MAHA SARAKHAM – Among heavy security presence, hundreds of Isaan community members and foreign missions from five countries gathered at a rare human rights event last week in Maha Sarakham.

The 8th Annual Isaan Human Rights Festival brought together 17 communities from across the region, activists, scholars, and international and Thai students. Ambassadors from Finland, Sweden, and the United Kingdom were in attendance, as well as political officers from Canada, the European Union and the United States. National Human Rights Commissioner Angkhana Neelapaijit also attend the event.

Hosted by Mahasarakham University’s College of Politics and Governance, the festival opened a rare space to discuss the human rights situation in the Northeast.

“The event is creating a platform for different provinces to come together and talk about issues based on human rights and communities,” says Manfred Hornung, director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Southeast Asia, an organisation associated with the German Green Party that funded the event.

A representative of a community group airs her grievances as the Swedish ambassador takes notes and other diplomats look on. Photo credit: Courtesy of the Embassy of Sweden


Shrinking space

The festival kicked off with a panel on human rights in the Northeast. Representatives of five regional non-governmental organizations voiced their concerns about the shrinking space for popular representation and the military regime’s repression of community voices.

“The bargaining power of the people is dwindling today because they have been suppressed by state authority,” said Suvit Kulapwong, general-secretary of the NGO Coordinating Committee on Development (NGO-COD) Isaan. “The only single channel left for people in distress to turn to are the Damrong Tham Centers of the Ministry of Interior.”

What the people need, Mr. Suvit said, is public, social space to be able to talk and discuss in order to express themselves to that their issues are visible to those in power. “Even at this academic forum, the state intervenes by forbidding us from speaking up,” he said.

Lertsak Khamkongsak, coordinator of the Eco-Culture Study Group, also criticized the lack of public representation under the military regime. The ongoing ban of public gatherings is a violation of citizen rights, he said.

After taking power in a coup in May 2014, the military junta had banned gatherings of more than five people. Violation of the ban a maximum penalty of six months in prison or a fine of 10,000 baht (about $300 US). Several northeastern activists have been prosecuted for exercising their right to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech between May 2014 and September 2015, according to a report from Thai Lawyers For Human Rights.

Kritsakorn Silarak, a member of the Assembly of the Poor representing the issue of the Pak Mun Dam, said that human rights are the opposite of dictatorship. “Human rights are parallel to democracy, liberty, and equality. So if the government wants human rights to be part of the national agenda, what it needs to do is return democracy to the people.”

Angkana Neelaphaichit, a national human rights commissioner, said, “Isaan people see themselves as people whose human rights are being violated more than people in other regions. But from my experience, I observe that Isaan people of every gender and every age have become more aware of their political rights, especially the freedom to hold opinions. This makes me very proud.”

“Educational institutions in Isaan,” Ms. Angkana argued, “have an important role to play in promoting human rights. Students at each university in Isaan have a role in helping villages defend their community rights and rights over natural resources and the environment.”

Several community members in the audience took the chance during a Q&A session to voice their grievances and share the injustices they are facing.

“I want to make sure, where is justice?” another community member said with sadness and ardor in her voice.“If you call us grassroot, then please do not step on us.”

“We want to live in our traditional culture. We want clean water, clean air no pollution for our grandchildren,” one community member told the audience.

The event went ahead among heavy military and police presence. Officers observed and filmed the sessions. At least one attending community received a visit from an unidentified military officer two weeks ahead of the event.

International voices

In the international session, ambassadors and political officers related the human rights journeys of their respective countries, stressing the need for freedom of expression and assembly in the pursuit of a democratic society.

The Swedish ambassador to Thailand, Staffan Herrström, underscored “the fundamental importance” of the right to freedom of expression which “creates an arena for compromise and consensus.” The value of “free debate” fosters “the respect of views of others.”

Swedish Ambassador Staffan Herrström. Photo credit: John Mark Belardo

Mr. Herrström also pointed out that while democracy evolved over a long time in Sweden, it can grow much more rapidly today as “the preconditions are different and better. The world has changed,” Mr. Herrström argued. “We have agreed [upon] global norms about human rights within the UN; we have the internet” which allows “us to learn together.”

The ambassador of Finland, Satu Suikkari-Kleven, said that her country has “strong national traditions of human rights.” However, she pointed out, those traditions were strengthened by the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and the body’s other human rights instruments and “have been so fundamental in shaping our society.” The two international covenants stemming from the declaration — one covering civil and political rights and the other economic, social, and cultural rights — have been enshrined in Finland’s constitution, she said.

Satu Suikkari-Kleven, Ambassador of Finland to Thailand. Photo credit: John Mark Belardo

Ms. Suikkari-Kleven said that while Finland celebrates 100 years of independence this year, the country’s record on equality goes back even further, to 1906, when the world’s first parliamentarians were elected.

Brian John Davidson, the United Kingdom’s ambassador to Thailand, argued that “the underlying values of equality, diversity, and inclusion…increasingly forms the basis of the approach we take in the United Kingdom.”

“Everyone has a right to a dignified life, one free of violence and discrimination,” the UK Ambassador to Thailand said in his address to the audience.

UK Ambassador Brian John Davidson addresses the audience.

The ambassador highlighted the importance of debate. Bringing together “a diversity of attributes, of perspectives, of backgrounds, of ideologies, of opinions,” Mr. Davidson said, “adds value and wealth to the debates.” That “breadth of perspectives” becomes “a driver of innovation and creativity which in turn leads to better policy decision-making and a healthier and more prosperous future.”

The representative from the Canadian Embassy, Shawn Friele, stressed that the concept of inclusion is “the focus of our human rights policy and our foreign policy.” He cited Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, who declared, “Canada’s diversity is a fact. Inclusion is a choice.” Policies centering on diversity, Mr. Friele said, “create mechanisms in society” that “allow our diverse populations to feel they can contribute to society.”

Andrew L. Armstrong, representing the embassy of the United States of America, argued that “equality” is an ideal that all Americans share and one that “we still struggle to meet and has been evolving over time.” It is, he said, a “fundamental principle” and based on the idea that “individuals are created with rights and that these rights are not given by the government to the people.”

Diplomatic representatives Andrew L. Armstrong (USA) and Shawn Friele (Canada).

In an individual interview, Staffan Herrström, the Swedish Ambassador to Thailand, was asked why he thought a festival of this type was important. Herrström responded:

“I think the concept of human rights shouldn’t just be a theme for legal discussions or dealt with on a very general level. It’s important – that’s for sure. In our experience, it is firmly based on a community level. I understand that that’s the character of this forum, and I think that’s also an opportunity for me to hear from civil society here. It can help me and my colleagues understand Isaan and Thailand better. That is also one major advantage of this. I will communicate, but I will certainly also listen.”

Mr. Hornung of the Heinrich Böll Foundation believes that “one of the outcomes [for success] is that the diplomats come experience firsthand what it means to operate under such repressive systems and go back and communicate that in their channels in Bangkok.”

“I would like to thank every ambassador that came. These small people who are living in an authoritarian country have very little chance to negotiate,” said Alongkorn Akkasaeng, the coordinator of the event. “I hope that you will pass on the [human rights violations] to [international human rights committees] for them to put pressure on Thailand. I think you can help us.”

Additional reporting from Sarah Wright and Andy Pham.

Sarah Wright is a Junior at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. studying sociology and sustainability. Andy Pham is a Junior at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota studying economics. Both are studying about development and globalization issues in Khon Kaen this semester.