In Red Heartlands, Thai Army Keeps a Lid on Dissent

By Aubrey Belford 2 February 2015

KHON KAEN, Thailand — In the northeastern Thai city of Khon Kaen, Pongpit Onlamai, a prominent anti-junta “red shirt” member, points to a man seated in the corner of the cafe fidgeting with his phone.

“Soldiers are always following me around,” Pongpit, a DJ at a red shirt radio station before it was shut down after last May’s military coup. “Today, this guy’s here.”

At one point the man, dressed in civilian clothes, raises his phone, appearing to take a photograph of Pongpit.

In this rural stronghold of deposed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her exiled brother Thaksin, supporters are fuming at last month’s decision by the junta-appointed assembly to ban her from politics for five years.

But military repression, and Thaksin’s policy—for now—of avoiding confrontation, mean there is little chance of an immediate return to the often-violent street protests which dogged the country for the past decade, local red shirts say.

“The army’s control is firm because they have the guns,” Pongpit told Reuters.

Since seizing power and declaring martial law, the military has snuffed out dissent by restricting public gatherings and closing partisan media. More than 300 people, including activists, journalists and politicians, have been detained since the coup, according to Human Rights Watch.

Acutely aware of Thaksin’s rural support base, the army has kept a keen eye on the provinces in the north and northeast of the country.

Pongpit said local red shirts supported Thaksin’s apparent strategy of holding back until the military returned power to civilians, despite the fact that junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha has not said exactly when that will happen.

“We have to monitor what the [pro-Thaksin] leaders are saying before we do anything.”

‘Waiting for the Right Moment’

Perhaps more than anywhere else in Thailand, Khon Kaen province, which includes a capital by the same name, has felt the army’s clampdown.

A multi-billion dollar, loss-making rice subsidy scheme by Yingluck’s government was hugely popular here. The fact that alleged corruption in the scheme was the reason for Yingluck’s downfall, and that the program has now been scrapped, rankles deeply.

As in much of the country, the immediate aftermath of the coup saw local red shirts leaders detained by the military and made to sign documents agreeing to swear off politics.

Twenty-six local activists, most of them elderly, are on trial in a Khon Kaen military court on charges of stockpiling weapons and planning to commit acts of terrorism—accusations red shirts say are trumped up.

The junta has followed up Yingluck’s impeachment—and news that she will face criminal corruption charges—by tightening its grip, including summoning members of the deposed government.

In Khon Kaen, the junta issued instructions to authorities at the outset of the proceedings against Yingluck to keep a tight lid on dissent, the junta-installed provincial Governor Gumtorn Thavornstit told Reuters.

“I believe there are people who are dissatisfied. But I also think some people have become smarter,” Gumtorn said.

The deputy head of the army’s Internal Security Operations Command in the province, Colonel Jaturapong Bokbon, brushed off suggestions that there had been any change in security since Yingluck’s impeachment. “The people of Khon Kaen are happily living their lives,” he said.

Since the coup, local activists have avoided meeting, said Sabina Shah, the president of the Khon Kaen 51 red shirt group. But impeachment led to a flurry of activity on social media, including a plan by activists to start wearing red clothes in the coming days.

“It’s not much, but it’s a start. It gives people hope that we will fight,” she said. “We’re not quiet. We’re just waiting for the right moment.”

‘Farmers Have to Rise Up’

If and when that moment comes, red shirt leaders can tap into a growing well of resentment among rural voters, whose support propelled Yingluck to a landslide election win in 2011.

In the villages surrounding Khon Kaen, locals described Yingluck’s impeachment as the second in a one-two punch. The end of generous rice subsidies, means farmers are now taking a big hit on earnings.

In Kampea village, Pikul Nuang Chompoo, 65, said she made a guaranteed 15,000 baht ($460) per tonne of jasmine rice, and 12,000 per tonne of sticky rice. By November that was down to 9,000 and 7,000 respectively at the market. Whereas once she earned a healthy profit of 130,000 baht per year, Pikul said she is now facing down debt.

“Thaksin’s governments sympathized with farmers and rural people. This government is for the people in the city,” she said. “Farmers have to rise up.”

In the nearby village of Phomnimit, Manon Puangraya, 54, was not as a badly affected. Like many farmers in the northeast, crops account for only part of his income—most comes from his work as a shoe smith in Bangkok.

But the high-handedness of the military and Bangkok elites are starting to anger him. “It was only during Thaksin’s time that this place developed. Before all we had were our rice fields.”