The shutting down of Khon Kaen City’s old central bus terminal shows how the military junta’s laws target not only political opponents but are also used to silence local expression of grievances.

Pressing together their palms, a crowd of locals stood in front of piles of religious offerings last August at Khon Kaen’s downtown bus terminal. As the mayor led a Brahmanic ritual to appease the city spirits, locals celebrated the transportation hub’s 44th anniversary. Three months later, the city enforced the terminal’s permanent closure.

Khon Kaen’s mayor Thirasak Thikhayuphan (right) and local Brahman lead a buang suang ritual to celebrate the 44th anniversary of the city’s downtown bus terminal. Photo credit: Khon Kaen Municipality

The announcement to shut down Khon Kaen City’s oldest bus terminal on 1 December ends a six-year-long clash of interests between locals and city officials. Faced with intimidation and lawsuits, a local protest group caved in to the municipality’s push to redirect all buses to a new terminal, eight kilometers from the city center.

The group, including commuters and hundreds of vendors at the old bus terminal, criticized the city for a lack of public participation and transparency in the relocation process.

They warned the closure would destroy livelihoods in the heart of the city, and restrict access to downtown areas for thousands of passengers who rely on buses for transportation each day.

But officials argue the relocation was inevitable to ease city traffic, reduce air pollution, and allow for urban development in the old bus station’s prime location.

Victim of its own success

For four decades, the bus terminal, known as baw kaw saw 1, was a symbol of the city’s emerging status as a regional hub. When it opened in 1973, it served the country’s expanding network of intercity buses, and a rising number of Northeasterners seeking work in the capital.

In the 1970s, the bus terminal’s neighborhood was a suburban area with very little traffic, remembers Thammawat Intachakra, an urban planning expert at Khon Kaen University

As Khon Kaen grew, people working downtown and students attending school in the city came to depend on the terminal for their daily commutes. Passengers arriving at the terminal to run errands in the city, could easily walk to the city’s center, or hop on one of the many song taew, tuk tuk (motorized rickshaws). Transit passengers used to switch to the nearby train station, or the second bus terminal for air-conditioned buses, until it closed in 2014.

“Everytime I travel from my village to the city, I get off at the old baw kaw saw,” says 58-year-old Sombun Khaokaew, standing in the bus terminal’s arrival hall. “It’s easy to visit the provincial hall from here because it’s so close.”

Khon Kaen locals, like 58-year-old Sombun Khaokaew, stress the convenience of the downtown bus terminal for their daily commutes to the city.

But as the number of buses arriving in the city surged, the old terminal fell victim to its own success. In recent years, the terminal served 57 bus lines and more than 20,000 passengers each day.

At the same time, car ownership in the city kept growing, causing occasional gridlocks in the area during rush hour. The terminal’s location close to the railway tracks made it worse. When the crossing gates at the entrance to downtown closed, so did the main feeder roads to the bus station.

Inner-city air pollution also became a concern. Khon Kaen tops a national ranking of cities with the worst air pollution, based on data from January to July 2016. While the most dangerous pollutants are caused by open burnings, motor vehicles play a significant role, explained Chariya Senpong, Climate and Energy Campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia, in an interview with The Isaan Record.

But urban planner Mr. Thammawat believes downtown’s traffic and air pollution issues could have been addressed through better traffic management, and the involvement of all stakeholders at the bus terminal.

Aerial view of the old bus terminal, known as baw kaw saw 1, in downtown Khon Kaen City. The bus station’s community suspects the real reason for the municipality’s decision to relocate the bus station was to create space for the construction of a shopping center.

Bustling community

Sandwiched over 44 years between a fresh market, a city park, and a government office area, the bus terminal grew into a bustling community of locals and travelers.

Close to the city’s poor settlements along the railway tracks, it provided a source of income for the urban poor who worked as vendors, cleaning staff, and scavengers.

About 300 shop owners and vendors, and hundreds of bus drivers employed by the station, made a living off the city’s central transportation hub. For years, they have feared the terminal’s relocation would cost them their jobs.

“The bus station has been here for 40 to 50 years and suddenly they are trying to move it. Hundreds of bus drivers will lose their jobs,” said Banphot Chamaarat in interview in July 2015. The elderly bus driver who was working for the station expressed concerns that the new bus station wouldn’t hire the bus drivers from the original terminal.

On 6 August 2015, people took to the streets to show opposition to the relocation of the old bus terminal, calling for the use of two bus terminals.

