Luk Thung - The Sound of Political Protest and Isaan's Cultural Revival

Book author James Mitchell talks about Thailand’s most popular music.

In an excellent new book, James Mitchell traces the evolution of the Thai music genre luk thung (literally, “child of the fields”) from its working class origins to becoming Thailand’s most popular music. The Isaan Record talked to the author about how luk thung energized the revival of Lao-Isaan identity and culture in Thailand from the 1990s on, and how it came to play a vital role in the protest music of the country’s color-coded political conflict.

IR: How did you come to write a book about luk thung?

JM: The book is based on my Ph.D. thesis, but it is very much different. Before it was published by Silkworm, it was rejected by major ethnomusicology series because it was too multi-disciplinary for them. It mixes politics, it mixes history and there is only one chapter on music ethnology and perhaps that was not “heavy” enough for them.

In the making of the book, I collaborated with Peter Doolan, who runs the Thai music blog Mon Rak Pleng Thai and Peter Garrity, who is a passionate luk thung fan. This book would have never come about without them. Nick Nostitz contributed a couple of photos and more to the original article on the use of music by the Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts.

James Mitchell with Phongsri Woranut, a female luk thung superstar of the 1960s and '70s. Phongsri became known for her involvement in the genre of phleng kae ("dueling songs").

James Mitchell with Phongsri Woranut, a female luk thung superstar of the 1960s and ’70s. Phongsri became known for her involvement in the genre of phleng kae (“dueling songs”).

IR: Is luk thung known outside of Thailand and is it considered an area of academic interest?

JM: Luk thung is an area that has not really become mainstream in the academic world and hopefully this book will change this a bit. It is becoming a far more well-known music genre and there are many more international luk thung fans than before. Through my website Thai Music Inventory, I’ve been contacted by people in Germany, Australia, USA and elsewhere who are fans of Thai music rather than academics.

IR: How did you become interested in luk thung and was it easy to gain access to the scene?

JM: It really was because of my wife, who I met in 2002 in Khon Kaen. After we got married and moved here, I started working at Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts at Khon Kaen University. The Dean of the Faculty, Chaloemsak Phikunsri, got me started with luk thung. He gave me some old books and articles on the topic, such as Anek Nawikamun’s “Phleng Nok Sathawat (“Songs Outside the Century”).

At first, it was frustrating to get people to talk to me. I tried to go everywhere in Bangkok to make connections. I tried to ask major music companies for introductions to singers but no one was interested. It is about maintaining control over their artists and their music. They seem to not want to give anything away if they don’t see an upside to it. And for academic work, they don’t see any upside to it.

But when I communicated this to my friend, Ajan Jenwit Phikap at Khon Kaen University, he immediately said , “Oh, I know a really famous luk thung artist.” He took me to meet Soraphet Phinyo right away. Soraphet became the main case study of my book and that’s how it all started.

The luk thung mo lam duo Job and Joy holding garlands known as phuang malai given to them by their fans at concerts. Singers have to be ready to accept the garlands at any time and are expected to hold them for as long as possible. This is an important aspect of star-fan interaction in luk thung, writes James Mitchell in his book. Photo credit: Peter Garrity

The luk thung mo lam duo Job and Joy holding garlands known as phuang malai given to them by their fans at concerts. Singers have to be ready to accept the garlands at any time and are expected to hold them for as long as possible. This is an important aspect of star-fan interaction in luk thung, writes James Mitchell in his book. Photo credit: Peter Garrity

IR: In the book, you highlight the interaction between luk thung singers and fans as a reflection of Thai society.

JM: Apart from the concerts sponsored by TV and radio stations, luk thung artists also perform at funerals, weddings, and ordination ceremonies. At concerts, all the big luk thung fans are up front, and are mostly known by name to the singers. In one amazing picture that didn’t make it into the book, two famous singers hand Peter Garrity a birthday cake. They bought it themselves and presented it to him at their concert. You’d think it should be the other way around. These reciprocal relationships are not specific to luk thung, but you certainly do not see the same kind of relationships in Thai pop, in which artists are much more standoffish.

IR: You argue that luk thung became a main driver for the revival of Isaan culture in Thailand. Can you explain what that means?

JM: Yes, and I say revival only because I am thinking back to when Isaan culture was quite strong but successive Thai governments, and that goes back to the 19th century, have put their stamp down on Isaan culture – like discouraging the use of Isaan language in both spoken and written form.

The oral nature of Isaan culture contributed to not only the success of the luk thung music industry, but the entire entertainment industry. Isaan performers now really are everywhere, like all the comedians from the Northeast who often started performing on luk thung stages. Luk thung created this space for Isaan people to move into jobs in the entertainment industry.

The cover of the record "Phu Yai Lee" by Saksri Sri-akson (1961), a song that was of unparalleled popularity in Thai music. The song is inspired by a 1959 mo lam performance in Ubon Ratchathani about an archetypical local Isaan official, who was not used to central Thai language and was easily confused by government edicts.

The cover of the record “Phu Yai Lee” by Saksri Sri-akson (1961), a song that was of unparalleled popularity in Thai music. The song is inspired by a 1959 mo lam performance in Ubon Ratchathani about an archetypical local Isaan official, who was not used to central Thai language and was easily confused by government edicts.

IR: Around what time did the Isaan cultural influence on luk thung become noticeable?

JM: This began as early as the 1950s with Benjamin and Saksri Sri-akson. Saksri was a big star in nightclubs with her song “Phu Yai Lee,” which was a phenomenon. In the 1950s and ’60s these artists were not playing so much on the Isaan identity yet, but from the early 1970s on the whole genre of luk thung isaan, or luk thung mo lam, began to develop. Around 1981-2 this really took off big time.

This development might have been linked to the large of numbers of Isaan people who migrated to central Thailand looking for work. It reached a certain point where the Isaan audience became the most important audience in Bangkok and of course also for the bands touring throughout the countryside. It might also be related to the many Isaan migrants going to work overseas and then starting to come back, which meant that their social upward mobility and their economic standing improved. They started to have more money to spend on records and concerts and that began in the early 1980s.

IR: Luk thung used to be the music of the working class, how did it move into the mainstream of Thai music?

JM: The real shift of luk thung becoming big business and rising in status took place after 1976. It was especially fueled by the rise of Phumphuang Duangjan, the big star of the 1980s.

Oddly enough, as I write in my book, Soraphet Phinyo’s singing partner Nong Nut Duangchiwan was actually a bigger star than Phumphuang for two or three years in the early 1980s. But by 1984 Phumphuang became the dominant luk thung star until her death in 1992. She added dancing to her stage acts and her voice was just very powerful and sexy – before that most female luk thung singers were more sweet and nice. She was also really the first person to combine luk thung with Thai pop.

The cover of Chaophya Magazine (November 1982) showing singer and songwriter Soraphet Phinyo and luk thung star Nong Nut Duangchiwan. The title of this issue, "num na khao – sao na kluea," refers to Soraphet and Nong Nut’s hit duet "Rice Farming Boy, Salt Farming Girl."

The cover of Chaophya Magazine (November 1982) showing singer and songwriter Soraphet Phinyo and luk thung star Nong Nut Duangchiwan. The title of this issue, “num na khao – sao na kluea,” refers to Soraphet and Nong Nut’s hit duet “Rice Farming Boy, Salt Farming Girl.”

In 1989 and 1991 the royal patronage over luk thung began with “50 Years of luk thung” celebrations and Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn became involved with it. She actually wrote the lyrics to the song “Som Tam,” the big Phumphuang hit, which explains how to make som tam.

IR: You write that the usual portrayal of luk thung as an apolitical genre is a misperception, why is that? 

JM: Craig A. Lockert wrote a very good book, Dance of Life: Popular Music and Politics in Southeast Asia, which looks at political use of music throughout the region. He concluded that luk thung could not be used for political purposes because of the extravagant lifestyles of the artists and all the commercial trappings of modern luk thung – like all the dancers, the wonderful costumes, the commercialized lyrics. But when I saw luk thung artists perform at Red shirt protests, it became clear to me that the concert really was part of the protest.

IR: Does that mean that luk thung became politicized through the Red Shirt protests?

JM: No, it was not the first time for luk thung to carry politicized messages. In the 1950s, before it was called luk thung, it was called phleng chiwit (“songs of life”), which is not be confused with phleng phuea chiwit (“songs for life”). Phleng chiwit is a very early version of luk thung; the songs were sung in rural accents using rural themes, and they were highly political. So much so that the songwriters were put in jail or they were threatened.

During the 1970s phleng phuea chiwit was the dominant protest music, but from what I have found even during that time luk thung was used a lot for protests, for example by the communist insurgents.

So, luk thung has always been political, but it has always been heavily censored too. It has been the music of the working class and of the poor, but it wasn’t until the Red Shirts that the working class could really be open about their criticism of the establishment in public.

