” said his mo lam teacher, who asked not be named. “From the day I met him, I had a feeling that his ancestors might have been mo lam artists,” she said, as she played recordings of Bank’s songs.

Bank poses in one of his mo lam stage costumes. His flamboyant stage costumes are notorious around campus.

Bank poses in one of his mo lam stage costumes. His flamboyant stage costumes are notorious around campus.

Bank quickly made his mark at Khon Kaen University as both the class star and class clown. He threw all his energy into perfecting his stage skills and mastering various Isaan instruments, including the khaen, a mouth reed organ that usually accompanies mo lam performances. However, according to his teacher, his real forte is singing and songwriting. Like most mo lam songs, Bank’s lyrics revolve around stories of romance and unrequited love, but also political issues—especially the rights of the people of Isaan—all flavored with a wry sense of humor.

On stage, Bank calls himself, “bak nuat ngoen lan,” which roughly translates to ‘The Million-Baht Mustache Man,” an ironic reference to his well-groomed facial hair and a career choice that is unlikely to fill his pockets.

Bank showed pride in his Isaan roots, despite widespread prejudice experienced by people from the Northeast. While his peers salivated over denim, he opted out of the mandatory student uniform for traditional Northeastern garb, insisting on a new faculty uniform.

The hardship of the people in the Northeast motivated Bank to become a social activist. “Isaan has been historically suppressed and exploited by the powers of the central region,” Bank said last May, in a thick Isaan accent.

But the crackdown on red shirt protesters in Bangkok in May 2010 fully cemented his commitment to fight for social justice and democracy.

“The violence in Bangkok really got to him. He couldn’t bear that so many people were killed only because they asked for democracy,” said a fellow activist, who asked not to be identified. The killings of the protesters, many of them from the Northeast, drove Bank to engage more with national activist groups and he began skipping class to perform at red shirt protests around the country.

This didn’t keep him from working with the student activist community at Khon Kaen University. He was elected as the secretary general of the Student Federation of the Northeast in 2010, and; he was a member of the Student Council in 2011 and a committee member of the Student Union in 2013.

In September 2010, the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security gave Bank the National Outstanding Youth Award. It was Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn who personally handed the award to Bank.

Any minute Bank could spare he devoted to the small student activist group Sum Kieow Dao, or Harvesting the Stars, one of the few politically engaged student clubs at the university. The group worked with progressive NGOs in the Northeast and garnered student support for pressing social and political issues, work that Bank found shamefully absent from the university curriculum.

Bank at an anti-coup protest at Central Plaza in Khon Kaen in May 2014. Photo credit: Sara Stiehl

Bank at an anti-coup protest at Central Plaza in Khon Kaen in May 2014. Photo credit: Sara Stiehl

“Students nowadays don’t care for politics and they don’t think for themselves — they just eat, sleep and shit — excuse my language,” Bank exclaimed, exploding into laughter. He added that he believes that universities should teach students how to be critical thinkers in order to help build a democratic society. For Bank, students across the country have been misled by an education system that stifles any critical voice that going against the status quo.

In early 2011, after the controversial arrest of Amphon “Akong” Tangnoppakul for defaming the monarchy, Sum Kieow Dao organized a protest campaign against Thailand’s lese majeste law, or article 112 of the Criminal Code—the very law that has now put Bank behind bars.

According to a friend, Bank understood that his involvement with the play could land him into trouble, but he didn’t expect that anyone would interpret the performance as defaming the monarchy.

Bank playing a fictional advisor to a fictional king in the fictional play "The Wolf Bride," in 2013. His performance was deemed offensive to the monarchy and he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

Bank playing a fictional advisor to a fictional king in the fictional play “The Wolf Bride,” in 2013. His performance was deemed offensive to the monarchy and he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

Only a few months before his arrest, Bank expressed his concerns about the burgeoning number of lese majeste arrests. “I am afraid of the witch hunters going after red shirt activists,” Bank said, referring to the Rubbish Collection Organization, an ultra-royalist group based in Bangkok. “If you dare to think differently, you are already guilty,” he warned.

In the late morning of February 23, Bank stood to hear the judge read the verdict on his case at the Ratchada Criminal Court in Bangkok. After the judge ruled against Bank and Pornthip, a group of activist supporters chanted protest songs for the two outside the courthouse.

“Even the sky turned dark, the moon disappeared forever, the stars are still shining, and the faith will always be there” they sang, as a silver van led the two prisoners off to serve their sentences.

The Master Plan: Solving Deforestation or Yet Another Strategy to Remove and Evict People?