Protesting the relocation

The word of the possible closure made the rounds in the bus terminal’s community for the first time in 2011. Yet few believed the long-established transportation hub in the heart of the city would be shut down.

Three years later, a new bus terminal opened its gates outside the city, and the municipality announced a plan to close down the old central terminal by August 2015.

But the bus station’s community refused to accept the city’s decision. Commuters, shop owners, slum dwellers, and drivers of tuk tuk, taxis and buses organized to protest the relocation, calling on the municipality to use two bus terminals, like other cities in the region.

At first, city officials paid no attention as the community kept sending petitions to several local government agencies.

Only when a protest crowd of 600 people took to the streets in August 2015 did the provincial vice governor agreed to revisit the decision to relocate the old bus terminal, and to inform the Ministry of Transport about the locals’ demands.

“I think it’s possible that the ministry will agree with our request,” said protest organizer and pharmacist Thawiwat Anantarak. “Other provinces in Thailand have two bus stations. Both of Khon Kaen’s are being used now, and it’s working.”

Expressing anger over apparent indifference to their grievances, protesters burned two straw effigies, one attached with a photo of the provincial governor, in a demonstration on 25 August, 2015. Photo credit: Manager Online

Illegalized protest

The protest organizer’s assumption proved too optimistic. Instead of hearing back from the city hall or the Ministry of Transport, Mr. Thawiwat and six other protest leaders were charged with violating a new law on public assembly. They were the first to be charged under the new legislation, which had come into force only a few days before the group organized another protest.

Passed by the military government-appointed legislative body in May 2015, the Public Assembly Act places severe restrictions on public protests. Violations of the law can carry a penalty of up to one year in jail and a maximum fine of 20,000 Baht (about $610 US).

Human rights activists and scholars criticized the law for curtailing peoples’ right to protest, and said it provides authorities broad powers to ban public assemblies on vague and arbitrary grounds.

Four of the seven protest organizers, charged with violating the law, confessed and were ordered to pay a fine of 5,000 baht. For the other three protest leaders, the court acquitted one, and sentenced two to one-and-half months in prison and a fine of 2,000 and 9,000 baht, respectively.

“I wish the people who are bullied by state could at least win once in cases like this,” said Phathanason Sangiamsri, one of those charged. “These days, the people have no say in designing the laws, and so most of the legislation is unjust.”

Phatarawan Imchankonchai, a shop owner at the old bus terminal and member of the protest group said: “People can’t express their opinions freely anymore. For example, after we showed our opposition to relocation of the bus terminal, we were arrested for violating the [new] act on assembling.”

Taking the city to court

Sitting on the stairs to Khon Kaen’s Administrative Court, the mood was tense among the 200 people awaiting the court’s decision on the relocation of the old bus terminal on the morning of 24 August.

Protest leaders and more than 150 people affected by the relocation had filed a complaint against the Department of Land Transport in August 2015. They argued the relocation put an inappropriate burden on passengers, and that the department’s announcement was illegal as there had been no public consultation.

In a survey of 10,000 passenger, a majority of passengers disagreed with the relocation of the terminal, according to a study by Khon Kaen University in 2015.

But the court rejected the protest grouup’s argument. It ruled the relocation was necessary to ease downtown traffic congestion and air pollution, and to adapt to Khon Kaen’s urban growth. Although passengers had to shoulder additional travel costs to reach the new terminal, the relocation was appropriate to solve the city’s problems, the court argued.

A sign in five languages informs passengers that Khon Kaen will from 1 Dec. have but a single bus terminal.

For the city, the court’s decision settled the matter. It announced the definite closure of the old bus terminal on 1 December. But the bus station’s community, determined to continue their fight, say they plan to appeal the court’s ruling.

On 11 December, a crowd of protesters carrying photos of the current King and Thai national flags marched the streets of downtown once more. Reading out a statement, they announced they would walk by foot to Bangkok to petition the King to solve their grievances.

Meanwhile, the old bus terminal has fallen eerily quiet, devoid of the hundreds of fuming vehicles arriving at the station by the minute over the past 44 years. A few uninformed passengers wander along empty halls while most of the mobile vendors have deserted the station. The few stall owners who have not closed up shop yet are devastated as their daily turnover has plummeted.

“It’s like I lost my job and all of my daily income,” says Duangjai Tunla, a 35-year-old food vendor at the old bus station. “I really wish the authorities could let buses use the old terminal again so all the vendors could continue to make a living here.”