IR: Have only the Red Shirts made use of luk thung music or did the Yellow Shirts incorporate it in their protests too?

JM: When the Yellow Shirts and the other offspring groups used luk thung it was clear that they didn’t have any real connection to the music. They use it because it is popular and it is party music, so all the yellow luk thung songs are either very patriotic songs or they are party songs.

The Red Shirts were able to use luk thung with what might be the main focus of this genre, namely themes of sadness and mourning. For example, they were able to write all these songs about Thaksin and his absence. And really, the theme of absence is what luk thung is all about. But not only songs about Thaksin, also mourning songs for Red Shirts who were killed during protests or about the absence of democracy. For the Yellow Shirts, there were never these kinds of songs. When the yellow side used luk thung, it wasn’t professional luk thung singers performing, but more Thai pop stars or old luk krung singers – it always felt quite token.

Red Shirt luk thung singers in a hang khruang ("dancing revue") in Khao Yai in November 2009. Photo credit: Nick Nostitz/Agentur Focus

Red Shirt luk thung singers in a hang khruang (“dancing revue”) in Khao Yai in November 2009. Photo credit: Nick Nostitz/Agentur Focus

IR: Given the political nature of many luk thung songs, has the scene been affected by last year’s military coup?

JM: There have been less luk thung concerts since the coup. At least, during the martial law period, I think it was difficult to put concerts on at night. However, the regime has made up for this by using luk thung concerts as “rewards” for certain communities or as a propaganda tool.

There aren’t any political songs being put out in Thailand right now. It is amazing to me how successful the junta has been in oppressing political expression. All the political artists are pretty scared at the moment. The only political songs that are being released at the moment come from overseas, for example from the band Fai Yen. They are pumping out music all the time and some of their songs are luk thung.

IR: Do you have plans for another book?

JM: A lot of my current research has been on old Thai records in the 78 rpm format and I plan to publish a complete discography of Thai 78s, which has never been done for any Southeast Asian country. I find these records through collectors, especially buy and sale forums on the internet. There is a lively scene of Thai record collectors, but the part of 78 format collectors is quite small and specialized.

I am also planning to write more articles and I would like to write something on Fai Yen. I didn’t cover them in my book and I keep discovering new protest music that I missed. I’m also planning an article on Sayan Sanya. Chris Baker quite rightly points out that the book misses out on some of the biggest stars, such as Sayan, simply because they are not from Isaan. In the end the book became a triangle of luk thung, Isaan culture, and politics with a focus on the Red Shirts. Of course, in the future there could also be a second, updated edition of the book or perhaps a new, more comprehensive history of luk thung.


Luk_Thung_CoverLuk Thung: The Culture and Politics of Thailand’s Most Popular Music

By James Leonard Mitchell

Published: September 2015. 214 pages. Silkworm Books. 625 baht.

James Leonard Mitchell completed his Ph.D. from Macquarie University in 2012 and is currently a lecturer at Khon Kaen University and an adjunct research fellow at Monash University, Australia.

Q&A with Student Activist Group 'Dao Din'

The Law and Human Rights for Society Group, better known as “Dao Din,” is a student activist group that recently has been widely praised and criticized for involvement in anti-junta student protests. Critics have raised questions about the reasons behind the group’s symbolic activities against the coup, the group’s alleged backers,  and even about the low grades of members in the university.

The Isaan Record talks to two Dao Din members, Suwicha Pitangkorn and Supachai Phuklongploy, about the recently voiced criticisms.

IR: After Dao Din’s protests against the coup, many critics have wondered publicly about “who is behind or in controls the group.” There have been allegations that the group is backed by politicians or a political party, by communist groups, or even by an international organization. How would you respond to this?

Suwicha: Oh, this is easy to answer. I barely know anything about any politicians, who they are, or what they do. So why would they support us? Why would they hire us? Mostly, what we do is go to rural communities. Villagers of these communities support us. We go and stay with them as if we were their children. When they organize events or activities we would go to help, and in return, they are the ones who come to help us.

Supachai: If you really want to know who is backing our group, [consider this:] it has been about 12 years now since Dao Din was established and we have been to various communities [that are dealing with] different issues. We mobilize around politics because the problems we work with are connected to the power structure. To be clear, I would say we are following the people’s will, the people who are being oppressed these days.

IR: Concerning the allegation that there is an international organization backing the group prior to their arrest, Dao Din reportedly visited international organizations like the United Nations and the European Union. What made you visit these organizations?

Suwicha: We went to meet with the UN because we believe that they could help us in our demand that the Thai government follows treaties related to human rights that the Thai state has ratified. This was a way to prevent violations of student rights and to ensure that students are able to express [their opinions]. The UN is an organization that we can count on as we now are unable to count on the Thai government to protect our rights. So we believe that UN would help us in pushing the government to respect basic human rights.

Supachai: Actually, the UN invited us to meet with them. This is one of their functions. This is what they do. They are always keeping an eye on the situation and on violations committed by the NCPO government. Throughout the year, both the EU and the British Embassy in Bangkok have followed the situation closely. We went there just to share our stories and tell them how our rights have been violated.

IR: In order to run the activities you are involved with–such as going to communities that are struggling with various issues–where does your group get financial support from?

Suwicha: The money we use for activities comes from various sources, but mainly it is funded by the Komol Kimthong Foundation in accordance to a project that we proposed to them. This foundation receives funding from the Thai Health Promotion Foundation. We also got some funding from our faculty (Faculty of Law, Khon Kaen University). There is this mechanism we created to receive this fund which is under the Environmental Preservation Club that we are running. But if we don’t have money, of course, we use our own money to sponsor our activities.

Sometimes we ask for donations at the night markets on campus or in the city. For the travelling costs, if we have some money, we would take a bus to visit the communities. If we don’t have any money, we just hitchhike. If the community is close we can drive our motorcycles there.

Supachai: In fact, we don’t really care or pay attention much to the money stuff. We are just following our hearts. If we don’t have money we just hitchhike.

IR: Recently Dao Din members’ school records were revealed online. What do you think about the relationship between grades and the legitimacy in coming out against the coup?

Supachi: I was really shocked about this. In fact, this information is personal information and it should not have been disclosed to the public. I have no idea where they got this from. I see that in Thailand the political culture still cannot get away from hate speech. They use our school records to discredit us. I think this is not creative at all. I got low grades but as I see it, school records or grades cannot really be used to value a human being or their righteousness or morality at all.

Suwicha: I acknowledge that we are not good at studying, and I don’t feel hurt. However, at least we have done something to shake the foundation of society. We got to learn [that] directly from working with the villagers. If I had very good grades but I didn’t contribute anything beneficial to society, it doesn’t mean anything. I study at the Faculty of Law, and I am happy that I got low grades because at least I am able to do something for society and people.

IR: It has also been alleged that democratically elected governments were involved in corruption and that they approved various development projects, some of which Dao Din is protesting against.  How were you active during the previous governments?

Suwicha: For example, during the previous governments, we have fought against the university privatization. We have sent many letters to the Office of the Prime Minister. We did flash mobs all the time. It is not that we haven’t done anything. We believe that poor people must have the rights to education.

Supachai: If asking about what we have done, we have done quite a lot. You can see what we have done on our group’s Facebook page. We have fought against government projects during every period, no matter whether they were elected or not. For example, we disagreed and stood against the water management plan when Dr. Plodprasop Suraswadi was the minister. But what is different is that in the time of an elected government, we had the rights to oppose and protest. We had freedom of expression, [the right to] express our opinions on politics. It is different from the junta government which can arrest you for only posting a sign. Recently, there was this woman, Ms. Rinda, who just posted something online and then was arrested. No matter who is in the government, if there is injustice and oppression, we won’t accept it.

Suwicha: Under other governments it is better in the way that we had freedom of expression. We were able to gather in public. When we disagreed with what the government did, we could protest. We were able to gather and address the problems we saw. But under this government, only thinking about it already makes us guilty.

IR:The movement of the so-called Octobrists (the student movement of the 1970s) is now divided into two sides. What do you think caused this to happen? How is Dao Din or the Neo-Democracy Movement similar of different?

Suwicha: As I see it, what Dao Din has been doing is that we have been working with villagers in their communities for a long time. We aim to have villagers and the people sector to be involved in our movement. This is the difference between the Octoberist movement (in the 1970s) which involved mainly students.

Supachai: The movement back then was led by students. When you grow up and time changes, people start to think differently. The movement in the 1970s was united for a time. There were various groups and concepts, but they rose up to fight against dictatorship back then. It was like they wanted to get rid of the dictatorship first and then would focus on their specific issues. After that it split into two sides, as we have seen. Now, in our time, we are trying to show that it is not just students. We wanted to show how the people, the common people, have been oppressed. We see that after the NCPO leaves, of course there will not be any unity. However, we believe that difference and diversity are beautiful things. And after that, the struggle of each party would then have to follow the path of justice, follow the rule of law. I mean, we are trying to bring back a democratic society first.

