Khon Kaen Green Market Celebrates One-Year Anniversary

By Megan Brookens

GreenMarket1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GreenMarket2

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

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

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

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

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

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




Rising Political Movement in the Northeast Defies Military Rule

KHON KAEN – Today, about 80 activists, academics, and villagers from the Northeast and Bangkok pushed the boundaries of the military government’s restrictions on political gatherings by attending a political seminar in Khon Kaen City, despite efforts by the authorities to block the event.

IMG_2015-12-10 17:14:30

Activists, lawyers, and academics gathered together with Northeastern villagers at a political seminar under the name “Unsettling Isaan’s Lands – The People’s Fate after the Coup” in Khon Kaen City.

On Thursday morning, student activists from Khon Kaen University’s Dao Din group opened the doors to their meeting house to host an ad hoc seminar under the title “Unsettling Isaan’s Lands – The People’s Fate after the Coup,” organized by the “Neo E-Saan Movement,” or the New Isaan Movement.

Initially, the seminar was to be held at the city’s Kosa Hotel, where organizers had booked a meeting room. However, yesterday the booking was cancelled after the hotel management received an order from military officials, according to the seminar’s organizers.

The “Neo E-Saan Movement” an emergent umbrella group of Isaan activists, was founded in March at a seminar at Thammasat University with a fiery declaration to oppose military rule and defend Northeasterners’ interests against the central government’s perceived dominance over the region.

The crowd of about 80 people included villagers and activists from all across the Northeast dressed in black hoodies with the word “Commoner” in white letters. They were joined by Bangkok academics and members of the student group of the New Democracy Movement, including well-known student activist Sirawith Seritiwat, who was recently briefly arrested on a trip to the controversial Rajabhakti Park.

On stage, Kornchanok Saenprasert, a former Dao Din member and Director of the Center for Human Rights Law for Society, criticized the heavy restrictions on freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest under the current regime.

“The military junta has no legitimacy whatsoever to govern this country,” he said,“and they have to stop bullying people who are simply asking for their rights to be respected.”

Sanan Chusakul, a well-known Isaan writer and social activist, said that the suppression that society is currently experiencing will ultimately cause people to rise up and protest.

“The history of suffering in Isaan has moved people beyond fear,” he said, “and they have the will to rise up to oppose the powerful forces in Bangkok.”

However, he believes that the people’s movement must have patience and keep mobilizing on small scale until the conditions are favourable for a large-scale uprising.

Military officials from the 23rd Military Circle Command and police officers asked the event’s organizers to refrain from holding any public protests.

Military officials from the 23rd Military Circle Command and police officers asked the event’s organizers to refrain from holding any public protests.

Military officials from the 23rd Military Circle Command and police officers asked the event’s organizers to refrain from holding any public protests.

Chan Makan, a 18-year-old high school student from Udon Thani City who attended the event, learned about it on Facebook. “I am curious to find out what direction our country’s politics is heading,” he said, adding that he learned much from the discussions the event facilitated between villagers from across the region.

Kanika Laophim, a 36-year-old market vendor from Kalasin Province whose village is affected by an oil and gas exploration site, travelled to Khon Kaen to educate herself about her community’s rights.

“I am glad I came here to exchange views with many people from communities who face very similar problems to my village,” she said.

At 1:00 p.m., the event was briefly interrupted when Lieutenant Colonel Pitakphon Choosri from the 23rd Military Circle Command and six police officers approached the organizers and requested the activists to refrain from protesting outside of the vicinity of the house.

ProtestNewIsaanIn the afternoon, about 40 activists from Dao Din and the New Democracy Movement group staged a protest at the Democracy Monument in downtown Khon Kaen. They held up signs and attempted to place a military leather boot on top of the monument, but security officials prevented them from doing so and seized the boot.

After the activists read a declaration calling for a return to democracy, a constitution drafting process that includes the voices of the common people, and more self-government for the Northeast, the protest dispersed peacefully.




Isaan Villagers and Students travel to Mine-Affected Communities in Mexico

Guest contribution by Rebecca Goncharoff

This Friday, two representatives of a village affected by a gold mine in Loei Province and two members of Dao Din – a student activist group at Khon Kaen University – will travel to Oaxaca, Mexico, to meet with communities from across North America and Oaxaca state that are also protesting large-scale mining projects.

The Educational Network for Global and Grassroots Exchange (ENGAGE), a coalition of former study abroad students, raised the money to cover the Thai participants’ travel costs through an online crowdfunding campaign and several fundraising events in Khon Kaen City. It also received a grant from the Global Greengrants Fund, a charity that supports environmental actions around the world.

The exchange was organized by ENGAGE and Servicios Universitarios Y Redes de Conocimientos en Oaxaca A.C. (SURCO), a Mexican community organizing network, after 300 masked men attacked Na Nong Bong, the gold mine-affected village in Loei, in May of last year.

“After learning about this blatant disregard for human rights in Thailand, ENGAGE felt it necessary to take action and support the villagers who have been fighting the mine for years,” says Rachel Karpelowitz, former ENGAGE Network Coordinator.

The exchange participants gathered in Na Nong Bong village in Loei Province last Sunday for a traditional baci ceremony. Over 50 villagers came to tie strings on the wrists of the four people traveling to Mexico in order to wish them good luck on their journey. The Lao ritual symbolizes the calling of the khwan, or soul, from wherever it might be roaming, back to the body during a time of transition.

The exchange participants gathered in Na Nong Bong village in Loei Province last Sunday for a traditional baci ceremony. Over 50 villagers came to tie strings on the wrists of the four people traveling to Mexico in order to wish them good luck on their journey. The Lao ritual symbolizes the calling of the khwan, or soul, from wherever it might be roaming, back to the body during a time of transition.

Na Nong Bong villagers have been fighting to close the gold mine located less than a kilometer from their homes for almost a decade. They say that the chemical waste produced by the mine has contaminated local streams and water sources used for farming and household purposes, leading to illness and reduced crop yields. In 2009, the Ministry of Public Health advised residents not to drink water from nearby sources or eat local vegetables.

Two students from the Dao Din human rights activist group will also join the exchange. Dao Din has been supporting the villagers in their efforts to close the gold mine for over seven years.

During the two-week exchange the Thai participants, joined by representatives of Canadian First Nations groups and an Appalachian community organizer, will travel to different indigenous communities in Oaxaca state in an effort to share strategies and experiences among mining resistance activists.

The participants argue that multinational mining companies threaten their local lands, communities, and cultures. Organizers hope the exchange will strengthen grassroots movements against the environmental contamination and violence brought about by extraction projects.

“It is critical that communities around the world, that people—who rarely are given choices about how the lands they live on are used—share experiences, explore strategies, and create coordinated action on a global level,” says Jonathan Treat, Director of Delegations for SURCO.

The two Na Nong Bong villagers traveling to Mexico – Phrattrapron Kaenjumpa, 35, and Surapan Rujichaiyavat, 44, were selected by fellow community members to represent the village in the delegation. Both were among those activist leaders hog-tied and beaten in the last year’s attack. Feeling unsafe ever since, the villagers are eager to learn new strategies to defend themselves against the mining company, Tungkum Ltd., and its allies.

“We need to learn how we can protect ourselves,” says Mr. Surapan, hopeful that he can learn from the experiences of Mexican anti-mining activists. “There might be times in the future when we will have to face similar situations [as the communities in Mexico].”

