Part I: Sakon Nakhon stirs: Students and academics continue a decades-old struggle (11))

By David Streckfuss

Geography and a history of murdered freedom fighters set Sakon Nakhon off from the rest of Isaan. Though youth protests have been slow to start and lack some of the frequency and vigor seen in other Isaan provinces, Sakon Nakhon, and particularly Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University, has played an important role in linking the province’s past with a new generation that’s beginning to stir.

A number of lecturers in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences have over the last five or six years connected students to local social justice issues while others have worked to revive the rich (and tragic) history of its residents who had been pioneers in Thailand’s fight for democracy.

Kittima Khunthong, a sociology lecturer at the university, has sponsored frequent forums on natural resource management and human rights. As part of her courses, she has taken students to areas where villages face eviction from forests or the prospect of mining operations.

Wichan Ritthitham has used a Peace Studies course to take students to learn about the challenges that local people face when the government ignores its human rights obligations. Kriengkrai Srinonrueng has been drawn into examining the history of the province’s heroes who had fought for democracy. 

These lecturers and many of their colleagues have supported students who have felt a need to be part of the larger youth movement now challenging the government. Students have frequently met within the grounds of the university and carried out various activities, such as after the dissolution of the Future Forward Party in February or observance of Thailand’s former “National Day” on 24 June, the anniversary of the overthrow of absolute monarchy in 1932. 

So it was not out of the blue when people in Sakon Nakhon, spearheaded by students, assembled in late October to show solidarity with events surrounding protests in Bangkok.

One student, Nutcharin “Fon” Namuntha, says that her first experience in protesting “opened up my world, broadened it.” It “was a space we could use to express our opinions.”

Nutcharin “Fon” Namuntha: Politics defined “everything around us. I wanted to be one of those who got involved.”

“We had always thought that politics was something distant from us,” Fon says. But as she became more informed as she followed protests in Bangkok, she realized, “I received a lot of impact thought maybe indirectly.” She saw politics defined “everything around us. I wanted to be one of those who got involved.”

Fon even went so far as to take hold of the microphone herself and speak. She asked herself, “How is it that my friends step up and speak out?” When she did, she says, she changed from “a listener at protests to an organizer, someone who could speak to a crowd.”

But her taking on an active role in protests was merely the result of a years-long process.

Her advisor, Kittima, had set things in motion three years before when Fon took her first courses in the university. Kittima says that the first year of study forms a foundation. Year two students like Fon are exposed to communities facing evictions from the government or intimidation from private companies. 

Kittima Khunthong: The key is students building “understanding and empathy.”

Kittima says her only hope is that students at this point only build “understanding and empathy without pushing them too much otherwise” because the students are not yet able to form clear conceptions of “what human rights are, what democracy and liberty are, or what freedom is.”

By year three, after students have become acquainted with “theory and new perspectives and have formed their own ideas, they are ready to start to express themselves.” She says that they “can see the big picture,” and the result is students like Fon understanding how things have come to be and are ready to call for change.

So it was not unexpected that students in Sakon Nakhon push for democratic ideals. 

The fight for democracy in Sakon Nakhon didn’t begin in June or in February this year. Or three or four years ago when teachers at the university started a process that would lead students like Fon to become engaged.

Rather, the struggle began decades and decades ago, one that has been shaped by geography and the individuals that have died doing it.

The Sakon Nakhon River Basin sets the region off from the rest of Isaan. Source: Wikipedia

Geographically set apart

Sakon Nakhon’s geology sets it off from much of the Northeast. The Chi-Mun river system dominates much of east and central and virtually all of southern Isaan. Sakon Nakhon is set apart, oriented historically around the Songkhram River which defines the Sakon Nakhon Basin, demarcated to the south by the Phu Phan mountain range.

This separated subregion has invited special attention from the national security apparatus which has ever been suspicious of the loyalties of the population. In return, the provinces have justified such suspicions by consistently rejecting military-drafted, undemocratic constitutions, as in 2007 and 2016. In the 2019 elections, only one out of some 17 constituencies in the Sakon Nakhon basin voted for pro-military parties.

