Part II : The rediscovered heroes of democracy in Sakon Nakhon (12)

The geography and history of freedom fighters set Sakon Nakhon off from the rest of Isaan. Though youth protests have been slow to start and lack some of the vigor seen in other Isaan provinces, Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University, has played an important role in linking the province’s past with the new generation’s protests. (See yesterday’s “Part I: Sakon Nakhon Stirs: Students and academics continue a decade-old struggle.”)

By David Streckfuss

Late last month, The People’s Party in Khon Kaen made a novel statement about the dictatorship as symbolized by the regime of Sarit Thanarat. It was at the dictator’s monument that protesters carried an effigy of Krong Chandawong, an Isaan politician and activist who was executed by the field marshal. 

At the demonstration, there were also some signs about the many missing persons, such as Wanchalerm Satsaksit, an Isaan activist who disappeared last year in Cambodia and Seri Thai leader and politician of Sakon Nakhon, Tiang Sirikhanth, who was murdered by the authorities in 1952.

In addition, as a way to educate the new generation about the history of Isaan, the protesters also displayed effigies of the four former Isaan ministers killed by the authorities at the “Kilo 11 incident” in 1949: Thongplaew Cholaphum, Thongin Phuriphat (Ubon), Thawin Udon (Roi Et), and Chamlong Daoruang (Mahasarkham).

By virtue of the student movement, Isaan is starting to rediscover its fallen heroes of the past.

Sakon Nakhon has gotten a head start. Three of its most famous sons have been recognized: Tiang Sirikhan, Khrong Chandawong, and the adopted Jit Phoumisak.

Tiang Sirikhan. Source: To those whose missing website

Tiang Sirikhan: The Last of the “Four Isaan Tigers

Tiang Sirikhan had been a major figure in Thailand’s early democratic history. He became known as General Phan within the Seri Thai who had been formed under Pridi Banomyong. 

He had managed to graduate from Chulalongkorn University and became a headmaster at a school back in the Northeast. He was elected five times to Parliament, from 1940 until early 1952, and he served three times as cabinet minister. The Seri Thai were established in 1941 and by the end of the war, Tiang Sirikhan, Isaan’s chief Seri Thai officer, had as many as 16,000 trained guerillas.

In September 1947, Pridi came up with the idea of a “Southeast Asia League” that would unite independence movements in the region. Tiang was to serve as the president, and Thawin Udon (former MP of Roi Et) as a leading member, giving Isaan people a prominent international role for the first time.

A coup group (naturally, Bangkok based) used the league as pretext for a coup in November 1947, claiming Pridi and the Seri Thai were conspiring “to subordinate Thai national identity,” establish a Siamese republic, and kill the king in Switzerland. The coup group had the house of Thongin Phuriphat (cabinet minister and MP from Ubon) searched where arms intended for a communist revolution were found.

Tiang, Thongin, and his brother Thim (also MP of Ubon), Chamlong Daoruang (MP of Mahasarakham) and Thawin Udon (MP of Roi-Et) were arrested for “plotting a separatist movement in which the Northeast would be joined to Indochina in a Communist dominated Southeast Asian Union.”

Source: Nitiyasan thang e-saan (นิตยสารทางอีศาน)

A foreign diplomat at the time argued that the “Laotian” of the Northeast did not seek separation but rather “felt that the administration of the northeast was too feebly controlled from Bangkok, and that greater local autonomy was essential for proper administration.”

There was a growing sentiment that Isaan people were subject to economic and political discrimination. In a parliamentary debate on a new constitution in January 1949, one group of Isaan MPs, led by Chon Rawiwan (Nongkhai) “attacked the ‘indivisibility of the kingdom’ clause on the grounds that it was potentially injurious to the rights of Northeasterners,” and “proposed that Thailand be divided into six autonomous regions.”

The next month, Pridi forces attempted a counter coup led by a faction in the Thai Navy in which the Seri Thai were supposed to march from their base in Isaan into Bangkok. Government suppression of the coup attempt was placed in the hands of General Sarit Thanarat. The government arrested most Seri Thai before anything could happen and a number of leaders were found dead in their homes.

In March, Tiang and Thim were tried for separatism. On March 3, Thongin, Chamlong, and Thawin along with a pro-Pridi MP were arrested and shot to death by police, supposedly “while attempting to escape,” in what became the “Kilo 11 Incident.”

While still on trial, Tiang Sirikhan was elected MP once again in April. The government passed an anti-communist bill in November. The next month Tiang won his last election as MP of Sakon Nakhon but he and two others were charged for conspiring to overthrow the government with “foreign backing.” Then Tiang and four others disappeared. It was only in 1959 that the remains of the five were found in Kanchanaburi. 

