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.
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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]




Voices from Isaan: The Failed Constitution Draft

"I agree with the rejection of the draft constitution, because it was not democratic anyway. I was a soldier myself and I don't agree with this all. They were drafting the constitution for themselves but it should be for the people. We don't need a drafting council, what we need is elections." - Surasak Baojanya (53), security guard and veteran "It's good that it was rejected. It just wasn’t democratic and it allowed for an unelected prime minister. They should just use the 1997 constitution, it's probably more democratic than whatever they can come up with." - Thanatat Satanakho (69), retired civil servant "It really doesn't look good now, it was a waste of time and resources to set up this drafting committee and then reject the charter. I want Thailand to become a fully developed democracy without this never-ending cycle of coups. People are sufficiently educated for a democratic system." - Surasaksri Samroeng (63), retired teacher "I support that they rejected the draft constitution because if we had elections now the old politicians would come back. But I want new politicians and not the ones who started this whole mess. That's why we need to reform the country first. It might take quite long, maybe two years." - Wanna Koetsiri (67), retired civil servant "I want them to set up a new drafting council but it shouldn't take them longer than 6 months to write a new constitution. Thailand is a weak democracy, and I want it to grow stronger soon,” said Ms. Phonpichaya - Praphatson Khunsen (21), and Phonpichaya Phiriya-anatakun (21),  students at Northeastern University in Khon Kaen. "I just got the news and I am so happy that it was rejected. It just wasn't a good constitution and we grassroots people and farmers would not have benefited from it." - Sirilak Phonsuwan (60), rice farmer
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"I agree with the rejection of the draft constitution, because it was not democratic anyway. I was a soldier myself and I don't agree with this all. They were drafting the constitution for themselves but it should be for the people. We don't need a drafting council, what we need is elections." - Surasak Baojanya (53), security guard and veteran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Voices from Isaan: A National Unity Government?

KHON KAEN – The economy is a main concern for Northeasterners as they respond to the proposal of installing a national unity government composed of politicians from the main political parties.

"I like the idea of a national unity government, but I don't want to see any current politicians in there. I'd prefer such a government to be made of neutral people only." - Nikorn Thapchai (56), tuktuk driver. "I don't want the current government to change. The country is peaceful now and there is also less corruption." - Loi Muenwai (65), khanom jin vendor. " I don't think a national unity government is possible. I mean, look at how all the Pheu Thai politicians are being targeted now and some are even being put into prison. The other side has no problems at all. So how can these two sides work together, if one of them is disadvantaged?" - Sisawang Rianthit (57), worker. " I don't see any benefit in a national government and I believe the current government is good enough, especially because it is working for the king." - Sanwhit Puangsri (31), graduate student in agriculture at Khon Kaen University. "A national unity government won't help at all. I support Prayuth's system but obviously his people are not skilled in dealing with the country's economic issues. They should appoint better people." - Somporn Phukrun (52), bus driver. "I'd prefer a democratic government that comes to power through elections, but I really wonder how long it is going to take until we get to vote again." - Noi Khammoon (48), market vendor. "If different political groups would get to agree with each other in such a government, then that would be good, but really I favour whoever manages to improve our economic situation." - Khun Khonson (60), flower vendor. "I don't really care who is in the parliament, we small people have to adapt ourselves anyway. At the moment the big problem is the economy." - Ruangthong Maboontam (53), housewife.
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" I don't think a national unity government is possible. I mean, look at how all the Pheu Thai politicians are being targeted now and some are even being put into prison. The other side has no problems at all. So how can these two sides work together, if one of them is disadvantaged?" - Sisawang Rianthit (57), worker.

Last month, members of the National Reform Council (NRC) and conservative social critic Prawase Wasi floated the idea of a national unity government with a politically “neutral” person serving as prime minister. Government members could either be appointed or drawn from those two parties that win the most votes in an election.

NRC whip Alongkorn Polabutr pointed out that the proposal was not supported by the majority of NRC’s members. The military government’s Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon dismissed the idea as “Out of question as no one had a mandate to make it happen.” Weng Tojirakarn, leader of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) and Pheu Thai politician alleged  that the proposal was an attempt of the military junta to remain in power by installing a prime minister of their choice

Late last month, Bangkok Poll reported its survey found that a majority of people from all regions, including 53.9 percent in the Northeast, favor a national unity government over a democratically elected government.

The Isaan Record talked to people in Khon Kaen’s city center and on the university campus about the proposal. Many people did not want to share their opinions or refused to give their names, citing the current political climate that they claimed bans people from speaking freely.

Sixty-five-year-old vendor Loi Muenwai does not support the idea of a national unity government. “I don’t want the current government to change,” she says sitting behind her steaming pots and bags of khanom jin noodles. “The country is peaceful now and there is also less corruption,” she says.

For Ruangthong Maboontham, a fifty-three-year-old housewife it does not really matter who sits in parliament.”We small people have to adapt ourselves anyway,” she says. “And right now the biggest problem is the economy,” she adds before walking off to catch a bus to her village.

