Youth-led protests in the last two years did more than shake Thailand’s military-dominated government: they also expanded many Isaan people’s imagination. A legacy of discrimination, exploitation, and marginalization inspired a new vision of the region under the banner of the Khong Chi Mun People’s Group. In his debut, two-part feature, Russell Chapman asks the question: Has Isaan finally awakened from its 60-year political slumber?
Evening is falling in Khon Kaen. It is February 14, 2021. Twenty young people sit in a circle under a tree before a blackboard at Dao Din House, the home to the infamous Dao Din Group. Nitikorn “Dong” Khamchoo, a leader of the Isaan Mai movement and at the moment the meeting facilitator, says it was a “classic” setting.
He himself has been moved: for the first time in his life, at least, a broad coalition of groups from the Northeast have met. It is not like particular groups coming together on their own, like farmers or the Assembly of the Poor.
The mood is irreverent, bold, and hopeful. Just like the many other times at Dao Din House.
Nitikorn has a presentiment: this gathering is different. Maybe even historic.
A simple question is before them: “Who are we?”
For the last two days, more than 100 representatives of groups from all stripes have met in a Khon Kaen hotel to exchange thoughts and ideas and create new connections. There were academics, artists, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, NGOs, and Red Shirt community representatives. They were talking amongst themselves about what progressive groups in Isaan could do together for their future – with no primary reference to Bangkok and what was going on there.
One participant, “Palm” (not her real name), a native of Sakon Nakhon who finished a law degree at Khon Kaen University, said that what stood out in the meeting was “the sheer determination” of the participants as they realized the event “was a moment of new formation” in the Northeast.
“There was a feeling,” Palm says, that participants wanted “Isaan people to voice their opinions and thoughts about issues affecting their communities. We wanted to show people the power of khon Isaan with this group.”
Pantasanya “Omega” Prajam had traveled from Sisaket to the meeting, unsure of what he would find at the meeting. The 28-year-old had met with a few other student activists, including one who visited his group in Sisaket. Even when his group had traveled to Bangkok to join anti-government protests, the group kept to itself. They hadn’t considered meeting with other Isaan groups who had made the same trip.
On the meeting’s first day, groups separated and talked independently on their own. Pantasanya was put into a position he had never been in before: speaking of Sisaket to young people from all over Isaan. For him, it was exhilarating.
“It made me feel so excited. It gave me energy – talking about Sisaket and what we are doing. It felt great to see how others were coming out to discuss the situation of politics and what we were going to do to fight. It was the first time meeting with other activists, academics, and political groups in Isaan.”
Pantasanya was impressed with the people there, some as young as fifteen, who had such “a clear understanding of the political situation.” The event, he says, was “the first time we exchanged issues affecting all of our groups and talked about ourselves as ‘us.’ We exchanged our thoughts, feelings, and opinions about our own groups with other groups, academics, and activists. This meeting was probably the first group members started talking about a shared network.”
On the second day of the meeting, after all the different groups had talked among themselves and then assembled together, a fundamental question arose:
“Who are we?”
With the question left unanswered, the meeting officially ended.
Now, on the evening of February 14, 2020, a group of some twenty young activists has come to Dao Din House to continue the discussion.
The question persists: Who are “we?”
Are we just members of the new generation in the Northeast?
Are we “Isaaners?”
Many object to using the word Isaan. Isaan means “Northeast” –northeast of Bangkok–a term used by colonizers, the “oppressors.”
“If we’re not Northeasterners, then who are we?” someone asks. “Lao?” No, Isaan has many more groups than just Lao speakers.
Someone proposes, “What about Khong Chi Mun?”
The name has been mainly associated with a decades-long government project intending to channel water from the Mekong River down through the Chi-Mun river basin.
But the name also transcends ethnicities, languages, and cultures.
Those sitting around the circle cheer. Who are we? We are the People of Khong Chi Mun!
Nitikorn says he felt something new had been born, something he’d never seen before: a wide variety of Isaan groups coming together in solidarity.
Palm says the name Khong Chi Mun was quite deliberate: the group did not want a name that was ethnically “discriminatory,” upheld Thai colonial discourses, or one that “marginalized” others. Pantasanya feels it’s a good name because “the lifestyle of Isaan people is close to these three rivers.”
Something new or something quite old?
Was the discussion about “Who are we” in Isaan so extraordinary?
It might have been, at least according to Somchai Phatharathananunth, a professor associated with the Faculty of Sociology and Anthropology at Maha Sarakham University whose academic work has focused on popular movements in the Northeast.
Somchai says that Isaan peoples’ expectations for democracy and economic development of the region grew through the 1930s and 1940s and spawned a generation of left-leaning politicians who imagined something more. “After 1957,” he said, “Isaan people felt a sense of disappointment and dissatisfaction with politics. Isaan political leaders were particularly unhappy with their predicament and thought it wasn’t fair that Bangkok didn’t help fix issues in Isaan.”
