Interview: Street Art Hits Khon Kaen

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

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

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

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

Isaan Record: So, why street art?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OP-ED: Thai Migrant Workers' Return to Libya is Premature

In early February, Department of Employment (DOE) director Prawit Kiengphon authorized the return of Thai workers to Libya. More than 10,000 Thai refinery and construction workers were evacuated from the North African nation in March 2011 after an uprising broke out which resulted in the overthrow of Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi’s authoritarian regime. As thousands of Thais are mobilized for employment in Libya, it is time to consider whether the state’s labor export program sufficiently represents the interests of Thai transnational migrant workers. Is it truly safe for Thais to be deployed to Libya? And should the state be doing more to protect the financial interests of its migrant citizens?

Profits come with mortal risks

The Thai state has been promoting the overseas employment of Thais, most of whom are drawn from the country’s poorest and least developed Northeastern region, for more than three and a half decades.  It competes with more than a dozen Southeast and South Asian states for lucrative employment positions in overseas labor markets.

In January 2012, Sri Lanka permitted its migrant citizens to return to Libya.  In response, Mr. Prawit asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) to hastily verify that conditions in Libya are safe before Thai jobs were lost to Sri Lankan workers. In his February announcement, Mr. Prawit made no reference to Sri Lanka. Instead, he simply stated that the Thai Embassy in Libya had determined that conditions had returned to a state of normalcy.

However, the DOE’s responsibility for verifying the safety of destination countries is potentially comprised by its duty to promote overseas labor migration.  A new Ministry of Labor policy charges the DOE with increasing the number of Thais employed overseas by 10% in 2012 to a total of 600,000 workers.  This goal would be farther from reach if the Libyan labor market was lost.  Prior to last year’s uprising, Libya ranked as the sixth most common destination of the more than four dozen countries which receive Thai labor.

A recent Amnesty International report which depicted Libya as a troubled nation where “lawlessness” prevails stands in stark contrast to the Thai Embassy’s assessment of normalcy. The report details the continued existence of “hundreds of large militias” that are “largely out of control… their actions threatening to destabilize Libya”.  In addition, it documents how “frequent armed clashes between different militia groups” have resulted in the death and injuries of “uninvolved bystanders”.

It is not only Amnesty’s report that casts doubt on the stability of the situation in Libya.  The DOE’s new regulations which apply to Thai employment agencies supplying Libyan employers indicate that the DOE is concerned that Thai migrants may be affected by future unrest.  Now, employment agencies must ensure that migrants sent to Libya are protected with life insurance policies.  In addition, agencies must submit evacuation plans and written assurances that they will shoulder the costs of any future evacuations.

The new regulations ensure that the Thai government will not have to foot the bill for a costly evacuation as it did following the 2011 uprising. Yet while the regulations mitigate the financial risks that the Thai state incurs in the export of labor to Libya, they do nothing to lessen the financial risks assumed by Thai migrants.  As became apparent when Thai workers returned unexpectedly from Libya last year, these risks for migrants are substantial.

Paying the price for labor export  

Unfortunately, employment agencies generally charge Thai job-seekers under the table service fees in excess of the government stipulated limit.  According to Mr. Daeng Phiwdam, an Udon Thani native who has worked in Libya for most of the past fifteen years, first-time migrants to Libya are charged approximately 90,000 baht in agency fees which they typically pay with money borrowed at high interest rates.  Mr. Daeng estimates that it takes one and a half to two years for most migrants to recover their agency fees with their 10,000 baht per month Libyan salaries.

When migrants are forced to return home prematurely, they often come home saddled with debts that are difficult to recover in the domestic labor market. According to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs report, only 40 of nearly 10,000 Thai workers in Libya chose not to return home when the uprising broke out in February 2011. However, Mr. Daeng explained that the prospect of returning without money to pay an agency debt is often more daunting than that of remaining in a war-ravaged country. “If you stay you die, if you go home you also die because you are in debt and there is no way of recovering it,” said Mr. Daeng.

