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Khon Kaen Reds Out on Bail


KHON KAEN – Three Red Shirt prisoners were released on bail from Khon Kaen Central Prison yesterday evening, a little over one week since four newly-elected Pheu Thai government representatives offered their parliamentary status as surety for their release.  All three suspects had been detained on charges related to last year’s May 19 arson and violence in Khon Kaen city.

Mr. Jiratrakul Sumaha, Mr. Adisay Wibulsek, and Mr. Udom Khammul were met at the prison’s front gates by several hundred Red Shirt supporters, relatives and three Members of Parliament – all of them there to celebrate the release.

From left to right: Udom Khammul, Adisay Wibulsek, and Jiratrkul Sumaha.

A fourth prisoner, Mr. Sutas Singuakhaw was denied bail, though his lawyers assured the assembled crowd that Mr. Sutas would most certainly be bailed out in September.

The prisoners’ release came on the same day that a Mahasarakham judge denied the bail requests of nine detained Red Shirt prisoners and just one day after an Ubon Ratchathani court sentenced four Red Shirt protesters to 34 years in prison for their part in the destruction of Ubon’s provincial hall.

When asked how the Ubon court’s decision bodes for those released today in Khon Kaen, Party List MP and Isaan Red Shirt leader Dr. Cherdchai Tantirin said, “We never know what’s going to happen. Whatever is happening behind the scenes can change.”

Khon Kaen’s Red Shirt prisoners are just four of around 100 Red Shirt suspects still awaiting trial for charges related to last year’s bloody protests in Bangkok and the provinces. But after nine Pheu Thai representatives secured bail for 22 Red Shirt prisoners in Udon Thani on August 16, their success ignited a nationwide initiative to release untried Red Shirts still detained on charges from last summer’s violent Red Shirt protests.

“It’s just not fair for them to be in there for too long, it’s too much,” said Pheu Thai representative Pongsakorn Amnopporn as he came to bolster his fellow MPs’ bail request last Thursday. “The representatives are supposed to help their people.”

Pheu Thai MPs Mukda Phonsombat (far left), Cherdchai Tantirin (center), and Thanik Masripitak (far right) field questions from the press.

According to Dr. Cherdchai, before the July 3 election secured a Pheu Thai majority in Parliament and voted Ms. Yingluck Shinawatra in as Prime Minister, Red Shirts had little opportunity for mobility. “Now, the time has come when the government lets the representatives be free and do what they want to do – to do their jobs,” he said.

Dr. Cherdchai’s job, however, has involved a bit more work than was at first expected. Over the course of the last eight days, there have been three separate meetings at Khon Kaen’s provincial court in which the required number of MPs to assure the prisoners’ release fluctuated from four to six and then back again to four. In the end, Pheu Thai Party List MPs Dr. Cherdchai, Dr. Yaowanit Piengket, Thanik Masripitak and Khon Kaen Constituency MP Mukda Phonsombat offered their positions as surety. Additionally, 500,000 baht was provided by local business woman (and niece of Ms. Mukda) Pu Warada for each of the prisoner’s release.

Dr. Cherchai said that Ms. Pu would be reimbursed by the Pheu Thai party by this coming Tuesday.

As dusk fell across the city, an impromptu Red Shirt caravan made its way from the provincial prison to the municipality’s Spirit House so that the recently released prisoners could perform a merit making ritual.

“I am extremely happy – the most happy I have ever been in my life,” Mr. Jiratakul said upon emerging from the temple. “I am so impressed with the Red Shirt brothers and sisters that have always been by my side.”

The suspects’ trials are expected to begin in early 2012.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Voter Turnout in the Northeast Below National Average


KHON KAEN – One month after the July 3 general election saw the opposition Pheu Thai party win a decisive victory with 265 of 500 parliamentary seats, the election season is wrapping up. Provincial Election Commissions have all finally released their election results, revealing that the Isaan voter turnout continues to lag behind the national average.