Tiang Sirikhan was merely one of the first of the hundreds of Isaan politicians and activists murdered or jailed from 1949 to the early 1960s. Source: “looking for missing people” website
[See related story: “Part II: The rediscovered heroes of democracy in Sakon Nakhon”]
Somchai says there is a clear disparity between the center, Bangkok, and the outer regions, especially the Northeast.
But the dictatorship of military strongman Sarit Thanarat in the 1960s swept away all vestiges of democracy. Troublemaking Northeasterners were jailed. Others like Khrong Chandawong were executed. Any flicker of thought of Isaan regionalism and identity was extinguished.
Isaan activists played some role during the 1973-1976 student movement period. A more organized effort came in the 1980s and 1990s with the rise of movements like the Assembly of the Poor. Still, Somchai maintains that these movements were never ultimately expressed in regional terms.
Nevertheless, people of all social and economic statuses in the Northeast have never entirely been accepted as being fully Thai. Somchai observes that Northeasterners “have been discriminated against since the very beginning. Even teachers and professors from the Northeast are looked down upon and seen as ‘underdeveloped’ in comparison to teachers from [other regions in Thailand].”
Somchai seems to agree that the Thai government’s assimilation model of “Thai-ness” was successful. Through economically coerced migration, popular media, and Thai nationalist discourses, Isaan people never came around to see themselves as anything other than second-class citizens. In Bangkok, Isaan people speak and act as “Thais” as much as possible to mask their “Isaanness.”
Isaan reawakens groggily at the grassroots level
As prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra introduced a new era of politics. His government introduced a few key policies, such as the universal healthcare plan, that transformed people’s lives in the periphery, particularly in his native North and the more populous Northeast. The policies secured the loyalties of these regions, which later served as a base for the Red Shirts Movement after Thaksin’s government was overthrown in a coup in 2006.
Opposition to the coup was mainly concentrated around Bangkok. But in the late 2000s, the Red Shirt movement arose to counter the royalist, Bangkok-based Yellow Shirt movement.
After the mid-2000s, student movements and the role of NGOs as champions of the poor and advocates for social justice seemed to largely disappear. But a wide variety of democratic groups arose within the space created alongside the Red Shirt movement.
Saowanee T. Alexander, a professor at Ubon Ratchathani University who has published scholarly articles on the Red Shirt movement, observes that during the protests in 2010, there was some student involvement, “but informally– small-scale–not like in the ‘70s.”
One Isaan group that became energized in that space was Dao Din. Established by law students at Khon Kaen University in 2004, the group worked closely with communities in the Northeast, many of which were affected by mining and state forestry projects.
Between 2010 and 2014, Dao Din began taking more political stands, such as symbolic resistance against the government with the three-finger Hunger Games salute. It also opposed Article 112 of the Thai law code, which prohibits criticism of the monarchy.
After 2014 and the declaration of martial law, the Dao Din House was one of the first targets of the military in the Northeast. The military also showed up in communities Dao Din had worked with in the past. Nitikorn of Isaan Mai says, “After the coup, we felt like the places that we were operating in Isaan suddenly felt scary; soldiers would come in and intervene and threaten locals.”
As a result, Dao Din’s agenda became more politically focused. “We engaged in activities to resist the coup with symbolic action like the three-finger salute,” says Nitikorn. “And after that, we were chased and tracked by the junta.”
The oppressive situation “continued to get heavier,” he says, “so we decided we needed a network to connect the relations between both locals, students, and Isaan people” by creating the Isaan Mai group. Dao Din’s community and political work came together as a movement that worked on two levels, “…a top and bottom process.” On the local community level, Isaan Mai worked “to promote human rights.” While on the political level, it focused on “the structure of policies.”
A timeline of actions carried out by what would become Ratsadon Khong Chi Mun in 2020. Photo: Khong Chi Mun People’s Group
But Dao Din was not typical of student groups in Isaan. Saowanee says that before the coup in 2014, “There was not much presence of a real student movement” as a “political movement.”
After the coup, the military government quickly imposed its own constitution to ensure the continuation of its power by appointing a senate and a vague election result calculus easily malleable for preferred results. Once the new government felt its power was secure, it scheduled elections for March 2019.
But results on election day delivered a nasty surprise to the government: The new, pro-democracy Future Forward Party (FFP) had done surprisingly well. Nevertheless, it took weeks for the military-appointed Electoral Commission to manipulate the results to kneecap the pro-democracy party and its influence on politics and keep the coup-backed government in power.
Feature photo: Khong Chi Mun People’s Group
(Look forward to Part II of this article tomorrow where Chapman examines the future of Ratsadon Khong Chi Mun)
Russell Chapman is an MA student from the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is interning with The Isaan Record.