Photo by: Khong Chi Mun People’s Group during a car mob in Khon Kaen on August 7, 2021

In Part 1 of this article, Russell Chapman looked at how the youth-led protests over the last few years revived the idea of Isaan as a regional entity. The spark was the dissolution of the Future Forward Party. The network continues after a year and a half, but will the spark sputter out, or can the rise of Isaan become a key part of bringing democracy to Thailand?

By Russell Chapman

It’s been a maddening two months since the election was held on March 24, 2019. “Palm” (not her real name), a law student at Khon Kaen University, starts scrolling through her phone first thing in the morning. The day has finally come: the election results are final. 

There’s every reason to think that the pro-democracy parties have prevailed. But then again, it’s the pro-coup government that’s overseeing the elections with its own appointed Election Commission.

But maybe, just maybe, eight years since the last successful elections, the suppressed democratic segments of society might have come through.

Every app she opens–Facebook, Twitter, Google–show the same results: a win for the military-backed party, Palang Pracharat. 

I’m not even surprised, thinks Palm bitterly.

The efforts of the government to stay in power are clearly visible. “There were even dead people’s names on ballots voting in the election,” says Palm. “The government tried everything in its power to win.”

Nitikorn “Dong” Khamchoo, an early member of the Dao Din and a leader of the Isaan Mai Group, is similarly bitter. “I feel like it [the election results] are just outright cheating to secure a Palang Pracharat win.” 

For him, one thing really sticks out: “What’s surprising to me is the Future Forward Party (FFP) and other progressive groups received more votes than expected.” Even in constituencies that previously voted for other parties.

Palm and Nitikorn in Khon Kaen are just two of the millions of young voters throughout the country waking up to the bad news this morning. Really, pro-democracy parties had won. The youth-oriented and progressive FFP did very well. Its performance has given young people hope for a future they desire. 

But this morning, the pro-democracy side has been refused the victory it deserves. It hurts. Little do Palm and Nitikorn know that they will be hurt again, and grievously so, nine months from now. 

*******

For many younger Thais, the general election in 2019 was the first time they had ever had a chance to vote. Some were still children when the last, non-annulled election occurred in 2011.

With only dictatorship in recent memory of young minds, there was a strong taste for democracy, for a different kind of Thailand, a new trajectory into the future. The FFP rose to meet the demand. A new party with young, brave leaders, an anti-coup, anti-military, FFP was thoroughly modern in its views and policies. It was a different kind of political party, much as Thai Rak Thai had been in its own time. 

Progressives, young and old, were attracted to the party and its promise to bring a new kind of politics to Thailand. It shocked the old guard politicians on election day by doing unpredictably well. It also took the pro-military coalition by surprise and threatened to spoil its easy ascension to continued power. The military had to re-engineer the election results in self-serving ways retroactively, but after a month, they had arrived at the necessary calculus to keep themselves in power.

Still, the military had been badly spooked, and its leaders weren’t going to take any chances. Having FFP in the opposition was not enough. It was necessary to decapitate FFP’s leadership, including the party’s leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, by banning him from politics and using the courts to make the party disappear in February 2020.

But the powers that be underestimated the depth of commitment its followers had inspired and unwittingly breathed life into a movement unprecedented in Thai history. Within days, protests broke out on nearly every university campus in the country. 

The FFP, Nitikorn says, “was very progressive and attractive to young people who had ‘had enough.’ The party made people who had no hope for the future of their country regain hope. The high number of votes at the polls proved that people had hope for the party and their future.”

The FFP had gained nearly six million votes. The party’s dissolution effectively disenfranchised and silenced the voices of the six million people, many of them Northeasterners. 

Saowanee T. Alexander of the Liberal Arts Faculty at Ubon Ratchathani University points to the dissolution of the FFP as “the trigger” of a new wave of student activism. Students had placed “a lot of hope” in the FFP “to lead the country in the right direction.” When the FFP was dissolved, she says, it “was just the final straw,” after many students and young people had “spent so many years under the coup.” 

And all at once, young people’s hope for their desired future was snuffed out.

“These young people were so mad and angry… They had made a choice–they wanted [FFP] for their lives, and the same group of people in power just crushed their future and hope,” says Saowanee. “That is legitimate enough to come out and say, ‘Wait a minute. I’m a citizen of this country, and I wanted elections. I’ve chosen my leader, and you did this [deprived them of the FFP and hope] again.’”

It was at Khon Kaen University that the first protest was held. Within a day, protests erupted on university campuses throughout the country.

Students gathered in Khon Kaen on February 27, 2020, shortly after the FFP’s dissolution. Photo: Adithep Chanthet

Patiphan “Tuk Tuk” Pholmat, a Ph.D. student studying the student movement at Khon Kaen University, said that these protests showed “a clear changing point of the student movement; it was a time students came together so fast under the influence of social media, which played an important role in the movement.”

The government might have hoped that the country’s COVID-19 shutdown came in the nick of time. Students wouldn’t be able to assemble. But the three months of shutdown merely marinated their ire. The students used social media to express their discontent by creating hashtags such as #BadStudent, #SaveOurFuture, and created Facebook pages like “Royalist Marketplace.”