This year, the Isaan voter turnout in the constituency race reached 71.77%, more than 3% below the national average, and nearly identical to the turnout in the 2007 general election. Voter participation in the Northeast rose slightly after the 2005 elections when the Isaan voter turnout reached only 67.66%, nearly 5% below the national average. But notwithstanding the increasingly contentious political climate in recent years, Northeastern voter participation between 2007 and 2011 hardly changed.

Pheu Thai’s decisive July 3 victory did not come as a surprise to many. The new party led by Yingluck Shinawatra is an offshoot of her older brother Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai party that brought record numbers of voters to the polls in 2005,  eight years after the introduction of Thailand’s compulsory voting law.

The populist policies that Mr. Thaksin had implemented in his first term as Prime Minister inspired the historically neglected rural electorate to take to the polls in 2005 to re-elect the Thai Rak Thai party in a landslide victory. Mr. Thaksin’s universal health care program, micro-finance investments in villages, and other welfare policies had attracted a support base from the rural Northeast like none before. However, while the rural populace has recently shown far greater participation in general elections, they have yet to match the national average.

Since the 2006 military coup that overthrew Mr. Thaksin, political unrest and the fear of a faltering democracy have gripped the country. In the media, in classrooms, and on rally stages across the country, Thais have begun to speak more openly about the need for democratic reform and many had hoped that this election would see yet another spike in national voter turnout. On July 3, 2011, even Election Commissioner Sodsri Sattayatham anticipated a voter turnout of around 80%. She cited Thai voters’ marked desire to see concrete political changes as the reason for the expected increase. Ultimately, voter turnout barely budged from its 2007 peak.

Source: Election Commission of Thailand

Source: Election Commission of Thailand

Detailed results here.

Thaksin’s Red Birthday Bash


KHON KAEN – Though July 26 does not mark a Thai festival or a royal birthday or even a Buddhist holy day, the city’s largest temple was filled to capacity yesterday morning with close to 600 Red Shirts observing a most unlikely holiday: exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s 62nd birthday. For the third year in a row, Nong Waeng Temple played host to a United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship’s (UDD) merit making ceremony for its beloved Mr. Thaksin.

Red supporters pay their respects.

In a post-election climate typified by cautious optimism amongst the Red Shirts, the city’s first major UDD gathering was not to celebrate the Red-supported Pheu Thai party’s “landslide victory,” nor presumptive Prime Minister (and Mr. Thaksin’s youngest sister) Yingluck Shinawatra’s endorsement by the Election Commission, but a birthday party.

“Many people still see [Mr. Thaksin] as the best Prime Minister they ever had,” local Red Radio DJ Numchaiya explained yesterday. “People haven’t seen what Yingluck is capable of, so Mr. Thaksin is still very important.”

Thongbai Phanmai, a Mahasarakham Red Village leader, agreed. In between making donations to the temple and buying some UDD-branded merchandise, Ms. Thongbai explained that Mr. Thaksin has done a lot for the Red Shirts. “He didn’t take anything, he gave a lot to poor people,” she added.

But it is more than just Mr. Thaksin’s populist legacy that brought people to Nong Waeng Temple’s expansive main sanctuary. Dr. Somchai Phatharathananunth, a scholar of the Red Movement from Mahasarakham University, explained in a phone interview that Mr. Thaksin’s image among Red Shirts has grown far beyond his social welfare policies. “At the moment, Thaksin is quite far away from them, but they still love [him]…. He’s a kind of symbol, a support.”

Indeed, for much of the UDD’s membership, the 2006 military coup that tossed the popularly elected leader from office has made Mr. Thaksin into a symbol of the Thai elite’s disregard for one of the most basic principles of representative democracy – that an elected leader has the right to lead the country.

“For villagers, they know that Thaksin came from elections. They support the people who win an election. [They feel] he has the right to run the country,” Dr. Somchai said.