Noi Khammoon, a forty-eight-year-old market vendor, says that she would only support a national unity government if it could improve the country’s economic situation. “Since the current government took power it has become much harder for me to sell my products and prices have gone up. Everyone around here says they suffer from the bad economy.” As she empties a sack of shallots on a tray, she adds, “I’d prefer a democratic government that comes to power through elections, but I really wonder how long it is going to take until we get to vote again.”

Another market vendor, sixty-year-old Khun Khonson agrees that the improvement of the economy is the critical factor. “If different political groups would get to agree with each other in such a government,then that would be good,” she says. “But really, I would favor whoever can manage to improve our economic situation. Everything has become more expensive and the current government is only working for itself.”

Fifty-two-year-old bus driver Somporn Phukrun supports the military government but harshly criticizes its economic strategy, “Obviously Prayuth’s people are not skilled in dealing with the country’s economic issues. They should appoint better people instead of talking about a national unity government that won’t help at all,” he says.

Nikorn Thapchai, a fifty-six-year-old tuktuk driver disagrees. “I like the idea of a national unity government, but I don’t want to see any current politicians in there,” he says from the backseat of his vehicle. “I’d prefer such a government to be made up of neutral people only.”

“How can anyone be neutral in all of this?” asks fifty-seven-year-old laborer Sisawang Riantit, and comments that such a government would most likely be appointed. “If the military wants to be a real government then they should form a party and compete in democratic elections.”

Sanwit Puangsri, a thirty-one-year-old graduate student at KKU’s Faculty of Agriculture rejects the proposal to create a national unity government. “I don’t see any benefit [in this] and I believe the current government is good enough, especially because it is working for the king,” he says. He acknowledges that under the military government people’s liberties are curtailed but says, “We have to accept this. The government is just trying to solve all the problems that were created by the former government.”




NEWS UPDATE: Seven Student Activists in Khon Kaen are Released on Bail

This morning, seven student activists from Khon Kaen University were released on bail of 7,500 baht from police custody after being charged with violating the National Council for Peace and Order’s (NCPO) ban on political gatherings.

The Dao Din student activists inside Khon Kaen's Provincial Police Station. Photo credit: Jeremy Starn

The Dao Din student activists inside Khon Kaen’s Provincial Police Station. Photo credit: Jeremy Starn

The student activists from the Dao Din group had staged an anti-coup protest at Khon Kaen City’s Democracy Monument on Friday, the first anniversary of the May 22 military coup.

Security forces in plain clothes broke up the student’s peaceful protest and detained seven core Dao Din members, three student bystanders and three observers from the organization Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR).

All detained were brought to the Sri Patcharin Military Base and later, seven of the student activists were moved for detention to the provincial police station.

In the evening, around 70 people from Khon Kaen and nearby northeastern provinces gathered in front of the police station where they sang songs and lit candles in support of the detained activists.

At around midnight, one student was moved to Srinagarind Hospital after he complained about pain caused by blows to the face and the crotch when the security forces broke up the protest. He was later returned to the police station.

Several attempts to negotiate with police to release the students failed and many supporters spent the night in front of the police station.

On Saturday morning, the seven Dao Din students were released on bail under the condition they would refrain from any further political action. After their release, they sang a song and read a statement. Jatupat Boonpattaraksa, one of the detained students, told The Isaan Record that they were treated well by the police, received water and were allowed to take one smoke break. All seven of them will have to report to the police on June 8.

In Bangkok, 38 students protesters were detained yesterday for 12 hours but were released today without charges.

On friday, supporters of the detained Dao Din student activists gathered in front of Khon Kaen's Provincial Police Station (Photo credit: Jeremy Starn). People from Khon Kaen and nearby provinces sang songs and lit candles in support of the detained student activists  (Photo credit: Jeremy Starn). In a symbolic move, the student supporters placed candles on the ground in front of the police station (Photo credit: Jeremy Starn). A supporter from Sakon Nakhon province places a candle on the ground  (Photo credit: Jeremy Starn). The detained Dao Din activists on a smoke break during their detention (Photo credit: Jeremy Starn). The detained Dao Din activists inside the police station (Photo credit: Jeremy Starn). Many supporters spent the night in front of the police station until the seven Dao Din activists were released at 9.30am on Saturday  (Photo credit: Jeremy Starn).
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Many supporters spent the night in front of the police station until the seven Dao Din activists were released at 9.30am on Saturday (Photo credit: Jeremy Starn).




Voices from Isaan: The Constitution Drafting

People in Khon Kaen express their hopes and worries about the drafting of the country’s new constitution.

"I don't think the new constitution will help to bridge the divide in society.People will come out again and protest when the time is ripe" - Sombat Toomjandee (56), market vendor "I want the 1997 constitution back, because it was the people's constitution and many joined in to write it." - Kuanjai Srijandee (43), drink vendor and rice farmer "I have heard that they are writing a new constitution but I havn't much hope that this will really change anything."

