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Passive resistance in Thailand's northeast

KHON KAEN, Thailand -- When a deadly bomb exploded at Erawan Shrine in the heart of Bangkok on Aug. 17, Thailand's interim Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha initially suggested an anti-government group based in the country's northeast could be to blame. Known as Isan, Thailand's most populous region is widely seen as a hotbed of anti-Bangkok sentiment although in practice, resistance since the May 2014 military coup has been extremely muted. 

     "Everything is okay, professor. We are now entering the 'era of Lao civilization' (yuk lao siwilai)," a middle-aged man patiently explained to me a few weeks ago. People in this so-called red-shirt community -- named for the signature color of supporters of former Prime Mininster Thaksin Shinawatra -- in the northeastern province of Khon Kaen seem deadly serious about this fabled apocalyptic scenario. Bangkok and the whole of the central plains will soon be under water, they say, thanks to climate change. Korat (or Nakhon Ratchasima) will become a port city, and the Thai capital will move up to Khon Kaen, near Thailand's northeastern border with Laos.

Waiting for change

Already, many people from southern and central Thailand have bought plots of land in Isan, ready to up sticks once the waters rise. People from the rest of the country will be welcome to move to Isan, the villagers hasten to add -- but their ominous references to the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami imply they might also welcome the damage a major flood could do, conveniently sweeping away large swaths of Thailand's population.

     The apocalyptic discourse of "Lao civilization" works on many levels. It contains an implicit triumphalism: the underdog will finally have its day, as the predominantly ethnically Lao population of Isan gains the upper hand over long-dominant Bangkok.

     The "Lao civilization" era, however, is already here upon Thailand: evidenced by the superior 4G phones and imminent Chinese-built high speed trains in Laos itself. According to this view, Thai dominance is over, and it is only a matter of time -- less than seven years, one villager insists -- before nature takes its course.

     Yet the scenario also plays on the extraordinary range of national anxieties which have plagued Thailand in the new millennium, anxieties that involve the impending royal succession (most Thais have never known life without King Bhumibol, now aged 87 and in poor health); concerns that the country's pre-eminent position in mainland Southeast Asia is threatened by dynamic rivals (notably Myanmar and Vietnam); and by the emerging new regional order of the ASEAN Economic Community; and deep-rooted fears, inflamed by color-coded political divisions, that Thailand's arbitrary borders contain within them the seeds of long simmering frustrations and dissent, which could spill over into secessionism and an eventual re-drawing of the national map.

     For better or worse, "yuk lao siwilai" is an extremely crude example of wish fulfillment, a collective fantasy that Isan could triumph over Bangkok without the need to lift a finger. It is a narrative that reflects an unequal power relationship, in which Isan/Lao attempts to resist Thai dominance have proved a heroic failure for centuries. In the months leading up to the May 2014 coup, secessionist sentiments were widespread in the north and northeast. In March 2014, there were reports of banners hung in various locations in the north that read: "This country has no justice for me, I want to partition the country and set up a Lanna state."

     Online comments about the banners echoed such secessionist sentiments, reflecting widespread dreams about exiting the Thai state. This discourse was really a venting of frustrations rather than a serious demand for separation, expressing feelings of hurt from repeated acts of injustice and neglect. But military commanders and senior bureaucrats were alarmed by such sentiments, which they viewed as subversive, even treasonous. On some level, the secessionist talk fueled the determination of the military to restore order and "return happiness to the people" by first staging a coup, and then following up with extensive measures of suppression.

Patronizing attitude

Power relations between Bangkok and the northeast in the wake of the May 2014 military coup are a continuation of longstanding themes. People in the northeast felt resentment towards Bangkok, and were readily mobilized in support of a cause -- previous causes included holy men rebels, secessionism, communism and activism by nongovernmental organizations -- which ultimately petered out or was violently suppressed by the Thai state. Mass demonstrations in Bangkok in 2009 and 2010 by the red-shirt movement, a loose alliance of pro-Thaksin groups, were simply the latest incarnation of a recurrent pattern.

     At the core of the red-shirt protests were groups of urbanized villagers, many hailing from or with roots in the north and northeast. Most of the protestors were not revolutionaries, demanding an overhaul of the Thai state: rather, they were people who aspired to achieve middle-class living standards, to share in the benefits of Thailand's rapid economic development since the early 1960s, and to secure their right to express themselves politically.

     The suppression of the 2010 protests, in which nearly 100 people were killed, showed that those who challenged the power of Bangkok would not be tolerated lightly by the military and their allies. Of the 81 civilian deaths related to the 2010 incidents, 36 victims were registered residents of Isan provinces. At least 469 individuals in Isan were arrested for offences allegedly committed in the region during and after the 2010 protests. The great majority of those arrested were later charged and convicted.

     The majority of Isan red-shirt groups described themselves as "daeng issara," independent red-shirts not directly linked to the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), the national red-shirt organization which resembles the Thai state in its patronizing attitude towards northeasterners.

"Democracy villages"

In the wake of the dark days of 2010, red-shirt groups in the northeast focused on community-building and profile-raising. One strand of this activity was the creation of a network of co-called "red-shirt villages," allegedly numbering more than 20,000 communities. Many of these "democracy villages" also engaged in state supported activities such as anti-drug campaigns. Local groups typically concentrated on firming up community radio stations linked to savings co-operatives and other self-help projects, which were able to draw on significant levels of state funding during the 2011-14 Yingluck Shinawatra administration.

     The May 22, 2014, coup quelled a political cacophony of street rallies (mainly anti-Yingluck government protests) and violent clashes. Even in the northeast, where red-shirts had proclaimed their ardent opposition to military intervention, protests ended almost immediately. Pro-Thaksin politicians, red-shirt leaders and activists were summoned to army camps, instructed to "adjust their attitudes," and sometimes forced to sign memoranda of understanding in which they agreed not to engage in political mobilization. Some were ordered to stay in their home provinces; at least one was banned from wearing a red shirt, or even a check shirt with red in the pattern. From his base in Dubai, Thaksin himself instructed his supporters to refrain from acts of resistance.

     Ironically, the main challenges to military rule to emerge in Isan since the coup have come from sources not aligned with Thaksin: from the highly vocal Dao Din student group, and social activists campaigning on issues such as resource extraction. For the most part, north-easterners are much more likely to be waiting for climate change to take its course than to be plotting acts of insurrection. In the popular Isan view of the coming era of Lao dominance, Bangkok will soon be just a memory, sitting deep under water.

Duncan McCargo is Professor of Political Science at the University of Leeds. This commentary is based on a paper presented with Saowanee Alexander at the 2015 Thailand Forum at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.

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