Soon, communities along railroad tracks in Khon Kaen will be forced to leave to make way for the construction of a high-speed train railway that connects Korat and Nong Khai. There is still no plan to relocate the more than 700 families residing in its way. The Isaan Record memorializes the people of Mittraphap community in this shortening period before they vanish.

Photo and story by Adithep Chanthet

“It’s because it’s here where I make my living, so I don’t want to go anywhere. My heart aches talking about this. I’ve been here for such a long time, so I feel attached to this place,” says Chujai Wongsanon sadly, a somtam vendor in the Mittraphap community of Khon Kaen. The memory of her entire life was built in a small house that stands in front of the community hall.

She says some people were complete strangers when they first arrived, but became as close as siblings through living here together. They have lived closely, sharing food with each other.

Mittraphap is one of the communities being forced to move out of the 40-meter radius of the high-speed railway project connecting Nakhon Ratchasima and Nong Khai, as part of the agreement between the Thai and Chinese governments to develop the project to link Thailand, Laos, and China together. The project is divided into two phases, which includes a development plan for areas surrounding the stations along the line worth over five trillion baht [about 156 billion USD), according to information from the State Railway of Thailand (SRT).

Communities along the sides of the railway in Khon Kaen started to form around 1960. The railway authority allowed workers who were hired to carry firewood for steam-engine cargo trains at the Khon Kaen railway junction to set up temporary camps near the railway so they did not have to travel far back and forth.

Mittraphap community was the first such settlement. Next, five of the Theparak communities sprung up along the tracks.

There are over 700 households in Khon Kaen’s railway communities. Most are unregistered workers in trades such as food vendors, trash colllectors, day workers, street cleaners, flower vendors, and public park cleaners as well as sex workers with an unsteady income. About 90% of people in these communities live on land owned by SRT.

This photo essay presents the diverse lives of the people of Mittraphap community. Before long, their souls and spirits will be stripped away from their homes and there’ll be nothing left but legends.

“There aren’t as many houses here now as there used to be,” says Sri Srikaew, Sri Srikaew, a 74-year-old public health volunteer in the community. “When I first moved here, there were only five or six houses, including mine. Then I moved from the Alley 5 community here to Mittraphap and I’ve been living here since. I don’t want to go anywhere else.”

1. Place for the unemployed 

Neighbors in Mittraphap are having lunch together. Most of them, vendors and drivers, lost their jobs after the original Khon Kaen’s bus terminal was moved far to the south of the city.

“The head [of the community] said that by 2022-2023, the only thing left will be a legend of our once being here,” says Mittraphap resident Aree Chanvichit. “There won’t be any houses at Mittraphap remaining; there’ll only be the high-speed railway.”

2. Place of the determined

“In the past, I used to sell laap and koi [Isaan meat dishes] near the railway, when my husband and son were still alive. Now both of them are gone,” says 65-year-old vendor Moon. “I live with my mom. I make pla som and weave plastic baskets to sell at Bang Lamphu market.”

3. Modest birthday party

In late January, a couple in the Mittraphap community held a small birthday party for their son. The boy and his friends were treated with french fries, fried chicken, and other snacks. It was a celebration amid uncertainty about the future of the family, as they had just learned that the land on which their home sits was slated to be taken to make way for construction of the high-speed railway.

4. Hands that can be seen, voices that must be heard

An organization which works on issues about the urban poor came to the community to hold a discussion with the residents about finding a way out. The suggestions were put together and sent to the rail authority and a network of the urban poor, asking for help, such as relocation assistance. They hold a symbolic expression of resistance by covering their hands in the mud and stamping them on the foundation pillars that have been laid out for the double-track railway.

5. Nightfall in the community 

6. Caught in a limbo 

In the past four years, The Isaan Record has visited the railway communities of Khon Kaen several times to report about evictions of the urban poor. Many families moved to the government housing projects. Many have become homeless. Several hundreds of the residents in Mittraphap community still do not know what will be of their fate.

The State Railway of Thailand has started moving people out of the construction zone. The project is currently conducting an environmental impact assessment (EIA) and is holding public hearings with the residents to solve the issues together.

Translated from Thai version published on Feburary 12, 2022

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