"There should be a quota for women in local administrative bodies – thirty pro cent sounds like a good number." - Sunanta Pittaka (18) and Pornpimon Saengchote (18), Business Management students at Khon Kaen Technology College "Instead of changing the whole constitution, they should just amend some articles. Really, this reform process isn't good for anything. I want elections as soon as possible." - Ampan Khunanan (46), tuktuk driver
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"I have heard that they are writing a new constitution but I havn't much hope that this will really change anything." "There should be a quota for women in local administrative bodies – thirty pro cent sounds like a good number." - Sunanta Pittaka (18) and Pornpimon Saengchote (18), Business Management students at Khon Kaen Technology College

KHON KAEN – The drafting of Thailand’s twentieth constitution is entering its last stage. According to Chairman Borwornsak Uwanno, the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) will submit the final draft to the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) by end of May. The new constitution is the centerpiece of the military government’s reform process and a prerequisite for the promised return to democratic rule.

In Khon Kaen, people are skeptical that the new charter will prevent the country from slipping back into new phase of political instability. The Isaan Record talked to people in the city center about their concerns regarding the drafting process and their expectations for the new constitution. Many were reluctant to talk or refused to give their names, citing the current political climate that they said bans people from speaking freely.

“I want it to be the best constitution of all,” says fifty-four-year-old Samai Phetpurkpong, a state employee collecting parking fees in front of Banglamphoo Market. “I don’t want them to just return to one of the old constitutions because that’s where the whole yellow-red chaos all began,” she adds before running off to collect the hourly two baht parking fee from someone.

Kuanjai Srijandee, a fourty-three-year-old drink vendor and rice farmer disagrees. “I want the 1997 constitution back because it was the people’s constitution and many joined in to write it.” For her, the 2007 constitution that followed the military coup in 2006 already marked a step backwards for the country’s democracy. “It doesn’t matter if they write a new constitution now. Nothing will change. Thailand now is like Myanmar was in the past,” Ms. Kuanjai says.

A fifty-three-year-old fruit vendor and self-identified yellow shirt who asked to be identified only by her nickname Nit, says that she has some hope for the new constitution. Asked about what should be included in the new charter, she answers, “I really want them to include an article that makes sure that any large-scale government project can only go ahead with local peoples’ participation.”

Referring to the controversial gas exploration project in Khon Kaen’s Kranuan district, she adds, “Some people benefit from this project, but what about those who don’t? Their voices can’t just be ignored. We really have to do better than that.”

"Without the coup, people would have continued killing each other. The new constitution might help to bring people back together." - Ms. Phola (32), fruit seller
"The information [of the drafting process]  is not enough, people don’t really know what's going on. So we can't really scrutinize the constitution drafting process." - Pitak Boonbangyang (48), street vendor "In my opinion, the new constitution won't resolve the conflict in society. But we still might have some hope." - Prathanah Gatechan (30), employee at a mobile phone shop "Every other government comes up with a new constitution, but the problem in Thailand is not with the constitution or the laws, it's with the people." - Jaratporn Khonkla (58), housekeeper "The constitution drafting process doesn’t really matter. It' s all against democracy." - Punjawat Namso (25) , Graduate Engineering Student
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"The information [of the drafting process] is not enough, people don’t really know what's going on. So we can't really scrutinize the constitution drafting process." - Pitak Boonbangyang (48), street vendor

Many respondents raised questions about the transparency of the constitution drafting process and voiced concerns about public participation. “There should be more information for the public, like what laws they are actually writing. This should be accessible to everyone,” says sixty-five-year-old worker Aod Tumyoma. “Also, I think there should be a national referendum on the new constitution,” he says.

Punjawat Namso, a twenty-five-year-old graduate from Khon Kaen University’s Faculty of Engineering, criticizes the lack of public participation in the drafting process. “And this is mainly because this government has not come to power through an election,” he reasons.

The constitution drafting process seemed distant to many of those questioned. “For local people, the new constitution won’t really affect us much, it’s for those people up there, the politicians,” explains Jaratporn Khonkla, a fifty-eight-year-old housekeeper. As she starts her motorbike to take off, she adds “I don’t think it will bring anything new for the country.”

This view is echoed by Pitak Boonbangyang, a fourty-eight-year-old street vendor. As he packs up his stall, he says “They always change the constitution and come up with a new one. And then they don’t respect it. For how long should this go on?” He wipes his face with a towel that hangs over his shoulder and adds, “There really isn’t much hope for democracy in Thailand at the moment. It seems like the country doesn’t really know what democracy actually is.”

[For more thoughts from Khon Kaen on the drafting of the new constitution, click through the slideshows.]




Voices from Isaan: The Impeachment of Yingluck Shinawatra

People in Khon Kaen voice their opinions on the impeachment of former prime minister and Pheu Thai party leader Yingluck Shinawatra.

