UBON RATCHATHANI – Over 300 people gathered at Ubon Ratchathani University on Monday to discuss the state of human rights in the Northeast and the country.

The 10th Annual Isaan Human Rights Festival gathered communities from across the region, activists, scholars, students, and foreign diplomats. Ambassador of Sweden, Staffan Herrström, joined the event to talk about the international perspective on human rights in a special session.

Hosted by the Faculty of Liberal Arts at Ubon Ratchathani University and co-organized by The Isaan Record, the event opened a rare space for Isaan communities affected by development projects and government policy to voice their grievances. It also highlighted the work of local human rights defenders providing them with a stage to talk about the challenges they face.

“We usually only hear stories from a Bangkok perspective. The heroes who are talked about are Bangkok’s heroes,” said moderator Thawat Maneephong. “I feel that we are in the midst of reclaiming our own narrative with this event.”

The Isaan Human Rights Festival is an annual event in its tenth year that opens space for discussion and exchange between marginalized Isaan communities, human rights defenders, and foreign diplomats.

A weaponized law?

Conversing mostly in Isaan-Lao, speakers painted a grim image of human rights in the Northeast while expressing little hope for the situation to improve under the current mixed military-civilian government.

Duangthip Karnrit from Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), an advocacy group, noticed that since the military coup in 2014, a significant number of people in Northeast have been stripped of their rights to freedom of speech, association, and public assembly.

“After the coup, the junta made heavy use of two mechanisms: the order that prohibited political assemblies of more than five people, and the [2015] Public Assembly Act,” Duangthip said. “More than 100 people became political refugees while 2,408 civilians [across the country] had to stand trial in military courts.”

According to several TLHR reports from the past five years, the military junta had mainly used intimidation tactics and the law to silence critics while affording powers to authorities to act arbitrarily without any democratic oversight.

“The laws have been used to stifle dissent, particularly of the marginalized, without regard for the rule of law or the Universal Declaration on Human Rights,” reads a 2016 report from the branch of the group on human rights in the Northeast.

The military junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), seized power from a democratically elected government in May of 2014. After a controversial election in March this year, the NCPO-backed political party, the Palang Pracharat Party, was able to cobble together a pro-military coalition government that placed the head of the NCPO, Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha, was able to assume the premiership. The NCPO was officially resolved in July, but the military continues to exert its power.

Other speakers at the event blamed policies passed and implemented under the NCPO without any meaningful participation of the public for rising tensions and social conflict in the region.

Nipaporn Pula, a representative of Ta Mui village in Ubon Ratchathani’s Khong Chiam district, talked about the devastating impact of the junta’s forest reclamation policy on her community. Several Ta Mui villagers face eviction after being accused of encroaching land in Pha Taem National Park.

“We’ve been on this land for generations,” Nipaporn tearfully said on stage. “I can’t help but feel that there is nowhere to live in Thailand for us poor people.”

“The judicial system is useless,” she added. “Why are they selectively applying the law only to us poor people? Why can’t they apply these standards to people in the cities? People are left to fight against the entire state with their meagre resources, but receive no assistance at all. It’s not fair.”

Across the region, several forest communities are resisting eviction from land that they claim they have lived on before it was announced a protected forest area. Since 2014, when the NCPO starting enforcing the policy, until September last year, more than 28,000 cases of forest encroachment were recorded, covering a total area of almost 820,000 rai (131,200 hectares).

But the bleak human rights situation has not only been the work of the military government in the past five years, as some speakers argued.

Arunee Santhitiwanich, a lecturer at the Faculty of Political Science at Ubon Ratchathani University, argued that the Thai state is not only perpetuating inequalities that already exist in society but also discourages genuine public participation.

“Whenever there is a conflict, a favourite tactic of the state is to set up a committee, because it buys them time,” Arunee said. “By appointing officials who will inevitably be transferred before the issue is resolved, they drag out the whole process.” This gives people false hope that their issues are being addressed, she added

At the same time, public hearings mandatory for development projects hardly ever have any real villagers participating because regulations say that only legally registered members of civil society are allowed to attend, Arunee said.

She also made the point that in a society as unequal as Thailand, instead of following regulations to the letter, government officials should take the local context into account, especially when dealing with marginalized communities.

“Your job as a public servant is to put the people’s needs first. You should always be biased towards the public,” Arunee argued.

Arunee Santhitiwanich, a lecturer at the Faculty of Political Science at Ubon Ratchathani University: “We have to understand how the Thai state works and how it maintains the inequalities that already exist.”

In three moderated discussions, members of the audience shared diverse views on how to address Thailand’s human rights challenges. Some expressed feeling like “invisible citizens” without any rights while others told of a prevailing sense among the youth of wanting to leave their country.

“The current political situation suppresses our rights and freedoms,” said June, a female student from the Faculty of Liberal Arts. “When I look at my friends on social media, many of them want to leave their country because they don’t see opportunities and have no hope. And then of course there are also the economic problems.”

A retired teacher from Khong Chiam district said that many of his former students ended up driving taxis in Bangkok because there are few opportunities for them to make a living in their home province.

He urged the youth not to fall into political apathy but to collectively push for social change. “If we poor people don’t stand up for our rights, we will remain dust under other people’s feet,” he said.

Sompong Viengchan, a long-time activist opposing the Pak Mun Dam in Ubon Ratchathani who was summoned by the military after the coup, echoed this view.

“If we see someone stealing our buffaloes, are we just going to stand there and let them do it?” she asked from her seat in the audience. “No! We have to make a stand, make a fuss, and make some noise.”

“We need to shame the government, or make them feel the shame that they should be feeling for using violence and intimidation against villagers who are just trying to preserve their livelihoods,” she added.

Sompong Viengchan: “If we were a democracy, officials would be our servants, not our masters.”

A student shares her views in the discussion panel on “Education and Gender Diversity.”

In a special session in the afternoon, Swedish ambassador Staffan Herrström stressed the importance of freedom of expression and public participation as a fundamental element of democracy. He also spoke of the positive experience with decentralization of power that helped turning Sweden from a “poor, unequal, undemocratic country in the 19th century” to what it is today.

“In our history, the establishment of local democracy to replace the centralized government that dominated our country over two centuries ago. The right for people to govern their own municipalities became a fundamental part of our country,” he said.

Herrström praised the courage of human rights defenders in countries like Tanzania, Poland, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Lao PDR. But he also expressed concerns about the increasing number of governments acting in authoritarian ways to silence critics and violate human rights.

“It is depressing because many of us thought, at least in the 1990s, that the world was moving decisively towards more democracy and human rights being respected,” Herrström said. “It’s sad, but it’s also an inspiration for us to work even harder to ensure that human rights are respected.”

Swedish ambassador Staffan Herrström: “I’ve tried to listen and learn when I come to the human rights fests, and it has opened my mind to many new perspectives.”

International organizations and rights groups have been critical of Thailand’s government for years now, the ambassador said, and noted a deteriorating human rights situation. In October, Human Rights Watch published a report arguing that the new administration formed after the tainted March 24 election had missed an opportunity for “across-the-board reforms” to begin to restore “Thailand’s reputation as a rights-respecting democracy.”

Meanwhile, the work of Thailand’s own official human rights body, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), has been paralyzed after two prominent members resigned in August. Angkhana Neelapaijit and Tuenjai Deetes left the seven-member group citing rigid new rules and a pro-government bias within the commission. It left the NHRC without a quorum and unable to perform its duties for the first time since its inception in 2001.

Additional reporting by Christopher Burdett and Hathairat Phaholtap. Photography by Adithep Chanthet.