Sunday, 27 February 2011

Free speech flows along the King's road

via CAAI

The various groups of demonstrators camped out along Ratchadamnoen Avenue have their own goals and political demands, but they all share the same broad boulevard

Published: 27/02/2011
Newspaper section: Spectrum

Bangkok's Ratchadamnoen Avenue doesn't have a Speaker's Corner like London's Hyde Park, but it has also become known as a haven for free speech and an active springboard for political activists. Constructed in 1899, the street has played a key role in defining the country's modern history. Some of the most notable events Ratchadamnoen (meaning King's walk or path) has provided the venue for include the student uprising on Oct 14, 1973, the popular protest against the government of General Suchinda Kraprayoon in May 1992, which led to the infamous Black May crackdown, and the initial phase of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship's (UDD) red shirt rallies last March around Phan Fa Bridge, before the protesters moved on to Ratchaprasong intersection.

another group of farmers, the People’s Movement for a Just Society, are calling on the government to solve problems including land reform.

In the last two weeks more than 6,000 poor farmers have been camped along Ratchadamnoen to make their case for government action on land reform and other issues. Organised as the People's Movement for a Just Society (P-Move), they are calling on the government to solve a list of problems falling into seven major categories.

Also adding vibrations and colour to the historic avenue these days are members of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and the Santi Asoke sect, who set up camp on the boulevard ahead of the farmers' group. On Saturday, Feb 19, thousands of red shirts showed up for their monthly gathering to remember the government crackdown on their group on May 19 last year.

A few days earlier, a smaller group of farmers asking for a moratorium on their debts were camped in front of the Agriculture Ministry's Ratchadamnoen offices. They left on Thursday, Feb 17.

protesting farmers head to Government House to submit a petition calling on the government to help alleviate their debt problems

Further down the road, at the Royal Plaza, a number of people who had just come from the Ratchadamnoen boxing stadium were having a late dinner. One man, a regular at the Muay Thai venue who didn't want to be named, said he had become familiar over the years with the sight of people protesting and sleeping on the street.

"I don't know why they have to ask the government for help. Why don't they try to help themselves? The government has so many other problems," he said, shrugging his shoulders as he continued eating.

Walking down the avenue toward Makkhawan Bridge, a discussion about the Thai-Cambodian border dispute from the PAD's stage could be heard from a long way off.

The PAD's stage is outfitted with sophisticated lighting and communications equipment and the alliance receives the support of a media group.

PAD supporters could see speakers on the high stage from a distance on big-screen monitors. They could also see themselves on screen from time to time.

The arguments remain the same over many consecutive nights, and the well prepared PowerPoint presentations, which invariably take a nationalist Thai perspective on the border dispute, find wide agreement among audience members, many of whom may not have been exposed to other information.

"I really pity Veera [Somkwamkid] and Ratree [Pipatanapaiboon], who have to live in a Cambodian jail cell," said Pinun Chotiroseerani, speaking of the two PAD members who have been jailed for spying and posing a threat to Cambodia's national security. Ms Pinun, the deputy leader of the New Politics Party, said she wants the case to be considered by the International Court of Justice, since she claimed that Veera and his group were arrested on Thai soil.

Ms Pinun formerly focused more on environmental issues, but is now a stalwart in the yellow shirt PAD movement. She travels from her home in Kanchanaburi province to Bangkok almost every day.

"We must give moral support to those who maintain our protest site," she said.

Just a few metres away from the yellow group, where Phitsanulok Road meets Ratchadamnoen Avenue, demonstrators belonging to the Santi Asoke sect sit calmly on the ground listening to a different group of panellists on a different stage, but the discussion is still on the Thai-Cambodian conflict. The Santi Asoke sect is also equipped with good sound and light systems, but the audience is set off from the PAD crowd by their plain, dark blue dress and serene demeanour.

Porndee Imjit has been with Santi Asoke for 14 years. She was laid off after 30 years of employment at the Thai-Krieng textile factory in Samut Prakan, and sought refuge with the sect.

Ms Porndee says she is content with her present life, which is evident in her gentle smile and sweet voice. She stays at Santi Asoke's Nakhon Ratchasima branch.

the Santi Asoke camp is well equipped. Centre left, PAD supporters listen to speakers. Near left, red shirt protesters flood the avenue on Feb 19.

When asked about the word "Neo-protest" written in English on the backdrop of the stage, she said it refers to the unique way that this protest aims to educate the public. "We must be peaceful in solving problems. We need to help those in need. At present, politics is full of lies.

"We must not lie _ we have to speak the truth," she said, adding that she had heard about the farmers' protest at the Royal Plaza but she had not yet gone down there. "I have no idea why they have to be here," she said.

But recently a speaker on the PAD stage expressed concern about farmers near the Thai-Cambodian border.

"We must sympathise with farmers who pay taxes but cannot cultivate their land [because of the conflict]," he said.

In fact, the yellow group don't have to go far to find farmers who have paid land taxes but were evicted from their land. They are gathered on the same road at the Royal Plaza. Some farmers' groups in the border area have asked the PAD and its allies to stop their anti-Cambodia movement so that they can have peaceful lives.

