by Patrick Huang

Photo Credit: Dao Din

DEMOCRACY REMAINS unstable in the Asian political sphere. Though leftists wish to transform their respective national polities into a “full” democracy, eliminating the class system, this way is not always a bed of roses. Sometimes it is the rightists who seemingly make the most stir.

In Asia, we can see this phenomenon in the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan and Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. Intriguingly, within these different movements, among demonstration participants are students―usually university students. This hints that students more and more express their political viewpoints and that they would like the state to include their viewpoints in policy making as part of their demand for democracy. It is difficult for me not to think of my country Thailand in the same light.

Thailand is situated in Southeast Asia whose its polity is of “(un)democracy”. In the history of (un)democracy, the military has been controversially taking an important role, now that they themselves, who theoretically should be protecting the constitution, always turn coup-makers. The dream of the people to direct national decision-making by their own hands is shattered as such; rather power falls to them ― the rightists. However, leftist resistance materializes, whether in the past or present.

In late May 2014, another coup was staged in the country, considered the 13th coup in Thailand’s (un)democratic history. This has been the spark for leftist movements nationwide, of which students act as a backbone. Here I will give an illustration of Northeastern Thailand ― or Isan, in Thai vernacular― and their residents as a case study, since Isan is a most contested territory where its people go against state’s tradition and policy.

Inside of Northeastern Thailand (Isan)

ISAN HAS been historically the site of much antagonism with the Thai state. An issue prominent was the issue of ethnicity, in that Isan culture was close to that of Laos, as seen in dialect and rituals. The people appreciated a more patriotic sense of being Lao rather than Thai. Nevertheless, when Marshall Pibun was in office, he declared the nationalist propaganda policy of “Rattaniyom” (รัฐนิยม). Non-Thai nationals were forced to take on Thai identity, or they were compelled to leave Thailand. Isaners were forced to suffer ethnic persecution; Thai government terminated their ancestral identities, and force-fed them with central Thai ideology.

Schools, for instance, could only teach Thai, not Lao. Chon-klum-noi (ชนกลุ่มน้อย) or ethnic minorities remain present, for most part, residing in the mountainous areas and quarters far from cities. As for main occupations, “previous” Issanners leaned largely on agriculture. As the terrain is arid, significant proportion of the population migrates outside to earn money. Those who are breadwinners move to Bangkok where they are promised a higher income, high enough to send remittances home even if their jobs are usually of working-class.

Dao Din and Movement

DAO DIN (ดาวดิน) is a circle of law students whose initial mission was to help locals protect the environment. Indeed, Isan has economic resources which are of interest to capitalists, such as petroleum and forestlands. Two years ago the would-be concession of a gold mine in Loei(เลย) province put Dao Din onto the map. Working with locals, Dao Din came to understand the concerns of the community; if this gold mine is allowed, residents will be affected by dangerous chemicals that will contaminate the water and air. Chemical residues will be left over in agricultural products. On September 8th, 2012, the public hearing for the land concession was held. Dao Din, along with crowds of townspeople, made a human barricade to impede access, fighting against police. Also controversial is the gas-drilling project in Kalasin (กาฬสินธุ์). Uneasy with the situation, Dao Din attempted to raise raising awareness by distributing leaflets and helping drive locals in case they need to contact government offices.

Since the coup last year, Dao Din made its focus the restoration of democracy. The situation becomes more clearer, as the junta disregards human rights issue, rather exploiting laws at the expense of the people. On May 22nd this year ― the first year observance of the coup―Dao Din organized a demonstration at a monument in Khon Kaen (ขอนแก่น) province, carrying placards whose messages pointed at the numerous government-led projects harmful to townspeople, for instance, in the gold mines and water and petroleum management.

PhotoCreditDaoDinDao Din student activists being arrested by plainclothes police during a demonstration in May of this year. Photo credit: Dao Din

Transitioning from a regional to national movement, Dao Din eventually moved to Bangkok and joined with the League of Liberal Thammasat for Democracy (LLTD), whose main aim is on human rights and campaigning for democracy. Both groups marshaled a number of activities, in order to raise awareness on democracy and human rights, pressuring the government to return power to the people by election. This is done in spite of that the government has ordered that any political gathering of more than 5 people is not permitted and lawbreakers shall be subject to imprisonment of up to three years. Dao Din as well as LLTD, continue their mission, despite potential persecution. Sadly, 14 persons were arrested on 26th June this year and jailed accordingly. This controversial arrest led to both national and international calls to free them. The military court eventually rejected the second imprisonment; they were all freed on 8 July.

Determined in their mission, Dao Din and LLTD go on without any fear, taking action both online and offline. Facebook is seemingly their main way of communication to the public:

The movement is demonstrating the need of the “literate” middle-class who are well-informed of human rights issues. Similar to Sunflower Movement and Umbrella Movement, there is a co-operation from like-minded people both domestically and abroad, which enhances the dynamics of the movement.

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