Mr. Thaksin has been living in self-imposed exile in Dubai since a 2008 Supreme Court decision found him guilty on corruption charges and sentenced him to a two-year prison sentence. For many of his supporters, this exile has only inflated his image as a victim of an undemocratic system. They believe he is entitled to a second chance.

For Ms. Thongbai, it is plain and simple. “He deserves to come back, he wants to come home,” she said.

Still, despite having all the trappings of growing into an out-and-out birthday celebration, Khon Kaen’s UDD leadership chose to postpone a scheduled concert event on the banks of Kaen Nakhon Lake, just a stone’s throw from Nong Waeng’s golden stupas.

“[The Red Shirts] want to celebrate,” Mr. Numchaiya said, “but I think it is better to wait until the government is formed.”

Would they celebrate then? “Absolultely,” he said.

KKU President Absent, NHRC Hears Law Dean’s Case


Mr. Kittibodi Yaipool (far right) prepares to address the Commission.

BANGKOK – The National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRC) met yesterday to continue its investigation into the abrupt dismissal of Acting Dean Kittibodi Yaipool from Khon Kaen University’s Law Faculty this past June. Following his dismissal, Mr. Kittibodi asked for a hearing from the NHRC on the grounds that he was dismissed without due process.

The NHRC summoned all concerned parties to meet in Bangkok yesterday, but KKU President Kittichai Triratanasirichai chose not to attend. Instead, he sent a representative to speak on his behalf.

Mr. Kittibodi founded the Law Faculty in 2006 and began serving as the Acting Dean. In only five years, his faculty has gained wide recognition for its contributions to human rights activism throughout Northeast Thailand.

However, while awaiting his overdue evaluation and a promotion to Dean this past June, Mr. Kittibodi received notification of his immediate dismissal. On June 16, the Office of the President accused Mr. Kittibodi and his staff of destroying official documents and barred them from entering the grounds of the faculty.

Mr. Kittibodi insists that no documents were destroyed under his watch and now seeks a fair trial to present his case.

Mr. Surasee Kosolnavin, a former chairman of the NHRC and a current lecturer at KKU’s Faculty of Law, believes that Mr. Kittibodi’s involvement in human rights and civil society movements might have unnerved the more traditional teachers and administrators.

“[Mr. Kittibodi and his staff] encourage students to participate more in learning from real life experience. The old style of teaching was basically to learn through rote memorization, not analysis. Some teachers familiar with the old style of teaching might not understand. That’s what led to this disagreement,” he said in an interview.

But Mr. Surasee believes that Mr. Kittibodi will get his job back. “He has brought a lot of improvement to this faculty… and I believe that he is innocent,” he said. In order for the case to proceed, however, “[The Office of the President] needs to notify Kittibodi about why he was dismissed from his position.”

According to Mr. Kittibodi, yesterday’s representative for President Kittichai could not clearly explain the cause for dismissal. Next Monday, the NHRC will summon President Kittichai a second time so he can present his side of the case himself.

“We have to wait for the explanation from the President, but I am hopeful [to win the case] because the representative who came today couldn’t tell us the grounds for the transfer [from my position],” said Mr. Kittibodi. “This is the main question that we need answered.”

For now, Mr. Kittibodi and the NHRC are waiting patiently.

Protest Village Celebrates Second Anniversary


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CHAIYAPHUM – The sound of mor lam music, traditional to Northeast Thailand, filled the air last Saturday evening as Khon San villagers and friends gathered to celebrate the second anniversary of the founding of Baw Kaew village.

In the past two years, Baw Kaew villagers have developed their community, seen success in their battle for a legal land lease, and established sustainable agricultural practices, all amidst a eucalyptus plantation owned by the Forest Industry Organization (FIO). The celebration weekend culminated on Sunday in a forum for various NGOs, activists, and politicians to speak to the challenges of addressing land reform disputes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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