At the same time, the provinces in this region have received only token amounts of development funding from the government. The “Human Achievement Index” scores Sakon Nakhon province high for family and housing, and somewhat high for employment, but it receives very low scores for health, education, income, and transportation.

But negligence has also helped the province avoid some of the disastrous development projects that have put the environment and communities at risk in other provinces. While the Chi-Mun river system is segmented by dams all the way to the Mekong River, the Songkhram River is the only major river system that has so far remained undammed, thus preserving one of the largest series of wetlands in Thailand.

The military coup in 2014 brought in a whole new set of policies targeting the unexploited resources of the subregion. Villagers were forcibly evicted from forests in the province in 2015. Using special powers, the military government pushed forward to evict local people in order to establish a “special economic zone” neighboring Nakhon Phanom. With government assistance, Chinese companies are doing everything they can to get to rich potash deposits in the province, despite local resistance. In 2018, villages protested industry projects that would imperil a reservoir that serves as their main water source.

Last year, David JH Blake warned that the government was quietly advancing plans to dam the Songkhram River, a move that he says would “irreversibly degrade and otherwise damage the ecology, both aquatic and terrestrial, of countless wetlands that were previously rich in biodiversity and of high cultural and economic value to the communities that relied on them for their livelihoods.”

Sakon Nakhon and Seri Thai

Isaan is predominantly made up of ethnic Lao. Starting around 1900, the central Siamese government took specific steps to erase Lao-ness from the minds of its inhabitant, ranging from stipulating that the regional designation of “Isaan” be used (“Northeast,” meaning northeast from the standpoint of Bangkok) to eliminating all references to “Lao” in history and textbooks, to requiring that only central Thai be used in the classroom. 

Over time, multi-ethnic Siam became, in appearance, mono-ethnic Thailand.

There was one period, though, when Lao ethnicity might have shared an equal standing within a multi-ethnic political polity. Pridi Banomyong, a member of the People’s Party that ended the absolute monarchy in 1932, disliked changing the name of the country in 1939 to Thailand as it invited Thai chauvinism. 

At the beginning of World War II, Pridi headed up the creation of the Seri Thai to fight against the Japanese. One of the most important bases of the Seri Thai was the Northeast, and Sakon Nakhon in particular.

The key Isaan leaders in the Seri Thai became prominent politicians from the region in the post-war period. Isaan became known for its progressive politicians at a time when many in the region felt economic and political discrimination. Many of politicians were arrested and tried for attempted separatism. Over the period of 1949 to 1961, many were killed and jailed.

Most prominent among those were Tiang Sirikhan and Khrong Chandawong, both of whom had represented Sakon Nakhon in parliament. Tiang was disappeared (and killed) in 1952 and Khrong was executed in 1961. Along with their deaths the hope of change through parliamentary means in Thailand also ended. 

In its place rose the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) and the Sakon Nakhon Basin became one of its most infamous strongholds. It was Sakon Nakhon where one of Thailand’s most influential intellectuals of the age, Jit Phoumisak, fled after seven years in jail in 1964. And it was in Sakon Nakhon where he was killed in 1966.

A history rediscovered

Much of this local history was lost through time. The names of Tiang, Khrong, and Jit did not appear in textbooks and were not acknowledged in official histories.

Kriengkrai Srinonrueng, a lecturer in his mid-forties at Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University, had been an activist when he studied there in the mid to late 1990s. He had come of age with the 1997 constitution and the Assembly of the Poor. 

Kriengkrai Srinonrueng: “There’s been this sense of being oppressed and that there’s no choice.”

But knowledge about his own province came gradually. As a university student, he happened to assist the now-president of the university, Preecha Thammawinthon, when the latter was doing research on the Seri Thai movement. Kriengkrai became aware of the province’s forgotten heroes and he and his colleagues in the political science department ended up becoming the de facto hosts and repositories of events and memorials that celebrated these three early fighters for democracy.

Lao killing Lao

Other than the ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese in Sakon Nakhon whose insecurity drives them to over-affirm their Thai-ness, many in the province are comfortable acknowledging the obvious fact that they are ethnically Lao. But this awareness underscores the historically troubling question of who’s fighting whom and for what. 