A second problem resulting from last year’s evacuation is that many migrants returned to Thailand with outstanding salary claims.  Given that it is not uncommon for migrant workers in Libya to be paid once every three months, the amounts owed to many migrants were not insignificant.  According to DOE statistics, nearly one year after the workers returned, roughly a quarter still have unresolved salary issues with their Libyan employers.

Returned migrants, especially those with outstanding employment agency debt, are likely anxious to resume work in Libya.  Now the DOE has given them the green light to take up residence in the still-troubled African nation.  The DOE has implemented measures to reduce the financial burden that it will incur in the event of future unrest in Libya.  It should also do the same for migrants.  The DOE should implement regulations which require employment agencies to refund most of workers’ agency fees if they are prematurely returned to Thailand through no fault of their own.  In addition, the DOE should more aggressively pursue salary claims on behalf of Thai migrant workers.  It should also consider implementing regulations which require Libyan employers to pay Thai migrants on a bi-weekly or a monthly basis.  Finally, it is high time for the Thai state to reconsider whether its labor export program is truly in the best interests of its citizens. When unemployment is less than one percent domestically, why is the Thai state concerned about losing employment positions in a war-ravaged nation?  The DOE’s efforts would be better directed toward creating more highly remunerative employment positions at home.

Human Rights Watch: Police Blamed for Killing Drug Suspect

Parliamentary Findings Demand Strong Action to Combat Police Brutality 

By: Human Rights Watch

New York, March 16, 2012 –A Thai parliamentary inquiry that found that police used excessive force in the fatal shooting of a drug suspect should prompt an immediate criminal investigation and prosecution of those responsible, Human Rights Watch said today. On March 14, 2012, the parliamentary Police Affairs Committee announced its findings in the shooting death of Pairote Saengrit, a 24-year-old engineer, in Sakon Nakhon province.

On the night of December 27, 2011, police from the Sakon Nakhon provincial anti-drug squad shot and killed Pairote, saying he was a drug trafficker who was trying to evade arrest after a car chase. The police claimed that they fired at Pairote in self-defense, but Pairote and the two passengers in his car were later found by police to have been unarmed.

“The parliamentary committee’s findings in Pairote’s death should prompt a serious and impartial criminal investigation into possible police misconduct,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government’s nationwide drug crackdown is not a green light for the police to operate above the law.”

Denchai Saengrit, Pairote’s elder brother, told Human Rights Watch that Pairote was driving with him and Pairote’s girlfriend, Panadda Kwanma, to have dinner at the Kin Deum Restaurant near Kasetsart University’s Sakon Nakhon campus. At around 9 p.m., as their car arrived at the restaurant, a group of men in civilian clothes fired at them twice from the rear. To escape the gunfire, Pairote drove the car into the university campus.

An unmarked pickup truck chased Pairote’s car from the restaurant into the campus and then out to the main road. Denchai said that the pickup truck cut off Pairote’s car. Two more gunshots were heard and a bullet struck Pairote in the head, killing him instantly. Five men in civilian clothes then approached the car and ordered out Denchai and Panadda, who begged for her life.

The men then identified themselves as police from Sakon Nakhon provincial command and said Pairote was a wanted drug trafficker. According to Denchai, police said at the scene that they found no drugs either in Pairote’s car or on the bodies of Pairote and the other passengers.

Two days later, on December 29, Police Maj. Gen. Polsak Banjongsiri, commander of Sakon Nakhon provincial command, told the media that the police had found 198 pills of methamphetamine wrapped in a black plastic bag hidden in Pairote’s boxer trunks when police examined his body in the morgue. He also said that police in this operation had opened fire in self-defense.

The Saengrit family filed a complaint with the parliamentary Police Affairs Committee on January 11, asking for an inquiry into the matter. On March 14, the committee concluded that the Sakon Nakhon provincial command anti-drug squad under the command of Police Lt. Col. Veerawuth Siangsai used lethal force unnecessarily and excessively in the shooting death of Pairote. The committee found no evidence to justify the claim made by the officers that they were acting in self-defense because Pairote and other passengers in his car neither had weapons nor took any life-threatening action against the police.