The Na Nong Bong villagers’ fear for safety resonates in San Jose del Progreso, a small town south of Oaxaca City. In March 2012, Bernardo Vazquez, a local activist, was assassinated after actively opposing a Canadian silver and gold mining project in his community.

The Dao Din students traveling to Mexico, Suttikiat Khotchaso, 27, and Jutamas Srihutthaphadungkit, 20, are hopeful that they will be able to share what they learned in Mexico by bringing back strategies for grassroots organizations in Northeastern Thailand.

“Sometimes old methods or strategies no longer apply,” Ms. Jutamas says. “We might not be using the best strategies because we don’t know how other people in other areas are doing things. It will be good to learn from other peoples’ experiences and then improve our own.”

Under the military government in Thailand, Na Nong Bong villagers and Dao Din activists have all faced threats. Villagers were ordered to stop organizing under martial law, and then under Article 44 of the Interim Constitution, which bans political activity in groups of five or more people. In June, seven Dao Din students were detained for 12 days after protesting the military regime.

Despite their continued struggle for human rights and against dictatorship, the delegates still fret over the details of international travel. “I’ve never been on an airplane before,” says Ms. Jutamas with a shrug, “what if I mess it up?”

Rebecca Goncharoff is a freelance writer living in Khon Kaen.




Sakon Nakhon Court Jails Villagers For Forest Encroachment

Guest news contribution by Anne Sadler and William Lee

SAKON NAKHON – The ongoing clash between the government’s forest reclamation policy and community land rights in the Northeast came to a head on October 21st. Standing before the provincial court in Sakon Nakhon Province, nine villagers from Jatrabiab village — each convicted with encroaching on protected forests — listened as the judge handed down their sentences.

For six of the nine villagers, the verdict was disheartening. Each must abandon their land, pay a fine ranging from 10,000 to 20,000 baht, and submit to a form of probation for at least a year. Still, they fared much better than three of their neighbors.

Mrs. Kong Phongsakbun, Mr. Bunsom Phongsakbun, and Mrs. Surat Srisawat share 40 rai of land in an area the government has deemed “reserve forest.” For working on this land, Mrs. Kong and Mr. Bunsom received a sentence of three years in prison, while Mrs. Surat received two and a half years.

Wednesday’s sentencing is the latest chapter in a saga that began in 2012, when Thai authorities arrested 34 Jatrabiab villagers — largely rubber farmers—for trespassing in a reserve forest.

Prosecutors’ initially lacked the willpower to take substantive action against the accused. The villagers’ court cases lay dormant for some time, but were revived after the 2014 military coup thrust into power an active junta bent on pushing its “master plan,” which includes a commitment to swiftly increase Thailand’s forest cover to 40% — up from the present nationwide proportion of 33%.

A primary government strategy to reach this goal has been to reclaim illegally used forestlands, though villagers across Isaan argue that the forests are being used legally. They say the borders of reserve forests, national parks and protected areas, which the government mandates must be free of human activity — were drawn with people’s livelihood inside them.

courtdate-final-draft

Residents of Jatrabiab village and one of their lawyers gather for an Isaan-style lunch in the shadow of the Sakon Nakhon courthouse. Relatives and friends of all ages flocked to the scene of the day’s proceedings in a show of support.

Holding back tears, 51-year-old Mr. Phakdi Srisawat, the husband and son-in-law of the trio facing jail time, was overcome by the judge’s ruling. “It is unfair, I don’t know what to do,” he said, struggling to find words. Mr. Phakdi now faces the daunting task of collecting a total bail of more than one million baht, without a job or land to leverage, since his land was also confiscated.

While distressed about the fate of her grandparents and mother, 27-year-old Ms. Saowalak Srisawat fears most for her father. “Without my mother, my father is broken-hearted,” she said. “In this way, he suffers more than my mother.”

Mr. Thanomsak Rawatchai, one of the three lawyers representing the villagers, expressed disappointment with the verdict. “What the judge gave to the villagers, it’s too much,” he said.

Though nearly all of the villagers pled guilty to avoid harsher sentences, they maintain their arrests were unjust. By their account, they have owned the land in question for decades, and have the tax records to prove it. Mr. Phakdi asserts his wife’s parents had lived on their land for at least 34 years.

In a narrative difficult to substantiate, villagers claim that the Royal Forest Department (RFD) — a government agency responsible for managing forest resources — agreed to provide them with land titles in 2012. It turned out to be a deceptive ploy, they allege, as the RFD collected and submitted their signatures to the police. The police then arrested all those listed as “trespassers.”

RFD officials emphasize that the target of the reclamation policy are investors: wealthy landowners exploiting the forests for personal gain. Furthermore, NCPO Order 66 requires that poor or landless people living on reserve land prior to June 2014 not be adversely affected. However, evidence suggests the reality is the reverse.

Even considering Thailand’s ever-changing political system, the legal definition of an “investor” is remarkably inconsistent. In an interview earlier this month, Sakon Nakhon RFD officials stated that those with more than 50 rai of land qualify as investors. Some villagers claim it is 30 rai. On Wednesday, for the judge, it was 25 rai.

“What law does the judge use to send people to jail for 25 rai of land?” said Mr. Laothai Ninnuan, an advisor to the Isaan Farmer Association who has worked with the Jatrabiab community for over 30 years. “The law states that they can have 50 rai. The judge just made that law up,” he claimed.

Following Wednesday’s hearing, all but one of the 34 villagers involved, a juvenile at the time of his arrest, have received sentencing. Most of those facing jail-time are in varying stages of the appeals process.

Mr. Thanomsak stressed that judges have the wrong attitude about the relationship between villagers and forestland. While judges think of villagers as catalysts of environmental destruction, Mr. Thanomsak explained that, in reality, their communities have been able to sustain themselves and the land for decades.

Throughout the day, dozens of Jatrabiab villagers sat in an outdoor structure adjacent to the courthouse, gathered in solidarity for the nine awaiting their sentences. When asked about the large turnout of supporters, Mr. Phakdi choked out just one word —“happy”— before succumbing to silence.

For now, the trio remains behind bars, awaiting bail. “We will continue to fight; we will find a way to get them out,” said Ms. Saowalak. “But today, I don’t know what to do.”

The State Prosecutor’s Office was not available for comment, citing official business.

Anne Sadler studies English Literature at Davidson College (North Carolina) and William Lee majors in Environmental Science at Tulane University of Louisiana.




False Front Rings Familiar in the Northeast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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
<
>
"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.




High Speed Train Plan Moves Forward Despite Community Concerns in Khon Kaen

Guest contribution by Kelsey Magill and Nancy Chong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Kalasin villagers stopped from protesting petroleum drilling

Narongchai Akrasanee, Thailand’s Minister of Energy, visits a potential petroleum-drilling site in Kalasin province. A group of villagers protesting the project attempted to deliver a demand letter to the Minister, but were stopped by the military.

Narongchai Akrasanee, Thailand’s Minister of Energy, visits a potential petroleum-drilling site in Kalasin province. A group of villagers protesting the project attempted to deliver a demand letter to the Minister, but were stopped by the military.

KALASIN – On August 9 at 9:00 A.M., Thailand’s Minister of Energy, Narongchai Akrasanee, visited the Dong Mun petroleum-drilling site (DM-5) in Krung Kao sub-district, Tha Khun Tho district, in Kalasin province. Around 100 villagers from three community organizations waited on the road to the drilling site, hoping to deliver a letter asking for the project to be stopped.