Freshly-released anti-coup student activists tell stories from jail

Freed anti-junta activists from the Dao Din group talk to Prachatai about their experience in jail and how they learned about the value of freedom.

By Panida Dumri and Nattamon Krajangdararat

First published on Prachatai English

On Wednesday 8 July, the 14 anti-junta activists from the New Democracy Movement (NDM) were released after being detained for 12 days as a result of their peaceful anti-junta protests. The charges against them still stand.

Prachatai talked to seven student activists from Khon Kaen University about their life in prison and what they learned behind bars. They had all had their heads shaved in protest at being separated inside prison, but their determined gaze was still unwavering.

During our talk, the activists who were waiting to be interviewed wandered off to play soccer. It was probably their first match together after being released.

 “Noi” – Apiwat Suntararak


 What was life in prison like?

When I first walked in and saw the high walls, I was worried that what I had heard about prison was true, that it was just gonna be full of criminals and gangsters. We arrived at 2 am after we were arrested, and the wardens took good care of us from the first day.

When I woke in the morning, though, I was shocked at how everyone showered together, and I was too shy so I didn’t shower at first. The bathroom is really low, you have to sit down and stick your head out. There’s a guard watching the whole time, so I felt really pressured. There’s also a lot of people lining up for the bathroom so you have to do your business real fast.

After a while we were separated into different zones of the prison. I was put into zone 3 with Pai and Triangle [Base’s nickname]. They still took good care of us. The warden was vigilant but nice. He let us stay in a room with 11 people. The lights were always on, even at night, and it hurt my eyes and I kept waking up. It was also hot and crowded.

I also started to see what friendship between inmates was like. Wherever I walked, people would greet me and ask how I was. They found sleeping arrangements for each other. On the first night I was there, I saw that when an inmate had no place to sleep, another would share his cot.

Some inmates don’t have any relatives, so their life is really hard. They have to work really hard to trade for food and other stuff. For example, they might do someone’s laundry for a week in order to get a single cigarette.

Inmates also make a lot of stuff in there, everything from birdcages to paper bags. They’re really beautiful and well-made, actually. We share the work. The sweets made in there are also really good. Zone 3 sweets, I guess, only available to a select few. They’re sticky, chewy, wrapped in paper, and very delicious.

Did you get to meet other political prisoners?

No, I don’t think so. Mostly I met those in robbery or murder cases. I don’t think they’re evil people; they’re just regular people who made bad decisions at the moment, which ruined their lives. One of the inmates I talked with regularly told me his story. He went out to help a younger friend in a bad situation, and accidentally killed someone. He had just finished university and didn’t know what he wanted to be yet. There’s no one who is completely evil; society just needs to give them a chance. Most of the released inmates are rejected by society and they can’t find a job, so they go back to doing what they did before, and end up in here again. It’s a vicious cycle.

There’s this other guy who’s tattooed all over. It doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy. He’s actually really goofy.

After the court said we would be released, all the other inmates were like, “You guys are going already? It’ll be lonely here without you.”

How did you feel when you came out to see your friends waiting for you outside the prison?

I wanted to cry, I was so happy. They’ve been fighting for and encouraging us from the outside the entire time. Fighting from the outside might be even worse than being in jail. They helped us with whatever they could, whenever they could. They brought so many gifts for us too. When I got to see their faces my heart was so full.

Anything else you want to say? 

We’re confident we did, and are doing, the right thing. There might be both people who support us and people who don’t, but we still believe that our society should be free and our five values should be re-established in society.

 “Arty” (Chusri) –  Supachai Pukrongploy

ArtyI was moved to Zone 5 with Rome and Nui. That made me feel really lonely. When all of us were together it was a fun team atmosphere, so I felt devastated when we were separated. I lived for the 20 minutes a day when I got to see the others and our visiting relatives. Twenty minutes a day to sustain me.

I was put in the area towards the front of the Zone. The prisoners from different Zones would eat together. I think Zone 3 operates like a socialist state, with the wardens doing whatever job they are most fit to do. Wardens get social welfare benefits, food, shower facilities, and equal pay. Of course, there’s a lot of marginalized prisoners who don’t have anyone to visit them.

As a law student, what do you think of political prisoners in jail?

It’s a normal thing in our polarized society. Of course they’d get jailed. Their freedoms are restricted. They’re not criminals in the sense that they did something violent like killing, raping, or stuff like that. They’re prisoners of conscience. If they’re gonna continue having this law, they should have a separate prison for political prisoners. In there, they’re treated the same as the rest of the other inmates in a way that’s way too violent for people who just think differently.

How did you feel when your friends came to pick you up from prison?

Only then did I really appreciate the value of freedom, after being in there for 12 days. I felt freedom as a tangible thing.

I profoundly understand what liberty means after I was there for 12 days. The experience of life without freedom is very concrete. My mom came to wait for me. I’m touched. I was surprised that there were so many media. I believe we were released because I have fought for grassroot activists who are oppressed in the villages. There’s a clear picture of what we’ve done. Today we’re oppressed; we really felt it during the past 12 days. My feeling is even stronger when we’re separated. We really feel it now that we’re freed.

I’ll keep reminding myself of this: no matter how much my freedoms have been suppressed in these last 12 days, I learned that my ideals could be transformed into tangible things. And the ideals that I stand firm in can’t be stopped by fear.

I’ll keep on fighting. It’s a beautiful thing, is freedom.

“Pai” – Chaturapat Boonyapatraksa

PaiHow do you feel now that you’re released? 

It was wrong for me to be punished in the first place. It’s an issue of expressing differing opinions. Society is full of different people; it’s impossible to force everyone to think identically. If there are people who think differently from you or from the state, they shouldn’t be punished for that. They wouldn’t become political prisoners, but prisoners of conscience.

It’s really important that people be more open-minded, listen to reason, and look at the facts before making up their minds. People are capable of seeing what’s just and what’s not, what’s true and what’s not. Different kinds of thought must be allowed to circulate in society, and then after that they can make up their minds however they want.

Jail is for people who broke the law, not for prisoners of conscience. The only tool a tyrant has against them is to physically bar them from communicating with society.

Did you exchange any ideas from the other inmates?

Yeah, but I can’t say it to the press. They have valuable ideas which society should hear. But since these prisoners are locked away, their ideas are too.

What were living conditions like after you moved from Zone 1 to Zone 3?

At first we were in Zone 1. I tried to adjust myself but I really couldn’t. It was the lack of freedom, realized in a physical form.

I’d say that being inside and outside the jail are no different. They really are not different. Having us in jail helps to prove my point.

Now that I’ve experienced both sides, I say that even more. On both sides of the bars, we have to stay inside a square box.

They took really good care of us since the wardens were informed that we were special prisoners. They fenced us off from the rest of the Zone and let us shower after other inmates.

We assume that inmates are the scum of the earth, the bottom of the barrel. But inside, it doesn’t matter who you were before, everyone’s equal. Underneath the tattoos and uncouth manners they still have the beauty of their humanity. Each human will always retain that beauty, but society often taints it.

All the inmates have their beautiful humanity, and I could see it. They were kind to us, took care of us.

You guys were put in the front part of the Zone instead of the back, could that be part of why the jail society wasn’t so bad?

When I went for a smoke, other inmates would come up and talk to me, asking me what I was arrested for. We would exchange our cases. They’re even more knowledgeable than judges regarding legal cases. They can tell the sentence just from hearing a case of an alleged crime.

They’ve got first-hand experience, that’s why. As a law student, I think that judges should come and experience life in the jails, so they know what happens after the sentence is doled out, what the prisoner’s life will be like. The Thai judiciary system is focused on punishment, and some people shouldn’t be in jail at all while others carry sentences that are way too harsh.

I was glad to be with the other 13 in Zone 1. It raised our morale, and we exchanged jokes and laughs. We also held meetings to monitor our situation. Then they separated us, it was to weaken our resolve and perhaps force us to beg for bail. They didn’t succeed, however.

We were in separate zones but our hearts were connected. Come what may! We don’t need bail. That’s what held us together, even as we were far apart.

Any other comments?

Jail isn’t a scary place, just a boring one. Don’t be afraid of it. I want everyone to experience it just once. Being in jail is just a prerequisite for fighting righteously against the NCPO. If we fight, then we get jailed.

But jail isn’t scary at all.

The real scary thing is if we let the dictatorship—as well as the cultural strains that permit it to stay—to continue its tyranny in Thai society.

“Tong” – Wasan Satthasit

TongWhat was prison life like?

When we were all together in Zone 1, I wasn’t lonely at all. We would update each other on our relatives’ visits and analyze our situation together. The wardens took good care of us. There was always someone trailing or guarding us when we went to the bathroom, to smoke, to eat, or to shower. It was like they didn’t want other prisoners to interact with us.