The NCPO claims to be reclaiming forest land from investors, but the poor continue to suffer. Junta policy introduced under martial law destroys livelihoods of thousands of forest inhabitants.

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has set out to end a long-standing history of land rights conflicts between the Thai state and communities living in national forest reserve areas. Despite junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha request for citizens’ “Participation and Honesty” in the matter, the NCPO’s strategy has been less about collaboration and more about amputation when confronting forest communities. 

The NCPO began its campaign in June with the release of Order 64/2014. The order enables government agencies to put an end to deforestation by removing any encroachers on national reserve lands. In August the NCPO followed up with a Master Plan describing how to implement Order 64/2014. The end goal is to increase forest cover in Thailand to 40% within ten years.

A discourse surrounding the Master Plan is that commercial investors’ exploitation of Thailand’s natural resources is responsible for deforestation and must be stopped. The NCPO appeared sincere in its intentions to target only wealthy investors after releasing Order 66/2014, which states that a supplemental directive government operation must not impact the poor and landless who had lived on the land before the enforcement of Order 64.

Yet, as the NCPO has implemented its Master Plan, it has repeatedly identified many impoverished villagers who have lived in the forest for decades as “investors.” As a result they have lost the protection of Order 66. In some cases the NCPO has made allegations with scanty evidence that villagers are part of production ring funded by wealthy investors.

Village communities in the Isaan region have been impacted directly. At present, the NCPO is charging 17 villagers for trespassing and has seized the farmlands of 70 families in Samchai District, Kalasin Province. Similarly, they are charging 37 villagers for trespassing Phuphan District, Sakhon Nakon Province, and have already destroyed upwards of 383 rais of villagers’ rubber tree farms. If the villagers are found guilty of these charges, they could be imprisoned for up to two years. In Khon San District, Chaiyaphum Province the villages of Baw Keaw and Khok Yao are facing forced eviction from their homes and farmlands, and have receive notices demanding they evacuate. The NCPO evicted at least 1,000 villagers from their homes and land in Kao Bart village, Non Dindaeng District, Buriram Province.

In November the NCPO reported successful prosecution of over 500 forest encroachers and the seizure of over 300,000 rai of land throughout Thailand. Currently, the National Human Rights Commission has received 32 complaints regarding land rights violations but expects more exist.

The NCPO’s crusade has been terribly efficient. Instead of democratically resolving a conflict between the two sides, it has physically and politically removed the villagers from the conversation on land tenure altogether. Martial law has silenced protests from people’s movements on all levels of society, and villagers are left waiting for the day when they can demand their rights and return to their homes.

Produced by Paul Sullivan, Bowdoin College & Wilder Nicholson, Bowdoin College.

Contact: Isaan Land Rights Issue Study Group  (NGO-COD) Northeast
six hundred and eighty-six fifths Soi Wuttaram, Namunag Rd., Muang District., Khon Kaen 40000
Tel. / Fax. (66) 043-228-

Martial Law in Northeast of Thailand Creates Common Cause Between Pro-Democracy and Community Rights Groups

Six months after Thailand’s martial law is imposed discontent stirs across diverse factions.

GUEST CONTRIBUTION by Alexandrea Lee  and Catherine Darin

First published on Prachatai English

Mr. Lun was a rice farmer before the military arrived in his village and evicted everyone from their homes and farmland.

Mr. Lun was a rice farmer before the military arrived in his village and evicted everyone from their homes and farmland.

BURIRAM – Sitting cross-legged in a bamboo hut, concealed by tall corn stalks, the 62-year-old man seems at ease, enjoying passion fruit and a cigarette.  Yet, the laughter leaves his eyes as he casts furtive glances towards the sound of every vehicle that rumbles past.  

“I am afraid that once you leave,” Mr. Lun Soisot nervously admits, “the military will come and ask what we were doing.”

Mr. Lun knows too well what happens when the military takes special interest in a person. The military arrested Mr. Lun and other community leaders in Kao Bat Village, who protested the junta’s decision to evict villagers from Dong Yai Wildlife Sanctuary in July. Paitoon, his son and a local activist, has also faced arrest and is now on the run.  

Mr. Lun and his son are just two of the estimated hundreds of grassroots leaders that have been arrested, threatened, and harassed by the junta that seized power in the May 22 coup.  

The reach of martial law

Martial law, instituted two days before the coup, has maintained a tight grip over Thailand – outlawing political meetings of five or more people, prohibiting criticism of the junta, and charging civilians in military courts.  

The crackdown on opposition, through a series of arrests and detentions, has discouraged any attempts to speak out against the military regime. These tactics have kept Thailand remarkably quiet for the last six months.