At 10:00 A.M., over 300 police officers and military personnel formed a blockade to prevent villagers from obstructing the road, allowing the minister to pass. After Minister Narongchai safely reached the mining site, an undercover official approached the protesters and asked for two volunteers to deliver the letter to the minister. Villagers refused and asked that the minister come to them instead.

After he left without reviewing their request, the protesters went to Na Kham Noi village in Kalasin province – a potential site for the petroleum gas factory – where the minister had been scheduled to visit that afternoon. The protesters waited until the afternoon but the minister never arrived. A representative from the group commented that the organizations will go to Bangkok to deliver the letter at the Ministry of Energy and will continue to protect the community from the petroleum-drilling project.

 




Northeasterners Mark 50th Anniversary of the Communist Armed Struggle

NAKHON PHANOM – Fifty years ago, Comrade Tang fought for communism in the first violent clash between communist fighters and Thai security forces. Last week, at 88 years old, he marked the anniversary with a call for democracy.

Comrade Tang greets two military officers who came two observe the event and took photos of the audience.

Comrade Tang greets two military officers who came two observe the event and took photos of the audience.

In the early morning on August 7, villagers and local politicians flocked through the gate of Nabua’s village temple to commemorate the incident that came to be known as the “Day the First Gunshot Rang Out.” Against the military’s demands, the crowd of 250 not only celebrated the former communists, but also rallied for freedom from the current military rule in Thailand.

On August 7, 1965 Nabua, an ethnic Phu Thai village, made headlines all across Indochina when Thailand’s first-ever physical confrontation between communist fighters and Thai security forces occurred. According to eyewitnesses, eight communist villagers were involved, one of whom was shot dead during the incident after the town was surrounded by state forces.

Nabua villagers give alms in the local temple to mark the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the "Day the First Gunshot Rang Out".

Nabua villagers give alms in the local temple to mark the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the “Day the First Gunshot Rang Out”.

Comrade Tang, one of these eight villagers, sits on the tiled floor of the temple’s sala and greets every newcomer with an excited glance.

“This is the second year we were not allowed to have a big celebration and our funding was cut,” he said in an interview, dressed in a pearly-white uniform and sporting black-rimmed glasses. “In the past, the military would join in to celebrate our shared political history, but now they are coming in to control us.” Before he could begin the ceremony, he rose from his seat to greet two military officers who came to observe the event.

Villagers have been commemorating the incident for the last fourteen years with large events featuring political debates, lectures, and cultural performances. But, for the second year in a row, military officials asked them to keep the event small and banned any political conversation. In addition, the event’s funding from the local government was cut by half this year, from 20,000 to 10,000 baht, according to village leaders.

Among the event’s guests were 150 students from Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University. Their lecturer, Wichan Sittitham, had organized a lecture the day before the ceremony to encourage his students to learn about their region’s political history.

“The power of the older generation here is giving me goosebumps,” said Rotchana Ngaolakon, a third-year student in the university’s Public Administration program. “Like Comrade Tang, he is only a farmer, but he followed a strong ideology against oppression. Even up to today, he is still demanding to return democracy to the people.”

Comrade Tang, whose full name is Chom Saenmit, delivered a speech to the students at the event at the university’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. He is determined to help teach students and others in his region about the often-ignored realities of the communist movement’s history in Isaan.

Comrade Tang speaks to an audience of villagers, students and local politicians. Behind him is a portrait of the communist villager who was shot dead in the clashes on August 7, 1965.

Comrade Tang speaks to an audience of villagers, students and local politicians. Behind him is a portrait of the communist villager who was shot dead in the clashes on August 7, 1965.

“It was good to have the event at Rajabhat University yesterday to talk about the political meaning of [August 7],” he says. “But, the problem is that these kind of events at universities are not easily accessible for other villagers.”

Despite the military’s order to avoid political topics, speakers at the anniversary event stressed the need for a return to a democratic system in Thailand.

Former MP and Pheu Thai politician Paichit Sriwarakham, dressed in traditional Isaan garb, praised the people of Nabua for setting an example in opposing dictatorship 50 years ago. “People should stay united in demanding democracy,” he told a cheering audience.

“We have been fighting for democracy for a long time and it’s time to deliver it to the people,” said Comrade Tang in his speech. “In the past, the state killed many people in our village, in their homes, and in their fields.” As he began recounting the anti-communist suppression in the 1960s and 70s, however, the moderator quickly interrupted him and announced the next program item, an ethnic Phu Thai dance performance.

For Comrade Tang, the annual celebration is the only opportunity to get public recognition of what he views as a decades-long struggle against dictatorship. After the collapse of the Communist Party of Thailand in the early 1980s, Comrade Tang had returned to a life as a rice farmer in his village. “We realized that without these commemorative events, the history of our political struggle would be lost,” he said in an interview.

Students from Rajabhat Sakon Nakhon University listen Comrade Tang talk about the political history of Nabua.

Students from Rajabhat Sakon Nakhon University listen Comrade Tang talk about the political history of Nabua.

On the temple’s lush grounds, small groups of students congregated to speak with former communist fighters. Ms. Rotchana, one such student, felt aggrieved by the absence of the communist movement in her history classes.

“The Nabua incident is not often talked about in our society, but it is an important slice of history for the Phu Thai and people in Isaan. And for us students, we get to learn about something that is not covered in our university books,” she said, adding that her parents did not want her to attend the event.

Thailand’s education system is known for its elite-focused, narrow treatments of the country’s political history. Public Administration student Anuwat Saelim said that this breeds political apathy among students. “The ones who are interested in politics and people’s movements, like Dao Din, are seen as radicals, as society’s black sheep,” he said, referring to the Northeast student group that has recently organized protests against the military government.

Former village teacher Santayakon Jitmat and students from Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University perform revolutionary songs on a small stage on the temple ground.

Former village teacher Santayakon Jitmat and students from Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University perform revolutionary songs on a small stage on the temple ground.

“In the past, young people grabbed a gun and fought [for their beliefs],” said Mr. Anuwat.

“Today, the few students who dared to write protest signs are hunted down by the state. The ruling class must be really afraid of us.”




Six hundred protesters demand to keep Khon Kaen’s central bus terminal

KHON KAEN- Yesterday 600 protesters, organized by the group, “Rak Pattana Baw Kaw Saw 1, gathered at the Khon Kaen Provincial Hall to voice their concern over the government’s decision to close Khon Kaen’s original bus terminal and consolidate all bus transportation in the city’s new bus terminal, 7km from the city center.

Since 2013, the group “Rak Pattana Baw Kaw Saw 1,” has been organizing to prevent the closure of Khon Kaen’s central bus station. Yesterday’s protest comes after repeated efforts to petition local administration. Banner reads, “Khon Kaen needs two bus stations.”

Since 2013, the group “Rak Pattana Baw Kaw Saw 1,” has been organizing to prevent the closure of Khon Kaen’s central bus station. Yesterday’s protest comes after repeated efforts to petition local administration. Banner reads, “Khon Kaen needs two bus stations.”

Khon Kaen used to have two bus stations downtown, the original bus station (Baw Kaw Saw 1), and a second terminal for air conditioned buses. The second terminal  closed at the opening of the third terminal in 2014.