With the end of Tiang at the age of 43, the last major Seri Thai figure of the Northeast and the last of the “Four Isaan Tigers,” Seri Thai as a political force largely ended. And the story, the memory, of Tiang might have faded.

But Tiang is now enjoying something of a resurgence in popularity, with the publication of a three-book set about his life.

But (perhaps not coincidentally), when Isaan was again being recognized as a power itself in politics, a 2.3-million-baht monument to Tiang was proposed in 2005 and officially unveiled in 2012.

Though the inscription on the plaque says Tiang “is our common folk hero, the highest pride of Sakon Nakhon,” whatever efforts the province might have made to promote the memorial and secret Seri Thai cave within the boundaries of the Phuphan National Park, tourism websites like TripAdvisor makes no mention of the site and it probably remains of interest to amateur historians and ageing activists. 

There’s no sign that officialdom in Sakon Nakhon holds Tiang as its “highest pride.”

The monument of Khrong Chanadworng. Source: Ray Withnall, “In search of history, Part 3: Seri Thai secret caves”Source: Ray Withnall, “In search of history, Part 3: Seri Thai secret caves”

Khrong Chandawong: “Dictatorship shall perish. Long live democracy.”

Sarit Thanarat carried out a coup in 1958 and eliminated all vestiges of parliamentary democracy. After facing more than a decade of troublesome, left-leaning, socialist MPs, the military focused on “the northeastern problem.” In early May 1961, the government arrested Khrong Chandawong and his associate, Thongphan Sutthimat.

Khrong, like Tiang, had been a member of Seri Thai while working as a teacher in Sawang Daen Din District in Sakon Nakhon. He was arrested in 1948 for being part of a separatist plot, but was later released. Khrong attended a meeting of the Peace Committee in August 1952 in Bangkok that opposed further entanglement of Thailand in Asian conflicts like the Korean War. After the government passed the anti-communist law in November, 38 people involved in the peace movement were arrested, including Khrong. He was charged with rebellion and sentenced to 13 years, eight months in prison. He was released as part of a sweeping amnesty in 1957. Khrong was elected as a Sakon Nakhon MP in the Economist Party twice in 1957 before the coup brought democracy to an end.

Khrong returned home and formed the organization “Solidarity”—a difficult task when Isaan was still under martial law. His organization taught local people about communism. Khrong emphasized that “people from Isan were not Thai, but Lao,” and said that Isaan had once been an independent Lao state. The police said that Khrong claimed that “the Isan region was formerly an independent Lao state until the Thai seized control.” The authorities claimed that the 53-year-old Khrong called for the liberation of Isan from the hold of the central government and that it should join with the Pathet Lao. His death warrant said he needed to be executed to serve as an example and “to protect national security and the Throne.”

Khrong Chandawong cheerfully faces execution. Source: silpa-mag.com website

Khrong’s execution was notable in a number of ways. First, his cheerful demeanor and waving to the camera while walking to certain death won the admiration of many for his bravery. 

Khrong also delivered one of the most memorable ripostes to tyranny prior to execution, words that have been kept alive in succeeding democracy movements in Thailand, including the current student protesters: “Dictatorship shall perish. Long live democracy.”

The manner of Khrong’s execution was, like so often in authoritarian regimes, excessively brutal. The order only specified that Khrong and his companion were to be shot until dead. But the authorities went well beyond ensuring biological death by riddling the two with 90 bullets from high-calibre rifles.

After his execution on May 31, hundreds were arrested as alleged Communist agents who were “recruiters of villagers to the cause of Communist separationists who want to effect secession of the Northeast from the rest of the Kingdom.” At the end of 1961 was the first battle between home-grown “communists” and Thai government forces in Nakhon Phanom province.

Like Tiang, Khrong was largely forgotten as Isaan seemed to go into a half-century slumber. In 2003, two rather crude concrete pillars and a stone marker were placed behind the district office in Sawang Daen Din, presumably near the site they were killed. 

“Dictatorship shall perish. Long live democracy at the Democracy Monument. Source: Prachatai, May 31, 2020

Dave Blake reported that in 2010 the pillars and stone had been moved to another spot near signs of construction.

This year in November, the Isaan Record found the stone had been tipped over and one of the pillars had disappeared (or sheared down to a stub), and two wooden salas had been built in front of the remaining pillar, largely obscuring it from view.

On May 31, 2018, the Khrong Chandawong Learning Center was set up in Sawang Daen Din to mark 110 years since Khrong’s birth. 