In addition, the committee concluded that a bag of methamphetamine had been planted on Pairote’s body after his death. The committee cited statements by medical personnel at the hospital, who thoroughly searched Pairote’s body twice, including removing his clothes, and did not find any drugs. It said that the police produced the bag containing 198 pills, saying they had found it on Pairote’s body, only after they entered the morgue and ordered everyone else outside.

“The parliamentary committee’s findings are both brave and virtually unprecedented because the committee directly accuses a police anti-drug squad of an illegal killing,” Adams said. “Unfortunately, this is not a unique incident but exemplifies a broad pattern of police brutality that has gone unchecked for many years. The question now is whether the government will show political courage to ensure the prosecution of those responsible for the killing.”

The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials provide that whenever the use of force is unavoidable, law enforcement officers must act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense with the objective of minimizing damage and injury. However, Thai police have a long history of using excessive and unnecessary lethal force against criminal suspects, particularly suspected drug traffickers and users. Human Rights Watch documented extrajudicial killings and other serious human rights violations in the context of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s “war on drugs” in 2003 and 2004. Many of those killed had been previously blacklisted by police as suspected drug traffickers.

The 2007 Independent Committee for the Investigation, Study and Analysis of the Formation and Implementation of Drug Suppression Policy (ICID), chaired by former attorney general Kanit na Nakhon, concluded that the Thaksin government formulated and implemented the “war on drugs” without respect for human rights or due process of law. The committee found that 2,819 people were killed during the government’s anti-drug campaign between February and April 2003. However, successive governments have failed to conduct a criminal inquiry into the killings reported by the committee. The current government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s younger sister, has publicly and repeatedly refused to blame Thaksin for the killings and other human rights abuses committed during the 2003 “war on drugs” campaign.

“Prime Minister Yingluck needs to ensure that the current anti-drug campaign does not lead Thailand back to the dark era of Thaksin’s brutal ‘war on drugs,’” Adams said. “Only by holding those responsible for the killing in Sakon Nakhon, and opening serious investigations into other killings during the 2003 anti-drug campaign, will the government show it is serious about upholding the rule of law.”

Cashing Out: A Return to Organic Practices

YouTube Version

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NHRC Exonerates Law Dean, Condemns KKU

KHON KAEN – On February 28, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) released a report condemning Khon Kaen University (KKU) for arbitrarily and unjustly dismissing Kittibodi Yaipool from his position as the Acting Dean of the Law Faculty. Mr. Kittibodi, whose abrupt dismissal came in June 2011, submitted the case to the NHRC because he believed that the Office of the President had abused its power for political reasons.

Last June, Acting Dean Mr. Kittibodi was notified by the Office of the President that he was dismissed from the Law Faculty due to allegations of tampering with official documents. He and many of his staff were then banned from the Law Faculty’s premises and moved to other faculties. In response, Mr. Kittibodi submitted the case to the NHRC for a proper investigation. He denies ever tampering with official documents and believes that he was being punished for his support of human rights issues and social activism.

The NHRC concluded that the University did not have enough justification to transfer Mr. Kittibodi and his personnel. Their report ultimately urges the University to officially exonerate all transferred staff members and to consider reinstating them in their former positions.

“The University should publicly apologize for its mistake, neglect, and the false information given to the University community,” the report reads. “The University should also inform the public that those who were transferred from the faculty are not guilty.”

Khon Kaen University has yet to issue its decision.

Frustrated with the University’s silence, over 100 activists and villagers took to the Office of the President on Tuesday to demand that the president admit his faults. Suwit Khulabwong, the event’s organizer, led the crowd in chants calling for KKU President Kittichai Triratanasirichai’s resignation.

“The report from the NHRC has come out and we can see clearly that the president abused his power and violated human rights,” he said in an interview. “What is the [president’s] responsibility? The president has to quit.”