"I really don't believe that Yingluck was involved in any corruption, so I don't  agree with her impeachment." - Ot Imjeen (63), cycle-rickshaw driver. "In Thailand, power is justice. Whoever is in power gets to decide what justice is." - Krapson Phaksahan (59) , market vendor and rice farmer.  "I believe Yingluck got what she deserved,  after all she brought damage to the country and the people." - Sasiprapa Jaikla (20), student. "The majority of the people, not a military government, should have decided if Yingluck was to be impeached." - Nongkhran Tonkanya (38), housewife. "All of my village voted for Yingluck, but she let them down and now she needs  to pay for all the things that went wrong." - Atthapon Chumwong (27), police student. "I disagree with Yingluck's impeachment because it's not fair that a government that made people's life better gets treated like this." -  Ari Chanvijit (60), vendor. "Yingluck is clearly responsible for all flaws of the rice subsidy scheme." - Phra Naritsukhesino (30), monk. "The rice scheme improved farmers' lives. Now it's much harder to get a good price for rice." - Maliwan Thamsimma (37), vendor.
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"I disagree with Yingluck's impeachment because it's not fair that a government that made people's life better gets treated like this." - Ari Chanvijit (60), vendor.

KHON KAEN – Last friday, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), a body hand-picked by the military government, voted with an overwhelming majority to retroactively impeach former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra over her role in the rice subsidy scheme. Ms. Yingluck is now banned from politics for five years and faces criminal charges that could lead to a 10-year prison sentence.

In Khon Kaen, people are divided over the impeachment of the former prime minister, but many expressed their approval of Pheu Thai’s rice subsidy scheme. The Isaan Record talked to people in the city center about the NLA’s recent decision. While some were reluctant to share their views on politics, most respondents eagerly voiced their opinions.

Nongnut Wiansri, a fifty-seven-year-old female market vendor says, “The process of the impeachment was not just. Yingluck was already bullied out of government, had to give up her position as prime minister, and now they continue trampling on her.”

Speaking in favor of the rice subsidy scheme, Ms. Nongnut says, “The farmers are the backbone of the nation, right? But they don’t receive enough support, and now without the rice scheme they have to sell their rice at a much lower price.”

Atthaphon Chumwong, a twenty-seven-year-old police academy student from Maha Sarakham, disagrees. “As former head of state, Ms. Yingluck needs to take responsibility for the obvious flaws in the rice scheme. In my village, many people had to wait for a very long time to get paid; some didn’t get paid at all.”

He believes that the rice subsidy scheme was a good policy in theory but the execution failed. “The delay of payments caused farmers to lose money. The government should have had a better plan,” Mr. Atthaphon says.

Nearly all respondents agreed that the process of Yingluck Shinawatra’s impeachment was unfair and exposed deep flaws in Thailand’s justice system.

Maliwan Thamsimma, a thirty-seven-year-old female market vendor, wonders, “I’ve never really believed in the justice system. From my experience, when people like me have to go to court, they hardly ever receive justice. And how can they, when even the former head of state is not treated fairly?”

[For more thoughts from Khon Kaen on the impeachment of Yingluck Shinawatra, click through the slideshow above.]




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-
992/322267




Isaan People Use Human Rights Festival to Air Grievances in Time of Martial Law and Censorship

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GUEST CONTRIBUTION by Alexandrea Lee, Catherine Darin and Rebecca Goncharoff

Photo credits: Aaron Hedquist, Emma Tran and Jeremy Starn

KHON KAEN – Despite concerns from the military, about 400 people from thirteen provinces participated in the 7th Annual Isaan Human Rights Festival held yesterday at Kwanmor Hotel in Khon Kaen. New to the festival this year was the participation of diplomats from the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, the European Union, Sweden, and the United States.

From left to right: Mr. Hanno Trayhurn, Political Officer, British Embassy; Mr. Norman Pflanz,; Ms. Camilla Ottosson, Human Rights Officer, Swedish Embassy; Ms. Anne-Charlotte Malm; Ambassador Mark Kent; Ambassador Philip Calvert; Ambassador Reuben Levermore; Mr. Jarrod Weir

From left to right: Mr. Hanno Trayhurn, Political Officer, British Embassy; Mr. Norman Pflanz,; Ms. Camilla Ottosson, Human Rights Officer, Swedish Embassy; Ms. Anne-Charlotte Malm; Ambassador Mark Kent; Ambassador Philip Calvert; Ambassador Reuben Levermore; Mr. Jarrod Weir

The event, funded primarily by European Union’s “Thailand-EU Policy Dialogues Support Facility” program, has been organized almost every year since 2006 to commemorate International Human Rights Day. Event organizers say the annual festival has provided a venue for communities and networks to come together to share their human rights situation and make demands.

The morning session began with an opening statement by Mr. Jarrod Weir of the EU, and talks by Ms. Anne-Charlotte Malm, head of Sweden’s regional SIDA program, and Mr. Norman Pflanz, a human rights officer from the United States.

The “Ambassadors’ Forum on Human Rights” followed, featuring Mr. Mark Kent, UK ambassador to Thailand, Ambassador Philip Calvert of Canada, and New Zealand Ambassador Reuben Levermore.

The ambassadors related the human rights journeys of their respective countries, emphasizing the need for freedom of expression and assembly in the pursuit of a democratic society. Ambassadors Calvert and Levermore highlighted how indigenous people’s rights became an important part of the “fabric” of the human rights landscape in Canada and New Zealand.