Kriengkrai is sympathetic to those who joined the communists. It seemed at the time that democracy in Thailand had come to a dead-end, and the local conditions encouraged people to seek another way.

“Why did people choose to join the communists? In fact, they didn’t choose to join the side of communists,” says Kriengkrai. “It’s more like they didn’t have a choice.”

There’s something about life in Sakon Nakhon that’s hard, Kriengkrai says, a sense of past grievance, of injustice. He’s not sure when this general feeling of oppression began in the province, but he says he’s sensed it all his life. “There’s been this sense of being oppressed and that there’s no choice. There was just one path and that was to fight.” Oppressed by government officials, oppressed by the police, people “chose the only way: join with the other side [the communists].”

For anyone concerned about injustice, they were obligated to fight. Kriengkrai says, “Those who were leaders in the past here in Isaan were like sages, people of moral character who held to the Buddhist precepts and were also progressive.”

Sakon Nakhon had been designated as a “pink” zone of communist infiltration in the 1960s until the early 1980s. Kriengkrai’s father, a soldier, had just returned home from fighting in other theaters of war in Indochina. Now he was fighting against the communists in the mountains of Don Luang in Mukdahan, a district that borders on Sakon Nakhon. 

His father is an honest soldier, a “rural soldier”who never had a chance to rise in the ranks.  But even for him at some point the irony of it all struck him. Kriengkrai said his father once told him, “Have the Lao kill each other…Those Bangkokians are smart, eh? Get the Lao and Lao to kill each other themselves.” 

Often the combatants on each side knew each other, were sometimes even friends. Who were they fighting, anyway? What exactly were they fighting for? 

Even today, security officials monitor Kriengkrai, meeting him at home, even sometimes sharing a meal. Some might even be sympathetic to what the new generation is demanding. But they have to carry out their duty. They ask Kriengkrai what the students are up to, what their plans are, the whereabouts of certain individuals. They always apologize, say that they’re just following orders, say that they need to send in a report to their bosses.

Who are they fighting against, anyway? What exactly are they fighting for?

Under special care and obligation of the palace

In the thick of the fight with the communists, the Phu Phan Ratchaniwet Palace was built in 1974 as a way of shoring up the perceived mixed loyalties of the people and to show that the palace cared. As a child, Kriengkrai and his friends were excited to see the Lockheed C-130 Hercules aircraft fly in.

While certain communities or areas of the province may have benefitted from royal projects, having the palace there has also posed some burdens. 

Over the years, every time a member of the royalty flies in or drives through, the province has to show its respect and appreciation. When the royalty uses the airport in neighboring Udon Thani, the entire 180-kilometer stretch is locked down.

Rajabhat universities were renamed en masse in 2005 and elevated to university status by the king. The universities have served as something of a stronghold of conservative values. One of those interviewed remarked that the meaning of “Rajabhat” is “literally defined as ‘one who is service to power.’”

Some students at the university are required to “receive the royalty” on such occasions. One student told us that students fulfilling their military obligations are inevitably called up to be present at the reception. Others also choose to do so “because everyone who does gets paid.”

Sakon Nakhon pulled by two poles

The province has a long history of harboring those accused of inciting separatism, being susceptible to communist subversion, and identification as ethnic Lao, as well as a more recent history of opposing military governments. Sakon Nakhon is also in a sense under royal patronage.

The new generation in the province have protested against the current government. But the presence of the royal palace, of the retinue of government officials based in the province awaiting the next royal visit, and the view that their university is essentially a “royal university” have all served to restrain student protesters. 

It is because of this tension that Rajabaht teachers tell their students to not be “too sharp” in their attacks and keep the new generation protesters from making any references to the monarchy. One student interviewed said there’d been talk about the institution among friends but said they would have never dared speak about it on stage. The student said, “I hadn’t dared make any reference to this matter.”

Later, though, the student said, “I just started really thinking about talking about it.” But then said quickly, “But I’d never be brave enough to.” 

Tomorrow see Part II of this story, “Sakon Nakhon’s rediscovered heroes of democracy.”