New Discontent Brewing In The Northeast

Members of the New Isaan Movement gather in Khon Kaen on Dec. 10. Photo: New Isaan Movement / Facebook

By Pravit Rojanaphruk
Senior Staff Writer

BANGKOK — “We aim high, to rise up and fight politically,” said Khornchanok Saenprasert, the New Isaan Movement’s coordinator and a trained human rights lawyer from Khon Kaen province. “This is not something that has been cooked up by four or five people; this is the result of wide-ranging consultations.”

Kornchanok said around 500 people from seven provinces in the northeastern region, known in Thai as ‘Isaan’, are on board. Members of this new region-based umbrella movement include the Dao Din student group, NGO activists as well as rural villagers. Those involved are from different backgrounds, they’re all from the much-neglected northeastern region and share a common pain and vision.

Long regarded as inferior and poor, once again people in the Northeast are rising up to fight for equality. The latest attempt began on Dec. 10, in Khon Kaen province, when a declaration announcing the formation of the New Isaan Movement was publicly read out.

The announcement of the New Isaan Movement was meant to be a renewed attempt by people in the Northeast to fight for equal political and social rights said Khornchanok. 

 “Being Isaan people is to be condemned to being second-class citizens and having no meaningful participation in politics. It also means being at the receiving end of [the adverse effects of] development projects. We have no part in determining our own future,” Kornchanok said.

He added that the coup has made the situation more acute with those opposing development projects in the region unable to even properly exercise their basic rights to protest.

Their second foray will be on Feb. 16 next year when they will launch their own people’s draft constitution just ahead of the junta’s draft charter.

“We hope to make society realize that the current [junta-sponsored] charter drafting process was not done by the people. We want to show what local people really want in their constitution. We don’t expect the junta to listen though.”

He said the junta has since contacted the group and asked them to participate in the charter drafting process but the movement declined the junta’s invitation, saying they see the whole process as undemocratic.

Periodic Discontent

David Streckfuss, a longtime Khon Kaen- based independent academic, said he’s not surprised by the latest development, though he said it is too premature to say how big the movement will become.

“There’s an age-old grievance that many Isaan people have against what they see as the uncaring and distant capital, which allows resources to be taken away from the Northeast for the benefit of others.

“This was clear and so Isaan people have been more politically aware and cognizant that they do not share the same set of rights as those in Bangkok.”

Streckfuss, originally from the U.S., has lived in Khon Kaen for 25 years and is married to a Thai. He said back in the 1960s and 1970s, people in the region were involved in the communist insurgency and in the 1990s they worked with the Assembly of the Poor. Over the past decade there was the so-called Redshirt movement too, he added.

“There is also a recognition that the Northeast, with its huge electorate, is not going to be allowed to have an equal [political] voice on a national level. And so it’s not strange to see a periodical call from the Northeast – for more autonomy. Whether the new Isaan Movement can find traction in this politically dark time remains to be seen.

“There’s no doubt that the coup and subsequent events have alienated the majority of Isaan people who wanted and still want a democratic government. Whether this Northeastern group can turn their grievances into a movement seems uncertain at present,” Streckfuss concluded.

Isaan Identity

Not all see identity politics as the key point in the New Isaan Movement, however.

Titipol Phakdeewanich, a lecturer at Ubon Ratchatani University, in the major Isaan province of Ubon Ratchathani, doesn’t think the creation of a separate Isaan identity is at the heart of the movement.

“It doesn’t mean they want regional strength but they want greater equality – that’s why they’re out demanding. Everyone wants equality and they [people from Issan] feel they are Thai too, but they don’t have equal rights.”

Titipol said the fact that many Redshirts in the region have voted for the Pheu Thai Party reflects their political aspiration to see a more responsive government it terms of policies. “They understand democracy better than Bangkokians assumed,” he said, referring to the prevailing belief among many in Bangkok that Isaan people can be bought (politically) and that they are manipulated by politicians as they don’t understand democracy.

“Vote buying is no longer the sole factor behind electoral success,” Titipol, who hails from the south but has lived in Ubon Ratchathani for 10 years, said. He added that some politicians, who paid more money to attempt to buy votes, did not win elections in the region, proof that voters consider other factors as well.

Not a Normal Struggle

Khornchanok meanwhile said given the current political situation under the junta since the May 22, 2014 coup, many Isaan people who are Redshirt supporters have been suppressed.

“Having a dictatorial state means they can’t make a political move and they don’t much dare to challenge autocratic powers. For us, New Isaan Movement, we start with defending our communities [from the adverse impacts of development projects]. Our backs are against the wall and if we don’t fight we will end up dying anyhow,” he said.

“What we would like to say is that we’re for equality and are against dictatorship and we are friends and allies to all those who share our values.”