On May 19, the huge crowd of red shirt demonstrators eclipsed all other protests. Rachadamnoen Klang Avenue was a sea of red, from Phan Fa Bridge to Phan Pipop Bridge, and their parked cars filled Ratchadamnoen Nok Road and many other side streets. The main stage was at Democracy Monument, but there were many other focal points with various activities to attract the attention of the wandering crowd.

At the very end of the line at Phan Fa Bridge, pop music was being played loudly and small children dressed in red danced happily. Elsewhere, people blasted music from their vehicles. Vendors came to sell food, T-shirts, plastic sheets to sit on, and many other items. There were also vendors selling pictures of red shirt leaders and key figures, including Thaksin Shinawatra, Natthawut Saikua and the late Maj Gen Khattiya Sawasdipol. One vendor sold piggy banks with portraits of Thaksin and Natthawut. "If you buy a Natthawut piggy bank, your kid will be very clever like him, and if you buy a Thaksin piggy bank, he will be very rich," the vendor said convincingly.

members of the Santi Asoke eating a vegetarian meal. Above, a farmer from Ubon Ratchathani, grills fish, she caught from the Moon River.

There were children as young as three or four, and quite a few elderly people as well. Vasana Preedawongsakorn, 75, came alone. Her Chinese features and costly looking slacks and red lace blouse indicated that she is not prai, as red shirt supporters are often depicted, but she obviously had no problem mingling with the crowd.

"I love Thaksin, that's why I came. My son also joined the red shirts. We joined last March, but we stopped [going to the rallies] after May 14. I think it was too dangerous for us after that," said Ms Vasana. Now she has started attending the red shirt rallies again, coming to Ratchaprasong or Ratchadamnoen from Klong San district.

"We have to join hands, as there is no justice in this country," she said. Asked if she was aware of other groups demonstrating on the road, she said she had ventured down to the yellow group's site to see what they were doing.

"Of course, I put on a different coloured blouse, not red, but not yellow either," she said, adding that she saw only a few protesters when she went.

It is true that the red demonstrators have outnumbered those of the yellow group, but they only come for a day, while the yellows say they are there for the long haul. Both groups grab headlines, while the protest from P-Move's 6,000-strong group of farmers, which has been at the Royal Plaza since Feb 16 has gotten relatively little media coverage. The farmers' groups from all over the country say they are protesting state policies that were implemented without consulting them.

The ambience at the P-Move site is totally different from others on the street. The site looks quite disorganised, with pop-up tents, cooking stoves, water containers, sacks of rice and other food supplies scattered here and there. Some of the protesters are villagers affected by the construction of the Pak Moon dam, who camped in front of Ubon Ratchathani provincial hall for a month before moving their rally to Bangkok. One quipped that they had to be prepared as they know that the mosquitoes in Bangkok are especially fierce.

The farmers' stage is also not as well equipped as the others. It has two medium-sized amplifiers and microphones, but there is no big screen. The protesters speak many different regional dialects, and only a few are comfortable in speaking ''standard'' Thai.

''Sorry, I have to speak the southern dialect now, it is too slow when I have to speak in Central Thai,'' joked Kanya Pankiti, a farmers' leader from Trang province.

Their message is different from those broadcast on the rest of the street as well. They speak not about political philosophies, but about matters of life and death, such as the imposition of state policies that directly affect their means of earning a living and their health, without any attempt to consult them first (see related story).

Also, unlike most of the protesters on Ratchadamnoen Avenue, they have to cook their own food, often from supplies they have brought with them. Wilted vegetables, bananas with dark spots, everything is in bad shape because of the heat.

The UDD group eat their food from styrofoam boxes that are often thrown on the street as there are not enough trash bins to accommodate their waste. The Santi Asoke cook their own vegetarian food, and some of the PAD supporters come by for meals. The food and waste bins are nicely kept.

The PAD has its own food stalls, some operated by vendors and some by supporters who provide meals for free. The queues never end, even late at night.

The farmers eat only simple food, sticky rice with some chilli paste. ''We eat just to survive,'' said Bualai Yothatham from Chaiyaphum.

It is warmer around the Royal Plaza than other demonstration sites because there are fewer big trees and no big tents to offer shade. The farmers tie big plastic sheets between what few trees there are, but only a lucky few can find a place under them.

''This is very unlike my home in Trang, where we have a lot of trees that cover our village. Our village is much cooler in the daytime and at night-time,'' said Pachoen Chusaeng, who cultivates a mixed orchard around his village that includes many tall trees. Ironically, he has been charged with encroaching on state forest land and conducting activities that cause global warming.

Before these farmers organised themselves into P-Move, they had been holding discussions with the government for more than two years under the umbrella of the Thai Land Reform Network. ''I came here because Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva promised us in March 2009 that he would solve all the [land reform] problems within 90 days. For about two years, we have been providing evidence to prove our rights to the land and waiting for him to solve our problems,'' said Surat Thani farmer Soy Chusakul.