Two pillars commemorating Khrong Chandawong and his colleague at or near the place they were executed in 1961. On the left are two pillars in 2010 and on the right one pillar remaining in 2020. Credit: David JH Blake, Donlawat Sunsuk.

On May 31, 2020, two political science lecturers from Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University, Wichan Ritthitham and Kriengkrai Srinonrueng, were part of an event showcasing musical performances, poetry reading, and a talk with Vitit Chandawong, Khrong’s son.

Jit Phoumisak: the Consummate Intellectual

The United States Information Service (USIS), a propaganda wing of the US government during the Cold War, thought that translating Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” into Thai would dissuade Thais from communism. The service reached out to William Gedney, an American linguist, who brought on a young, brilliant Chulalongkorn student to help in translating the manifesto. 

Rather than being dissuaded, the young man, Jit Phoumisak, became convinced that Thailand could only develop by embracing socialism. He wrote the most famous Marxist treatise in Thailand, The Face of Thai Feudalism in 1957, the same year he was jailed on charges of communism.  

Source: Jit Phoumisak Memorial, Warichaphum District, Sakon Nakhon province (อนุสรณ์สถาน จิตร ภูมิศักดิ์ อ.วาริชภูมิ จ.สกลนคร)

While still in jail, Jit was inspired by the heroic lives of the Isaan politicians who had been killed, particularly Tiang and Khrong, and he wrote a song in their honor, “Political lament for Tiang Sirikhan and Teach Khrong Chandawong.”

Jit was cleared of charges of communism in 1964 and released from jail. It may have been in part his admiration of Tiang and Khrong that led him to join the communist insurgency in Sakon Nakhon where he himself was shot dead in 1966 at the age of 35.

Jit’s cause has recently been adopted by the new generation of students. 

In 1953, Jit had completely revamped an annual publication put out by Chulalongkorn University, published on King Chulalongkorn’s birthday on October 23. Then a third-year student, Jit had taken King Chulalongkorn off the cover and included articles written from a Marxist perspective. The outraged administration and student body forced Jit to explain his actions before 3,000 students in the university auditorium. An Engineering student rushed forward and threw Jit off the stage where he was further beaten. The students who attacked Jit were given a light punishment; Jit was suspended for a year.

Last month the president of Chulalongkorn University Student Union made an apology to Jit Phoumisak for the violence done unto him in 1953 and stated that Jit had upheld the highest ideals of the university.

Although Jit was not from the Northeast, he has posthumously been adopted by Sakon Nakhon. The province recognizes “Jit Phoumisak Day” every year on May 5. A monument to Jit was officially unveiled on May 5, 2013, near the site where it is thought he was killed. The Political Science Department at the Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences  set up the “Jit Phoumisak Room” as part of its Commoners Museum, which has an exhibition of Jit’s life and work.

“Jit Phoumisak Room” at Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University. Source: The Isaander

Despite the apparent recognition of Jit Phoumisak, the province’s website makes no mention of Jit, or Tiang, or Khrong. The “history” page of the province’s website ends in the 1830s. Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University likewise makes no mention of Jit or the Jit Phoumisak Room on its website.

What about the others?

There are other progressive and apparently forgotten voices of the Northeast from the 1940s to the 1960s. None of these people apparently have any memorial or recognition in their hometowns.

A few have entries in Thai Wikipedia:

  • Chamlong Daoruang (MP, born in Baan Ngua Ba, Tambon Ngua Ba, Amphur Wapi Pathum, Mahasarakham)
  • Fong Sithitham (MP, born in present Muang Sam Sip District, Ubon)
  • Thep Chotinuchit (born in Nakhon Phanom, MP of Srisaket)
  • Thongin Phuriphat (MP, born in Ban Nong Yang, Hua Rua Subdistrict, Muang District, Ubon Ratchathani)

Some have no mention or a single mention in another Wikipedia entry:

  • Chalon Rawiwan (MP, Nongkhai)
  • Saing Marangkun (MP, Buriram)
  • Thawin Udon (MP, Roi Et)
  • Thawisak Triphli (MP, Khon Kaen)
  • Thim Phuriphat (MP, Ubon)
  • Thongphan Sutthimat (executed alongside Khrong Chandawong)

Hundreds, thousands of men and women have died to make Isaan better. When will Isaan’s real heroes be remembered and celebrated?

Works consulted: 

Charles F. Keyes, Isan: Regionalism in Northeastern Thailand (Ithaca: Cornell University Southeast Asia Program, Data Paper Number 66, March 1967).

Thak Chaloemtiarana, Thailand: The Politics of Despotic Paternalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Southeast Asia Program Publications, 2007).

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