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Isaan people use Human Rights Festival to air grievances in time of martial law and censorship

Khon Kaen– Despite concerns from the military, about 400 people from thirteen provinces participated in the 7th Annual Isaan Human Rights Festival held yesterday at Kwanmor Hotel in Khon Kaen. New to the festival this year was the participation of diplomats from the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, the European Union, Sweden, and the United States.

The event, funded primarily by European Union’s “Thailand-EU Policy Dialogues Support Facility” program, has been organized almost every year since 2006 to commemorate International Human Rights Day. Event organizers say the annual festival has provided a venue for communities and networks to come together to share their human rights situation and make demands.

The morning session began with an opening statement by Mr. Jarrod Weir of the EU, and talks by Ms. Anne-Charlotte Malm, head of Sweden’s regional SIDA program, and Mr. Norman Pflanz, a human rights officer from the United States.

The “Ambassadors’ Forum on Human Rights” followed, featuring Mr. Mark Kent, UK ambassador to Thailand, Ambassador Philip Calvert of Canada, and New Zealand Ambassador Reuben Levermore.

From left to right: Mr. Hanno Trayhurn, Political Officer, British Embassy; Mr. Norman Pflanz, Human Rights Officer, US Embassy; Ms. Camilla Ottosson, Ms. Anne-Charlotte Malm, Swedish Embassy; Ambassador Mark Kent; Ambassador Philip Calvert; Ambassador Reuben Levermore; Mr. Jarrod Weir

The ambassadors related the human rights journeys of their respective countries, emphasizing the need for freedom of expression and assembly in the pursuit of a democratic society. Ambassadors Calvert and Levermore highlighted how indigenous people’s rights became an important part of the “fabric” of the human rights landscape in Canada and New Zealand.

Ambassador Calvert: Cultural rights essential component of human rights in Canada

Ambassador Calvert said, “Canada has learned that when you suppress cultural rights—the right to speak your own language and connection to the land—the results are disastrous.”

Ambassador Kent, who preferred to address the audience in Thai, spoke about the importance of equality and equal opportunity.

“I am from a small village in rural England. Growing up, my father was a truck driver, yet I was given the opportunity to go to Oxford. From this I have seen the importance of equal access and rights for all people, whether they are rich or poor, from the city or the country.”

The ambassador’s affirmation of equal rights for rural people was received warmly by the audience.

Ambassador Kent: reiterates UK disappointment with coup and continued imposition of martial law

Members of various affected communities and networks throughout the Northeast had the rare chance to share with the foreign guests their growing frustration with the enduring human rights issues facing their communities.

Villagers in Kalasin province who are fighting to prevent the drilling of petroleum near their land were among those voicing concerns about Thailand’s inequities.

“Usually foreign companies collaborate with the Thai government to create problems for our communities,” a Kalasin villager said. “They look at us as a minority and claim that we have to sacrifice for the nation. We sent letters and spoke to the media, but our rights are still violated. You might have a more powerful voice than us, so I think you can make our small voices heard.”

The visiting diplomats acknowledged the value of this chance to speak directly with common people from the Northeast to better understand the human rights situation in the Thailand.

“Bangkok is important to us [as ambassadors], but it’s not the whole of Thailand,” said Ambassador Levermore. “The Northeast is a very important region. The chance to come up here for the day gives us an opportunity to hear the concerns people have on a day to day basis.”

NZ Ambassador Levermore: Isaan perspective important for understanding Thailand

An afternoon session focused on human rights abuses in the Northeast, with eight short videos on consumer rights, right to healthcare, right to land and livelihood, and right to a safe environment, followed with statements from each community.

The festival was one of the first of its kind since the imposition of martial law in Thailand. Many academic seminars have been cancelled or closed down due to military intervention.

Energy high in tightly-packed meeting room as attendees eager to be heard by others and international guests

The festival was organized by the NGO Coordinating Committee on Rural Development (NGO-CORD), the Council on International Educational Exchange in Khon Kaen (CIEE), and a student network of the Northeast.