At that time, we weren’t bored, even though there were no books to read. After we were separated into different zones, we weren’t completely lonely since there were still visiting hours for our relatives and lawyers. After we were moved, they continued to take good care of us, in a way that I would even say was careful. It was like we were special prisoners. I would say that our status as university students also helped to protect us. Our youth too, even if I don’t look it.

After we were separated into different zones I had to get to know whoever got to go with me. I was with Dave. I didn’t know him before this, so we got to know each other’s behaviour and personality.

A part of me secretly wanted us to stay longer, since I was adjusting to the situation inside the jail, including the food and living conditions. I also prepared myself to stay there for at least 48 days. But of course, I’m really happy to be out of there too.

The second you stepped out of jail, how did you feel?

I might be exaggerating, but I felt like I could smell freedom. Outside, I’m able to do whatever I want but inside I have to follow prison rules. The rules really regulated my body, and what I could do. I tried to think of the 12 days as a camp, monk ordination, or conscription. I didn’t want to stress myself out. While we were all together in Zone 1 there were a lot of ways to relax. We would tell jokes and funny stories from our own lives, and whoever told a lame joke would have to knock on the floor three times.

Did you meet any political prisoners in jail?

A lot, actually. Most of them are inclined toward the red side. They’d come up and greet me. They follow current events, since usually there are newspapers available in the prison. But when I went into the prison, they took away the newspapers, and the TV channels were changed from news to soap operas. They tried to do all this because they didn’t want us to talk to the political prisoners very much. They were probably afraid we were gonna cause some kind of protest in there.

For example, we all agreed to shave our heads if they separated us. When we did, other inmates who agreed with us, mostly political prisoners, shaved their heads to show support as well. The warden got in hot water with his supervisor since it was against prison protocol. But we weren’t trying to protest against the prison, we just wanted to communicate with the outside.

What do you think about the incarcerated political prisoners? 

I believe no one should be jailed for expressing their opinions. There’s this inmate who’s been in there for 11 months although he has not been charged yet. The police just keep holding him. Each time he goes out to court, the case hasn’t been filed. They always say they haven’t finished drafting the case file. It’s been almost a year already.

He’s been there for almost a year although he’s done no wrong. It’s way too unjust towards him.

Regarding the behaviour of the wardens towards inmates, even if the inmates are wrong, even if they’re a danger to society, they’re still people. They shouldn’t be screamed at, beat up, or verbally abused.

This extends to the medical staff as well. No matter what inmates are suffering, they all receive the same set of pills: antibiotics, cold medicine, and paracetamol. The nurses act just like the wardens, often oppressively towards the inmates. I understand that they have to be tough to keep inmates in line, but sometimes they go too far, treating them as if they aren’t human.

Before you got arrested, you said you’d hold up one of your cloth protest signs in prison if anyone asks what you did to get jailed. When you got arrested for real, did anyone ask you about the charges against you?

The other inmates knew it was a political case, so they asked me if I had held protests. I had imagined before going in that it was probably going to be a funny situation, but when I went in for real it really wasn’t. It wasn’t funny at all.

The wardens also tried to make it hard for us to interact with other prisoners, so I didn’t get to talk to them or exchange views with them very much. From what I could tell, though, the inmates who took care of us wanted us to get out on bail because to them we didn’t seem like thieves or dangerous people.

Anything to say to the public? 

In the future don’t be sorry if you didn’t rise up to fight with us today. We don’t know how long we can survive in this sort of atmosphere, so you have to do something, no matter who.

“Base” – Suvicha Tipangkorn

BaseHow did you fare in prison?

When we were all together in Zone 1 we got to know each other better. Some of us hadn’t met before and only got to know each other in prison. It was fun and rowdy, and we adjusted ourselves to the prison bathrooms. When I was moved to Zone 3 I was so sad, I cried. They separated me from my friends so unexpectedly.

I had to readjust myself in Zone 3, and learn new things. They took good care of me and let me stay towards the front of the Zone. I went into the bedroom at 3 pm each day to sleep, meditate, watch TV, and watch the news. There was at least some news to watch. I had to wake at 6 am each day to shower and use the bathroom before coming back to the cell, hoping that my relatives would come visit me that da. After a 20-minute visit, I would eat, shower, and enter the cell again. This cycle would just keep repeating. The bedroom was clean, and I slept with 11 other people, all elderly men. We were so crowded our feet touched when we slept. They let me sleep there because there was a camera in that room.

Did you get to talk much with the other prisoners?

I got to know guy who got hit with the Criminal Court bombing case. He’s also an Isaan person, like me. We talked about how only Isaan people were getting arrested, and we spoke in Isaan too.

I want to say that it’s not scary in prison like you think. If you know how to survive and don’t pick fights with others, then it isn’t that bad. Even after being there for just a few days I exchanged addresses with some other inmates. I told him that he could come hang out at Dao Din meeting house (บ้านดาวดิน) since he was getting out next year. He said he didn’t have any relatives since his father and younger sibling was dead, and his mom had a new husband. He didn’t have a place to live either, so I said he could come to us.

Do you have anything to say to the public? 

I have something to say to people with strong prejudices against prison inmates. They might be heavily tattooed but that doesn’t mean they’re just gonna harm people easily. They have their own reasons for getting in prison. In prison, everyone’s equal: it doesn’t matter what age you are, you can all be friends. There is no ranking or hierarchy in there. It doesn’t matter if you were some big hot-shot godfather on the outside, but inside, everyone’s just another inmate using the same bathrooms and eating the same food.

Payu Boonsopon

PayuWhat was prison like for you?

Before going in I thought it was gonna be a horrible place full of gangs and hazing. When I arrived there around 2 am the atmosphere was much different than what I initially thought. We slept, then when we woke up there were these wardens guarding us. The supervisor told them to take special care of us and barred us from talking to the other prisoners.

After we were separated into different Zones we agreed that we had to try and meet each other more, so we told our relatives to visit us during the same 9 am visiting rounds. That way, we would get to meet and discuss. The difference between Zone 1 and 2 is, Zone 1 mixes both inmates waiting for a verdict in their cases as well as those who have already been sentenced, so there are inmates of all ages in there. In Zone 2, there are only young people from 19 years old to no older than 25. So since young men aren’t as responsible in some areas, Zone 2 is really dirty. (laughs)

Before going into Zone 2, a Zone 1 senior inmate told me to watch out or tum moy. What is tum moy?, I thought. I knew soon after going into Zone 2. It’s similar to chickenpox or German measles, and it’s really scary. People infected with it are in trouble. Their limbs are swollen and their blisters ooze pus.

People in Zone 2 are divided into cliques quite systematically. Gangsters and bullies bring their group members to fights, and the Zone is divided into gang territory. Friends will stick to their groups. The Zone is also divided by sexual orientation. Ladyboys run the Yaowarat [Chinatown] zone.

How did you feel when you got out of prison and saw your friends?

I felt like I got to see them a lot in prison, but this time it was different because we were free. We could walk anywhere we wanted without high walls fencing us in, and I could feel that we were free. When meeting other groups of friends I was also happy, since I got to talk to them and hold their hands.

I felt like we were being watched extra closely in the prison. I don’t know if I’m imagining it, but I think the wardens of each Zone forbad the other inmates from talking to us. Once another inmate was curious so he came up and was like, ‘Hey kid, what’re you in here for?’ so the warden came up to us, asked us what we were talking about, and ordered the other inmate to do squats. After that no one really talked to me, except in the bedroom cell.

Anything else?

I’m glad I’m out of prison because there’s no freedom. Each day I have to come and sit in front of the Zone for the wardens to guard me all day. I’m glad I got to come out and talk about what’s really bad about prison and the living conditions, so that people interested in this can know about it. I hope people will understand that prisoners aren’t as bad as they think. Some of them forged really strong bonds with us. They’re just like other people in society. I don’t think all of them did evil things to end up in prison, more like society pressured them to do those things. After they get out, a lot of times society won’t accept them. If anyone’s interested I would be glad to talk more about this. I’m thankful that I got to come out of prison with knowledge to spread.

 “Nice” – Panupong Srithananuwat

NiceWhat were your living conditions in prison like?

