The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN – In late January, about 250 Northeasterners from six provinces gathered at the conference room of the Petcharat Garden Hotel in Roi Et to participate in the drafting process of Thailand’s twentieth constitution. The military government claims to be seeking citizen participation in drafting the constitution, but these public forums to gather input from Thais across the country seem to be nothing but a false front in the Northeast.

Last November the military government appointed a 36-member committee headed by legal scholar Bavornsak Uwanno from the conservative King Prajadhipok’s Institute (KPI) to draft a new charter. This so-called Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) was given a four-month window to propose a draft before sending it for approval to the National Reform Council (NRC). And Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha stressed that the drafting process would focus on the public’s participation.

In a country that cannot seem to seriously commit to one constitution, the military government’s announcement that it would scrap the 2007 constitution and start anew startled no one. However, their stated commitment to draw input from the voices of everyday Thai citizens seems peculiar for a regime that has suspended all democratic processes and put a lid on public opposition.

 

The logo of the public forums “Finding a Solution for Thailand”.

 

Under the title “Finding a Solution For Thailand: Weaving People’s Power to Reform Thailand” the CDC and the NRC launched a series of public forums to engage citizens. These two-day events toured ten cities across the country, including the three Northeastern provinces of Roi Et, Udon Thani, and Surin.

Early announcements indicated that villagers would be randomly picked through the house registration system. But in Khon Kaen fewer than ten villagers accepted the invitation to join the forum in Roi Et and the bulk of participants were recruited through the personal connections of the organizers. Sompong Pratoomthong, Chairman of the KPI’s Center for Civic Development in Khon Kaen and an organizer of the forums, suggested public interest in the event was low.

At the event in Roi Et, Chairman Wanchai Watanasap urged the attendants to respect each other’s opinions and warned that there cannot be any conflict among the participants. Then he divided the crowd into eight discussion groups and sent them off with a moderator and a notetaker.

In one of the small groups, the moderator kicked off the discussion by asking about the participants’ vision for Thailand after the new constitution was in place. The room remained silent until a young man raised his hand and said, “I don’t want any more coups.” The moderator quickly responded that such concerns would require private conversations with the organisers.

Among the most prominent civil society groups in the Northeast, many are debating the merits of participating in the public forums at all. Some, like Suvit Kulapwong, General-Secretary of NGO CORD Isan, reject the legitimacy of the military-installed government and the charter drafting process.

“They talk about reform, but this is just gibberish. This reform process is not for the people, but for the elites in power who are trying to reorganize their relationships and clear their conflict,” said Mr. Suvit, referring to the prolonged rivalry between the country’s conservative establishment and the camp of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Among those who oppose the constitution drafting process, the belief prevails that without lifting martial law and allowing freedom of expression, there cannot be an open dialogue on the contents of the new charter. Under the current circumstances all participation is to no avail.

“The main point of a democracy is to acknowledge the voices of the people,” said Jakrapong Thanavorapong, an activist working to protect natural resources in Isaan. “We are not participating in the public forums because we don’t believe a new constitution can offer any solutions to the problems in Isaan.”

But Wipattanachai Pimhin, a civil society leader from Khon Kaen’s Nam Phong District, is not convinced that participation is futile. He chose to participate in the public forums. “We are not obeying the military junta, but the forums are the only channel for us and the people to give input to drafting process,” he said. However, he admits that the chances of the CDC considering civil society’s suggestions are low.

Each public forum concludes with a list of suggestions purportedly compiled by the participants to be considered for the constitution. However, some participants in Khon Kaen voiced concerns that the government has already finished drafting a constitution and will ignore public opinion.

Supot Thongnerkhaw, one of six group chairmen of the public forum in Roi Et, said that he has zero hope that any of their suggestions will make it into the constitution. “In my opinion, the whole process is just window-dressing. The CDC and the NRC most likely already have a draft in the drawer. If our suggestions fit in, fine, but if not, they will just ignore them,” Mr. Supot said.

While the forums convey to the public that the constitution drafters are interested in broad-based participation, Titipol Phakdeewanich, Political Scientist at Ubon Ratchathani University, believes their main purpose lies elsewhere. “The goal is to give legitimacy to the drafting process,” Mr Titipol reasons, “so they can show the international community that the constitution is based on popular will.”

Political observers have noted that the CDC is composed of members of the conservative elite who were involved in the drafting of the military-backed 2007 constitution. Some members reportedly participated in or supported last year’s anti-government protest, which raises concerns over the nonpartisanship of the drafting body.

Mr. Titipol argues that the members of the drafting committee mainly represent Thailand’s old generation. He is trying to engage students through public seminars at his university, but many of them believe that their voices do not matter, and they fear potential repercussions from the authorities if they express dissenting opinions.

“There are people in their sixties and seventies writing Thailand’s new constitution, but any drafting process should include younger people. After all, this charter is mainly written for the younger generation. We live in the 21st century and we don’t want see Thailand move backwards in time, do we?”