The post-coup calm has been particularly unusual in the Northeast, which is a stronghold for the Red Shirts, a pro-democracy movement allied to deposed former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. The Red Shirt’s lack of organized resistance suggests that martial law has been effective in silencing dissent.

As of November 30th, the organization iLaw documented 626 cases of persons apprehended under martial law, 340 of which led to arrest.  

The vast majority of those apprehended were pro-democracy politicians, academics, activists, and journalists in Bangkok publicly summoned by the military soon after the coup.  

The military has focused much energy on suppressing opposition here in the Northeast as it is the heartland of the Red Shirts. While there’s ample anecdotal evidence, exact statistics on those affected by martial law in the Northeast are hard to come by. As many as 130 people in the region have been affected by martial law, according to iLaw, and upwards of 50 who have been formally arrested. But there are dozens if not hundreds of students, community activists, and university professors who have been unofficially “invited” in by the military for a chat, harassed at work, monitored, and threatened.

‘We fear for our lives’

Martial law and the fear of the junta’s formal and informal intimidation tactics may explain why a unified resistance movement has not formed.

Dr. Alongkorn Akkasaeng, Assistant Dean at Mahasarkham University’s College of Politics and Governance, felt his work impacted by martial law when he was called in to speak at a military base. “The experience has caused me to be more careful in what I say and write,” he explains. Many of his colleagues have been called in and continue to be called in, and so “everyone is quite aware that they are being monitored by the military.”

Last month, five students from the activist group “Dao Din,” borrowing from the movie “The Hunger Games,” raised three fingers directly in front of Prime Minister and junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha when he was visiting the Northeast for the first time.

The students were immediately arrested. As their protest and detention attracted national and international attention, the military decided to release them without charge. But even after their release, the students have been persistently harassed and monitored by the military, driving some students to move out of their homes.  “We fear for our lives,” stated one of the students in an interview with the Bangkok Post.

But more than anti-coup groups have been affected by martial law. The junta’s decrees, such as Order No. 64 that authorizes the military to evict communities from their land for the sake of national forests, has embroiled rural communities. Faced with the loss of homes and livelihoods, grassroots-level activists are the latest victims of martial in Thailand’s Northeast.  The widespread repression of rights to freedom of assembly and expression has severely limited their ability to advocate for community rights.

It was reported in Prachatai on Dec. 16 that almost 1,800 warrants have been issued against farmers on charges of trespassing into forest areas. Activists claim that if the junta continues its eviction polices, as many as 30,000 Isaan people may be affected.

‘Leave my family alone’

Kridsakorn Silark, an activist working with dam-affected communities in Ubon Ratchathani province, has similarly been summoned and harassed for speaking out against the military’s human rights violations.

On November 18, the military asked Mr. Kridsakorn to deactivate his professional Facebook page, on which he had publicly asked the junta to cooperate with dam-affected villagers, as well as his personal account that he used to express his pro-democracy opinions.

Mr. Kridsakorn proudly shows off his controversial Facebook page, on which he posted a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi: “You should never let your fears prevent you from doing what you know is right.”

Mr. Kridsakorn proudly shows off his controversial Facebook page, on which he posted a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi: “You should never let your fears prevent you from doing what you know is right.”

Claiming that he had forgotten the account password, Mr. Kridsakorn kept the page up and dodged the military’s calls.

After three days of evasion, however, Mr. Kridsakorn received a call from his mother; military officers had begun to harass her, calling every ten minutes and eventually showing up at her house. Mr. Kridsakorn realized he had no choice but to meet with the military.

“I was very angry.  They can do anything they want to me, but leave my family alone,” he snapped.

At the meeting, officers forbade Mr. Kridsakorn from writing anti-coup declarations and from posting anything on his Facebook critical of the junta.

These intimidation tactics employed by the military are used particularly harshly against those affiliated with the Red Shirt movement.

On the day of the coup, “Daeng” (a false name used for fear of reprisals), a Red Shirt media activist in the Northeast, threw a hard drive of his life’s work into water, knowing what it held could incriminate him under the newly imposed martial law.

The fear that drove him to such extremes remains at the forefront of his thoughts. While being interviewed, Daeng insisted on moving locations several times, convinced that a government spy was eavesdropping nearby.

Daeng spent a month covertly collecting stories on the impact of martial law in the region, especially stories that the junta has attempted to cover up. Daeng has unique insight into the mood of the Northeast.

“People only talk with people they trust.  Everyone wants to talk, though,” says Daeng. “They’re stressed, they’re not satisfied, and they’re angry.”