Protesters believe that closing the first station—which is located in the heart of the city—will greatly restrict access to downtown Khon Kaen for the 20,000 passengers who rely on buses for transportation each day. Protesters also claim that moving all bus transport to the distant terminal will increase the cost of transportation in the city. Many believe taxis will be the only option to get to and from the new location.

Mr. Anusak Vatcharronon, a police officer observing the protest, expressed concern that the move will cause several problems. He says, “Taxis that run from the new station will not use the meter and will just charge whatever they want. It’s not fair to the people.”

In addition, the 300 vendors and shop owners of Baw Kaw Saw 1, as well as bus drivers employed by the station, fear they will lose their jobs. Banphot Chamaarat, an elderly bus driver whose route runs between Khon Kaen and Ubon Ratchatani, says that the newer private bus station will not hire the bus drivers from the original terminal. “The bus station has been here for forty to fifty years and suddenly they are trying to move it,” said Mr. Banohot, “hundreds of other bus drivers will lose their jobs.”

The Khon Kaen Transportation Committee claims that the move will reduce traffic in the city and allow for business to expand into the old bus station’s prime location.

While community leaders discussed terms with officials behind closed doors, protestors outside shared meals, sang, and played music.

While community leaders discussed terms with officials behind closed doors, protestors outside shared meals, sang, and played music.

Protesters believe that the decision to move the bus station did not follow proper protocol, as Khon Kaen’s provincial government mandated the move without approval from the Ministry of Transport. Organizers claim that the consolidation is illegal without the consultation and support of the central government.

Boonme Tengcharoen, a protest leader, says the move was proposed and pushed forward by a local committee composed of Khon Kaen’s Governor, Chief of Justice, and representatives from the Department of Industry, Chamber of Commerce, and Provincial Transportation Department.

Protest organizers, Phathanason Sangjansri and Taweerat Anaruk delivered protestors’ demands to the Vice-Governor of Khon Kaen, Wiwat Metheewannakit, in lieu of Thailand’s Deputy Minister of Transport, Arkhom Termpittayapaisith.

The aim of the meeting was both to implore government officials to allow the old bus station to remain in operation and to request a meeting with the Minister of Transport on August 22, the date that the station was scheduled to close. Officials in yesterday’s meeting agreed to postpone the closure until the Minister of Transport issues a response.

During the protest Mr. Wiwat Metheewannakit, Vice Governor of Khon Kaen [left], and Mr. Taweerat [right] agreed upon terms to pass on to the central government in Bangkok. A major goal of the demonstration was to gain recognition of the issue outside of Khon Kaen.

During the protest Mr. Wiwat Metheewannakit, Vice Governor of Khon Kaen [left], and Mr. Taweerat [right] agreed upon terms to pass on to the central government in Bangkok. A major goal of the demonstration was to gain recognition of the issue outside of Khon Kaen.

“I think it’s possible that the Ministry will agree with our request,” says Mr. Taweerat. “Other provinces in Thailand have two bus stations. Both of Khon Kaen’s are being used now and it’s working.”

The Vice-Governor agreed to submit a document to the Ministry of Transport detailing the day’s events and protesters’ demand for two bus stations, and their request that the Minister of Transport meet with concerned citizens on August 22. Until then, both protesters and the provincial government have agreed to cease action.




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.
<
>
" 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.”




US Activists Support Detained Thai Students and Protest Military Rule in Thailand

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – On Monday morning, employees of the Royal Thai Consulate-General of Los Angeles and nearby pedestrians were greeted by protesters standing in support of the 14 students who were arrested in Bangkok on June 26.

On Monday, June 29, ENGAGE, a non-profit network called for a return of democracy in Thailand through a protest outside the Thai Consulate in Los Angeles.(Photo credit: Jeremy Starn

On Monday, June 29, ENGAGE, a non-profit network called for a return of democracy in Thailand through a protest outside the Thai Consulate in Los Angeles.(Photo credit: Jeremy Starn

The event was organized by the Educational Network for Global and Grassroots Exchange (ENGAGE), a non-profit network of community activists based in the United States that has been campaigning alongside students from the Neo-Democracy Movement in Thailand and rural groups in the Northeast to support people’s movements and community rights.

The protesters expressed their solidarity with Thai students and villagers as they protested Article 44 of the military-imposed 2014 Interim Constitution and the general suppression of human rights since the May 2014 coup.

Seven members of the Khon Kaen University student group Dao Din were detained briefly on May 22 after holding a protest against the military junta’s one-year anniversary in power. They were detained again on June 26 after holding a protest on June 25 and formally charged for disturbing public peace and violating NCPO Order 3/2558 which bans political gatherings of five or more people. An additional seven activists from the Neo-Democracy movement are also being detained. All are awaiting a military trial where they face up to seven years in prison if found guilty.

“We stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Thailand. Everyone, regardless of where they are born, should be allowed basic human rights and the freedom to organize,” said Jude Peckinpaugh, a member of ENGAGE who recently returned from Thailand. “This action is to show that we support the students’ recent non-violent civil disobedience and demand that they are released from prison.”

Fourteen pairs of shoes symbolize each student arrested in Bangkok for peaceful protesting. Photo credit: Jeremy Starn

Fourteen pairs of shoes symbolize each student arrested in Bangkok for peaceful protesting. Photo credit: Jeremy Starn

The protesters delivered six demands to Consul General Jesda Kataventin in order to show support for the detained Thai students and Na Nong Bong villagers in Thailand’s Loei Province. Among their demands are the repeal of Article 44, an end of military court trials for civilians, release of the student protesters, and an investigation of the activities of the Tungkum Limited Company gold mine activities in Loei Province.

Protesters also called for an end of military harassment of villagers in the Northeast fighting for their right to livelihood and a safe environment.

ENGAGE received a response from the Consular General in Los Angeles on June 30 confirming that their demands had been passed on to the government in Bangkok.




Apichatpong's 'Cemetery of Splendour' Draws Standing Ovation at Cannes

At the world premiere of Cemetery of Splendour at Cannes Film Festival last week, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s newest work was well received. But despite receiving a standing ovation and being celebrated among film critics, the director came home empty-handed in the prize ceremony.

cemetery_of_splendour_1-450Set in his hometown Khon Kaen, Cemetery of Splendour (Thai: Rak Thi Khon Kaen), tells the story of Jenjira, a housewife who takes care of group of soldiers who suffer from a mysterious sleeping sickness (watch the trailer at the bottom).

In a recent interview with The Isaan Record, Apichatpong explained that the film is inspired much by his childhood memories of Khon Kaen, a city that is now slowly losing its identity, he said.

Cemetery of Splendour missed out on the official selection and was screened in the Un Certain Regard section, which presents “original and different” films. It is Apichatpong’s first feature-length film since his 2010 Palme d’Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

Apichatpong showed no regret that his film did not appear in the main section. On the contrary, the world premiere was a “stress-free situation,” he said, because his film did not have to prove itself in the competition.

And even though his film was not awarded a prize this year, it was lauded by both the audience and film critics alike. The Guardian’s Brad Bradshaw compares it with “a very calm sort of hysteria” and the applause after the first screening lasted well over ten minutes.

“I felt touched by the reception of the film. The standing ovation was longer than when I showed Uncle Boonmee which made me happy for my producers because together we worked so hard to get this film off the ground,” Apichatpong told The Isaan Record.