Ambassador Calvert: "Cultural rights essential component of human rights in Canada."

Ambassador Calvert: “Cultural rights essential component of human rights in Canada.”

Ambassador Calvert said, “Canada has learned that when you suppress cultural rights—the right to speak your own language and connection to the land—the results are disastrous.”

Ambassador Kent, who preferred to address the audience in Thai, spoke about the importance of equality and equal opportunity.

“I am from a small village in rural England. Growing up, my father was a truck driver, yet I was given the opportunity to go to Oxford. From this I have seen the importance of equal access and rights for all people, whether they are rich or poor, from the city or the country.”

The ambassador’s affirmation of equal rights for rural people was received warmly by the audience.

Members of various affected communities and networks throughout the Northeast had the rare chance to share with the foreign guests their growing frustration with the enduring human rights issues facing their communities.

Villagers in Kalasin province who are fighting to prevent the drilling of petroleum near their land were among those voicing concerns about Thailand’s inequities.

“Usually foreign companies collaborate with the Thai government to create problems for our communities,” a Kalasin villager said. “They look at us as a minority and claim that we have to sacrifice for the nation. We sent letters and spoke to the media, but our rights are still violated. You might have a more powerful voice than us, so I think you can make our small voices heard.”

Ambassador Kent: reiterates UK disappointment with coup and continued imposition of martial law

Ambassador Kent reiterates UK disappointment with coup and continued imposition of martial law

The visiting diplomats acknowledged the value of this chance to speak directly with common people from the Northeast to better understand the human rights situation in the Thailand.

“Bangkok is important to us [as ambassadors], but it’s not the whole of Thailand,” said Ambassador Levermore. “The Northeast is a very important region. The chance to come up here for the day gives us an opportunity to hear the concerns people have on a day to day basis.”

An afternoon session focused on human rights abuses in the Northeast, with eight short videos on consumer rights, right to healthcare, right to land and livelihood, and right to a safe environment, followed with statements from each community.

The festival was one of the first of its kind since the imposition of martial law in Thailand. Many academic seminars have been cancelled or closed down due to military intervention.

NZ Ambassador Levermore: "Isaan perspective important for understanding Thailand."

NZ Ambassador Levermore: “Isaan perspective important for understanding Thailand.”

The festival was organized by the NGO Coordinating Committee on Rural Development (NGO-CORD), the Council on International Educational Exchange in Khon Kaen (CIEE), and a student network of the Northeast.

One Khon Kaen military source told organizers that the military had been “50/50” on whether to cancel or allow the event. Military authorities requested on the day prior to the festival that the organizers write up and sign an agreement to refrain from criticizing the NCPO, or mention politics or martial law. Organizers agreed that they would themselves not bring up these topics and they would censor festival media.

However, organizers stated at the beginning of the day’s events that while they had agreed not to bring up such topics, they hoped that participants would speak freely, given it was International Human Rights Day.

One participant stood up and asked, “If we can’t talk about martial law, the NCPO, or politics, what can we talk about?”

The self-censorship on the part of organizers made some of the videos incomprehensible, given that martial law had affected many of the communities represented at the event, especially those affected by the NCPO’s controversial land policies which have led to the arrest and eviction of many Isaan communities.

In the showing of a short documentary on evictions of communities from forests, confused voices broke out in the many parts where the film’s sound was muted and subtitles blurred. When an organizer explained that the film had been subjected to censorship, the room burst out in a chorus of knowing laughter.

Energy high in tightly-packed meeting room as attendees eager to be heard by others and international guests

Energy high in tightly-packed meeting room as attendees eager to be heard by others and international guests

One of the villagers whose words had been silenced in the film stood up, his fists clenched, and said, “I am not afraid to say here what was censored on the video. Forty four days after the coup the military issued an eviction notice in my community. [The junta] just wants us out of the forest. They don’t care how many decades ago we moved in.”

His defiance was met with cheers and support from other affected villages.

Mr. David Streckfuss, a lead organizer of the event and director of CIEE Khon Kaen, observed that the event was one of the first where red shirts activists, who have felt the full force of martial law in Isaan, and community rights activists who have likewise been arrested and detained, shared a unique moment in their common struggle against repression under martial law.

Mr. Decha Premrudelert a long-standing leader NGO leader in the Northeast, agreed. “People are made stronger by sharing experiences. They have to come together in order to find a way to survive.”

Many participants were unfazed by the presence of plain-clothed security officials taking pictures at the event. “I’m not scared of the military because it is my right to be here,” said Mr. Miew Jongsadapklang from Yasothorn. “Why be afraid?”

Assistant Dean at Mahasarkham University’s College of Politics and Governance, Dr. Alongkorn Akkasaeng, the event’s moderator, said he believed the event was beneficial.

Not cowed by martial law: Villagers candidly speak out against human rights violations. In the background is the blurred screen of a censored video.

Not cowed by martial law: Villagers candidly speak out against human rights violations. In the background is the blurred screen of a censored video.