He tells the story of an unnamed Red Shirt DJ in the Northeast.  On the day of the coup, 50 soldiers swarmed her workplace, only to find that she was not there.  When they were also unable to locate her at her home, the military held her 10-year-old son hostage. Panicked at the thought of being separated from her son and subjecting him to trauma, she had no choice but to turn herself in.

In addition to threatening family members, the junta has employed other methods to intimidate and blackmail dissidents, such as freezing financial accounts, planting evidence, and extortion through the use of explicit photos.

Of the dozens of people Daeng spoke to, the majority signed an “agreement” with the military, pledging to refrain, under threat of arrest for violating martial law, from attending meetings, expressing political opinions, speaking to the media, or leaving the country.

‘We push forward because we know it is the right thing to do’

Most have adhered strictly to the “agreement” out of fear. However, some who have signed, such as Mr. Kridsakorn, insist that signing does not indicate surrender.

“I think I have to be more cautious because I was summoned.  But on the other hand, if I do and say nothing, they will feel as if they can do anything.  I have to move forward to ensure they do not feel this way,” says Mr. Kridsakorn.

Mr. Kridsakorn’s cautious defiance is not an isolated instance. Academics, villagers, activists, and Red Shirts across the Northeast have also voiced their resolve to keep fighting, despite the threat of repercussions for speaking out under martial law.

The five Dao Din students continue to be monitored closely by the military.  One female student was requested, on December 9th, to come speak to military officers about her group’s activities, over a month after their protest.

She refused to go, reflecting the defiance of the group.  They have also displayed their unwavering opposition to the military regime in interviews.  Capitalizing on newfound notoriety, the Dao Din students called Thai citizens to action: “We want you to fight,” they said last month in a Prachatai interview. People across Thailand have publicly raised three fingers in support of the students.  

Even Mr. Lun, a villager whose name remains unknown to the nation, refuses to give in: “The military tries to stop our movement, but we push forward because we know it is the right thing to do.”

Common ground

Although community activists, like Mr. Lun and Mr. Kridsakorn, on the one hand, and Red Shirts on the other, have typically operated separately, the collective oppression under martial law has created an unexpected common cause between the two groups.

Dr. Alongkorn suggests that although community activists and Red Shirts have different ideologies – the former focused on rights connected to their livelihoods and the latter on issues of democracy – they both share a commitment to rights and the value of equality.  “In this ongoing struggle,” he says, “[color-coded politics] are secondary.”

“I believe the junta would have something to worry about if these two movements were to find common ground and enjoin their struggles, but I don’t think the junta has quite seen the bigger picture,” he adds.

An academic and former red shirt leader in Khon Kaen also acknowledges the difference in objectives between the two groups.  But, Ms. Phanwadee Tantisirin adds, “It is democracy and rights that will allow both groups to be able to fight for their cause. We will have to wait to see if these two groups can come together to fight the military government.”

Looking ahead

On December 10, at the Isaan Human Rights Festival in Khon Kaen, villagers, NGOs, students and academics came together to openly express their frustration with how martial law has suppressed their ability to advocate for community rights.  The event was one of the first where these different groups were brought together to articulate their common struggle.

Although the military had disallowed organizers of the Human Rights Festival from mentioning politics or martial law, participants were not fazed. One villager asked the crowd, “if we can’t talk about martial law, the NCPO, or politics, what can we talk about?”

Although the military had disallowed organizers of the Human Rights Festival from mentioning politics or martial law, participants were not fazed. One villager asked the crowd, “if we can’t talk about martial law, the NCPO, or politics, what can we talk about?”

Whether or not these factions will unify in opposition remains unclear.  Yet, the sentiment of individuals from each group does indicate a resolve to continue fighting for human rights and democracy.  As the stories of military harassment circulate throughout the Northeast, dissent appears to becoming more and more common.

“The things that have happened within our village and other villages have been spread to everyone, and it has caused fear,” explains Mr. Lun.  “The military is making a lot of enemies without even knowing it.”

As Mr. Lun sits on the bamboo floor of the small hut, he asserts his defiance to the coup and commitment to work towards a better Thailand.

“In every movement there has to be someone stubborn enough to get other people to join.  We choose to be fireflies in the forest.  We are willing to be small sources of light – even though they’re small, it’s better than total darkness.”


The Interrupted Lives of the “Khon Kaen Model” Families

Seven months ago twenty-six people were arrested in Khon Kaen and now face charges of terrorism and treason—offences that could exact the death penalty. The case, known as the “Khon Kaen Model,” is the most high-profile case to be tried in a military court since the junta took power in May. Kate Cowie-Haskell and Plia Xiong have been following the case in Khon Kaen to learn more about the process of military court and its consequences for families of the defendants. [Those interviewed for this story preferred that neither real names nor photographs be used, worried that it may affect the case of their family members.]