Cemetery of Splendour will be screening around the globe at many film festivals and will be released in France in September. However, it is unlikely that the film will hit Thai theaters any time soon.

https://vimeo.com/127996993




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).
<
>
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).




Students Set to be Charged for Anniversary Protest of the Coup in Khon Kaen

The seven students who held the banner reading, "Anti-Coup" are being held at the Khon Kaen Police Station, awaiting charges. Photo Credit: Dao Din's Facebook page

The seven students who held the banner reading, “Anti-Coup” are being held at the Khon Kaen Police Station, awaiting charges. Photo Credit: Dao Din’s Facebook page

Seven Khon Kaen University students who held a sign reading, “Anti Coup,” at Khon Kaen’s Democracy Monument this afternoon have been detained at the Khon Kaen Police Station. The students from the activist group Dao Din said on the group’s Facebook that it is likely they will be charged with violating Article 44 of the 2014 Interim constitution and tried in military court.

Those presently detained are Mr. Jatupat Boonpattararaksa (Pai), Mr. Apiwat Suntrarak (Noi),  Mr. Payu Boonsopon (Payu), Mr. Panupong Srithananuwat (Nite), Mr. Suwitcha Thipangkorn (Best), Mr. Supachai Phukrongploy (Arty) and Mr. Wasant Setsith (Tong).

Three other students and three observers from the the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights organization were also detained. According to Dao Din’s Facebook page, the six observers will not be charged, but the action will be recorded in their records.

Seven student activists hold a sign that reads, "Anti-Coup." Photo credit: Dao Din's Facebook page

Seven student activists hold a sign that reads, “Anti-Coup.” Photo credit: Dao Din’s Facebook page

The stated objective of the action was posted on the group’s facebook page shortly after they were detained. “We aim to express our stance on the military government’s suppression of human rights in Isaan, especially with regard to, the gold mine issue [in Loei province], the Khong Chi Mun river management problems, the problems with petroleum drilling, evictions from the forest under the Master Plan, educational injustice and inequality, and the 2015 charter.”

The protest comes the day after the “New Isaan” movement’s symbolic action in Khon Kaen against mining and petroleum concessions being granted in the Northeast.

All ten of the students present at the protest are members of Dao Din. Most of them study at Khon Kaen University’s Faculty of Law.

Police and soldiers quickly ended the protest at Khon Kaen's Democracy Monument. Photo Credit: Dao Din's Facebook page

Police and soldiers quickly ended the protest at Khon Kaen’s Democracy Monument. Photo Credit: Dao Din’s Facebook page




Khon Kaen University’s Transition to Autonomy Leaves Uncertain Future

Yesterday, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) passed bills to privatize Khon Kaen University and three other higher education institutions. The continuing privatization of Thailand’s universities raises concerns among student activists and academics who warn of soaring tuition fees, exclusion of lower income students, and too much power moving into the hands of too few.

As Thailand remains under military rule, many question the timing of the recent push to transition more universities from a public to a so-called “autonomous” status.

In addition to Khon Kaen University (KKU), similar bills were passed for Thammasat, Kasetsart, and Suan Dusit Rajabhat Universities.

University privatization plans have been the target of student protests in recent months. Last Thursday, students from Thammasat University presented a petition with 2,702 signatures to the NLA, calling for more transparency in the privatization process and student participation in the university’s affairs

On April 8, a student activist rolled out a protest banner from the roof of KKU's “Complex” (Food and Service Center 1) and distributed pamphlets in opposition to the planned privatization of the university. Photo credit: Jeremy Starn

On April 8, a student activist rolled out a protest banner from the roof of KKU’s “Complex” (Food and Service Center 1) and distributed pamphlets in opposition to the planned privatization of the university. Photo credit: Jeremy Starn

In early April at KKU, a student activist climbed onto the roof of the campus’ centrally-located Complex to roll out a banner featuring the message: “Khon Kaen University Company Limited – University President-Dictator.” He was calling to oppose the government’s push to turn the public university into a privatized institution.

The initiative for an autonomous university system began in the 1990s and accelerated due to pressure to privatize public services from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.

Since then, 15 universities out of 185 tertiary education institutions nationwide have transitioned to the autonomous system, almost always accompanied by student protests.

Once made autonomous, universities leave the state’s bureaucratic system and set up their own administrative and budgetary structures. All decision-making power on management and financial matters as well as personnel and curricula policies is held by the university council.

According to the draft of Khon Kaen University’s new charter obtained by The Isaan Record, this powerful body is composed of 30 members, the majority of which are royally appointed for three years and can be reappointed.

The council is dominated by high-level, Bangkok-based officials, but also includes the university’s president and administration, five elected faculty members, one elected representative of university staff, the governor of Khon Kaen Province, and at least one representative from the Ministry of Education.

The university council can act independently on administrative and budgetary matters without having to wait for the central government’s approval, as it is the case for public universities.

Proponents of this system stress that it brings universities more flexibility and independence from state bureaucracy, but critics warn that it will decrease the accountability of the university administration.

Khon Kaen University’s main student activist group, Dao Din, criticizes the lack of student participation in the process and is concerned that after the transition the university council will be able to wield unchecked power over the university affairs.

“If it was really necessary for [Khon Kaen] University to become autonomous, then we students want to take part in the decision-making process,” said 20-year-old Phayu Boonsophon, a Dao Din member from Khon Kaen University’s Faculty of Law.

According to Dao Din, the university held a public forum on the issue to gather opinions from the student community nearly a decade ago. Since then, the university has been quoting this one-time event as evidence of student inclusion in process of privatization.

Student concerns are shared by Yukti Mukdawijitra, an assistant professor at Thammasat University. The efforts to move universities into the autonomous system comes with greater centralization, Dr. Yukti told The Isaan Record over email.

“In an autonomous university, professors and lecturers, as well as supportive staff and students, will be under tighter control,” Dr. Yukti wrote. “The president and the board of referees of the university are more powerful and there will be much less participation from representatives from the faculties.”

In contrast to a public university, its autonomous counterpart no longer fully depends on state funding based on the number of students, but instead receives an annual block grant from the state budget. For this reason, autonomous universities are driven to find other sources of revenues through, for example, increased tuition fees or profitable “special” programs.

Concerns have been raised over the potential commercialization of educational services, equity, and access to higher education by lower income groups.

In 2012, the website ThaiPublica found that tuition fees at Burapha University increased significantly after it became autonomous in 2008. The Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences raised semester tuition rates of its regular programs from under 10,000 baht to 14,000 baht, an increase of at least 40 percent.

“The state is responsible for providing education to its people free of charge. But when the state is dominated by capitalists, then education immediately becomes a business,” says Decha Premrudeelert, a long-time education activist in Khon Kaen. “As a consequence, the poor have less access to higher education and the gap between the rich and the poor gradually widens.”

Public universities in the Northeast have a special responsibility, as the region is Thailand’s poorest, explains Alongkorn Akkasaeng, Assistant Dean at Mahasarakham University’s College of Politics and Governance. Unlike universities in Bangkok, universities here offer education to a high number of students from low-income families.

“Khon Kaen University needs to decide if it wants to make profit or support society by offering education,” Dr. Alongkorn said.

Students might not be the only group affected by universities’ transition to an autonomous status. Even though university administrative staff and lecturers receive a slightly higher salary in the autonomous system, they may be granted fewer benefits, as they are no longer employed as civil servants.

