By Marwaan Macan-Markar
THUNG PHRA, Thailand, Mar 22, 2010 (IPS) – Once a stronghold of Thailand‚Äôs banned communist party, this north-east rural outpost has been drawing a different kind of people railing against the political order set in the capital Bangkok.
Women like Vitchunai Silasi are among the residents from nine villages close to Thung Phra who have gathered here since July last year to set up a protest village amid a eucalyptus plantation. They are here to fight for their land rights.
She appears in no hurry to uproot what they have built: a temporary row of Thai-style rural houses with wood and bamboo frames and thatched roofs that are open to the elements. Men and women relax in them when not working in the nearby fields.
“We want to protest against the impact commercial forests have had on our right to own our land,” said the 36-year-old mother, echoing the sentiments of some 160 families who are supporting this protest village in the north- east province of Chaiya Phum. “This is a way of showing that this land belongs to us.”
Taking over a slice of land and holding on to it for months is far more effective than holding a protest rally outside a government office, adds Ruchan Chinviti, a tapioca farmer. “We tried a march and got little attention. But the protest village has got our message across.”
Faded messages printed on cloth banners displayed at the entrance to this unique village amplify the rationale for such brazen encroachment. “Bring the land back to the people,” added one. “This land is our property,” announced another.
It is a setting that has attracted men from the provincial forestry authority. From beyond a bamboo pole that serves as the entrance to this occupied site, four men dressed in dark blue and military-style jackets keep a close watch on the goings on in the protest village
This scene, however, is far from an isolated one. It is, in fact, an accepted style of protesting in rural Thailand that has taken root over the years.
Besides here in the north-east, similar protest villages have sprung up in the north and the south of this South-east Asian country. This is because the struggle for land rights by poor rural communities affects over six million people, according to one estimate.
Villages impacted by dam construction projects have also turned to this innovative protest strategy of occupation, which can last for months if not years, as was the case of a protest village built near a controversial dam in north-eastern Ubon Rachathani province.
That village near the Pak Mun Dam became a symbol of defiance from 1999 till 2002, when the disaffected villagers were attacked by thugs and the protest site was burnt down.
Occupation is also a strategy endorsed by the Assembly of the Poor, a leading network of grassroots non-governmental organisations championing the cause of rural and urban poor. In the early 1990s, the assembly gave the cosmopolitan citizens of the Thai capital their first taste of rural-style protest when they camped outside the prime minister‚Äôs office in Bangkok for 99 days to make their demands heard.
“Holding on to such protest site for a long time is a negotiating strategy,” said Prawat ‚ÄėSompop‚Äô Bunnag, a senior adviser of the Assembly of the Poor in the north-east. “To be there on a site you have claimed for your cause is to remind the government that they have to negotiate with you. It gives you strength to make your demands.”
“It is a very effective method,” he added during an interview in the city of Khon Kaen. “A protest march only has symbolic value. After you finish and go home, the authorities will forget your issues.”
Temporary occupation is also underway now, on a march larger scale and with higher political stakes, by the anti-government red-shirt protesters in Bangkok. The tens of thousands of supporters of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) have taken over a wide boulevard in a historic part of the capital and have occupied it since Mar. 13 as part of their push to force the government to dissolve parliament and call for an early election.
“This is how we protest outside Bangkok, in the rural areas,” said Buchum Wongngo, a supporter of the red shirts from the north-east, where many of the UDD supporters camped at the protest site in the capital come from. In the last two consecutive weekends, the UDD‚Äôs crowds had swelled to over 120,000, and they appeared in no rush to disband and head home.
The red shirts, whose political patron is the fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, are not the first to use this style of protest in taking on the government on pivotal national issues.
They were preceded in 2008 by a yellow-shirt wearing protest movement drawn from the capital‚Äôs affluent middle class and entrenched elite, who rallied to drive from power an administration of Thaksin‚Äôs allies.
In a nod to a rural form of civil disobedience, the yellow shirts began their protest with the occupation of a road close to where the UDD have now taken control. They then raised the ante by storming into the compound of the prime minister‚Äôs office and occupied it for three months, conducting round- the-clock rallies.
Today, this protest culture with roots from rural Thailand has come a long way since 1992, when activists say it was used with major results.
“We organised a march to Pak Chong and blocked a major road for five days to force the government to negotiate about the eviction of villagers,” recalls Deja Premrudelert, former chairman of the NGO Coordinating Committee for Development in the North-East.
“There were 20,000 people who blocked the highway,” he told IPS of that event in the north-east province of Nakhon Ratchasima. “We didn‚Äôt know when we turned the highway into a protest site what will happen and how it will end.”
The same uncertainty prevails in the Thung Phra protest village. In Bangkok, where its much larger parallel has taken root, UDD leaders appear to have few answers too about what lies in the days ahead as they demand to talk to no less than Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
But for now, red shirt supporters like Laksamon Wachirasirikul want to give Bangkok a taste of how rural communities have learned to exert their rights in Khon Kaen, where she comes from. “The longer we stay at the protest site in Bangkok, the government cannot ignore us and our demands,” says the 45-year-old. “I will stay at the red shirt rally for days.”