GUEST CONTRIBUTION by Kate Cowie-Haskell and Plia Xiong

Co-published on Prachatai English

It is past noon, but “Nok” is still in her pajamas. She stands in front of her open refrigerator, staring at its meager contents. The shelves have become bare as the months drag on and she is unable to search for a job. Finally, she removes two eggs and turns toward the cluttered kitchen. “I can’t go anywhere, so I can’t make any money,” she says as she cracks the eggs into a pan. “The soldiers watch me whenever I leave.”

It has been a month since Nok, still in her forties, was released on bail for medical reasons from the Khon Kaen Central Prison. There she was held for five months with the twenty-five other people accused of plotting the “Khon Kaen Model” of resistance, an alleged Red Shirt plan to overthrow the military government that came into power on the 22nd of May. The suspects were arrested in the days following the coup, and imprisoned on June 4th.

Nok was released from prison, but she has been unable to fall back into her role as the provider for the seven people in her family. Instead, she spent most of the last month under what is essentially house arrest. She doesn’t want to give the soldiers a reason to suspect she is organizing or attending meetings, so she limits contact with friends and never strays more than a few hundred meters from her house. Nok is even too afraid to find work, fearing that contact with anyone outside her family may incriminate her again. Her family’s financial situation has become dire since her arrest, and continues to deteriorate despite her release from prison.

“It has been a very hard time for our family,” admits Nok’s father, who has become increasingly immobile as muscular atrophy claims his body. He sits in the small makeshift bedroom that has become his world in the past few years. “I am becoming weaker, and I can’t support the family. We have many financial problems now. With three kids, school and meals cost a lot.”

Nok doesn’t know when she will be able to find a job. For now, she is paralyzed by the knowledge that the military can interpret anything she does as a reason to put her back in prison.

“We have no income, and I have to think about everything I do before I do it. Every decision I make can affect my family now, and I don’t want to make our situation worse.”

On November 26th the defendants enter the court at the Sri Patcharin military base for the case’s third hearing as their families look on.

On November 26th the defendants enter the court at the Sri Patcharin military base for the case’s third hearing as their families look on.

The Khon Kaen Model suspects and their families have been under the watchful eye of the military government since the arrests were made in May. All twenty-six suspects were accused of nine charges, including amassing arms and conspiracy to commit terrorism.

Order No. 37 of the junta, stipulating that offenses against the “internal security of the Kingdom” come under the jurisdiction of a military court, was issued days after defendants in the Khon Kaen Model case had already been apprehended. A lawyer familiar with the case called this arrangement “strange” and “against legal principles.”  Regardless, the Khon Kaen Model case is being tried in military court.

A number of international human rights organizations have denounced civilians being tried by military court as a violation of human rights. In military court there are no appeals, and bail has so far been denied to the Khon Kaen Model suspects without preexisting medical conditions. All twenty-six suspects could face the death penalty.

The defense lawyers have repeatedly called for the case to be moved to a civilian criminal court on the grounds that a trial by military tribunal violates Article 4 of the junta’s 2014 interim constitution, which vaguely states that the new government will protect human rights.

According to Mr. Wilder Tayler, the Secretary-General of the International Commission of Jurists, “Under international standards, civilians should not be subject to the jurisdiction of military tribunals, particularly where, like in military-ruled Thailand, military tribunals lack the institutional independence from the executive required by international law regarding fair trials.”

The court proceedings of the Khon Kaen Model case have appalled the defendants and their lawyers. Since May the judges assigned to the case have already changed once, and two of the three current judges are military personnel with no professional background in law. The court has also been unclear about the dates of court appearances for the defendants, rescheduling hearings multiple times.

A legal expert familiar with the details of the case who asked to remain unnamed is frustrated with the lack of transparency in the court process. “I don’t know what principle the court is working from. Are they waiting for the political situation to get better? Or are they waiting for orders from higher powers? The more detailed of this case are revealed, this expert says, “the clearer it is that these families can’t get justice.”

The high-profile nature of the case, particularly the terrorism charges, has garnered a lot of attention for the accused and their families. The media has painted the families as treasonous and violent. As a result, they have been ostracized in their communities.  


“Dao” has been socially isolated since her husband’s arrest. She sits at a table in her sparsely furnished home, which for her has become unbearably empty.

