Isaan scholars and artists, in cooperation with The Isaan Record, are set to carry out a merit-making ceremony and other activities in April 2022 in Ban Saphue, Ubon Ratchathani Province. The event is to commemorate the 121st anniversary of the Siamese government’s crushing of the Phi Bun Rebellion in the area where as many as 400 rebels were killed or executed.

Story by Hathairat Phaholtap 

Photos by Adithep Chanthet 

Ubon Ratchathani – Last week,  the art activist Thanom Chapakdee, academics from Ubon Ratchathani University, and the Isaan Record visited the province’s Ban Saphue in Trakan Phuetphon District to talk with community leaders and villagers knowledgeable about the Phi Bun Rebellion. In early April 1901, the area was a battlefield between those calling themselves phi bun [Holy Man] and the central government. Up to 400 people were killed fighting or executed on April 4-5, 1901. 

Teerapon Anmai, a lecturer at the Faculty of Liberal Arts at Ubon Ratchathani University, said that when he first came to Ban Sapue in 1999, he realized that it used to be a battlefield where 300 to 400 people were killed but no accounts appear in any textbooks about the event.

“What is interesting in history is that people in the community have never come to know the true story of what happened,” Teerapol said to a group of 20 community members, most of them elderly. “They may have been afraid of their own history. If possible, I’d like there to be a collection of your memories. If anyone has heard any stories, I’d like you to tell us for the benefit of future generations.”

The Non Pho area where the phi bun rebels and government forces battled 120 years ago. It is now a paddy field.

Surasin Kamutchat, a former teacher and Saphue villager, said that this area was originally called Ban Saphue, which was a rich source of crabs and fish. A story is heard among villagers that the area was so rich that one could just wait under a large yang-na tree [dipterocarpus alatus] there to catch the fish falling from the beaks of birds.

“Some people said that 120 years ago about 300 to 400 people were killed by cannons in the area of ​​Non Pho,” said Surasin. “But at that time, there were no backhoes, so no one dug a grave. Instead, they cut off the heads [of those killed] and threw the bodies into a cannon hole so that relatives could find them easily. The hole was now not deep. When people went out to farm, they saw bones and skulls all the time. It caused the villagers in this area to tell stories about ghosts.”

He also said soon after the suppression, it’s been told that some children who went out to play around the battleground saw a head near the cannon hole and saw a dung beetle eating the brain. After that, no one in the village dared eat dung beetles any more.

Lamphun Chawirak, a local historian of Ban Saphue, Trakan Phuetphon District, talks to community members about building a community history museum.

Local community historian Lamphun Chaweerak said that Saphue was the site of an important historical event that ought to be recognized but there has been no efforts to start the process. He worries that the memory and any remaining artifacts of the event will be lost. For years community members have talked off and on about erecting something to mark the event. Now there is even a community member ready to donate land to this effort. 

Art activist Thanom Chapakdee said that he came here to do research about the local history of Saphue village which was a center of the fighting. He encouraged villagers to discuss what we should do together. The first thing he wanted to see was a merit-making ceremony for the souls of the dead. 

Thanom Chapakdee discusses carrying out a merit-making activity to be called “Rice-giving, Merit-making to Commemorate the 120+1-years Anniversary of Non Phoe”

“I want to consult with the community about co-hosting an event to make merit for the dead,” the art activist said. “After the first time, we can do a merit-making ceremony every two years and begin to think about building a local museum for the community to commemorate its own history.”

The activity agreed upon, “UBON AGENDA: Agenda Phi Bun at Non Pho,” will be in the form of a merit-making ceremony that distributes rice, to be held on April 3-4, 2022, the 121st anniversary of the Non Pho battle at Ban Sapue, Trakan Phuetphon District, Ubon Ratchathani Province. 

The Isaan Record has produced a special series, “Phi Bun in Isaan,” that sought to review facts surrounding the uprising. The series has caused both discussion and controversy over the facts and meaning of the events that took place in 1901-02 in many areas throughout the Northeast of Siam.

This story was first published in Thai on July 3rd, 2021