NAKHON RATCHASIMA — As voters in Scotland decide whether to secede from the United Kingdom today, citizens in northeastern Thailand are also engaged in a fierce separatist debate.
The question is whether Nakhon Ratchasima, the largest province in Thailand, should be divided into two.
Officials have proposed separating eight districts of Nakhon Ratchasima – Bua Yai, Baan Lueam, Pratai, Kong, Noan Daeng, Kaeng Sanamnaeng, Bua Lai, and Sida – into a new province, called Bua Yai, which would make up less than one sixth of the current province's area. The move is billed as an effort to increase the budget and resources allocated to local residents.
But the plan has outraged many citizens in the area who say the separation of Korat, a common nickname for Nakhon Ratchasima, is an insult to the province’s dignity and heritage.
Both sides have staged demonstrations and rallies in the province's town centre, despite a ban on public protests imposed by the military junta following the 22 May coup.
Yes Bua Yai
Kampan Boonyued, a former education official in Bua Yai district and the leader of pro-separation campaign, said during a recent rally that the current size of Korat makes it extremely difficult for citizens to commute to the nearest public schools, hospitals, and other important sites.
Thailand's heavily-centralised government is notorious for favoring Bangkok and providing limited funds for infrastructure at the provincial levels. The pro-separation faction hopes that becoming a new province will entitle the eight districts to their own colleges, hospitals, and administrative authorities.
"Children in the eight districts have to travel for more than 100 km to study," Mr. Kampan said, "Sometimes, patients died on their way to Maharaj Hospital, which is the only major hospital in the province. All these things make us feel like second-class citizens."
He added, "I'd like to ask the opposition who likes to use emotion in their judgment to give fairness to 340,000 citizens [of the eight districts]."
Mr. Kampan was referring to the anti-separation activists who say the separation will insult the legacy of Lady Suranaree, a semi-historical figure who reportedly fought off Laotian raiders and defended the "independence" of Korat in the late 19th century.
Lady Suranaree, greatly revered by Korat citizens, is Thailand's answer to William Wallace of Scotland. Many locals make daily trips to her statue in the town centre to worship and pray for good fortune. Even the pro-separation group has sought to portray themselves as loyal to Lady Suranaree, who is also known as Ya Mo; Mr. Kampan, for instance, chose to hold a rally in front of her statue on 16 September.
"Ya Mo understands the need for Bua Yai province," read one banner at the pro-separation rally, which was attended by over 1,000 people.
Better together as Korat
Somporn Jintanamaneerat, an administrative official of Noan Soong district who recently voted "No" in an official preliminary meeting concerning Korat's separation, said the anti-opposition camp is united by "the love for our land," for the long history of Korat, and for Lady Suranaree.
"We do not want to separate Ya Mo's land," Ms. Somporn said. She also urged the pro-separation faction stop their campaign for the sake of "love, unity, and reconciliation."
Winai Kirati-urai, the administrator of the Facebook page "Korat People Oppose the Separation Into Bua Yai Province," said the separation movement has infuriated many Korat citizens who will not allow "Ya Mo's land" to be divided.
"I think that act does not have the support of a majority of Korat people, it's just an action by a certain group," Mr. Winai said, adding that he wants to see a proper referendum so that all citizens in the province can vote on the matter.
Mr. Winai also raised concerns that the pro-separation group may have a hidden agenda to gerrymander voting districts in the region and give advantage to a certain political party – a charge vehemently denied by the pro-Bua Yai faction.
Furthermore, Mr. Winai questioned whether the separation effort is a veiled attempt to rig the price of land in the potential new province. He said his group is currently collecting 20,000 signatures for a petition asking Thailand's military government not to endorse the separation plan.
The junta's National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has not publicly weighed in on the issue. For the new province to be officially approved, Korat's Provincial Administration Organisation (PAO) will need to submit a proposal to the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), who will decide on the matter, along with the Cabinet.
Yet it is unlikely that the proposal will be picked up by the PAO any time soon, as Kittipong Pongsurawate, chairman of Korat's PAO, suddenly resigned from his post on 14 September. He explained that his resignation was meant to "ease the tension" and block any attempt by the pro-separation group to submit a proposal through the PAO.
The Governor of Nakhon Ratchasima, Thongchai Lue-adul, recently warned the anti-separation group against organising public demonstrations, citing the junta’s ban on gatherings. He did not make any comment concerning the recent pro-separation rally.
At the rally, Mr. Kampan, the pro-separation leader, attempted to appease anti-separatists by suggesting that the new province could be called Suranaree as a token of loyalty towards the heroine.
"We are not demanding that the new province must be called Bua Yai. We are happy to name it Suranaree province, or any other name that is appropriate," Mr. Kampan said, "Ya Mo belongs to all Thais in Thailand, not only for Korat people. The claim of her as our identity is not right. We respect Ya Mo like every Koratian and Thai."
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