Khon Kaen is one of the four major cities of Isaan, the NorthEast region at the edge of Thailand. The city is divided by a highway road that if you keep following, will get you to the Friendship Bridge which connects the country with its neighbor Laos. The city is perceived as an intellectual hub. Here the oldest and largest university of Isaan is located, a home to a student movement that in the last months has forced the mainstream media of Bangkok to take a glance at the neglected North. In early September I met some members of the Dao Din group, shortly after they were released.
The student group gained its reputation by offering their public support to communities of the rural North that struggle against large domestic and international corporations exploiting natural resources in the name of development. Composed by law students of Khon Kaen University, Dao Din saw the urging need for social action when they visited a small village in the province Udon Thani located next to the area where a potash mine is planned to be allocated.
According to the company the project is designed to accommodate the growing demand for potassium chloride from Thailand’s government and private sectors, to cut down on imported product, and to stimulate economic growth in the region. The locals though who mainly depend on agriculture activities explained to the students the environmental impact of the mine. They fear widespread subsidence, salt contamination of agricultural land, groundwater contamination and an irreversible change to their livelihood if such project would be implemented.
That first visit took place a decade ago and since then the student’s group has taken a commitment to defend the rights of communities whose voices and concerns are ignored. Fighting in the grassroots is their main goal. “Locals should have the opportunity to participate in the management of their land but private companies are neglecting the rights of the community. That’s why we fight for them. We believe that they have the right to make the decisions for their own land” told me Chaturapat Boonyapatraksa, commonly known as Pai and Dao Din member.
Pai, Khon Kaen Thailand, September 2015
Their actions haven’t gone unnoticed since for more than a year Thai authorities have abated all voices of resistance in the country. In many cases they faced imprisonment or were banned from visiting some of the communities. Back in May 2014 they were directly involved in demonstrations in the NorthEast province Loei where villagers barricaded the streets demanding the halt of the operation of controversial gold mine that has caused illnesses and contamination of water and soil resources. The incident lead to severe clashes between locals and unidentified masked men who attacked the protesters in an attempt to resume operation of the mine. At the same time Dao Din were deprived of their right to return to the village ever again.
“Are you afraid?” Hearing my question they looked at each other and a sign of recognition covered their faces. It seemed as if they have heard the question a million times already. “No” they both responded casually with an innocent almost reckless smile. “We are doing the right thing”. The NorthEast part of Thailand has for a long time a strong need for awareness since the country is inundated with contrasts.
In 2011 the World Bank upgraded the SouthEast Asian nation to an upper-middle economy, considered and widely described as a success story at the international fight against poverty. This image though does not represent the reality for the rural North and NorthEast where the benefits of economic boom has not been felt. Thailand is well-classified as the second largest economy in Southeast Asia but the disparity between rich and poor remains the prime challenge of the nation. Although Isaan accounts for around a third of the country’s population and a third of its area, it produces just 8.9% of the total GDP.
For years people in the region have felt as second-class citizens living in a two-speed country and in severe contrast to the inhabitants of the capital and central provinces who massively benefit from the growth. The activist group sums the problem accurately. Dao means star and Din means soil, earth. What they mean by that is that a star is something beautiful and impressive when you look at it from distance but in reality it is made from similar chemical elements, just as soil. “It’s the same with humans,” Pai emphasizes. “Some are seen as more important than others but they are just common people as the rest. In the end of the day star and soil are equal”.
This article would not be possible without the support of Minority Rights Group International.