“Nobody comes to visit my family. They see us as criminals and they think we are trying to ruin the country,” Dao says through tears. “I am a Red Shirt but I have no war weapons— I don’t even know what they look like.”

Before the arrest, Dao and her husband sold sausages, making around 1,000 baht per day. But suddenly, after the arrests she could only make 200 baht per day. Now her most eager customers are the dogs she gives her leftovers to at the end of the night.

“My neighbors used to come buy sausages from me, but now they don’t even come near me. I ask them why, and they just say they don’t want to eat sausages anymore.”

Dao mentions that some of her old friends received phone calls from a person who warned them to avoid interacting with her. She does not know who these calls were from.

Unable to handle the way people stare at her (or worse, ignore her) in the street, Dao locks herself in her home. Now, her only comfort lies in the fifteen-minute visits she has with her husband at prison. She goes whenever she can afford the bus fare. Desperate for fast cash she skips meals and sells her motorcycles, sewing machines, rice steamers—anything she can find—at the scrap dealer for a fifth of their price. She often stays at the jail long after morning visitation hours are over, sitting alone in the darkening waiting room until she is asked to return to her empty home.

In the few months after the arrest Dao’s 18-year-old daughter, “Noi,” was her mother’s sole companion and only source of income. An accomplished boxer, Noi made around 5,000 baht for each of her fights in a boxing ring in Khon Kaen. Without her father to drive her, Noi took public transport to the ring every week with her mother. When the fights ended too late for the women to catch a bus home the two slept on the bare mats at the ring, using their bags as pillows. But soon after the arrests the ring manager heard about Noi’s situation and started putting her in lower fight levels, where she could only make 300 baht per fight.

Disgusted with this treatment and fed up with the teasing she endured at school, Noi dropped out of eleventh grade. She left her mother and moved to a province in another region, where she is able to conceal her connection to the Khon Kaen Model. Now she boxes during the week and takes adult education classes on the weekend, sending money to her mother when she can.


“Aom,” 17, is also sacrificing her education because of the Khon Kaen Model case. Her father was one of the twenty-six people arrested in May, and as each day passes without his income her family faces greater losses.

In the dark kitchen of her family’s cement home Aom chops up vegetables for the evening meal. Out of the corner of her eye she sees her backpack slouching against the dirty wall, with unfinished readings and assignments threatening to spill out of it. She hasn’t picked it up since the last time she went to school four days ago. Tonight though, she knows she will have to tackle some of the assignments that have been building up on her since the semester began in November.

Aom’s school fees have become an unbearable strain. The weekly 100 baht that Aom needs for transportation to school is now required for basic necessities for herself, her four-year old brother, and her mother. Recently Aom’s mother, Mai, has become so desperate for money that she asked her daughter to drop out of school and find work.

It has been a tense topic for the mother and daughter recently, as Aom insists that she should stay in school for one more year so she can graduate. For now, the family has reached a fragile compromise: Aom will go to school only two or three days a week.

“No mother wants her child to leave school,” Mai says as she watches her daughter sweep the oil-stained floor of their kitchen. “I want her to have the highest education possible so she can get a good job and have a future.  But I don’t know where to get money—if my husband was here we could work this out together.”

Over the last semester and a half, school has become a battleground. Aom is failing most of her classes. Already her poor attendance has barred her from taking the final exams for half of her classes this semester. She will have to make up the assignments next semester, on top of her new schoolwork.

“I don’t know if I will be able to do it,” Aom confides. “But I want to graduate high school so I can get a good job.”

She has dreams of studying hotel management at Khon Kaen University, the leading university in the Northeast. Her sociable personality would serve her well, and she is intrigued by the glamour of it all. “I want to look fancy,” she laughs.

However, her dreams are quickly moving beyond her reach. She has a commitment to support her family, and her mother’s emotional instability since the arrests has only made it more necessary to shoulder some of the caretaking burden left behind by her father.

Mai tries to put on a brave face and smile for her two children, but the sorrow that lies just beneath the surface is sometimes unmanageable. “After the arrest I cried for weeks,” she admits quietly. “I was devastated, I didn’t know what to do with my life. My daughter saw this and stopped going to school for two weeks to keep me company.”

With her future on the line, Aom must now try to balance the financial distress caused by the case and her family’s emotional upheaval, even while coping with her own sense of loss.

“I miss my father,” she says. “When I think about him I want to cry.”

Seven months after the arrests it is clear that the acute emotional loss the Khon Kaen Model families feel has cut far deeper than their financial losses. Without the presence of their loved ones, they are suspended in a kind of mourning— indefinitely. The convoluted processes of the military court give families little hope that their suffering will end in the near future.  

