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.
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" I don't think a national unity government is possible. I mean, look at how all the Pheu Thai politicians are being targeted now and some are even being put into prison. The other side has no problems at all. So how can these two sides work together, if one of them is disadvantaged?" - Sisawang Rianthit (57), worker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Q&A with Student Activist Group 'Dao Din'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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