At first I felt really anxious since I had assumed that it would be scary, like the media had told me. When entered the reception zone, everything was done so rigorously, done according to prison protocol. The warden was in charge of keeping order in the Zones. There was a cell leader who took care of the rules in the cell. At first when we were all together in Zone 1 there wasn’t much to do since there were no books to read, so we just sat around. After we were separated into different Zones, the wardens kept an eye on our safety. In the prison’s eyes, we were not criminals who robbed or killed, but we were prisoners of conscience.When we were all together in Zone 1, it wasn’t all happy-go-lucky but at least we weren’t lonely. We were totally unprepared for the separation, so I admit to feeling lonely after that.Life in Zone 2 wasn’t so different, and there were books to read too. Zone 2 is divided into territorial areas, called baan (houses). For example, inmates who come from around the Ramkhamhaeng area will be in Baan Ram. Other baan include Baan Malaysia, Baan Singapore, Baan Islam, Baan Lad Phrao. There’s an entire system of governance, and jobs assigned to the members of each baan. The leader of each baan, por [father] baan, takes care of the members. The members’ jobs include finding goods, saving seats, reserving the laundry area, and hanging up the laundry. They have a system in place and members each have their jobs.Did you meet any other political prisoners?

Quite a few, actually, 4-5 people. We talked about current events. They asked me why I came out to protest against the NCPO. I explained the same way I had explained to the media. We used to work in Khon Kaen, working with farmers and miners on the issue of resources, and how state projects infringe on them. Protesting against the junta is the same issue.

We also exchanged whatever we knew. They also have their own set of knowledge. For example, I’d talk about upcountry resources and how the state was imposing on them, while they’d tell me about the political system.

I think of my incarceration as a life experience. Some people haven’t even been proven guilty yet and they’re being held in detention there for 7 months. I don’t understand how the justice system can let this happen. They need to finish the case already so at least the inmates know what’s going to happen, and can set about planning for their lives. If you don’t convict them and leave them in limbo, you shouldn’t have the right to imprison them for long periods of time like this.

I don’t want society outside to immediately brand inmates as scary jailbirds. If you open your heart a little and just talk to them, they’ll do the same to you. They have their own reasons for getting in there, such as coming from an impoverished home and getting no education. Without even a chance at education, their options of finding a living are very few. So to support their wives and kids they might turn to selling drugs.

I hope society can see them as people too. They’re much better than us in terms of having mastered the art of survival. They’re much scrappier and have struggled more. We have money and education, and our parents paid for our tuition. The inmates have nothing, so there is no choice but to struggle.

Asaree Thaitrakulpanich, Yiamyut Sutthichaya, and Narisara Suepaisal contributed to this report.

Sleeping Soldiers, Sinking Ships, and Dinosaurs: Filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul discusses his upcoming film

Northeastern Thailand rarely features in internationally acclaimed cinema, but the region has been the setting for filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s beautifully allusive and atmospheric films for years.

Apichatpong grew up in the Northeast and graduated in architecture from Khon Kaen University. He then proceeded to study cinema at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Filmmaker and visual artist Apichatpong Weerasethakul will present his new film Cemetery of Splendour at the Cannes Film Festival this week.

Filmmaker and visual artist Apichatpong Weerasethakul will present his new film Cemetery of Splendour at the Cannes Film Festival this week.

In his films, Apichatpong creates mesmerizing images and nonlinear plots that often blur the boundaries between reality and imagination. While his work eludes any clear political leaning, Apichatpong cultivates a vivid interest in the margins. He often focuses on characters who rarely make it on Thai screens, like homosexual soldiers and migrant workers.

This fascination with borderlands and his enchantment with Khon Kaen have kept luring him to the Northeast. He once referred to the region as “the most precious treasure” of filmmaking possibilities in Thailand, and he wondered whether Isaan’s energy is “the backbone of contemporary Thai society and culture.”

After Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2010, and the hour-long Mekong Hotel from 2012, Apichatpong now returns with a new feature set in the Northeast.

Cemetery of Splendour (Thai: Rak Thi Khon Kaen) tells the story of a middle-aged woman who cares for a group of soldiers who contracted a mysterious sleeping sickness. Apichatpong calls the film a “very personal portrait” of his hometown Khon Kaen and “a rumination of Thailand, a feverish nation.”

This week, Cemetery of Splendour will have its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in France. The Isaan Record talked to Apichatpong about childhood memories, Isaan dreaminess, sinking ships, dinosaurs and the Northeast’s communist past.

IR: How is your personal relationship to the Northeast reflected in your films?

A: Most of my films are more or less based on my memories from my time growing up in Khon Kaen. The landscape around and also the architecture. I prefer to depict the mood of Isaan, I guess it’s also the charm of the region.

My grandfather was from China and he relocated to Nakhon Sawan, so my father is actually from there. And my mom is from Bangkok, she is also from a Chinese family. After they graduated as medical doctors, they chose to live in Khon Kaen, to work at the hospital there. At that time nobody wanted to go to the Northeast.

When I was a little boy, I spent most of my time around the hospital. We lived in the doctor’s housing unit in the hospital area. And most of the doctors were from somewhere else and not from the Northeast.

I wasn’t really conscious about featuring the Northeast in my films in the beginning. I was more interested in borders. For one of my first films, I was interested in the Thai-Burmese border. I always was fascinated by the act of crossing borders.

It was only later when we had more of a budget that I started to feel that I wanted to move my films closer to Isaan. About half of Syndromes and a Century was shot in the Northeast. And Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives was about 95% shot in Isaan, in Khon Kaen and Loei Province. My newest film Cemetery of Splendour was shot completely in Khon Kaen.

“It has mostly remained the same from when I was young,” says Apichatpong about Bueng Kaen Nakhon Lake that features in his new film.

“It has mostly remained the same from when I was young,” says Apichatpong about Bueng Kaen Nakhon Lake that features in his new film.

IR: You are quoted saying that when you were younger you tried to hide your background of being from Khon Kaen. How has that changed over time?

I would say that I was from Khon Kaen, and people would laugh.

A: Yes, it has changed a lot. When I was younger, up until my 20s, when I was trying to get into architectural school, I went to a tutoring school for architecture. I would say that I was from Khon Kaen, and people would laugh. But that would never happen now. It has changed quite a lot, in a good way. There are still some bits of resentment, but less than before.

For many people too, like Jenjira Pongpas, my regular actress, while she was living in Bangkok, she worked for a woman who supplied extras for TV and movies –supporting casts. And one of Jenjira’s jobs was to help them get rid of their Isaan accents. She taught them how to properly speak central Thai.

IR: Why is your newest film set in your hometown Khon Kaen?

A: Partly because I haven’t really been back too often. My mother and my brother live in Khon Kaen, so it was almost an excuse to spend a longer period of time with them.

I feel like Khon Kaen has changed quite a lot. Every time I’ve been back, there is always this memory, the old things layered under what is now. It is almost a bit of a farewell film because honestly, I feel like I should take up the challenge to work somewhere other than Thailand. So, maybe it’s good to have a last film set in my hometown.

Originally, I meant to set the film in Nong Khai, because Jenjira is from there. She has been inspiring me a lot, especially through her memories of Isaan. Also, I really love the Mekong River and there is of course this fascination with borders, the Thai-Lao border. In fact, I think Khon Kaen is not that photogenic compared to Nong Khai, and this felt like a challenge to me too.

IR: How do your childhood memories of Khon Kaen feature in your film?

A: I based it on the hospital that I spent so much time in as a child, and also my school. Because my world back then as a child was really only that: the hospital, the school, and also the local cinemas. So this film is a combination of the three.

I think the film looks at the city with the eyes of sadness.

And we used a school that is maybe 15 minutes from Khon Kaen University, which in terms of architecture is a mixture of wood and concrete. Actually, this is almost a mixture of my school and my old wooden house at the hospital complex.

When I grew up more than thirty years ago, there were mainly dirt roads in the town. And there were not as many buildings as there are today. And because of my architectural background, Khon Kaen sometimes feels like a failure of city planning to me. The traffic is getting quite bad now and there are not that many trees around anymore.

I feel sorry to say that Khon Kaen is becoming very similar to other cities around the country that have no identity anymore. The best that city planners can come up with is placing dinosaurs around the city. We also feature that in the film. I think the film looks at the city with the eyes of sadness.

Filmmaker Apichatpong at last year's shooting of his newest feature Cemetery of Splendour in Khon Kaen City.

Filmmaker Apichatpong at last year’s shooting of his newest feature Cemetery of Splendour in Khon Kaen City.

IR: Is your new film more based in an urban setting than, for example, Uncle Boonmee or Hotel Mekong?

A: It is a combination of neutral places. In the beginning you see something that looks more like a rural school and then the viewer is taken to the city. But not really like a sprawling city, it’s more like shots of the night market in Khon Kaen. And then also the lake, Bueng Kaen Nakhon. So these are more of these neutral grounds which I chose because they have mostly remained the same from when I was young until now.

IR: You talked about your fascination with borders and the act of crossing borders. Do you feel like your films also often cross some sort of border between the Northeast and Bangkok?

Yes, that’s for sure. It’s not only the Northeast, but also the North and the South. These regions are separated spiritually from the center which also translates into a political dimension.

