Whiff of Rebellion Spreads in Thai Hinterland

KHON KAEN, THAILAND — The desiccated stubble of last year’s rice crop pokes through the red soil of Thailand’s vast rice-growing hinterland in a flat, lifeless panorama. This region has suffered through a harsh drought but is anything but moribund — Isaan, as the region is known, is alive with passionate political activism.

Thomas Fuller/International Herald Tribune

The widow of Praison Tiplom, a protester killed in Bangkok held a framed picture of her late husband in northeastern Thailand last Saturday.

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Thomas Fuller/International Herald Tribune

A woman offered a donation at the funeral of Praison Tiplom, a protester killed in Bangkok, in northeastern Thailand last Saturday.

On this poor and rugged plateau, home to a third of Thailand’s population, farmers who say they were never interested in politics before are donating the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars, one small banknote at a time, for the “red shirt” protest movement in Bangkok that has severely weakened the government. In at least three northeastern cities, far from the capital, red shirts are holding nightly rallies, sometimes drawing thousands of people.

As in Bangkok, where red-shirted protesters are defiantly camping out in a major commercial district, there is more than a whiff of insurrection in the Thai hinterland.

At Red Station Radio, an anti-government FM station that operates from an unmarked office here in the city of Khon Kaen, 450 kilometers, or 280 miles, north of Bangkok, disc jockeys urge supporters to show up in their pickup trucks or motorcycles to disrupt visits by senior government officials. Earlier this month, they succeeded in driving away the transportation minister, who was inaugurating a tunnel.

“Don’t come here — that’s the message,” said Noi Tamrung, a D.J. at the station. “We reject anyone from this government.”

It is one measure of the depth of the crisis that Noi Tamrung is a full-time police officer who campaigns against the government when he’s off duty. (Noi Tamrung is an on-air pseudonym; he would be fired if he used his real name, he said.)

The anger and resentment in the Thai countryside began with the military coup three and a half years ago that overthrew Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire tycoon turned prime minister, who is seen in this region as the first politician to have seriously addressed the concerns of the poor. Mr. Thaksin’s wealth and patronage network remain important drivers of the protests, but the movement also appears to be taking on a more grass-roots character, with farmers and villagers finding common cause and expressing a new assertiveness and self-awareness.

The people of Thailand’s northeastern plateau, ringed by the Mekong River, speak dialects similar to the Lao and Cambodian languages and generally work as farmers, manual laborers and factory workers. Today, the region, along with the far north, is the core of the red-shirted movement, which is trying to force the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to step down.

The red shirts’ rallying cry against “double standards” in Thai society — the wealthy, the Bangkok elite and the top military brass break laws with impunity, protest leaders say, while the poor are held to account — has found fertile ground among farmers like Takum Srihangkod. Mr. Takum listens to broadcasts of protests in Bangkok with a cheap Chinese-made radio he tucks into his waistcloth, next to his slingshot.

“Abhisit doesn’t want anything to do with poor people,” Mr. Takum said as he tended his cattle. Not even the most fundamental farm work interrupted the stream of angry political rhetoric: Mr. Takum’s radio stayed tuned as he muscled out a newborn calf in a difficult birth.

Supporters of the government often portray the red shirts as a mob for hire, mercenary protesters who receive a daily stipend. In a country with a long tradition of vote buying, it seems likely that some protesters have received support, possibly from their hero in exile, Mr. Thaksin. But villagers bristle when asked whether they are being paid to protest. Local officials and police officers describe a widespread fund-raising effort to support the demonstrators in Bangkok.

“We help each other,” said Triem Tongkod, a farmer who grows sticky rice in a village outside Khon Kaen. Pickup trucks with loudspeakers travel through his village periodically asking for donations. “You give what you can afford: 20 baht, 100 baht,” Mr. Triem said.