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Thailand’s northeasterners and the northern ethnic minority group who have been affected by the junta’s forest protection policies urged national rights agencies to take actions in cancelling the junta’s policies and allowing more public participations in forest management.

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the committee of rights on land and forest resources from 19-20 March organised a public forum on people’s sustainable forest and land management in the northeastern province of Khon Kaen.

At the forum, about 100 representatives of civil society group of Thailand Northeast, Isan Region, urged Niran Pitakwatchara, a NHRC commissioner and resource rights committee member to suggest to the junta’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to nullify the Order 64/2014 .

In June 2014, the junta issued Order No. 64/2014 to protect and increase the national forest cover, which states that encroachers of protected areas and poachers of illegal forest goods shall face severe legal actions. Nonetheless, according to junta’s Order No. 66/2014, the poor and people who settled on protected areas prior to the enactment of Order 64/2014 shall not be affected.

The group recommended that the policies should be replaced by policies that encourage the establishment of community forests, which would allow communities to protect and utilise resources from the forests sustainably at the same time.

Moreover, the government should establish clear ‘zoning’ in order to divide protected areas which overlap with settlement areas apart from each other, the group added.

According to Pramote Ponpinyo, the coordinator of the Land Reform Network of Isan (LRNI), since the junta’s forest protection policies were enacted, many marginalised communities in the region have been affected by the continuous efforts of the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) and the Royal Forestry Department personnel to evict people from protected areas.

He pointed out that the current forest protection policies of the junta is the monopolisation of natural resources by the state that is similar to the forest protection plan in 1992, which faced widespread public opposition and had to be withdrawn.

Santiphap Siriwattanapaiboon, an academic from the Science Faculty of Rajabhat University in the northeastern Ubon Ratchathani Province added at the forum that the centralised state policies on resource management would only fail because they were formulated without local participations and clear understanding the local environment and cultures.  

At a similar forum held in the northern province of Chiang Mai last week, ethnic minority group in northern Thailand submitted a letter to Niran, one of the NHRC commissioners and resource rights committee member, in order to point out that the junta forest protection policies harm their livelihoods.

According to the group, on 26 November 2014, about 50 officers from the Royal Forestry Department arrested a 26 years-old Lisu tribesman in Ban Huay San of Muang District in Chiang Rai Province for possessing illegal logs under junta’s Order No. 64/2014.

The tribesman claimed that he infact inherited the logs from his father for building a new house. However, he had to submitted 30,000 baht bail after his arrest, the group added in the statement.

In another case, officers of Sri Lanna National park in Mae Taeng District of the northern Chiang Mai Province on 17 February confiscated a plot of land which was occupied by a Lisu tribesman. The authorities claimed that the tribesman encroached on protected areas. However, the man said that he had utilised the land plot for 25 years.

According to the NGO Coordinating Committee on Development (NGO-COD) of the Northeast, since last year, 103 small-scale farmers have already been accused of encroaching protected areas and almost 1,800 people in the Northeast have now been prohibited from using their farmland and are about to receive court summons for alleged encroachment.

NGO-COD added that if this trend is allowed to continue, approximately 1.2 million people who are living on land that overlaps protected areas could be affected.

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Thai national media association urged the head of the junta to understand the role of the media and not to act as a dictator, when hearing unpleasant news reportings.   

The News Broadcasting Council of Thailand (NBCT) on Friday issued a statement to urge Gen Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the junta’s leader and prime minister, to understand the role of the media to present news based on facts and warned that the PM should not express anger over news reporting if he does not want to be seen as a dictator.

The statement was issued after Gen Prayuth expressed anger and a threatened to summon Thapanee Ietsrichaion, a journalist from Channel 3, who reported about the plight of Thai workers who were deceived into slave labors on Thai fishing boats in Indonesia water.

PM said that the news could cause Thailand’s seafood industry to loses customers, "the people who published the news will have to be held responsible," Khaosod English quoted Gen Prayuth as saying.

In the statement, the NBCT pointed out that presenting facts about the plight of the Thai labors overseas is the role of the media and that the public and the government can criticise news reporting of the media constructively. However, the government should not intimidate people of the press and media outlets.

“The angry expressions and harsh words towards the works of media in public might run the risk of people misunderstanding the PM as a dictator, [who] does not accept criticisms and inquiries, which is not good for the PM himself and the nation,” said the statement.

Upon hearing the news on fishing slavery last week, Prayuth also made references about the previous elected administration that "the previous government never did anything about it, but today this government is doing everything," said the PM.

On Saturday, Yingluck Shinawatra, the former PM from Pheu Thai Party of the previous elected government demured the junta leader’s reference on her facebook page.

"Since I took office, we tried to address the issue and put into place a plan for more effective solutions. It paid off when Thailand was not downgraded to Tier-3 in the (US State Department's Trafficking in Persons) 2013 report,” wrote the ex-PM.

After the 2014 coup d’état, Thailand was downgraded from Tier-2 to Tier-3 in the 2014 US State Department's Trafficking in Persons.

