Red Schools Are Back in Session

BANGKOK – Close to 1,500 provincial red shirt leaders assembled this Saturday morning to kick off the 2011 political school year for the UDD. The School for Provincial Committee Coordinators met as a one-day teachers’ college designed to educate district-level leaders on the movement’s politics and strategies in the lead-up to this year’s parliamentary elections.

Restraint and nonviolence were the main themes of the morning as both UDD-leader Thida Thawornseth and spokesperson Natthawut Saikua asked their audience for patience. “We’re not going to teach you how to use guns,” Mr. Natthawut told the crowd. “Instead we’re going to give you the weapon of thinking and if this knowledge is spread throughout the country, then victory is at hand.”

After the Songkran holiday, Saturday’s students will become this season’s Red Shirt teachers, holding classes in villages and cities throughout the country.

Natthawut Saikua lectures from the stage.

Grumblings of disunity and disorganization have plagued the movement since last May’s bloody government crackdown sent much of the Red Shirt leadership to prison and left 91 supporters dead. Now, just six weeks after the group’s leaders were let out on bail, the scene on the sixth-floor of the Ladprao Big C felt far from haphazard. Before the crowds arrived, registration tables were erected and attendance lists laid out – the names and telephone numbers of every enrolled student were waiting to be checked and confirmed. Inside the classroom, attendees thumbed through their twenty-five page textbooks, eyeing full-page illustrations of the organization’s network and bullet-pointed lists of its stated goals.

Later, after lunch, Mr. Natthawut told reporters that the day’s aim was to organize their supporters “so they could unify the country.” But national unification will be a tall order, particularly for an organization whose rally today saw the preemptive mobilization of 22 police companies. However, if the themes of Saturday’s lessons can speak for the movement, then Bangkok’s police have little to worry about.

[UPDATE: April 16, 2011 – A PDF of the textbook has been linked to in this article. Though The Isaan Record has digitally erased its margin notes, the rest of the book appears in full.]

Demonstrators Storm Loei Hotel, Rally Against Mining Meeting

Protesters sit in the lobby of the Loei Palace Hotel in the Muang district to demonstrate against plans of the establishment of a copper mine.

LOEI – Over nine hundred villagers thwarted a local company’s attempt on April 7th to hold a public hearing regarding the establishment of a nearby copper mine.  Flooding the open-air lobby of the Loei Palace Hotel in the Muang district, Huay Muang villagers and their supporters waved flags and chanted into bullhorns as they barricaded the doors to the proposed meeting room.

Demonstrators came together to express their concerns that the Puthep Company’s mine could have adverse environmental effects on the Hin Lek Fai Mountain, which provides for the livelihood of many people in the region.

Villagers from Huay Muang grew concerned about mining’s potential dangers when they learned about their neighbors in Na Nong Bong, a village caught between two gold mines just 30 kilometers away. There, villagers have complained of contaminated water destroying their crops and causing skin ailments.

In addition, a 2010 study conducted by the Loei Provincial Office of Public Health and Wang Saphung Hospital found that almost 500 villagers who live near the mines have mercury and cyanide levels that exceed safety standards. These numbers seem to confirm concerns of even those in Bangkok. It has been reported that the Cabinet recently asked the Industry Ministry to refrain from granting mining concessions before further researching the potential effects of mines.

Sukan Boonkerd, a Huay Muang native and activist, held fast to the lessons of Na Nong Bong when his organization, The Loei Province Nework, organized Thursday morning’s event. “We are 100% against this mine” he told reporters.

Not all of those in attendance, however, were as strongly opposed as Mr. Sukan. “I didn’t come to support the mine, but I still wanted to hear what the company had to say,” a villager said as she picked at a box lunch provided by the mining company.

Students from the Khon Kaen activist group Dao Din lock arms with villagers as they block the main entrance to the Loei Palace Hotel.

Nevertheless, Mr. Sukan insisted that this event was not a protest against a public hearing. “We want the hearing to be accessible to all the 2,000 people who would be directly affected by this mine,” the village leader said.

He added that if the company had made the meeting more accommodating, people would have attended. Mr. Sukan was referring to the 250-seat meeting room that Puthep Co. reserved for the hearing, a space far too small to allow for the participation of thousands of villagers that could be impacted.

Puthep Co., a subsidiary of Australia’s PanAust Ltd. and Thailands’ Padeang Industry Ltd., had organized the public hearing to serve as an early step in the drafting of an environmental impact assessment (EIA). The 2007 Thai constitution mandates the implementation of EIAs to analyze the potential risks of large-scale development projects.

Of the more than 20 mineral extraction projects in Isaan, many are located on mountains, in forests, and near wetlands. Rural villagers, 90% of whom are farmers, seek to maintain access to these intact environments not only for their livelihood, but also for their sustenance and culture.

In the face of these challenges, communities from across the Northeast have banded together in a show of solidarity against mining. Just two days before the Huay Muang demonstration, Udon Thani citizens fighting against the construction of a potash mine drew over 700 participants, some of whom hailed from Huay Muang and Na Nong Bong.

Mr. Wit, a community leader from Na Nong Bong, explained why he attended Thursday’s event at the Loei Palace Hotel. “We support villagers in Huay Muang and Udon Thani because we all face the same struggles. We hope they will help us fight as well.”

Udon Lovers Open Red Kingdom

UDON THANI – The Udon Lovers branch of the National United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship celebrated their five year anniversary this morning by officially opening their new headquarters in Udon’s Sam Phrao district.

Pheu Thai party candidate and Udon Lovers founder Kwanchai Praipana unveiled the so-called “Red Kingdom” office building and radio station. The building is a milestone for the burgeoning political movement, as it marks the first significant capital improvements to a station that, now, has inspired a following of more than 400,000 people.

Kwanchai Praipana unveiled the so-called “Red Kingdom” office building and radio station in front of Red Shirt supporters.

Mr. Kwanchai, who grew to prominence as one the station’s most outspoken DJ’s, addressed the modest mid-morning crowd of Red Shirts that had come for the ceremony. “It’s been a long time since our rights were robbed from us by the Democrats,” he said. “Now is the time to take a stand – this is our kingdom.”

The one-time record producer’s remarks were punctuated by the boom of small confetti cannons and the silent whir of bubble machines flanking the building’s front steps, theatrics that felt more than just a little anticlimactic.

That feeling was owed, in part, to what most certainly became the true highlight of the anniversary, a video call-in from Thaksin Shinawatra scheduled for much later in the evening. Mr. Thaksin enjoys particularly strong support amongst the Udon Lovers and throughout the day his name was invoked numerous times, with one speaker telling his audience that, “while we may elect different candidates for the Phuea Thai Party, everything we do, all of our work is for Thaksin.”

Even as Mr. Kwanchai ramps up his election campaign, he told reporters that Udon Lovers was founded in 2006 as a “non-political” defense of the former Prime Minister. “Back then… [Yellow Shirt Leader] Sondhi Limthongkul made a show of bashing and lying about Thaksin,” he said. “We wanted to counter him and argue for the truth.” Since then, the group has grown enormously and, if Mr. Kwanchai’s candidacy is any indication, has become more politically ambitious.

Between the morning’s brief ceremony and the evening’s much-anticipated phone call, the gathered Red Shirts were encouraged to make donations to help pay for the last third of the 15-million baht, two-story complex. A boisterous group of volunteers manning one of the six donation tents estimated that they had taken in upwards of 20,000 baht by noontime alone and that the Udon Lovers wouldn’t have any problem reaching their goal for the day.

As evening approached, thousands of more Red Shirts were expected to arrive, give money, and enjoy an evening of performances and politics.