“There have been significant human rights violations in the Northeast for decades. Whenever we talk about rights in Thailand, it is only about political rights and elections,” he said.

“But usually the discussion is not about everyday rights, such as those guaranteeing having enough to eat or having a place to stay. These rights are neglected because they happen to marginalized groups. The persistent violation of these rights in the Northeast and Thailand should be something the world community is made aware of.”

Mr. Kritdsakorn Silarak, an activist based in Ubon Ratchathani, was proud of the event and its potential outcome.

“Community members were more confident and more assertive which can lead to a large community movement that fights for our human rights. This is an important first step for a brighter future.”

At the end of the festival, representatives from most participating groups each came up with a right they believed would address their issue. All these rights were drawn up to make the “Isaan Human Rights Declaration of December 10th, 2014.” The declaration states: “All Thai people have the right:

—to manage environmental resources and take part in solving problems;
—to take part in politics and elections;
—to freely and directly express their opinions;
—to air grievances to the government;
—to have their opinions taken seriously by the government and for the
government to address grievances through concrete actions;
—to access education;
—to housing and land;
—to have the laws that guarantee the rights and protection of the people;
—to equal and fair treatment in the justice system;
—to public health and welfare services;
—to participate in the media;
—to access accurate information from the government”

Two days after the festival, UK Ambassador Mark Kent wrote the following on his blog,

“At the festival I spoke about the importance of freedom of expression to a strong democratic culture. Freedom of expression and a free media and social media are essential rights that allow citizens to be adequately informed and able to vote according to their own interests. Without these rights, and without opportunity for debate, any return to elections will not be meaningful. The NCPO claims that they are providing the platform for debate on reform of the political system through the National Reform Council and various local initiatives. However it is clear that many local activists in Isaan feel they do not possess the opportunity for their voice to be heard, given the current limitations on freedom of speech. One activist told me it feels like local people are being forced to wait as the military imposes reform upon them, rather than being actively involved in the process.

It was also striking that many local people feel that the current restrictions are beginning to infringe upon their daily life. Farmers with concerns over their economic situation are unable to organise to protest for a change in Government policy. Local groups struggling to protect land rights against corporate interests in their area are unable to campaign or effectively access justice. They feel unable to voice concerns about health and environmental issues. Without the participation of local communities and transparency in decision making, injustice and corruption can flourish. It’s not hard to see how limitations on freedom of expression and assembly have a real impact on local communities throughout Thailand.

For a democracy to be genuine, it must be inclusive. All citizens should have equal rights and the opportunity to participate fully in the political process, and to have a say in decisions that affect their lives. Democracy also subjects governments to the rule of law and ensures that all citizens receive equal protection under the law and that their rights are protected by the legal system. Thailand is a party to many international human rights conventions – including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – that are supposed to enshrine these democratic principles. Under martial law, these principles are not being upheld. If Thailand wishes to become a respected and active player in the global community it must take these issues seriously. The Isaan villages may not be familiar with UN conventions, but they should be able to benefit from the rights in them in their daily life.”

The full post can be found here.

 




Slideshow: Khon Kaen Voters Go To The Polls

On February 2, The Isaan Record traveled around the city of Khon Kaen to hear from voters at the polls. The election proceeded smoothly in Khon Kaen and most parts of Thailand outside of Bangkok and several provinces in the South. Still, a full government will not be formed until elections are re-held in areas where the voting process was disrupted.

"I think that we are going to have more unrest and turmoil after this, but I have to keep on voting because it is my only political right."

<strong>Ratchadakorn Nanwong, 56, small restaurant owner.</strong> Voting at Ban Sam Liam Public School in Khon Kaen. "People are eager to vote this time. They hope their votes will help stop the protests in Bangkok."

<strong>Pjyapon Rodkamhang, 39, voting official.</strong> Candidates running in Khon Kaen's zone 1. "I think democracy is perfect because it means that the majority's voice will be heard." 

<strong>Sunthon Phayakmalerng, 37, small business owner.</strong> "I want the protesters in Bangkok to stop. We are all Thai, we have to talk, we have to negotiate." <strong>Pat Phookerd, 60, restaurant owner. </strong> "In a democracy, all people are equal. That's why I think it's so important for Thailand to keep this political system."

<strong>Mr. Witawat, 35, restaurant owner.</strong> "In the last general election there was a candidate that I hoped would win, but I was too young to vote. This time I don't have anyone that I want to get the seat, but I voted "No" so that I could still exercise my right."

<strong>Kanpitcha Hmo-Hmai, 19, Khon Kaen University student.</strong> Volunteers at polling station in Khon Kaen. "Voting is especially important to me today because there are people who are doing anything they can to block the election."

<strong>Mr. Akarush, 32, restaurant employee.
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"In the last general election there was a candidate that I hoped would win, but I was too young to vote. This time I don't have anyone that I want to get the seat, but I voted "No" so that I could still exercise my right." Kanpitcha Hmo-Hmai, 19, Khon Kaen University student.

Photographs taken by Lydia Kopecky.




