During the past year, the protest movement in Thailand has drawn the attention of international media to the kingdom and the people’s struggle for democracy. However, the majority of this coverage has been focused on the liberal People’s Party (Khana Ratsadon) group, who are primarily middle-class people from Bangkok and central Thailand. All the while a more radical coalition of groups from Isaan, the poorest and most rural region of the country, has been growing in size and influence, drawing huge crowds of supporters into the streets.
Isaan is the poorest and least industrialised region of the country, many Isaan’ers suffer in financial procarity and rural poverty. Historically the region has been a hotbed of anti-Bangkok sentiment, notably hosting the Communist insurgency, which ran from the 1960’s into the 80’s and providing much of the muscle behind the Red Shirt movement, which brought Bangkok to a standstill on numerous occasions in the 00’s.
Today’s coalition is made up of much younger, but nonetheless, highly experienced members, centred around Dao Din, a leftist protest group born out of Khon Kaen University. From Dao Din, a number of other groups have emerged, including the political party The Commoners, the Anarchist education group UNME Of Anarchy and the Thalufah activism group. Elsewhere in Isaan other radical groups have sprung up, such as Maha Sarakham University Democracy Front and Khob Plerng. Recently, a new umbrella alliance has been formalised in the Ratsadon Khong Shi Moon group, which is attempting to institutionalise these Isaan based groups under one banner.
We spoke to a Dao Din activist, Pang, about these groups, the character of Isaan and the protest movement.
Could you tell us a bit about your background and how you got involved with Dao Din?
I’m from Sakon Nakhon in Isaan and went to study law at Khon Kaen University. I got involved with Dao Din as a freshman, they had a camp and invited us to join. They brought us to learn about various social and political issues in Isaan, much of it revolved around agriculture and human rights.
How did Dao Din get started before you joined?
Dao Din started 17 years ago, as a group of just 4 or 5 people, who were against GMO plants that would harm Isaan agriculture and farmers. But the protest group really started 7 years ago around the time of the last coup. They began to get involved in political organisation and make the connection between politics and agriculture. Then they also got involved with local issues, usually regarding the environment and land rights, fighting for local farmers and rural people, joining and helping to organise protests and things like that.
A lot of activist groups have come out of Khon Kaen University in recent years, why is that?
Khon Kaen is the biggest city in Isaan and has the main university. The university and the city have a lot of spaces for activism. Baan Dao Din (Dao Din House) is one of the main places. It’s a home we use to centre the organising. We hang out, cook, talk and live together there, a lot of people who spent time there were inspired to start their own groups. Really it all started there. You can stay with Dao Din and be involved in as many other groups as you like. There are specific groups focused on specific issues, for example, homelessness, the environment, green agriculture and democracy.
What are the beliefs and ideals of Dao Din members?
We’re a big group, we have a lot of different beliefs, but we have some core ones that unite us, it’s something we’re constantly discussing. Firstly we believe in real equality and equal rights. Most people believe in Marxism, Anarchism, very left wing ideals.
Can you tell us a bit about the other groups like UNME and The Commoner Party?
To start with UNME, it was founded by Pai (Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, the current leader of Dao Din). Dao Din is more focussed on ecology, but UNME is a broader political education and protest group. The point was to have a group with a specific focus on theory and politics, rather than doing everything through Dao Din.
As for The Commoner Party, it was started around 7 years ago, our friends wanted to have a voice in the mainstream political sphere. This was around the time of the last coup, but political parties were banned from forming at the time, so it only became official 3 years ago. Really it’s a tool to raise our voice politically. Most Commoner Party people come from local NGO’s and community groups as well as the Dao Din related groups.
There are many groups that surround The Commoner Party, and they’re not just active in Isaan. It’s about localised politics, local issues. It’s an attempt to make real democracy, allowing people to make their own governing decisions. It’s about bottom up politics, rather than centralised top down power from Bangkok.
Is there a tactical approach to having all these different allied groups?
So The Commoner Party are like the ‘democracy approach’, while Dao Din is the activist approach and UNME is focused on education, although Dao Din does education too. They’re all working in unison. We all live and learn together, developing tactics in unison.
There’s a long history of left-wing activism in Isaan, including the defeated communist insurgency which ran from the 60’s to 80’s. Is that an inspiration to activists today?
Of course we’re influenced by the past. There are lots of older people who teach us about our history and inspire us. Although about the Communist Insurgency it’s a bit more complicated, a lot of people don’t talk about it. We aren’t taught about it in school, the state doesn’t want to teach it. So I didn’t even know that much about it, but we’re trying to change that for the future and I should know more, I’m trying to learn more.
Even recently, I only learned 2 years ago that my grandfather was a communist who was disappeared by the state, but my parents didn’t even tell me. They’re still afraid of people being disappeared again.
What’s the relationship between Dao Din and the other protest groups in Bangkok and the rest of the country?
We join almost every protest we can, we’ll join with any pro-democracy event, sending people from Isaan, or organising events in Khon Kaen to coincide with it. When they have something we can help with, we’ll help and we have meetings with the other leaders who we know from the Student Union. In the future we have to continue to organise our umbrella group, we need these groups in each region, not just Isaan, Northern Thailand, The South, Central Thailand. We have friends all over the country, but we don’t have any Dao Din cells in other regions of the country, it’s just an Isaan thing right now.
I think generally we have quite a lot of unity with the other groups, but the way we work is very different. We focus on social and ecological issues that affect specific communities and really get involved with them, joining their struggles, while The People’s Party doesn’t focus on the local issues, they talk about democracy very broadly.
Right now we have tactical unity, but of course there are things we disagree with, so we’re allied over democracy, so if there’s anything we disagree with, we won’t join in with that. We just want to have control over our own lives, Dao Din is constantly talking with local people in Isaan, and what they all say is that they want decentralisation. They want to decide for themselves, decentralisation and direct democracy.
Khong Shi Moon is the new umbrella group for the Isaan region. Do you plan to expand it outside of Isaan in the future?
There are many people across the country, we’re friends with, we talk together, we exchange ideas of how to unify the four regions, but we’re focused on Isaan right now. The plan for the future is difficult because of the new rise of Covid cases, plus the government has been very aggressive with arrests lately. So we’re going to try and connect more people into a larger coalition and find some Covid safe activities for them to join us with.
We also have relationships with the old redshirt uncles and aunties. When we have activities red shirts always join us, when we go on tours and stuff to different provinces they’re always asking how they can help us and how to get involved. What we’re trying to do is build a large coalition in the name of Isaan and involve and develop ideas with as many people as we can.