Guest contribution by Talley Morton

KHON KAEN – Over 300 people gathered in Khon Kaen on Monday to discuss the state of human rights in the Northeast. Speakers painted a grim image of Thailand’s challenges while diplomats from five foreign missions shared the stories of their countries’ human rights journeys.

At the 9th Annual Isaan Human Rights Festival communities from across the region, activists, scholars, and students met with ambassadors from the Netherlands and Sweden and diplomats from Belgium, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

Hosted by the Faculty of Humanities and Social Science at Khon Kaen University and co-organized by The Isaan Record with support from the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the event opened a rare space for Isaan communities to voice their grievances and engage with foreign diplomats.

Without the heavy security presence of the festival’s previous year, diplomats were happy to see the “real situation” in the Northeast from the ground up. The real situation, however, offered a bleak image of human rights progress in Thailand.

A contested constitution

The day kicked off with a speech from Dr. Niran Pitakwatchara, a former National Human Rights Commissioner, who stressed the significance community rights play not only in Thailand, but in Southeast Asia as a whole. His perspective questioned the legitimacy of the country’s progress under the junta’s dictatorship in the last four years.

“The so-called ‘peace and order’ that comes with dictatorship is false, because all the “disorder” is simply swept under the carpet,” he said. “The government should be educating and empowering people about their rights. Something is not right when the government regards rights of citizens as obstacles.”

Since the coup in 2014, junta leader and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, has expanded his power most infamously under Article 44, which grants him absolute power in order to “strengthen public unity and harmony.”

So far, the article has been used to independently solve matters relating to infrastructure, security, national reform, political restructuring, the economy, natural resources and most recently the constituency map for the next elections.

Dr. Niran Pitakwatchara, a former National Human Rights Commissioner: “Thailand is rich in ethnic diversity, but the government refuses to acknowledge anything other than their definition of Thai. This is a denial of the right to self-determination.”

In a 2018 report, Human Rights Watch accused the article of allowing the junta leader to “wield absolute power without oversight or accountability,” thereby guaranteeing that “government officials cannot be held accountable for their rights violations.” Other critics call it martial law.

Technically, the notorious Article 44, which gives the head of the dictatorship absolute power, was supposed to expire with the interim charter after the junta took power. However, the junta extended it into in their 2017 Constitution.

“If the dictatorship is legitimized by the constitution,” Dr. Niran said, “then we must consider whether the constitution itself is legitimate.”

Dr. Niran told the audience to not be afraid to participate. “The government is not able to publicly execute you, like some of our past dictators used to.”

International perspectives

During the international session, foreign representatives gave insight into their respective countries’ human rights journeys.

Swedish ambassador Staffan Herrström emphasized freedom of expression as the foundation of a strong democracy. He went on to say that this right was key to Sweden’s development from a “poor, unequal, undemocratic country in the 19th century” to what it is today.

“Any country that wants to foster innovation also needs to encourage some disobedience from its citizens,” he said, quoting entrepreneur Stina Ehrensvärd.

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Swedish Ambassador Staffan Herrström stressed that human rights are not Swedish rights or European rights; they are the rights of everyone.

The Netherlands’ Ambassador Kees Pieter Rade transitioned onto the topic of economic progress, asserting the necessity of human rights for stable and sustainable prosperity.

“The roots causes of conflict are stability, security, and inequality,” he said. “There is no stability or security if there is no respect for human rights.”

The ambassador also highlighted the importance of promoting the cause of human rights in Dutch foreign policy. This was not just for moral reasons, he argued, but because it will prove to be beneficial to long-term economic wellbeing.

Diplomatic officer, Daniel Fieller from the Embassy of the United Kingdom, also appealed to freedom of expression, advocating for open dialogue among governments and their people.

“The right to hold any opinion without interference, and to be able to exchange opinions and ideas freely, in public and in private, is so important,” he said. “This allows us to hear the breadth and depth of our society and value its diversity. Limiting discussion weakens us, hides the truth, and prevents us from making the right decisions for our society.”

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Netherlands' Ambassador Kees Rade said: “We do not have to wait until economic progress has been achieved in order to respect human rights.”

New Zealand diplomat James Andersen demonstrated how the government can work with indigenous communities to remedy historical injustices. He outlined a process of granting settlements and land management rights to local indigenous tribes and respecting their spiritual relationship to the land.

“This results in an inclusive process where local communities participate, which in turn leads to better outcomes for those resources,” Mr. Andersen said.