But in my films there are many borders, for example the one between the dead and the living. And also the border between the everyday life and dreams. And I believe that for the Northeast, it is pretty obvious that there is this layer of the two worlds on top of people’s imagination. When you look at Isaan folk tales, they are full of fantastical imaginary or animistic beliefs. So it seems that people and myself included live not only in this one singular dimension, but in various different realities and in their dreams. These can be dreams of the supernatural, the spiritual world, but also dreams of a better future.

IR: How would you describe Thailand’s current political situation and how does it impact your filmmaking?

For me, living in this country represents powerlessness, but at the same time this negative force really drives me to work.

A: Well, I would say, the situation is almost boring. It’s almost like this is one of the Thai seasons, a short winter, a rainy season, a hot season and then the coup season. It’s a never-ending cycle and this is terrible of course. And I feel tired of it.

That is why this film and previous ones look at the country in quite a sad way, full of sorrows. For me, living in this country represents powerlessness, but at the same time this negative force really drives me to work. I don’t know if I were to live somewhere else that I would be as productive.

IR: Previous films of yours have been censored in Thailand. Do you expect to run into censorship problems with your newest film?

A: In fact there’s only Syndromes and a Century that ran into problems with the censors. That film, to me, was so pure and innocent. So you never know what will happen in this country.

IR: Have you ever felt scared or threatened because of the work that you do?

A: Of course. As a filmmaker and artist, it is about expression, so it is a promise that you are being true to yourself. But can you do that in this climate? Often times I cannot call myself a true artist.

It is like being on a sinking ship, but it is a quite comfortable ship. There is music, there is good food, but it is sinking, and we don’t realize it.

IR: What do you think is in store for the future Thailand and how is this related to your work?

A: It is a cycle of power balance, but the problem is that the majority of the people are not part of this power. So right now it is about the recalibration of this power out there, between different institutions. What can I say, I am just amazed that we have survived this far.

For me it is like being on a sinking ship, but it is a quite comfortable ship. There is music, there is good food, but it is sinking, and we don’t realize it.

In Cemetery of Splendour, a group of soldiers suffer from a mysterious sleeping sickness.

In Cemetery of Splendour, a group of soldiers suffer from a mysterious sleeping sickness.

IR: Is the recurring theme of sleeping and dreaming in your films a political commentary? Are the sleeping soldiers a reference to the Thai military?

A: It could be interpreted like that. Because here you can’t do anything about it, you just sleep and this is a form of escape into the world of dreams. I have featured this theme since Blissfully Yours and also in my Primitive project in Nakhon Panom, in which all the teens are sleeping.

It’s like the intrusion of a fantasy which I sometimes feel like when watching the news. There is the sheer force of craziness. In previous projects I was always interested in the act of sleeping as a form of escape. I did some research about sleeping sicknesses and I discovered cases of people suffering from this kind of sickness during the WWII era. We still don’t know much about these cases.

I am also quite fascinated by uniforms; sexually and also in terms of power in society. So in Cemetery of Splendour, I sort of combine these two fascinations and interests.

IR: What is the significance of the communist past of the Northeast in your films?

A: In a way, this is just me trying to understand what happened during that time. While working with Jenjira, I learned that her father was part of the Internal Security Operations Command during the communist period. He was in a special unit that went out to the villages to suppress communism by screening propaganda films at Buddhist temples. So there is this link to films.

And then I travelled along the Mekong River and stayed at a village in Nakhon Phanom Province. I learned more about that time, which was not totally new to me, but it still impacted me and brought me to listen to people who were traumatized in different ways.

I wondered how come I had so little knowledge about this.

And it’s quite astonishing that this all happened during my lifetime. I wondered how come I had so little knowledge about this. And I believe that these events from then are a very important factor for where Thailand is today.

When I was little, more than once there were 24 hours of cartoons on TV. And that was often exactly the time when the coups, the killings in the villages happened. So this happened while I was enjoying watching my cartoons.

Also the presence of American troops in the Northeast, I remember a US Army base in Khon Kaen as well. And I think they showed 16mm black-and-white movies, like King Kong, and I remember really enjoying watching those movies. I mean this is where part of my love for cinema and American culture comes from, while at the same time it spread fear of communism.

Itta (Banlop Lomnoi) and Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas Widner) in a scene at the night market in Khon Kaen City.

Itta (Banlop Lomnoi) and Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas Widner) in a scene at the night market in Khon Kaen City.

IR: In Uncle Boonmee there is a scene at the table when the spirit of the sister appears and they talk about her foreign husband, Hans. In your newest film there is also a foreign husband. What’s the significance of this for you?

A: All my movies are personal and they always feature people that I love. And Jenjira is one of them. Over the years she really had this mission to find a husband [laughs]. A good husband. We are all looking for a good person for ourselves. She was married to foreigner before who was quite abusive. So they separated and she landed a couple more foreigner partners until she found her current husband who is a really great guy from New Mexico. They have been married for four years and live in Nong Khai. And the foreigner in Cemetery is a reference to him.

In the future Isaan will be very different from what it is now—it might become the center of the country.

I also have this interest in Isaan’s phenomenon of women marrying foreigners. I believe this will have an impact on the region. In the future Isaan will be very different from what it is now—it might become the center of the country. You have all these mixed kids who are financially well-off and of course many also go to better schools. So the landscape of the Northeast will change.

IR: How was the shooting and editing process of Cemetery of Splendor?

A: Shooting in Khon Kaen was a very smooth experience and there was a lot of support from Khon Kaen City, from the police, and from people. It was my first time doing most of everything in Khon Kaen, so that was very new to me.

Usually, I rely so much on the resources in Bangkok. When we casted Isaan people we would find them in Bangkok. But this time, we did casting in Khon Kaen and the process of meeting people there was amazing. Now, I have a long list of talented actors—all of them non-professionals. They have other jobs, but they are really good.

For this film, the shooting was quite straight forward, we followed the script. In fact, I didn’t improvise that much. We really stressed the importance of timing for the shooting; we had to follow the sun. And even though there wasn’t much room for improvisation, it turned out very good for me.

The editing has changed quite a bit for this film. We cut off about 30% of the film. We put the focus more on Jenjira. Before there were other supporting characters but now the movie is her.

IR_Apichatpong-01IR: In Khon Kaen, is there a community or support structure for filmmakers?

A: Not much, but there are groups of young filmmakers, and a lot of talent. There are agents for modelling, for advertising, and for events, but not much.

From what I know there is only one guy who is really established. Uten Sririwi who made Poo Bao Tai Baan–this guy has a company there. One funny thing is that he has a son, and he named him Apichatpong. So that’s very flattering.

There just isn’t a big audience anywhere for this kind of film. It would be a minority film for every country.

IR: Do you have a release date for Cemetery of Splendour?

A: Only for France, in September. That’s something that boxes me in–people always say I don’t make films for Thai people and it makes it even worse when I don’t show my films here. But it is totally not true because there just isn’t a big audience anywhere for this kind of film. It is a minority film for every country.

IR: But internationally you have quite a crowd of followers.

A: Yeah, it is just that we have different kinds of movie cultures, and hopefully that will also change some day. For example, in Korea or Taiwan, there is a big support from the government, so that not only does domestic movie-making flourish, but also the people’s point of view about the world’s cinema changes; they start to appreciate it. But for Thailand, we can only access such films online and often illegally, so there is not really an official way. This is a real pity.

It would be better if there were state support for this kind of art because I believe that it really changes people. It kind of expands one’s awareness about the world and about different views.

Cemetery of Splendour (Thai: Rak Thi Khon Kaen) will premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on May 18.

Khon Kaen Governor: Strong Central Government an Important Move for Junta Policy

Mr. Khamtorn Tawornsatit took up the position of Khon Kaen governor on June 3 of this year. A career civil servant, Mr. Kamtorn has a Master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning and started as a district officer in Sakorn Nakorn Province in 1992. His first governorship was of Mae Hong Son Province in 2009. He was governor of Chainat Province for just eight months before his appointment to Khon Kaen, as part of move by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) immediately after the May 22 coup to replace several governors suspected of supporting the February elections. The Isaan Record recently sat down with Mr. Kamtorn to discuss his perspectives on the current situation and the role of provincial government.

Ending Color-Coded Divisions

The Isaan Record: How have you been handling the creation of harmony and conformity of people in Khon Kaen in the case of colored-shirt villages?

Governor Kamtorn Tawornsatit: I’d like to inform you that the word ‘colored-shirt villages’ was a measurement to address the critical atmosphere caused by the differences in information and beliefs of the people. The NCPO therefore came and took control of the country. First, we have to look at the people as Thai, that we are all Thai. This idea eliminates division and violence. When we are divided, we think of others not as Thai, but as opponents. Thus, this crisis could be peacefully resolved if we looked at others as Thai. There would be no violence if we trusted each other.