One Khon Kaen military source told organizers that the military had been “50/50” on whether to cancel or allow the event. Military authorities requested on the day prior to the festival that the organizers write up and sign an agreement to refrain from criticizing the NCPO, or mention politics or martial law. Organizers agreed that they would themselves not bring up these topics and they would censor festival media.

However, organizers stated at the beginning of the day’s events that while they had agreed not to bring up such topics, they hoped that participants would speak freely, given it was International Human Rights Day.

One participant stood up and asked, “If we can’t talk about martial law, the NCPO, or politics, what can we talk about?”

The self-censorship on the part of organizers made some of the videos incomprehensible, given that martial law had affected many of the communities represented at the event, especially those affected by the NCPO’s controversial land policies which have led to the arrest and eviction of many Isaan communities.

In the showing of a short documentary on evictions of communities from forests, confused voices broke out in the many parts where the film’s sound was muted and subtitles blurred. When an organizer explained that the film had been subjected to censorship, the room burst out in a chorus of knowing laughter.

One of the villagers whose words had been silenced in the film stood up, his fists clenched, and said, “I am not afraid to say here what was censored on the video. Forty four days after the coup the military issued an eviction notice in my community. [The junta] just wants us out of the forest. They don’t care how many decades ago we moved in.”

His defiance was met with cheers and support from other affected villages.

Villagers and activists alike take rare opportunity to speak publicly under martial law.

Mr. David Streckfuss, a lead organizer of the event and director of CIEE Khon Kaen, observed that the event was one of the first where red shirts activists, who have felt the full force of martial law in Isaan, and community rights activists who have likewise been arrested and detained, shared a unique moment in their common struggle against repression under martial law.

Mr. Decha Premrudelert a long-standing leader NGO leader in the Northeast, agreed. “People are made stronger by sharing experiences. They have to come together in order to find a way to survive.”

Many participants were unfazed by the presence of plain-clothed security officials taking pictures at the event. “I’m not scared of the military because it is my right to be here,” said Mr. Niew Jongdasanklang from Yasothorn. “Why be afraid?”

Not cowed by martial law: Villagers candidly speak out against human rights violations. In the background is the blurred screen of a censored video.

Assistant Dean at Mahasarkham University’s College of Politics and Governance, Dr. Alongkorn Akkasaeng, the event’s moderator, said he believed the event was beneficial.

“There have been significant human rights violations in the Northeast for decades. Whenever we talk about rights in Thailand, it is only about political rights and elections,” he said.

“But usually the discussion is not about everyday rights, such as those guaranteeing having enough to eat or having a place to stay. These rights are neglected because they happen to marginalized groups. The persistent violation of these rights in the Northeast and Thailand should be something the world community is made aware of.”

Mr. Kirdsakorn Silarak, an activist based in Ubon Ratchathani, was proud of the event and its potential outcome.

“Community members were more confident and more assertive which can lead to a large community movement that fights for our human rights. This is an important first step for a brighter future.”

At the end of the festival, representatives from most participating groups each came up with a right they believed would address their issue. All these rights were drawn up to make the “Isaan Human Rights Declaration of December 10th, 2014.” The declaration states: “All Thai people have the right:

—to manage environmental resources and take part in solving problems;
—to take part in politics and elections;
—to freely and directly express their opinions;
—to air grievances to the government;
—to have their opinions taken seriously by the government and for the
government to address grievances through concrete actions;
—to access education;
—to housing and land;
—to have the laws that guarantee the rights and protection of the people;
—to equal and fair treatment in the justice system;
—to public health and welfare services;
—to participate in the media;
—to access accurate information from the government”

By: Alexandrea Lee, Johns Hopkins University; Catherine Darin, University of Pennsylvania; and Rebecca Goncharoff

Photo credit to: Aaron Hedquist, George Washington University; Emma Tran, Tulane
University; and Jeremy Starn


First published: Isaan Record

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