Charlotte De Grauwe, attaché to Thailand’s Belgian embassy, stressed the need to advocate for human rights in all aspects of government. Human rights also encompass social, economic, and labor rights, she said.

“I would like to emphasize the fact that human rights are more than an ideal; they have to be implemented,” she said. “It is thus of paramount importance to remain vigilant.”

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UK’s Fieller: Limiting discussion weakens us and hides the truth
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Belgium’s De Grauwe: Continued efforts needed to protect human rights
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NZ’s Andersen: Recognition of rights takes perseverance
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Fight for recognition

Many of the international delegates’ points touched on the necessity of preserving human rights and liberties for innovation, economic growth, and preservation of democracy. But with the current state of the government, Thai scholars and activists contend with a different reality.

“The problem with Isaan today is that many people are living without dignity,” said Kittima Khunthong, a sociology lecturer at Rajabhat Sakon Nakhon University. “Right now the government behaves like a commercial partner for big capital in extracting resources at the expense of any local communities which happen to live near those resources.”

Indeed, villagers expressed discontent with Thailand’s reliance on big capital – also known as neoliberalism – a strategy introduced with the 1997 Asian economic crisis which left behind a legacy of waning public access and participation. As corporate influence grows, the autonomy of the poor and marginalised deteriorate.

Today, many Isaan people deal with displacement and resource exploitation in communities they have maintained for decades.

Kittima Khunthong of Rajabhat Sakon Nakhon University: “Right now the government behaves like a commercial partner for big capital in extracting resources at the expense of any local communities which happen to live near those resources.” Photo credit: Mike Eckel

Wipatanachai Phimhin, a village chief in Khon Kaen’s Nongruea District, believes that instead of displacing people in areas targeted for development, corporations, and communities should work together to reach an agreement.

Whatever happens will be instructive for the rest of society,” he said. “This is more constructive for society than when the government plays favourites.”

“‘Rights’ as is traditionally understood in Thai society is synonymous with privilege,” Dr. Niran said in his opening speech. “This is very different to the notion of universal rights that we received recently from the West, which is about everyone being on an equal footing of inviolable dignity.”

Thai speakers focused on addressing community rights and legitimacy of the law.

“The government and their neoliberal-capitalist friends are very happy to enfranchise themselves when it comes to our resources, but they are not so keen for the communities around those resources to be enfranchised in their system,” said Dr. Chainarong Setchua, lecturer at Maha Sarakham University’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Elections played a central role in the discussion of Thailand’s human rights crisis. After being delayed several times, general elections are expected to be held in the first half of the upcoming year.

“To talk about community rights, human rights, and good governance in the current climate is not possible without elections,” argued Ms. Kittima. “The elections may not be the purest democracy but it’s a start in the right direction.”

Decha Premruedeelert, advisor to NGO-CORD: Democracy needs break monopolies of power and address wellbeing of people and the environment. Photo credit: Mike Eckel

While faith in the government to provide an equal and fair polling process is low, Decha Premruedeelert, advisor to the NGO Coordinating Committee for Rural Development (NGO-CORD) in Isaan, has not minimized his expectations for what the outcome of the elections should produce.

“Elections are a quaint ceremony if they don’t do anything for the wellbeing of our ecology and natural environment,” he said.

“If our so-called democracy is only viable until it touches the sides of certain monopolies then I’m afraid we do not have a democracy.”

Not backing down

Despite frustrations and challenges vocalized throughout the day, hope was not lost. Speakers offered words of encouragement and calls to action for confronting violations of human rights.

“We’re at the stage where the only acceptable governments are those which are freely elected by the people,” said Lertsak Khamkhongsak, a coordinator for the Eco-Culture group.

Co-Organizer Assistant Prof. Dr. Thanapauge Chamaratana of the Department of Social Development at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Khon Kaen University. Photo credit: Khon Kaen University

The future of human rights in Thailand is still unclear. The upcoming elections may not supply the future that the people demand. Although the right to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech are under attack, the Isaan Human Rights festival offers a space where people can come together freely share knowledge, build community, and envision a future that benefits the community.

During the final discussion of the day, Mr. Wipatanachai offered some perspective to a day full of challenges.

“There is more friction these days because we are now in the age of information,” he said. “Our eyes used to be closed; we weren’t allowed to know anything. But in this day, information is no longer in the gift of the powers that be.”

Talley Morton studies journalism at Northwestern University. She has been studying in Khon Kaen about development and human rights issues.