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On Saturday, at a Buddhist temple about 40 kilometers outside Khon Kaen, Mr. Triem was one of thousands of people attending the funeral of Praison Tiplom, a protester killed in the April 10 crackdown on protests by the red shirts in Bangkok. (A total of 25 people died, including five soldiers, in circumstances that remain under investigation.) Organizers walked through the crowd carrying large cash donation boxes for Mr. Praison’s widow. They collected 310,000 baht, or about $9,400, according to Num Chaiya, a D.J. at Red Station Radio who helped organize the funeral.

It was far from a typical somber ceremony, the crowd cheering loudly as Mr. Praisom’s coffin, draped with the Thai flag, was carried around the crematorium three times. “Give a big hand to a warrior of the people!” Mr. Num exhorted the crowd, as some blurted out political slogans. Nearly all in attendance wore red instead of the traditional black. Those who could not fit under a large tent stood in the surrounding woods.

Organizers of the red shirts have begun selling DVDs eulogizing the dead protesters and showing scenes of the April 10 crackdown. Along what is known as the friendship highway, built by the United States to service its military bases during the Vietnam War, Pornchai Nanthaphothi operates a stall festooned with red flags where he sells the crackdown DVD, as well as other red-shirt paraphernalia. A bandanna he sells is embossed with the words “I’m not scared of you.”

“This area is nearly 100 percent red,” Mr. Pornchai said.

Successive Thai governments, including the current one, have embarked on development projects in Isaan, but the region remains “poor and underserved,” said Krasae Chanawongse, a medical doctor by training who has worked as a minister in four previous governments. Dr. Krasae said the protest movement was underpinned by income inequality and the need for more doctors, universities and opportunities for young people in Isaan. There is one doctor for every 5,300 people in the northeast, compared with one per 850 in Bangkok and one in 2,800 for the country over all, according to government statistics.

Thailand’s centralized political system has engendered a “colonial attitude of governors” posted here, according to Dr. Krasae. “They are more or less dictating, not consulting,” he said.

Because of its size, Isaan is considered the keystone of Thai politics. The dominance of the red-shirted movement suggests that Mr. Abhisit would lose elections if he dissolved Parliament, as protesters are urging him to do.

It would be the first time the government has faced elections. The coalition was brokered with the help of the military 16 months ago, after a court decision dissolved a red-affiliated government for electoral fraud. A red faction defected to the coalition in exchange for control of key ministries.

Some analysts, like Adisorn Naowanondha, a professor at Rajabhat University in the northeastern city of Nakhon Ratchasima, question the durability and longevity of the red shirts. Mr. Adisorn, who once ran as a candidate for the governing party, compares the red shirts to a fan club for Mr. Thaksin.

“I think when Thaksin disappears the reds will disappear,” said Mr. Adisorn, who described Mr. Thaksin as the glue that holds together a factionalized movement.

But supporters of the red shirts in the northeast, while acknowledging that Mr. Thaksin remained a key inspiration for the movement, said it had taken on larger goals.

“This is not for Thaksin, this is for democracy,” said Chaisawat Weangwong, a 42-year old rice farmer. In a country that has seen more than a dozen coups over the past eight decades, Mr. Chaisawat said the crisis had opened his eyes to the influence of the military in Thai politics. Mr. Chaisawat offered a basic definition of democracy: “The majority chooses the winner.”

Radio stations have played a crucial role in spreading that message. Red Station Radio has rapidly expanded since it started operating in November, with a total of six affiliated stations in and around Khon Kaen that relay the signal. They operate on donations and advertisement revenue. A station in the large northeastern city of Udon Thani raised 6 million baht earlier this year to help finance the construction of new facilities.

The station recently announced on the air that there were rumors that soldiers had been dispatched from Bangkok to stop the station from broadcasting. “A thousand people showed up in pickup trucks,” said Ruangyut Prasatsawatsiri, a local leader of the red shirts.

Mr. Ruangyut said that 90 percent of the local police were sympathetic to the red shirts and that they had passed information along. “We know all of their plans,” he said.

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