Yingluck added that in order to solve the problem the the government have to start from acknowledging the problem first. 

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“Banpodj” is behind a political podcast programme which is very influential among red shirts. To arrest him, the Thai authorities arrested 16 others who were accused of being part of a “Banpodj Network,” an international criminal organization intent on discrediting the Thai monarchy. This report introduces you to Banpodj in a way different from the police story.  

 
Hassadin U., 64, was arrested on 10 February. The police identified him as “DJ Banpodj,” the political podcast programme host who is famous and influential among the anti-establishment red shirts. During the police press conference, Banpodj arrogantly told the media and NGOs that he wanted no sympathy and he was not a victim. 
 
Before Hassadin was arrested, six others, including his wife, were arrested. 
 
Before Hassadin’s arrest, the ultra-royalist T-News online news website accused Dr Tanet Charoenmuang, former professor political science and public administration at Chiang Mai University and former adviser to the Minister of Education under the Pheu Thai Party administration, of being Banpodj, giving the reason that Tanet’s voice is similar to Banpodj’s doctored voice.  
 
No one really knew who Banpodj was. The available information before the arrest indicated that since 2009 Banpodj had produced voice clips running about an hour analysing Thai politics from a ‘historical’ perspective. He was an unsuccessful businessman who profoundly admired former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a divisive figure in Thailand. 
 
 
Two voice clips from Banpodj were released each week on the Mediafire file sharing website. 
 
Academics and red-leaning intellectuals harshly criticized and rejected Banpodj’s analysis, which is full of conspiracies and anecdotes. Judging from the clips, his English seems to be very good, but he also used vulgar language like the uneducated. In several clips, he frankly discussed the role of the monarchy in Thai politics, relations between the US and the Thai Army, etc. 
 
Although denounced by academics and intellectuals, he gained increasing popularity among the grass root and ordinary red shirts. He later became a “guru” on traditional medicine. One of the most popular Banpodj clips discusses the benefits of lemon soda in reducing the risk of cancer. This clip has had more than one million hits, while his political clips may have only thousands or tens of thousands. Some of his fans told Prachatai that although they first knew Banpodj from his political clips, they later became more interested in the clips on Thai herbs, fermented eggs and vinegar, and skipped political clips. 
 
On the succession, Banpodj showed immense support for Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. The rise to the throne of the Crown Prince is a chance to reset Thai politics at zero and the only chance of “peaceful transition”, he believed. 
 
He is now detained at Bangkok Remand Prison for producing more than 400 video clips deemed lèse majesté.  
Hassadin U. after the arrest (Photo courtesy of Matichon Online)
 
Because of Banpodj’s high popularity, he has been a big target of the Thai security agencies. This led to 16 people, including his wife, being arrested and facing Article 112 charges. They include a high-ranking official, a merchant, a tailor, a farmer, etc.  
 
These suspects are not political activists. Most of them merely shared Banpodj’s clips on their online platforms. Some were involved in selling herbal products to raise funds for Banpodj’s programme. 
 
Almost all of them told Prachatai that they have never met Banpodj face-to-face, but are merely fans of the programme. All of them face charges under Article 112 and were detained in prison with their bail requests repeatedly denied. Some of them pleaded guilty to the police, while some are prepared to fight the case in the military court. 
 
“They just liked to listen to some radio programmes. When they liked them, they shared them with others. Some aren’t interested and ignored it. Each person has their own judgement. But I didn’t realize it would be this serious,” the wife of one suspect said.  
 
Banpodj told Prachatai that he was born in a Sino-Thai family which owns a big textile business. He lived a luxurious life when he was young and graduated from England. He later went to study in France but did not earn any degree. When he approached middle-age, the textile business began to fail. He started his own businesses but always failed. His only daughter has supported him since. 
 
After the 2006 coup which overthrew Thaksin, Banpodj, who was very upset with the coup, first started to host his programme. He praised Thaksin highly as a brave and creative leader. He claimed to be very knowledgeable because he read a lot of first-hand historical documents in English and French. 
 
Banpodj told the police that he does not really know any of his fans. He only chats with some on private messaging sites. 
 
 
The police presents Banpodj Network map during press breifing on the arrests of the six on Monday (Photo courtesy of Kapook.com)
 
While the gathering of the “Banpodj Network” seems rather natural, Pol Maj Gen Siripong Timula, Director of the Technological Crime Suppression Division (TCSD), said the Banpodj Network is an international criminal organization, which was divided into three levels of operations: the leader who produced the clips; the operational level who shared the clips on social media; and supporters who helped Banpodj financially. 
 
Banpodj told Prachatai that he had debts of about 200,000 baht. He once received financial support of only 50,000 baht from an unknown source. He raised funds by receiving donations and selling Thai herbal products to support the Banpodj programmes. He received about 20,000-30,000 baht in donations each month. The smallest donation he has received is 75 baht. 
 
He suffers from hypertension. 
 
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