“In public universities, almost all employees are civil servants who are better off in terms of health care and retirement plans. Essentially, I think privatization is a process to reduce costs and spending on the social welfare of employees, including professors and lecturers,” said Dr. Yutki.

However, the push to privatize Thailand’s universities has not met significant opposition. If done right, autonomy from the government’s bureaucracy can translate into a more efficient university administration system and might consequently improve the quality of education, explained Sathaporn Reungtham, Assistant Professor at Khon Kaen University’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

“The only problem is that until now the university’s administrators have failed to answer how the autonomous status will exactly improve the university’s situation. There is a lack of accountability that makes me not very hopeful about this whole process,” Dr. Sathaporn said.

After the coup in 2006, seven universities were hastily made autonomous, including the country’s oldest educational institution, Chulalongkorn University, in spite of student protests. At that time, only Khon Kaen University withdrew its bid for autonomous status in response to public opposition.

This time around, it seems like Khon Kaen University’s administrators seized the moment to change the university’s status without public scrutiny.

In a bid to prevent protest from students or faculty, wrote Dr. Yukti, “it is clear that the administrators of universities want to take advantage of the military rule.”

Following last year’s military coup led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, several presidents of major universities were appointed to the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), the military junta’s rubber-stamp parliament.

Student activist Mr. Phayu claimed, “Khon Kaen University President [Kittichai Triratanasirichai] volunteered to become a member of the NLA only to propose this autonomy bill and then raised his hand to pass it.”




Drafting the Constitution in a Drought of Supporters

KHON KAEN – In late January, about 250 Northeasterners from six provinces gathered at the conference room of the Petcharat Garden Hotel in Roi Et to participate in the drafting process of Thailand’s twentieth constitution. The military government claims to be seeking citizen participation in drafting the constitution, but these public forums to gather input from Thais across the country seem to be nothing but a false front in the Northeast.

Last November the military government appointed a 36-member committee headed by legal scholar Bavornsak Uwanno from the conservative King Prajadhipok’s Institute (KPI) to draft a new charter. This so-called Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) was given a four-month window to propose a draft before sending it for approval to the National Reform Council (NRC). And Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha stressed that the drafting process would focus on the public’s participation.

In a country that cannot seem to seriously commit to one constitution, the military government’s announcement that it would scrap the 2007 constitution and start anew startled no one. However, their stated commitment to draw input from the voices of everyday Thai citizens seems peculiar for a regime that has suspended all democratic processes and put a lid on public opposition.

The logo of the public forums "Finding a Solution for Thailand".

The logo of the public forums “Finding a Solution for Thailand”.

Under the title “Finding a Solution For Thailand: Weaving People’s Power to Reform Thailand” the CDC and the NRC launched a series of public forums to engage citizens. These two-day events toured ten cities across the country, including the three Northeastern provinces of Roi Et, Udon Thani, and Surin.

Early announcements indicated that villagers would be randomly picked through the house registration system. But in Khon Kaen fewer than ten villagers accepted the invitation to join the forum in Roi Et and the bulk of participants were recruited through the personal connections of the organizers. Sompong Pratoomthong, Chairman of the KPI’s Center for Civic Development in Khon Kaen and an organizer of the forums, suggested public interest in the event was low.

At the event in Roi Et, Chairman Wanchai Watanasap urged the attendants to respect each other’s opinions and warned that there cannot be any conflict among the participants. Then he divided the crowd into eight discussion groups and sent them off with a moderator and a notetaker.

In one of the small groups, the moderator kicked off the discussion by asking about the participants’ vision for Thailand after the new constitution was in place. The room remained silent until a young man raised his hand and said, “I don’t want any more coups.” The moderator quickly responded that such concerns would require private conversations with the organisers.

Among the most prominent civil society groups in the Northeast, many are debating the merits of participating in the public forums at all. Some, like Suvit Kulapwong, General-Secretary of NGO CORD Isan, reject the legitimacy of the military-installed government and the charter drafting process.

“They talk about reform, but this is just gibberish. This reform process is not for the people, but for the elites in power who are trying to reorganize their relationships and clear their conflict,” said Mr. Suvit, referring to the prolonged rivalry between the country’s conservative establishment and the camp of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Among those who oppose the constitution drafting process, the belief prevails that without lifting martial law and allowing freedom of expression, there cannot be an open dialogue on the contents of the new charter. Under the current circumstances all participation is to no avail.

“The main point of a democracy is to acknowledge the voices of the people,” said Jakrapong Thanavorapong, an activist working to protect natural resources in Isaan. “We are not participating in the public forums because we don’t believe a new constitution can offer any solutions to the problems in Isaan.”

But Wipattanachai Pimhin, a civil society leader from Khon Kaen’s Nam Phong District, is not convinced that participation is futile. He chose to participate in the public forums. “We are not obeying the military junta, but the forums are the only channel for us and the people to give input to drafting process,” he said. However, he admits that the chances of the CDC considering civil society’s suggestions are low.

Each public forum concludes with a list of suggestions purportedly compiled by the participants to be considered for the constitution. However, some participants in Khon Kaen voiced concerns that the government has already finished drafting a constitution and will ignore public opinion.

Supot Thongnerkhaw, one of six group chairmen of the public forum in Roi Et, said that he has zero hope that any of their suggestions will make it into the constitution. “In my opinion, the whole process is just window-dressing. The CDC and the NRC most likely already have a draft in the drawer. If our suggestions fit in, fine, but if not, they will just ignore them,” Mr. Supot said.

While the forums convey to the public that the constitution drafters are interested in broad-based participation, Titipol Phakdeewanich, Political Scientist at Ubon Ratchathani University, believes their main purpose lies elsewhere. “The goal is to give legitimacy to the drafting process,” Mr Titipol reasons, “so they can show the international community that the constitution is based on popular will.”

Political observers have noted that the CDC is composed of members of the conservative elite who were involved in the drafting of the military-backed 2007 constitution. Some members reportedly participated in or supported last year’s anti-government protest, which raises concerns over the nonpartisanship of the drafting body.

Mr. Titipol argues that the members of the drafting committee mainly represent Thailand’s old generation. He is trying to engage students through public seminars at his university, but many of them believe that their voices do not matter, and they fear potential repercussions from the authorities if they express dissenting opinions.

“There are people in their sixties and seventies writing Thailand’s new constitution, but any drafting process should include younger people. After all, this charter is mainly written for the younger generation. We live in the 21st century and we don’t want see Thailand move backwards in time, do we?”




Isaan Opposition Movement Seminar held at Thammasat University

Community members, lawyers, academics, and students from the Northeast and Bangkok convened this Friday to kick off a new political movement to defend the rights of Isaan people under martial law.

Community members openly discussed widespread repression under martial law in a rare event held in Bangkok on Friday.

Community members openly discussed widespread repression under martial law in a rare event held in Bangkok on Friday.

BANGKOK- On Friday morning, Khon Kaen University law students from the activist group Dao Din, gathered sleepily after a long train ride to the capital, before walking into a conference room at Thammasat University. Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, one of the students who staged a three-finger salute protest at Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s speech in Khon Kaen last December, briefed the students on the security protocol for the day, in case the seminar was shut down.

“Make sure you move villagers to a safe location if anything happens,” he told his peers before the seminar began.