Cashing Out: A Return to Organic Practices

https://vimeo.com/38490518

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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.




Fishing Without a Net: Fish Farms and the 2011 Floods

https://vimeo.com/33711896

YouTube Version

KHON KAEN – This year’s floods ravaged much of Thailand, leaving over 600 dead and millions displaced. In the Northeast, farmers everywhere are beginning to clean up destroyed crops and prepare for the next harvest season. But while millions of rice farmers await their flood insurance from the government, 2,200 baht per rai of rice field, the hundreds of thousands of fish farmers in the region are not as lucky. With little support from government agencies, only modest discounts offered to them by corporate distributors, and no organizations that offer fish farming insurance, fish farmers are faced with the task of rebuilding their small farms and repurchasing fish on their own. Here in Khon Kaen province, nearly 9,000 fish farms claimed flood damages. None can collect on insurance.

The video above takes a look at the flooding of Tawatchai Farm in Khon Kaen, just one of half a million freshwater fish farms in the country. To learn more about its story, click play.




Fields of Mine: Na Nong Bong, Thailand

https://vimeo.com/29811141

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LOEI – Last February, the farmers of Na Nong Bong village won a small victory in their battle against the gold mine in their backyard. After years of organizing and petitioning for health tests, these bean and rice farmers had prepared their case against Tungkum Limited mining company. And, on February 8, the cabinet of former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva voted to stop the company from opening new mines, pending further research on the causes of villagers’ health problems.

Tungkum Limited began constructing two gold mines in Wang Saphung District of Loei in 2006. When the mining company began digging, the villagers began to notice changes. They reported rashes and stinging eyes, plummeting crop yields, and higher cases of illness.

It was not until 2009, however, that news of the village made its first waves. To appease the protesting villagers, the Ministry of Health tested local water sources. They found high levels of contaminants and ordered villagers not to use the local water or eat affected vegetables and fish. Farmers who had traditionally relied on their land for nourishment were now asked to buy food and water from city markets.

Concerned about the health effects of the contaminated water, the villagers petitioned the Ministry of Health for blood tests. On February 2 of this year, the ministry published that 124 of 725 villagers had high levels of cyanide in their blood and 50 of 708 villagers had high levels of mercury. In just one week’s time, the cabinet had paused Tungkum’s expansion.

The mining company, however, takes no responsibility for local contamination. They comply with government regulations, their drainage does not interfere with village water, their tailings pond is not leaking, and their operational area, they claim, complies with international standards. But relevant government agencies do not do research of their own and instead rely on Tungkum’s contracted researchers to confirm that operations are safe.

Though they have succeeded in slowing down Tungkum’s expansion, Na Nong Bong and its five neighboring villages are not celebrating. They are still fighting for the day when Tungkum’s mine, just 500 meters away, shuts down.

For the full story, watch the video above.

[Correction: October 7, 2011 – Tungkum Mining Company, a subisidiary of Tongkah Harbor, was founded by Australians but the company is now publicly traded in the Thai stock exchange. We apologize for this confusion. The article and video have been edited to reflect this change.]




Train in the Distance: Nong Waeng and the Future of Railside Slums

https://vimeo.com/27991255

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KHON KAEN – On January 5, 2011, Mr. Rangsan Khachen was reading his morning newspaper when he spotted his community’s name. Nong Waeng, his home of ten years, he read, could soon be transformed into a train station on a high-speed railway from northeastern Nong Khai, on the border of Laos, down to southern Padang Besar which borders Malaysia.

Though a new government has been elected since high-speed rail talks began last autumn, the construction of a countrywide high-speed rail system remains on the table. The $320 billion joint enterprise between Thailand and China will increase tourism and trade, especially for Northeastern rice farmers, claimed former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. But as plans for construction of the line from Nong Khai to Bangkok move forward, little has been done to safeguard the rights of hundreds of railside slums in Thailand that may soon be evicted to make way for new rails.

Since the rapid urbanization that swept Thailand in the 1950s, 246 communities of rural migrants have settled in slums within 40 meters of the railway on land owned by the State Railway of Thailand (SRT). In the past 50 years, only 46 have procured legal land leases. Nong Waeng is one railside community that has fought for a land lease and won, just in time to steer clear of eviction.

Nong Waeng was founded over twenty-five years ago by rural migrants looking for work in the growing city of Khon Kaen. As buildings sprung up, opportunities for labor abounded. Though the rural laborers who flocked to the city could find plenty of work, few could find affordable housing options. As a result, many chose to settle along the railway. Today, Nong Waeng is one of 22 railside slum communities in Khon Kaen city alone.

Over the past twenty years, Nong Waeng has shown dedication to procuring rights for running water, electricity, and most recently a land lease. In March of this year, after years of preparation, their proposal for a land lease was finally accepted.

For the remaining 200 railside communities in Thailand without a lease, however, news of the high-speed rail comes as a rude awakening. Construction on the rails from Nong Khai to Bangkok are likely to begin in 2012, leaving Northeastern communities with only a few months to prepare. While some may try to petition for a lease of their own, their time is limited and their future still uncertain.