The movement begins in earnest

By June 2020, students in Bangkok were back on the streets. In August, students unprecedentedly challenged the monarchy publicly. Protest groups sprung up all over the Northeast, with an additional focus on their localities. At the same time, protest groups in the Northeast have always focused primarily on what is happening in Bangkok.

“After seeing the protests in Bangkok on October 16, 2020,” says “Linda” (not her real name), “protesters were blasted with water cannons. I just couldn’t take it anymore.” The 12th-grade student in Khon Kaen says, “I decided I had to do something about it. I couldn’t just stand there and do nothing. So I became more involved with the movement and student groups.”

Yuttana Lunsamrong, a Progressive Network member connected with the FFP’s reincarnation, Move Forward Party, has been an activist since his university days at Maha Sarakham University almost a decade ago. He’s also been a keen observer of changes in the Northeast. 

“The student movement arose everywhere where people saw injustice,” he says. “The student movement is now more local. It’s not like leaders of political parties or student groups like Pai Dao Din are organizing flash mobs at Khon Kaen, then Udon… No. The movement this time is people in Khon Kaen organizing movements in Khon Kaen… It’s people in Udon organizing movements in Udon.” 

Yuttana, who works to create a region-wide network in the Northeast, says he couldn’t see the unity necessary to create a regional movement. “At the end of the day, the mobs, protests, and political activism weren’t unified. There wasn’t a sense of unity. It was more of a collective – people formed their own groups based on the issues that they, and their communities, were experiencing.”

Even so, the Khong Chi Mun People’s network has continued to move forward since its inception in February 2021. One week after declaring themselves a network, the Khong Chi Mun People’s Group held a major protest in Khon Kaen, with participants coming from all over Isaan. The rally was sizable but not enough to close Mittraphap Highway as they had planned. The only concrete outcome was a slew of arrest warrants after marching to the front of the city’s police station. Another group joined a protest walk from the edge of the Northeast to Bangkok.

Is there any future?

For newly graduated law student Palm, the reasons for an Isaan-wide movement are clear: “We need to talk about problems affecting locals and the areas where we live. We also need a group to make a movement that needs to become stronger and further expand across the region.” 

On January 27 this year, the Khong Chi Mun People’s Group relaunched itself. With representatives from all across Isaan, the group met to dismantle authoritarianism and discuss their future. Participants shared a common ideal of joining together “to have the power to negotiate national policies.” A participant from Udon said that “a larger coalition can be powerful and very influential. We can use this power to negotiate with the state rather than with a single group.” 

The Khong Chi Mun People’s Group comes together to hold a protest on January 27, 2022, at Khon Kaen University. Photo: The Isaan Record

A Khon Kaen representative said that the network must work on behalf of the rights of communities in their region while being in solidarity around national issues like making a new constitution and demanding the ouster of the prime minister.

Another Khon Kaen participant said the decentralization of power needs to happen so local communities and local government units can act more autonomously.

Thanom Chapakdee, an art practitioner who died in June this year, argued that the Thai state colonized the periphery, draining it of its identity. “We don’t have an artistic structure, language, or culture,” he would say. Bangkok’s central hold over language, art, and culture must be broken to allow a more diverse mosaic of language, art, and culture. 

Artist Practitioner Thanom Chaphakdi embraced Ratsadon Khong Chi Mun as the moniker of the movement. Photo: The Isaan Record

The political movement of the group was going in the right direction, but it must be strengthened with the soft power of art and culture. The narrative of the region must be written anew. “We are not treated as human beings. They [the Thai colonizers] do not consider us as human beings,” said Thanom.

Others are more skeptical of any possibility of a region-wide movement. Indeed, Saowanee is not even sure there has been any “movement” so far in the Northeast. “What movement?” she asks. “There are no key leaders or players. Many groups are coming up out of nowhere, but with the lack of leaders, you can’t call it a movement.”

Isaan people, Saowanee argues, have always so long been oppressed that some do not see any use in coming together. “No one asked themselves who they were, what they wanted, or anything like that because they didn’t have the time to worry about those things.”

Yet Saowanee recognizes the problem: “Just think about it. Our region has always been full of problems, exploitation, and a lot of people put up with them… we didn’t demand anything.” 

“Isaan identity,” says Saowanee, “started forming simultaneously with Thai nationalist discourses during the Cold War.” In this sense, Isaan identity was merely the creation of Thai state nationalism.

Somchai Phatharathananunth, an academic at Mahasarakham University who has focused on social movements, largely concurs. He feels that Isaan regionalism “is still very weak,” while “localization and a strong sense of community are more powerful.” He believes that the solution lies in focusing on Bangkok and establishing a true democracy that allows local areas more autonomy.

Is Isaan regionalism possible? What about unity? Or maybe a better question is, “Has the hyperfocus on Bangkok made Thailand any more democratic after 90 years? Is the answer in Bangkok? Or is it in the periphery, in places like Isaan?”

Will Isaan arise and demand an equal relationship and mutual respect with Bangkok? 

Had Isaan, after a six-decade-long sleep, raised its head for a moment in the early 2020s only to put it back down and continue its political slumber?

Feature photo credit: Khong Chi Mun People’s Group

(Part I of this article was published on August 24, 2022)

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.

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