Since the arrests few questions have been answered for the affected families. They have asked to see the evidence against their loved ones, they have asked for bail, for release dates, for the dates of court hearings. And they have asked, again and again: What have we done to justify such grave punishment?

A lawyer in the case fears for the future of his defendants’ families. “Not knowing the next date and knowing that the court refuses to give bail has impacted families a lot. They are in limbo—they don’t know when they will be together again.”


Like Aom’s mother, the members of the “Damrong” family have been paralyzed by grief since the arrest of “Somsak”: their husband, father, and grandfather.

“Joy” has been married to Somsak for 36 years, and his arrest has taken a steep emotional toll on her. As she walks across the rutted yard in front of the family home, she pauses. “Everything reminds me of him,” she says solemnly. She looks to the front of the small house, where a vegetable garden stubbornly persists amidst riotous vines. “He loves planting,” she says, her voice choked. “He made that vegetable garden, and he built this house and dug out the fish pond. Anywhere you look you have to think about him.”

His absence is a void that his loved ones cannot ignore. Friends come to join family dinners, but everyone has become so accustomed to the rhythm of life with Somsak that they are at a loss when there are pauses in the conversation that his jokes normally fill.

“It is like there is no happiness in the family,” says Joy. “I have no energy, and all I can think about is how to help him.”

Since May the family has thrown itself into efforts to bail him out. They raised money and scoured documents, but the military has denied bail. Seven months later, Somsak is still in jail, and his wife still doesn’t know why.

“If we knew he was guilty it would be different because there would be a reason for him to be there. But I can’t think of anything he did wrong.”

Her claims match those of the defendants, all of whom have claimed innocence to the accusations.  But despite what a lawyer described as “weak” evidence against them, the trial persists.

The only thing Joy is absolutely sure of is that her husband should have been released long ago. “All we want is for him to be back with us. If there was justice he would be home by now.”

Justice, it seems, is not something the Khon Kaen Model families will see soon. At the third case hearing on November 26th the court was as vague as ever, once again cancelling the next court appearance and failing to provide a new date. The lawyers’ request to move the case to a civilian criminal court remains under deliberation.  

A relative of one of the defendants reacts after seeing her husband walk into the courtroom in chains.

A relative of one of the defendants reacts after seeing her husband walk into the courtroom in chains.

Meanwhile, these families must continue their battle with the uncertainty that is consuming their lives. The unanswered questions loom over them, and the unbelievable power the military holds over their situation permeates their daily life.

* * *

Dusk is just settling over Nok’s small home when she climbs on her motorcycle to buy vegetables down the road. As the motorcycle pulls away Nok’s brother rises and makes his way to the end of the dusty driveway, where he stares after the vanishing taillights. He stands there in the dark, headlights occasionally illuminating his concerned face, until his sister returns fifteen minutes later.

“He thinks that if I leave I might not come home again,” explains Nok. “Every time he returns home, he checks up on me and he is happy to see that I am still here.”

She drops the bag of vegetables on the table and sags against the wall of her home, the home that has become her prison.


Isaan Poor Targeted by Junta’s Forest Policies

GUEST CONTRIBUTION by Evan Gershkovich

A report on how the government’s new forest policy impacts the poor far more than the rich landowners and resort operators the government claims to be targeting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I just need to be careful,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

Additional reporting contributed by Phinitnan Chanasabaeng.

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


Cashing Out: A Return to Organic Practices

YouTube Version

MAHASARAKHAM – In 1996, a group of government officers from the Agricultural Land Reform Office (ALRO) proposed an alternative to the reigning model of chemical farming. Buoyed by their idealism and Japanese funding, they initiated a pilot program that trained and established a small network of organic farmers. The result is a community of 900 farmers in four Isaan provinces who now farm a far greater diversity of crops, reject agrochemicals altogether, and are equipped with the skills to package and market their organic goods locally.

In the last few decades, Thailand has implemented a series of government policies that incentivize farmers to produce cash crops like rice, cassava, rubber, and sugarcane. Now an international leading exporter of rice and rubber, Thailand has successfully stimulated its agricultural sector, helping reduce the national level of poverty dramatically. But with this increase in cash crop farming has come a heavy dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides – agrochemicals continue pouring into the country and Thailand’s fertile soil is slowly drying out.

High levels of agrochemicals found in Thailand’s crops last year have also brought international attention to Thailand’s farming habits. Last year, the EU threatened to ban Thai exports on many vegetables, citing dangerous levels of pesticides. In the last ten years, imports of pesticides have more than tripled in Thailand and many worry that without an official monitoring system in place, farmers are likely overusing agrochemicals in attempts to increase their yields and fill their pockets. Concerns for consumers’ health and Thailand’s environment are rapidly rising.