“We have to look at the people as Thai, that we are all Thai. This idea eliminates division and violence.” Photo credit: Jeremy Starn

“We have to look at the people as Thai, that we are all Thai. This idea eliminates division and
violence.” Photo credit: Jeremy Starn

Today, I have managed to eliminate the colored shirts in each community. Each community is different. Khon Kaen people are not the same as they appear. They have different beliefs. [Understanding] this will make us successful in the creation of harmony and conformity. If one makes an assumption that all these folk are all the same and think the same, that’s not true. Thai people have freedom within them. When we are aware of their right to believe or like [what they choose], we respect their right. But at the same time, we could [think differently] because different facts and visions [influence us]. First, we have to respect each other’s thoughts. Each village and subdistrict is not the same. Some quickly understand the situation. Others may not quickly understand the situation. However, we consider which community or village can understand the situation well. We have talked in principle about what the causes of the crisis were or what environments can lead to violence, [and] we urged them to stop. [We had to] stop the flow of information that has caused division; this is the most important. Then people understand peace and happiness.

I’d like to compare Thailand to the human body with many diseases such as hypertension, [with] blood, bones, [and] including the lungs, spleen, and heart. There is a doctor for each disease. But if each doctor treats this patient all on his or her own, it would affect the other diseases. Therefore, the situation [on May 22] was critical. It was already moving forward and could not be turned back. No one could handle it. Everyone speculated there would be violence. Therefore, no one knew which disease ought to be treated first, nor which doctor should be the first. In medicine, there is a leader of the doctors who decides what disease is critical and should be treated first. As can be seen, the situation had to be stopped and the administration had to take control. After everyone cooperated, we could take the opportunity [to analyze] what causes there were to all this conflict and then to manage the divisive ideas systematically. And then guidelines could be proposed to solve the problems which [in turn] lead to reform.

IR: What are the benefits of the Damrong Dhamma Center (centers established by the NCPO in every province to aid in public service) establishment for the people in Khon Kaen?

KT: The Damrong Dhamma Center was born from the NCPO Order 96. A NCPO order is on the same level as a decree and alters many laws. For example, a governor has the duty to control the operation of the bureaucracy [with authority] derived from the central government. These are the mechanisms of the justice process. Previously, governors had no authority in these areas but did have the power to call people in for questioning if necessary. But now, they have power to command [these areas]. The authority to command has now been unified in seven or eight areas, such as in forests, where the governor can take command for more efficient law enforcement.

For the many complaints received from the people, the governor can announce guidelines on how to support the people. At the moment, command orders [go out] to all officials in the province, thus even local officials from the central government [have to obey] if the governor asks them for their cooperation to solve a problem. In the past, [in trying to find a] solution to a problem, the official were overwhelmed by the problem. Official could not solve all the problems in a timely fashion. But now, it is the problems that are overwhelmed by the officials. That is, working in an integrated way, the officials are able to solve problems. If even a single problem is taken care of, it might also solve other problems.

IR: What is the provincial government doing in terms of national security and maintaining peace and order in Khon Kaen (short and long term)?

KT: First, for the state’s administrative power to be used, people must trust in the state’s mechanisms. We want peace and happiness. What state officials can do is deliver on justice. Justice comes from good governance observed by state officials. After all officials observe good governance, work can be fast and accurate, [and with that] then comes fairness and justice. Justice is about how the legal process is enforced. The last part, fairness, is how well the political rights, the duties and power of the people, are taken care of. In the long term, it is about having a peoplecentric and problem-solving approach. To address problems of the people in this case, the government has announced the 12 Core Thai Values policy. This shows that people come before the structure and the system.

     “If one asks, ‘Who is a governor?’—the governor is the ears and eyes for the government in each province.” Photo credit: Jeremy Starn

“If one asks, ‘Who is a governor?’—the governor is the ears and eyes for the government in each province.” Photo credit: Jeremy Starn

Addressing Problems of the People

IR: What is the government doing to address the short and long-term problems facing people of Khon Kaen?

KT: The urgent problem is the livelihood of farmers. Farmers are the foundation of the country. It is the farmers who are having problems now, especially with production and the market. In this, the livelihood of [the farmers] must be taken care of, the economy has to flow, and a reduction of social costs will all create opportunities for the people. In the long run, according to my principles, I think the problem concerns the country’s plans [on the one hand] and the national scheme [on the other]. They do not match with each other. First, for the long term, is the National Economic and Social Development Plan (NESDP). The plan provides the big picture and gives direction to this country. We give too little attention to it. It should be held as the principle for state administration for every level of government. The national scheme is related to the NESDP. For example, land usage must match with soil potential. This gets much less attention and leads to disasters and development problems. NESDP is my long-term, primary solution [to the country’s problems].

IR: What is the provincial government doing in terms of providing economy stimulus and raising revenue for the people of Khon Kaen?

KT: We must look at Khon Kaen’s gross [provincial] product by its character. In theory, Khon
Kaen is the center of Isaan. Therefore, agriculture is not the most important aspect of Khon Kaen. Gross product comes from many industries such as green logistics, Khon Kaen serving as a medical and educational hub, and as a Meetings, Incentives, Conferencing, Exhibitions (MICE) city. The income from these tells us we are the center of the region. If more development takes place, Khon Kaen could be the center of the Mekong basin and next, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

[*Ed. Note: Khon Kaen was designated by the Thai government as a MICE City in July 2013. A MICE city is one promoted as “a premium destination for meetings, incentive travels, conferences, and exhibitions.”]

IR: In the provincial administration, is there an opportunity for civil society to be involved in the process? In which areas in particular?

KT: For provincial development planning, we have a provincial development committee which already includes all related sectors. It’s simply not true that as a new governor I can change
[government] policy—this is an old misunderstanding. There are laws, plans, decrees, good governance, and the provincial development plan in the way [of my doing that]. Vision must come from the planning committees, their strategies, and their missions. The governor comes and assigns policy in operations, not in development. Therefore, I’m quite sure that Thailand is already good in principle. The people, civil society, and the private sector are already involved. But the upper mechanism of budget allocation and budget considerations can only support that vision.

IR: Why is good governance important?

KT: One confusing aspect of the state administration is that the state mechanisms do not have
credibility and reliability in the eyes of the people. Therefore, observing the principle of good
governance is how to win the people’s trust, confidence, and feeling of reliability [in the
government]. When this is accomplished, I think the people will cooperate and become a part of economic, social, and political development.

Decentralization and Self-Governance

IR: What is the vital key of decentralization?

KT: There are three mechanisms in the administration: centralization, authorization, and decentralization. But if we tried to use one or another in Thailand, it would not work because we
have all three mechanisms. We must use them together. In the history of Thailand, it was never that we had separated states such as Buriram, Khon Kaen that then joined together to become a nation. It was born as a kingdom by itself as the Rattanakosin kingdom and then spread. Thailand’s decentralization has spread management and development—not government administration. For example, the areas of services or development can be decentralized. However, security-related administration cannot be decentralized. Therefore, only decentralization of management and development will be done. But, because [people] misunderstand the nature of a unitary state of Thailand, people might think the word “freedom” must be used. With Thai democracy, it is impossible to talk about rights and freedoms by the book because rights and freedoms are related to the quality of the people. If we don’t have democracy yet, then the quality, perspectives, and knowledge of our people should be taken into consideration. I’m not complaining, but these are all obstacle to democracy.

IR: In your opinion, should governors be elected or appointed?

KT: If you are the government, will you only stay in Bangkok? We had the same atmosphere during the [Cold War], that is, when the Communist [Party] of Thailand still existed. District and provincial authorities had to fight in all work zones. There was the government in Bangkok [but] it meant nothing because it could not help us. We only had the district offices to fight with that force.

At the same time, if we look at present situation, [can] you be the government without eyes and ears? How can you be an efficient government? Where is the nation? There has to be one
government for the whole country. For a government to occupy the whole of Thailand, [local central government offices] have to be the government’s eyes and ears. Governors get their salaries from the Ministry of Interior, but do all the jobs from every department/ministry. If one asks, “Who is a governor?” the governor is the ears and eyes for the government in each province. Who is the district head? The district head is the [central] government in a district. Imagine what would happen to the country if the government was not in Bangkok, in Isaan or in the South—there would no one from the central government [in those places].

“With Thai democracy, it is impossible to talk about rights and freedoms by the book because rights and freedoms are related to the quality of the people.” Photo credit: Jeremy Starn

“With Thai democracy, it is impossible to talk about rights and freedoms by the book because rights and freedoms are related to the quality of the people.” Photo credit: Jeremy Starn

IR: Is Khon Kaen ready for an elected governor?

KT: I insist that the [central] government must be in every region. You can change the governor or the title. That is, the governor is called the representative of the government which handles national security, foreign affairs, peace and order. To the question, can we assign national security to a local government? No! You must think how a self-governed province manages its revenue. Will they share it? I’m afraid they would try to keep it in their province.