To learn more about the story of Nong Waeng, watch the video above.




Protest Village Celebrates Second Anniversary

Sunday's forum brought together NGOs, activists, and politicians to discuss Baw Kaew's future. Baw Kaew's greenhouse is one of many sustainability efforts.  Their seed bank carries 122 seed varieties of rice, vegetables, and fruit trees. Villagers now sell goods made from locally grown cotton.
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Sunday's forum brought together NGOs, activists, and politicians to discuss Baw Kaew's future.

CHAIYAPHUM – The sound of mor lam music, traditional to Northeast Thailand, filled the air last Saturday evening as Khon San villagers and friends gathered to celebrate the second anniversary of the founding of Baw Kaew village.
In the past two years, Baw Kaew villagers have developed their community, seen success in their battle for a legal land lease, and established sustainable agricultural practices, all amidst a eucalyptus plantation owned by the Forest Industry Organization (FIO). The celebration weekend culminated on Sunday in a forum for various NGOs, activists, and politicians to speak to the challenges of addressing land reform disputes.

Baw Kaew was established on July 17th, 2009, 31 years after the state-owned FIO evicted more than 1,000 villagers from 4,401 rai of land to begin the Khon San Forest Project. By the late 1980s, the FIO had cleared the land in order to plant a eucalyptus plantation.

After decades of unsuccessful protests for the right to return to their former land in Khon San, 169 displaced families decided to take a new approach. Aided by the Land Reform Network of Thailand (LRNT), these families illegally resettled in Khon San Forest, founding Baw Kaew as a protest village. Rather than only spend their time in front of government buildings, villagers believed they could also stage their protest directly on the land they used to call home.

Their efforts have been met with both new obstacles and successes. One month after they founded the village, 31 residents were charged with trespassing on state-owned land. By April 2010, the court had ruled that villagers needed to move out.

However, this past fall, Baw Kaew villagers began to see progress. The Working Committee on Community Land Deeds, set up under the Abhisit administration, approved 35 villages to pursue community land deeds, including Baw Kaew. So far, only two communities have been granted deeds, which leaves Baw Kaew and 32 other villages still on the slow path to gaining legal access to the land they currently occupy.

In Sunday’s forum, Prayong Doklamyai of the Northern Development Foundation emphasized the gravity of land rights disputes in forests across Thailand. “There are about 10 million Thais in state forests that cover around 20 million rai of land. This is a time bomb waiting to explode,” he said. Mr Prayong believes that while there has been an improvement in the policy of the last government, implementation has not followed suit.

In response, Secretary to the Prime Minister’s office Phubet Jantanimi insisted that the government is doing the best it can. “The government has already agreed to give the land to the people [of Baw Kaew]. But the government can only ask for the cooperation [of the FIO], it cannot give a direct order,” he said.

This has led to confusion and frustration among Baw Kaew villagers. While the Working Committee on Community Land Deeds has encouraged villagers and the FIO to resolve their problems, the central government says it does not have the authority to enforce state-owned agencies to follow its mandate. This year, the committee ordered the FIO and the government to survey the land that Baw Kaew has requested. But until the FIO agrees to relinquish the land, villagers are left waiting with little control over the timeline or outcome.

Mr. Pramote of the Isaan Land Reform Network, however, does not believe the government is powerless to end FIO projects. He claims the government pays the FIO approximately 1.2 billion baht, or about $40 million per year. “If the government is sincere and has the courage, it can force the eucalyptus forest to be abolished. It has already happened in other areas,” he stated.

As community members wait for the FIO to cede the land, villagers have moved away from only fighting for legal tenure and are now developing the sustainability of their community.

According to Mr. Pramote, the current eucalyptus plantation is not sustainable.  “Since the eucalyptus trees grow really fast, they draw a lot of nutrients from the soil,” he explained.

In order to combat the negative environmental impacts and restore the soil, farmers have been planting local vegetables and herbs between the uniform rows of eucalyptus trees. In May of this year, the community also established a local seed bank in their village. They hope that it will help preserve their local knowledge and prepare them to cultivate the land once a land deed is granted.

Though Baw Kaew villagers’ strategy now focuses on developing  a sustainable community, their options are limited without a concession from the FIO. Until the eucalyptus trees come down, villagers will continue to live in protest for their former land.




Election Day in Khon Kaen

This election day, The Isaan Record visited polling sites around Khon Kaen. The following is a collection of photographs of the day’s events.

Officials at Kham Kaen Nakhon School tally absentee ballots. A polling site near Bueng Kaen Nakhon. Observers of all stripes watch the results come in at Sripatcharin Military Base. Pheu Thai's Bhumi Saraphol earns his sixty-sixth vote. Officials bring ballot boxes to the Provincial Community Center. Vote-counting continues well into the evening. A volunteer stacks ballot boxes in the Provincial Community Center. Elated Pheu Thai voters cheer as results are announced at the Provincial Election Commission. A Mahasarakham Red-Radio DJ dances for the crowd.
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Elated Pheu Thai voters cheer as results are announced at the Provincial Election Commission.