Some in the P Move group have been on the activist trail for far longer. The group from Pak Moon has been protesting the construction of the dam for more than two decades. They have a lot of research to back up their demands, including a study from a committee sponsored by the present government, which reveals the adverse consequences of the dam. Sompong Vienchan, a leader of the Pak Moon group, said she thinks more poor people are joining groups like P Move because they feel this government has not given enough attention to their problems nor tried to implement real solutions.

''The general public might ignore our problems because they don't have information, but concerned state agencies and ministers have been provided with formation and evidence that we need help. Why aren't they helping us?'' Mrs Sompong said.

Villagers go on the long march to fight for change

This is not the first time that Prue Odochao, a Thai-Karen from Chiang Mai has used the road as a means to inform the public of his predicament. Mr Prue walked from Chiang Mai's Chiang Dao district to Bangkok in 2003, along with many supporters, to ask the government not to rely solely on aerial mapping to decide the boundaries of a national park. They were asking the government to also take into consideration historic evidence such as graveyards and temples in the area to prove that tribespeople had been living in the area long before the establishment of the national park.

''We didn't want to be evicted from the homes we have been living in for many generations,'' said Mr Prue.

In 1995, Mr Prue and his supporters walked from Chiang Mai to Khun Tan Mountain in Lampang province to ask the Chuan Leekpai government to address the same issue.

Mr Prue said the tribespeople and other poor are ''the other'' in the public's eyes. ''They may not know that their actions and way of life have helped destroy the forest, and when they saw the forest left standing in the area where we live, they thought it was theirs,'' he said, adding that the march might have helped some people along the road become aware that tribal people are the guardians of the forest. But he also learned that some people along the route of the march had good hearts.

''I have seen that they have good seeds in their hearts, but there is something that prevents these seeds of understanding of our plight 'the otherness' to grow,'' he said, concluding that the culprit is the biased and one-sided information that most people receive.

Throughout Thailand, protest marches have been employed as a tactic by the weak and poor to have their voices heard. Sompong Viengchan and her Pak Moon fellows who have been affected by the building of the dam, have been using this method of protest since they started resisting the building of the dam in 1992.

One of the longest marches that Mrs Sompong remembers well was in 2001. It lasted for three and half months, and covered more than 1,000km around the Northeast.

''We, the poor people, don't have the channels of communication to tell our side of the story to our own people, and that was why we chose to march,'' said Ms Sompong, adding that the many people who saw them on television or read about them in newspapers started to question why the Pak Moon people were demanding the sluice gates be opened all year round.

''Nobody could answer them properly. They were told by the authorities that opening the gates would cause problems generating electricity in the Northeast and also waste taxpayers' money,'' she said.

Ms Sompong said that during the long march, people from Pak Moon were able to explain the situation directly to those they met along the route, yet their message did not carry as much weight as that being spread through the media by the powers that be.

Despite protesters being backed up by academic studies and solid evidence of the adverse impact of the dam's construction, last Tuesday, when the issue of the Pak Moon dam was sent to the cabinet, the cabinet simply decided to set up another committee to study the impact of opening the dam's sluice gates.

Ms Sompong and Mr Prue joined 6,000 others from across the country at Royal Plaza in Bangkok. Some had walked from Bokaew village in Chaiyaphum; many came by hired car, the rest used public transport after they had been marching in their

dhrespective provinces.

These groups of farmers and fishermen are part of a new grass-roots movement called the People's Movement for a Just Society (P-Move). P-Move comprises people who are affected by seven main problems, including land, housing and citizenship rights, and they demand the government provide some form of redress.

One of the seven problems has to do with government policies that cannot be achieved, especially the government's communal land rights policy. This policy involves five major ministries, with the spotlight currently focused on the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry. ''Why doesn't the ministry look at the reality? We are not the people destroying the forest, we have been looking after it,'' said Rawat Chuyin, a farmer from Trang province, adding that his group has been presenting information and negotiating for many years without success.

Another major problem is lawsuits against the poor. ''We want the government to look into these problems. Many will be evicted from their own land _ that they have paid taxes for _ and some of us have even had Sor Kor 1 land documents since 1955,'' said Orathai Polpinyo, a leader of Bokaew farmers, who is threatened with being forced off her own land.

There are also a number of cases of land rights conflicts between locals and state agencies or private firms. These cases include people in Ubon Rathathani and Phuket who are backed by the results of a probe by the Department of Special Investigation. A number of such cases have been investigated, and recommendations to resolve their problems were issued by the National Human Right Commission, and in some cases by the Surat Thani court.

Yet despite the hurdles of bureaucratic red tape and the stubbornness of related agencies, Ms Sompong wonders why the government does not use established facts and studies to help it reach a decision.

''Don't we have enough academic studies to legitimise the opening of the dam's sluice gates?'' she asked, adding that if the government only listens to concerned agencies and biased politicians, nothing will change. ''The government needs to have principles in decision making,'' she said, adding that using the information available will solve many other problems as well. ''How many more roads do you want us to walk before you hear our cries.''

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