IR: Is Khon Kaen ready to be self-governed province?

KT: Khon Kaen can be self-governed in some areas, [but] not all. One must understand—where is self-governance happening on the planet? Some areas can be handled, some cannot. Thus, the readiness of Khon Kaen depends on high urbanization. For example, Khon Kaen municipality is self-governed but they cannot manage some areas, such as garbage fee collection, on their own. Some think everything can be handled. Elected people can handle some issues, but not others. [The issues they cannot handle,] must be handled by appointed people. Raising garbage fees is problematic and unwelcome. Decentralization cannot be done in all areas; self-governed provinces cannot manage all issues.

IR: What about local elected bodies whose term has ended and the appointed officials there who are now in charge? The NCPO did not extend their terms and instead has used appointments to fill vacancies. What is your view on this?

KT: It is within my authority to appoint [new] members [to formerly elected local bodies]. While we are [in a period] when we do not have confidence in the electoral process and the election
system is being reformed, we use appointments as authorized by the NCPO. The procedures and rules are already defined. [Appointees] must be a bureaucrat who has served in the position in the area for a certain period as legislatively defined.

IR: How is decentralization related to solving Khon Kaen’s problems?

KT: The most urgent matter is to proceed according to the vision. It is not physically possible for Khon Kaen to be a self-governed province. It needs leaders. Even managing traffic jams is difficult, because there are those who stand to lose. Thus, appointed people are needed. Today, there are many issues related to solving problems of the municipality and organizing the city. If asked why [these problems haven’t been solved yet,] it is because of elections. If you are elected, will you be able to [act with discretion] or will you think you can do anything?

Looking to the Future

IR: What area is Khon Kaen ready for in terms of the ASEAN Economic Community?

The Governor: Khon Kaen has Mice-City industries which indicate its capability to support expositions, seminar tourism, and it is a medical hub as well as the gateway to other main cities in ASEAN. Khon Kaen is not a city focusing on border trade but is an aviation hub for business negotiations in this region.

IR: What message do you want to give to people in Khon Kaen?

KT: The bureaucracy is the mechanism of the government. Taking care of the people’s welfare is the duty [of the bureaucrat]. When bureaucrats do their job with good governance and with
responsibility to the people, the faith and trust of the people [in us] will provide the energy for us to move together. Without trust, the country cannot develop. Come and work together [with us].

Interview: Street Art Hits Khon Kaen

An unlikely movement has taken root in the heart of Khon Kaen: street art. Here, a group of recent college graduates and former skateboarders are taking the city by surprise with the controversial artwork they are painting across the walls of city buildings. They call themselves Dude Factory.

Street art has yet to make waves in Isaan but this group of artists has made it their goal to bring the movement to the region. Recently, the Isaan Record sat down with Floyd, Baby83, and Wink – three artists from the group (all of whom preferred to be identified by their tag) – to hear more about their work and their experience painting in the city and on the outskirts.

See their work and read what they have to say below.

Wink works mainly with the idea of overconsumption. His obese and sluggish figures are meant to discomfort his audience and encourage them to question the growing tendency to blindly consume. Also by Wink. Floyd often paints disembodied fingers, a symbol from a Buddhist tale about Daku Angulimala – a man who engages in violence before he learns the teachings of Buddha. Also by Floyd. Baby 83 focuses on images that represent the tendency to lie. Here, he paints a sheep from the fable "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" as a way to remind his audience that lying is everywhere, though they may not know it. Also by Baby83. Also by Baby83.
Baby 83 focuses on images that represent the tendency to lie. Here, he paints a sheep from the fable "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" as a way to remind his audience that lying is everywhere, though they may not know it.

Isaan Record: So, why street art?

Baby83: Floyd, Wink and I used to do extreme sports together – BMX-ing, skateboarding. We got to know each other through these activities and in the context of street culture. [And over time] I got to know the culture better, too. I started learning more and I discovered that modern street art is a branch of this culture. It’s a performance, and one that can be presented to people easily. You know, if we work on art inside a frame, we’re just working at home – people will only see our work when we display it in an exhibition.  But for street art, they can see our work while we are in the process of doing it, and they’ll ask questions while we work. That’s what it means to be fresh. It’s a lot of fun.

Wink: After I graduated from [the faculty of arts at KKU], I started to see that there are other kinds of work out there like street art.  Once I was out of college, I realized that there’s this large gap between art and people. I thought I should do something to bring art closer to people because our city, Khon Kaen, doesn’t have much in the way of [contemporary art] movements. I chose to present this kind [of art] as my way of expression. I came to that conclusion two years ago.

Floyd: I had seen [street art] when I was young and became interested in it, but I didn’t know how I could get involved. I started getting into BMX-ing and I was studying art at the university. After I graduated — well, it’s the same as Wink said. The art of this society is really dull, it’s also dated. There are only old people doing it. For teenagers, especially the alternative ones, it’s so old-fashioned. So we all started talking to each other about how we could make a strong impact [on people] and how we could make them confused. We decided street art was the best option. We like it. And we think that the finished product is cool, too.

Baby83: Let’s suppose that drawing on paper is like listening to music on a CD. What I mean is that working inside of a frame is a lot like listening to a CD. But the process of going out and doing street art, well, that’s like playing a concert. It’s live. Whatever we say, however we play at a concert – it’s far more powerful than when it’s on a CD.

IR: How do people react to your work in the city?

Baby83: We always ask for permission and we even show people sketches beforehand. The reason we do this is because [Thailand] is different from Europe or America. There, [artists] don’t need to ask permission because people aren’t afraid of art, it’s not talked about as if it’s scary. But here we have to ask for permission because people are afraid even though it’s just art. Ultimately, it means people can have trouble appreciating it.

Wink: Once I was painting a head on a Chinese house – one half of the face was a skull and the other half was pretty. But once it was done I had to erase it. Chinese people really hate skulls. In China, punk culture is not something that people accept, partly because of [the symbol of] the skull. So I had to take it down and paint the whole wall over again. I understand that this is a part of their culture but sometimes I can’t control myself. [Laughs] But I also know I have another responsibility – I respect the owners of the buildings so I had to make the piece softer and less frightening. I still maintained my concept, though. Since we’re sharing the space with the public, this is something you just have to accept. So I’ll only make art [that’s controversial] to a certain point. That’s what I believe is right. And I’ve learned on my own that in this situation, if the art is too frightening, society might not accept it. So, that’s our answer.

Floyd: Just to be clear – sometimes we don’t ask for permission. We just sneak around and do it because it’s exciting that way. It’s also more exciting for people who don’t know what they’re about to see around the corner…. Really, impact is our main policy in street art. Like in Banksy’s work – he got his work into a museum and made people really confused. It made people start asking questions.

IR: We see that you also make street art out in the villages. How do people there receive it?

Floyd: For me, painting in the village is better than painting in the city. It’s innocent. Villagers don’t have any silly questions, like “Who hired you to paint?”. But they’re glad that the work is beautiful and they invite me to paint often. But if I’m in the city, people have a lot of questions and I have to give them reasons. “Why do you do this?” “Do you get any money?” “Did you have to ask the municipality for permission?”

Baby83: We used to work at a school in Kaina village. Kids like this kind of work – they never really knew that painting on walls was a field of art. They always thought that artwork was just a drawing on a piece of paper that they needed to hand in to their teacher.

Floyd: Villagers look at our work with their feelings – they’re not asking for lots of reasons. This is the right approach. They still see beauty, even though they many not quite understand it.

IR: Why do you think city people might be afraid of contemporary art?

Baby83: There are restrictions on how much we can learn about other cultures. [Cultural movements] come here late. When I was studying at the university, my faculty didn’t even have a library. And that was in 2000.

Floyd: In the past, there weren’t any bookstores in Khon Kaen. The books in the library were too old and there wasn’t a movement to bring new books to the library. When we got a bookstore in Khon Kaen, it was like the whole world opened up in front of us. Still, lots of students studying at university today learn from really old books so their work is old-fashioned.

Wink: In my opinion, some people fear the work itself, and other people fear what will happen because of the work. There are two kinds of fear.

IR: How does your work contribute to the identity of Isaan?

Floyd: Khon Kaen doesn’t have an identity. We pick up stuff from other places to use here. Like in Chiang Mai, of course, there’s so much art, and it’s easy to get into it. But in Khon Kaen, things are superficial, unprofound – it’s all business. I sure as hell don’t want to sell stuff. They can bring their business, but they’re not bringing any real culture. We still haven’t proven anything about Khon Kaen to outsiders yet. What does Khon Kaen have to offer?

Baby83: In some ways, we are trying to create [an identity]. We’re starting small, but that’s good.

For a map of selected Dude Factory work in Khon Kaen, click here. Or visit the Dude Factory facebook page for more photos.