Making a switch back to organic practices in Thailand, however, is far from simple. For one, agribusinesses can offer high prices for exportable goods and farmers are easily enticed by the promise of a greater income. In addition, the government protects its cash crop farmers far better than its organic farmers who diversify the crops in their fields. According to the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives, every administration since 1995 has implemented policies that offer insurance to cash crop farmers and price guarantees for their crops. Farmers who opt to farm a variety of crops, on the other hand, are left with far more risk in a country prone to natural disasters.

With these concerns in mind, the Agricultural Land Reform Office (ALRO) contacted farmers in Sakon Nakhon, Mukdahan, Mahasarakham, and Khon Kaen. Over many years, the ALRO succeeded in teaching former cash crop farmers the benefits of going organic. Though Japanese funding has now run out, these farmers are nearly self-sustainable. They share tasks with one another in co-ops, work together to standardize suitable prices, and sell their goods at local green markets.  And they have found that with farms as diverse as the local supermarkets, debt is no longer a concern nor income a worry. The current administration, however, has shown no intention of expanding the program further.

To learn more about the program, the Isaan Record met with farmers who had worked with the ALRO to return to organic practices. Sakhon Thabthimsai, an organic farmer in Borabue district of Mahasarakham province, tells his story in the video above.

The ALRO’s project is just one of many efforts in Northeastern Thailand to rethink and reform the kinds of agriculture being practiced in this part of the country. For more information, visit the Alternative Agriculture Network’s website here.

One Thousand Red Villages Open in Isaan

UDON THANI  – From a stage outside Udon Thani’s Provincial Hall, the Red Village movement grew rapidly Sunday evening as it welcomed 1,000 new Isaan villages as official Red Villages for Democracy. The Federation of Red Villages, a branch of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, now boasts a total of 10,260 Red Villages in Thailand.

The Red Village movement garnered media attention last July when just a few hundred villages celebrated Red inauguration ceremonies in Isaan. Now, the Federation of Red Villages is aiming to expand its reach nationwide to 30,000 Red Villages within the next couple of years.

Representatives from the Federation of Red Villages hand out signs for newly inaugurated Red Villages for Democracy.

On and offstage on Sunday, local politicians and Red Shirt leaders touted the movement’s success in encouraging the free flow of ideas among Red Shirts fighting for democracy.

“In truth, the idea of the Red Villages did not come from the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, but rather from the people themselves after the protests in Bangkok,” shouted the Member of Parliament (MP) and Red Shirt leader Jatuporn Prompan. “Finally, the people are capable of moving forward by themselves.” In response, thousands of red clad supporters burst out in cheers.

Surathin Pimanmekin, Udon Thani MP and Chief Consultant for the Federation of Red Villages, also spoke of the movement as one that encourages grassroots mobilization. “We want the Red people to take steps forward by themselves,” he said in an interview. “They should have their own political ideology and political thoughts without just following the direction of certain leaders.”

According to the head of the Federation of Red Villages, Kamonsil Singhasuriya, a given village can request a Red Village title if 50% of its constituents sign a petition in favor of the Red branding. Some local Members of Parliament, however, prefer to see a larger show of support. Party List MP Cherdchai Tantirin from Khon Kaen, for example, believes a village should receive a Red title only if more than 70% of the constituents give support.

Though critics have blamed the Red movement and particularly the Red Village movement for inspiring disunity among Thais, Mr. Kamonsil insists that the opposition groups in Red Villages are rarely uncomfortable with the title.

Before the ceremony kicked off, a Red Shirt performer sat with posters demanding constitutional amendments.

“People who are not Red Shirts are beginning to understand that Red Shirt activities are good for democracy,” he claims. “The opposition tries to blame the Red Shirts, but our fight is peaceful.”

In recent months, the Red Village movement has expanded into the North (with several hundred already inaugurated in Lampang) and the South as well. Local politicians and the Federation of Red Villages have also begun to inaugurate certain districts as Red.

As the sun set behind the Provincial Hall, Red performers led the crowd in song and dance. Between chants and cheers, Red supporters chatted about constitutional amendments and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s imminent arrival in Udon Thani.

“I like being a part of this movement because I want to see a return to a fair constitution in Thailand,” said Samanjit Khotchomphoo from Nong Khai. “It’s as if our rights were stolen after the 2006 coup.” Huddled under a tent, five new friends nodded behind her in agreement.

Where Have All the Students Gone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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