Mr. Kittibodi helped found the Law Faculty at KKU in 2006 and thereafter began demonstrating his commitment to community rights in Isaan. He established free courses for Isaan villagers to learn about the legal system and also regularly encouraged students in the faculty to volunteer in remote communities struggling with legal issues. Now, he is on a crusade to prove to the public that the University violated his own rights.

“I have been using my rights, the law, and the constitution as a route to find justice and now it is up to the University to take responsibility once they hear the decisions of neutral organizations that [make decisions] following the constitution,” Mr. Kittibodi said in a phone interview. “I believe that the University should demonstrate their responsibility to be an exemplar for society.”

EU Funds Isaan Language Program

KHON KAEN – On Thursday, the European External Action Service of the European Union launched its funding for an Isaan language program, The Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalization Program (ICMRP), at the College of Local Administration at Khon Kaen University (KKU).  The EU pledged nearly half a million euros to a program that codifies Isaan language for its integration into city schools and local signage.

The program will develop an Isaan language curriculum implemented in 17 public schools, record and archive Isaan cultural dance and performance, introduce official city signage in Isaan language, and initiate a weekly ‘Isaan Day’ that encourages government employees to wear traditional Isaan clothing. The mayors of Khon Kaen, Phol, Chumphae, and Ban Phai will collaborate with a coordination team at KKU over four years in the hopes of enhancing the perception of Isaan culture and language.

Khon Kaen’s Governor, Sombat Triwatsuwan, delivered the opening address in which he talked (partly in Isaan language) about the need to preserve Isaan language for future generations and encourage people not to be ashamed of it. “Isaan people are shy to speak their own language,” he said in an interview. “I want them to be aware of its value.”

National media has given Isaan people good reason to shy away from speaking Isaan language in formal settings. According to John Draper, a sociolinguistic researcher at KKU and the Project Officer of the ICMRP, they are popularly cast as “maids, laborers, and servants, and this is made obvious through the way they speak, which is often as comic relief.” In studies which test the national perception of Isaan speakers, “consistently, Isaan people come out sounding uneducated, and naïve, however honest and hardworking as well,” he explained.

Mr. Draper (also an Isaan Record contributor) argues that this program should not only enhance the perception of Isaan speakers by publicly embracing the language, but also help close the performance gap between Isaan and Central Thai students. Research shows that people who achieve literacy in their mother-tongue language at an early age are more likely to achieve better scores in school overall.

Teaching Isaan language and culture in schools, however, is still politically sensitive. Central Thai is Thailand’s only officially recognized language and the government has long fought to keep Thais unified under one language and minority dialects out of the classrooms.

Priya Waeohongsa, Programme Officer of the European Union and an attendee of Thursday’s opening ceremony, argues that it is time for change in Thailand’s centralized education system that was initiated a hundred years ago. “One language [was used] as a medium for control – not only for education’s sake, but to control the people by imposing the central language on the schools [in a time of national integration],” she explained. “At that time it might have been the right thing, but now we found this is not the right approach and we need to revitalize local culture.”

Though some may fear that allowing regional languages in schools could disrupt the long sought after “national unity” of Thailand, programs similar to the ICMRP have revealed quite opposite results. The Asia Foundation, a nongovernmental organization focused on capacity building, has been implementing a similar language program in the Deep South for nearly five decades. “When we did a public perception survey, what the majority of people said very clearly was that they were not on a quest for independence but a quest for common understanding and respect. Our language program puts that into practice,” said Kim McQuay, the organization’s Thailand Representative.

The ICMRP’s Project Officer, Mr. Draper, is confident that this program will maintain the support of government officials like Governor Sombat Triwatsuwan of Khon Kaen by garnering regional interest in mother-tongue education. “Sustainability will come from the top down,” he said. “But the know-how and the knowledge to implement it in a way that people will welcome it will come from this program that was launched today. It will serve as an incubator for larger-scale deployment later.”