Sunee Chaiyarot, a former national human rights commissioner and long-time rights activist, talks to The Isaan Record’s Hathairat Phaholtap about the human rights situation in Isaan before and after the coup.

The Isaan Record (IR): As a former human rights commissioner, how do you view Isaan’s human rights in the past ten years?

Sunee Chaiyarot (SC): Human rights cover various dimensions and levels. The big picture includes individual rights, community rights or rights in local areas, and it also relates to the justice system.

When people think of Isaan, the biggest news that comes to mind are the rights violations in the management of natural resources. This is such a vast issue. Unresolved issues include the potash mine in Udon Thani, the water management issues at Pak Mun, Rasi Salai, and Hua Na dams and the Mekong water diversion project in Loei and Nong Bua Lamphu provinces. There is also the issue of forest land reclamation that has led to evictions and arrests of villagers who poach in the forests.

The big problem that has become clearly visible is the violation of the right to manage the basic resources of land, forest, water, and minerals.

If we look deeper, the issue also pervades underground, like the potash deposits and fossil energy sources. It is all related to the management of basic resources but also to the issue of rights in the justice system. The villagers feel they are treated unfairly and that they have no access to the basic justice process like making complaints.

In every case we fought–some lasting for five, ten, or even 20 years–we filed complaints in the hope that officials on the district or provincial levels would help us because some cases were quite clear. But they hardly did anything and the issues were prolonged to the point that the villagers had to engage with the justice system without having the money to hire a lawyer or for bail and other expenses.

Villagers ended up behind bars for things that should not have led to prison sentences. For example, the forest reclamation case of Den Khamlae [a land rights activist from Chaiyaphum who disappeared in 2016 and whose wife was imprisoned for trespassing a year later], or when a group of investors sued villagers in Loei and Sakon Nakhon to silence them.

The justice system still does not work to protect villagers. The administrative sector should speed up its problem–solving process, make it less cumbersome, and reduce the number of cases against overburdened villagers.

IR: From what you have seen, is the human rights situation in the Northeast improving at all or is it getting worse?

SC: The seriousness of the situation concerns different levels and dimensions and it is not completely distinguishable from the national human rights situation. In Isaan, the issues are mostly related to resource management, especially to the high number of dams that have been built here, but also forest and land conflicts, for example expropriation of land for special economic zones and the many mining projects in the region.

If you ask if the situation is severe, it definitely is for the affected communities. Don’t forget that even though these issues might seem small for some people, but for those whose rights are violated, it is very serious because when faced with eviction, their lives are at stake, both their freedom and livelihoods.

The question of severity of the issues should not be determined by the social standing or the size of a community. Solving issues has proven to be a slow process and often problems don’t get resolved at all. This is a nationwide problem.

On the bright side, it is interesting to see that there is the will to stand up and fight [among local communities], to organize, to refuse to submit. So we have seen a lot of movements emerging.

On the other hand, it shows that there are some serious issues which are prompting villagers to enter a struggle that might leave them sentenced to prison, injured or sometimes even killed. Using this as an indicator, it seems the situation is quite severe. And although these issues exist in many regions, they might be more serious in the Northeast.

Former National Human Rights Commissioner Sunee Chaiyarot during a public hearing session on the effects of the limestone mine in Nong Bua Lamphu province in November 2019.

IR: Do you get the impression that Isaan communities are more aware of their rights and more ready to fight?

SC: Compared to when I was a member of the constitutional drafting committee in 1997 and when we organized some 30 public hearing sessions nationwide, including in Isaan, the villagers protected their own rights by telling us about their problems.

When we organized sessions in Isaan after the promulgation of the constitution, we found that the villagers knew much about their rights. At the time, some villagers would carry a copy of the constitution and discuss many of its articles.

It was an advancement that even when those who did not talk about the constitution, they naturally exercised their rights by standing up on various issues. We would meet illiterate people, elders, and villagers who were not very articulate who [still] protected the rights through action.

If we count all the struggles with all the people involved in every group, we can see that Isaan people have become more rights-conscious, which means they won’t submit to anyone easily. No one can mess with them anymore because they won’t allow it.

IR: How did the situation change after the coup and how did it affect movements in Isaan?

SC: There are two aspects. The first, we have talked about already–there were existing violations of the right to resource management by big capital groups aligned with bureaucrats, politicians, and the military before the coup.

After the coup, these conflicts continued and in some instances they escalated because there were less channels to negotiate with the government than before. [In democratic periods] protests in front of the Government House helped de-escalate conflicts.

The second aspect is the escalation of the political conflict when the coup occurred. There were many cases of villagers being sued, arrested, or sent to “attitude adjustments” sessions.

Personally, I have found one positive thing about the political situation– people with conflicting attitudes and different opinions started collaborating in the face of grievances and unfairness in the management of natural resources. We are seeing more and more of this.

“When rights are being violated, the upside is that we see more of the will to fight and the refusal to submit among Isaan people,” says Sunee Chaiyarot.

IR: What has to be done to strengthen human rights in Isaan in the future?

SC: First, Isaan should not be viewed as a second-rate region of lesser value where people lack skills and education. It must be realized that [this perception] plays a big role for human rights. Regardless of people’s social position, they must be accepted [as equal citizens].

Old attitudes toward Isaan that are full of misunderstandings, or the condescension held toward the region’s people must change. We must make sure that the struggles of Isaan people are recognized and their grievances are addressed.

This forms the core of the issue because it can be seen as tangible proof that people are really being accepted as what they are.

There also should be more decentralization of power in the future in order to increase participation. The current high degree of centralization makes it almost impossible to solve problems in Isaan and other regions. Isaan should be allowed to set its own governing structure and to manage its own budget on the provincial level. Laws should be changed so that responsibilities of the sub-district administrative bodies or the municipalities are increased because they are elected bodies.

This should be worked out hand in hand with the self-management of these bodies and cover even how provinces manage themselves. The principle under which communities can check on and participate in the work of the local bodies must be introduced. Decentralizing while the communities are still weak [in terms of checks and balances] would be useless and lead to conflicts because the local bodies would think they have the full authority.

At the same time, community representatives and local organizations, official or unofficial ones, must gain acceptance.

Community rights and decentralization must be the main part of the constitution. Some rights belong together such as the shared right to decision-making in running the sub-district or the province, and the right to resource management, impeachments and other ways of balancing and checking.

Also, Isaan people must exercise the community authority to check the work of the central government, too. They should not be just monitoring the government’s work in Isaan; they have to be vigorously monitoring the central government, too.

IR: How much hope do you have that all of this can become reality?

SC: I believe in some kind of dharmic truth. It may seem very boring as the villagers’ fight keeps repeating itself, and it is so entangled and hard to fix. But if we look closely, there’s progress along the way. The easiest thing to see is that people are more aware so I am confident that the way to fix human rights issues is to make people understand their rights and how to protect themselves without having to wait for someone to do it for them.

Interview by Hathairat Phaholtap, first published in Thai on 7 January 2020. Translated and edited by The Isaan Record.