Over sixty people joined the seminar under the name,“Isaan in the Middle of Bangkok: Peoples’ Life in the Center of Development.” Isaan community groups, students, academics, and lawyers discussed the effects of martial law and the immediate need to repeal it. They declared “New Isaan,” as an emergent political movement in opposition to military rule. Despite the students’ preparation for potential military intervention, the seminar was held without interruption.

The need for the security plan echoed the same climate described by Isaan villagers who feel the daily effects of martial law. Representatives from over ten communities across the Northeast joined the seminar, including those from the gold mine affected area in Loei Province, the forest community that was evicted from Kao Baat, village of Non Din Daeng District in Buriram Province, the potential natural gas sites in Kranuan District of Khon Kaen Province and Kalasin Province, a water transferal project in Roi Et Province, the potential industrial zone in Nam Phong District of Khon Kaen Province, the Phu Pan National Park in Sakon Nakhon Province, and the potential Pong Khun Phet Dam in Chaiyaphum Province.

According to Mr. Jatupat, the seminar was held in Bangkok because it is the country’s center of power and home of the decision makers that Isaan people struggle against.

“The hypocrisy of Bangkok is that they don’t want Isaan people to have their own political expression,” said Samchaiy Sresunt (center), a faculty member at the Graduate Volunteer Centre at Thammasat University.

“The hypocrisy of Bangkok is that they don’t want Isaan people to have their own political expression,” said Samchaiy Sresunt (center), a faculty member at the Graduate Volunteer Centre at Thammasat University.

Villagers expressed many common sentiments, including living life in fear and the disconnect between Bangkok and the Northeast. Porntip Hongchai, a forty-five-year-old activist from the gold mine area in Loei province, described her frustration.

“People in Bangkok hold these stereotypes against us Northeasterners. They think we’re poor and stupid; that we have nothing. We’re good singers or just a joke in the media, but our homes are for mining and industry. They don’t listen to us at all. The New Isaan won’t be obedient to those in power any more.”

Many members described the military presence and surveillance in their communities that came with martial law. They claimed that the military uses the law to negotiate villager compliance with industry interests.

“National security agencies and soldiers still have the mindset that villagers who remain in the forest are communists. They’ve made our relationships with local authorities worse,” said thirty-two-year-old Paitoon Soisod of Kao Baat.

“It’s clear that the military and the company are working together,” added fifty-nine-year-old Pakon Srakangtoom, a villager from Kranuan District.

In their testimonies, villagers stated that they have always had issues with past governments, but the limits on demonstration and expression have now made it nearly impossible for them to defend their rights.

“I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel with regards to martial law,” said Mr. Paitoon, “the fear is deeply embedded into our hearts, but we continue to fight. If we don’t fight, we’ll die.”

To which moderator, Kornchanok Saenprasert, responded, “Now the situation is, if you fight, you’re dead. But if you don’t fight, you’re still fucking dead.”

The morning panel concluded with Ms. Porntip reading “The Declaration for the New Isaan” (read it here), a powerful reckoning with the Central region’s dominance over the Northeast and call to arms against the military government. Student activists played “The Song of Commoners ” while members of the seminar sang along.

Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, a Dao Din activist, and Nathapong Phukaew from Friends of Activists Network perform “The Song of Commoners”.

Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, a Dao Din activist, and Nathapong Phukaew from Friends of Activists Network perform “The Song of Commoners”.

During the afternoon panel several lawyers and academics, both from Bangkok and the Northeast, discussed the historic context of martial law and the continual conflict between Bangkok and the Northeast.

“The government always tells the people they should sacrifice the environment they depend on for the rest of the country,” said Bencharat Chua, lecturer of Human Rights and Peace Studies at Thammasat University. She continued, “Now they ask them to sacrifice their right to protest for the peace and harmony of the country.”

As the event came to an end, twenty-seven-year-old organizer Suttikiat Khontchaso thanked the participants for joining. “Even those who weren’t invited,” he said referring to the four alleged plainclothes military representatives that were present taking pictures of the event.

“This is the day we establish New Isaan, a movement for Isaan people to join,” Mr. Suttikiat concluded, “Isaan is historically the birthplace of political movements, and ours is no different. We hope that this movement can serve as an example to people in other regions.”

The Dao Din student activists were also hopeful about this new movement’s potential. Mr. Jatupat said,“I hope that New Isaan will be able to create change. People should not just receive the policies that are handed to them. They should create their own future.”




Ancient Isaan Script to be Revitalized in New Public Effort

The Khon Kaen Municipality, Khon Kaen University and the Isan Culture Maitenance and Revitalization Program are collaborating to create programs to teach the Isaan heritage script, Tai Noi.

Learning how to write Tai Noi will allow Isaan people to write the language they most commonly speak in every day life. Photo credit: Jeremy Starn

Learning how to write Tai Noi will allow Isaan people to write the language they most commonly speak in every day life. Photo credit: Jeremy Starn

KHON KAEN– In Northeast Thailand fourteen million people speak the Isaan language in their homes, however, the language lacks a writing system and it is not taught in public schools. In a recent effort, Khon Kaen University (KKU), the Khon Kaen Municipality, and the Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalization Program (ICMRP) hope to reconcile the disconnect.

On 27-28 February, Khon Kaen Municipality and the Department of Culture at KKU held a two-day seminar as the culmination of a three-year effort to develop a syllabus and resources to teach the Isaan language using the Tai Noi script, an initiative supported by ICMRP. The university and the Khon Kaen Municipality signed a memorandum of understanding that will enable schools to teach the Isaan language using the ancient script. The event was attended by approximately 100 people from schools, temples, universities, and municipalities in Khon Kaen Province.

The Tai Noi script dates back to the Sukothai period, and accommodates the six tones of Isaan, allowing the speaker to pronounce the language more accurately than when Thai phonetics are used.

Supporters of the effort to formally teach the Isaan language argue that forging a connection to the region’s written past will help create a living culture of literacy in Isaan, as well as boost people’s pride in Isaan’s heritage. Many have argued that Northeasterners have been historically looked down upon by other Thais, especially those in Bangkok, and the impulse to bolster Isaan’s cultural uniqueness is a means to mitigate such discrimination.

The project is limited to eighteen schools in four municipalities in Khon Kaen Province, and works with a dialect of Isaan originally derived from the Vientiane sub-family of Lao. There are also efforts on behalf of Georgia State University to create a Thai-English-Isaan dictionary.

The university’s support of the project was surprising to some because the Thai educational system has historically emphasized the exclusive use of Central Thai and English for instruction. The Thai state has long insisted on the unity of people within the kingdom under the ethno-national concept of “Thai-ness.” State support, however small, for the countries’ minorities and various ethnic groups is uncommon.

The MOU signals more corporation between the municipality and KKU to facilitate events and workshops that highlight Isaan culture.

The MOU signals more corporation between the municipality and KKU to facilitate events and workshops that highlight Isaan culture.

According to John Draper, the coordinator of ICMRP, recognizing and preserving Thai cultural diversity is necessary and not divisive.

“Most Isaan people, whose culture started as Lao and is now a mix of Thai and Lao, would still not like to be called ‘Lao’ by outsiders, though among family and friends they would be more likely to describe their language, festivals, food, and music as ‘Lao.’ The danger comes when people stress differences over similarities in order to create ethnic conflict and disunity, or when people stress similarities over differences to go beyond what is a reasonable level of nationalism.”

Dr. Peerasit Kamnuansilpa, founder and former dean of the College of Local Administration at KKU also validated the necessity of the initiative, “The MOU will bring all participating organizations to work together and achieve the goal of revitalizing the cultural identity and values of the Northeast region.”

Few people have learned Tai Noi as it has traditionally only been used by monks in village ceremonies, according to Dr. Udom Basri, a scholar of Tai Noi and Isaan at Maha Chulalongkorn Buddhist University. This has posed a challenge to common people who might use the script.

“Only monks can learn it, or people who go to temples to learn from the monks. But, now new monks don’t know how to learn Tai Noi. Now, palm leaf manuscripts have been put away like treasures and cannot be touched. This project is important both for new monks who want to read manuscripts and for villagers who want to read the manuscripts.”

Now that instruction in the mother language of most people in the Northeast has gained support both from KKU and the municipality, greater cultural development within Isaan is a possibility.

“We need to look at the Northeast as rich in culture rather than looking at it as a region of poverty,” says the mayor of Khon Kaen, Teerasak Teekhayuphan, “In Thailand, we note that the Southerners speak in their own language fluently and gracefully in social contexts. This is the same in the North. However, our children are shy about doing this. We need to create a future where they are also proud of their identity, and we look forward to working with Khon Kaen University to do this.”




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
<
>
"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
<
>
"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.]




Yingluck Shinawatra’s Impeachment Exposes Concerns about the Future of Democracy in Thailand

The Isaan Record’s continued report on reactions from the Northeast to the impeachment of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

KHON KAEN – In the Northeast the impeachment of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra continues to raise questions over the legitimacy of the process and quashes the hopes of many for a return to democratic rule.

The National Legislative Assembly (NLA) recently impeached Ms. Yingluck over allegations of corruption in her government’s rice subsidy scheme and imposed a five-year-ban from politics. Ms. Yingluck also faces criminal charges of dereliction of duty put forward by the Office of the Attorney-General based on an investigation by the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC).

5892302387_a79d7b23b2_o

Yingluck Shinawatra in 2011 at a Pheu Thai Party campaign rally at Rajamangala Stadium in Bangkok. Photo credit: flickr: ratchaprasong2

Ms. Yingluck will likely stand trial in the Supreme Court Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions, just as her brother Thaksin Shinawatra in 2008, who fled the court’s ruling into self-imposed exile.

“This case will be hard to fight because the court will base its legal proceeding on the already completed investigation of the NACC, which found her involved with the alleged corruption,” explains former Khon Kaen senator Wan Suwannaphong in an interview.“In this kind of case, if Ms. Yingluck is ruled guilty, there can be no appeal.”

In Pheu Thai Party’s rice subsidy scheme, the government bought rice from local farmers at up to twice the market rate and stockpiled it with hopes of hiking up global prices before selling it for a profit. At the time, Thailand was the world’s largest exporter of rice, but other countries increased their exports, causing the price of rice on the world market to plunge. That left Thailand with a financial loss of about US$15 billion and an estimated 18 million tons of rice stored away in warehouses.

In some cases rice was supposedly smuggled from neighboring countries and sold to the government at the subsidized rate.

Many, however, believe there was nothing criminal about the policy. Dr. Wiboon Shamsheun, a former Pheu Thai vice minister from Kalasin points out that the policy was expected to cause financial loss. Every government faces the challenge of finding ways to stimulate economic growth. The Yingluck administration used the rice subsidy scheme as a wealth distribution mechanism to support farmers and inject money into the economy.

“Obviously, people like populist policies because they receive benefits through them. And if people like it, what’s the damage? What’s the point of being a government that isn’t popular with the people?” asks Dr. Wiboon.

Dr. Wiboon also questions the legality of Ms. Yingluck’s removal from power. He argues that the former prime minister’s impeachment has no legal grounds since the interim constitution of 2014 neither includes a mechanism for impeachment nor specifies proceedings for such a case.

“This country is governed through a parliamentary system in which there is no impeachment motion as this is a characteristic of presidential systems. It’s like putting the wrong lid on the wrong pot”, explains Dr. Wiboon. “So it is unclear what governance or legal principles [the NLA] is referring to.”

Wasan Chuchai, secretary and committee member of the Khon Kaen provincial branch of the Lawyers Council of Thailand, disagrees and argues that it is the right of NLA members to impeach any holders of political positions according to the law. However, he concedes that the NLA’s decision was not a legal decision proving wrongdoing on the part of Ms. Yingluck, which can only be determined by the courts.

“The impeachment of Ms. Yingluck is about keeping her off the political stage and preventing her from taking any political office again. This is a mechanism that is necessary in our system,” says Mr. Wasan.

Tul Prasertsilpa, president of the Citizen’s Anti-Corruption Network Khon Kaen, stresses the legitimacy of the impeachment motion as based on the constitution. His group is closely aligned with Suthep Thauksuban’s anti-government protests that instigated the downfall of the Yingluck government a year ago.

“The impeachment forces Ms. Yingluck to finally show responsibility to the parliament and the people for her government’s political wrongdoing,” Mr. Tul says.

After the impeachment, the military government, citing martial law, forbade Ms. Yingluck from holding a press conference. On her personal Facebook page, though, a note was posted stating that democracy had died along with the rule of law.

Mr. Wasan says that this statement, “Doesn’t respect the legal system in our country. Ms. Yingluck never acknowledged her faults and she doesn’t want to take any responsibility for her mistakes. Now she is defending herself and blames her own failures on the system.”

However, Ms. Yingluck’s statement rings true for many, reflecting the prevailing gloominess about the prospects of democracy and true reconciliation in the country.

“In many instances, we thought that democracy in Thailand was dying, but then we still had a flicker of hope in us. Now, after the impeachment of Ms. Yingluck, we see that democracy is in fact dead,” says Sutin Klangsaeng, a member of the Pheu Thai party-list from Maha Sarakham. He added that his party has lost all of its confidence in the military government’s reconciliation process.

This sense of resignation is echoed by Mr. Wan, who has little hope for a return to democratic rule under the current circumstances. “You cannot plant the seeds of democracy anywhere in Thailand at the moment. It’s like a volcano just exploded and all the land is covered in lava—democracy cannot grow because of the heat.”

In the last two weeks, the impeachment has garnered national and international criticism. At home, the military junta has launched a new round of summoning key Pheu Thai and red shirt leaders who have spoken out against the NLA’s decision. But quieting international critiques has proven more difficult.

On a visit to Thailand last week, senior US envoy, Daniel Russel, described the disposal of Ms. Yingluck and the criminal charges against her, as potentially “politically driven.” He called for an end to martial law and expressed concerns about the restraints on freedoms since the military seized power.

In contrast, Mr. Tul argues that martial law and restrictions on freedom of expression are still necessary to ensure social peace in the country, even if the international community may see it as a sign of “underdevelopment” of Thailand’s democracy.

“Freedom comes with responsibility and it means that everyone can exercise their rights,” Mr. Tul reasons. “But if people use their rights to incite division among each other and to violate the law, this is not freedom.”

The military government reacted to Mr. Russel’s comments by summoning the most senior American diplomat stationed in Bangkok and expressing its displeasure. Deputy Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said that the US lacks an understanding of Thai politics.

However, for Dr. Wiboon, the main problem lies elsewhere. “Now they claim that the US doesn’t understand Thailand,” he says. “But it’s rather that Thailand doesn’t understand democracy.”