21 November 2011

Protest Villages in the Northeast

Had I not known better, the hour long jungle trek on a huge makeshift monster wheeled truck through flooded dirt roads felt more like the trip to a rebel base camp instead of the village of Kao Baht. Yet, it could as well been a rebel base since the establishment is a protest village, where the villagers illegally reclaimed land that they were expelled from by the government in the 1970’s. The government’s reason for this eviction was to protect the villagers from the communist groups that were located in the surrounding forest, but later the government sold the land as a logging concession. The village of Kao Baht is small, but the villagers live in a very communal way with each member getting a small plot of land for their own subsistence farming and then each corner of the village there is a plot of land left for shared use. The village of Kao Baht is not the only establishment of its kind. There have been other protest villages springing up in the jungles of Thailand over the last ten years. Another protest village is Baw Kaew, which is a protest village located in the mountains of Issan. Baht Gao has multiple rules and conditions that members need to follow including, no alcohol or drugs and no promiscuous sexual relations. Despite the severe nature of those village laws, they serve the purpose of keeping the communities from giving the government a bad image of their community as well as to prevent internal conflict. For instance in Baw Kaew for a long time the villagers noticed a men in black stationed right outside the village gate, and later found out it was an employee of the government’s Forest Industry Organization (FIO) who was recording each person who came in and out of the village. Actions like this by government agencies trying to find every possible way to reclaim the land from the villagers, makes harsh rules necessary in these protest communities.

Both Kao Baht and Baw Kaew are extreme movements since they have literally occupied the land that they are trying to reclaim, even though this might lead to severe consequences for themselves and their families. What is interesting is why these occupy protests are starting to become more common. Most of these villagers were forced out of their land over thirty years ago, and yet are only resorting to these measures now. From interviews with the villagers, many of them talk about writing letters and attending protests but then admit that these efforts haven’t been fruitful at all. Of those who were relocated, usually the land they were given was much smaller than promised and much less desirable. Some villages were even promised that one day they could return. The constantly changing governments and coups that have defined Thai politics for the last century have not helped the situation. More importantly is the complicated system of land deeds in Thailand, and many villagers can only prove that they have rented the land. A lot of villagers also claim that the government took away their parent’s land deeds, and then denied that they ever existed. Thus, this occupation of the land is the build up of years of anger and a complicated and ever changing legal system.

What is even more fascinating is that these villages have been able to remain multiple years despite constant fear of eviction and numerous lawsuits filed against them. Although, many individuals are in legal trouble and there has been some violence, these protest villages are still standing. The success of these communities seems to be spreading elsewhere. For instance, in the news right now there are countless articles about the “Occupy” movements that started on Wall Street and have moved around the world. Just like the protest villages, the “Occupy” movements are people who are coordinating as a community and physically inhabit a space until their message is heard and their demands are met. It has yet to be seen if the method of occupying as protest will work for the villages and the “occupy” protestors in the long run, but so far these methods have created more attention than just having a short protest or writing letters to the government.

Ariel Chez
University of Rochester


Anonymous said...

I love the connection you made between the protest villages and occupy! We've visited a lot of villages this semester that are fighting for land rights, resources, compensation, etc this semester, but I always think back to baw kaew and kaew bat as being two of the strongest villages. Like the occupy movement, there is a common goal and the villagers are invested in the collective group rather than individual wants. In a lot of the villages we visited, each villager was fighting for his or her individual land title or compensation rather than working towards a community land title or some other collective goal. These groups seemed to be struggling more and also not as close as a community. These two villages helped me learn that sacrificing as a individual can contribute to a better outcome for the whole.

Kate Rochat said...

I think that the connection between the villages and occupy Wall Street is also really interesting. I am particularly interested, since the groups seem to have a lot in common, in weather or not they have a similar form of group process. Occupy Wall Street, as we have learned, uses similar methods as we do here at CIEE such as consensus, blocks and other forms of nonverbal communication. From talking to the leader at the villagers it was relatively unclear what means they used to organize although it seemed very oblivious that they had a very cohesive and communicative structure to get things done. Both of the groups are grassroots organizing against odds that seem insurmountable.
I think this particular comparison is also really cool because it allows those of us that are only U.S citizens to understand how these issues and problems are literally back at home as well. However easy it is to think that some of the issues that we see here in Thailand and the organizing that comes along with it occasionally are something totally alien to us, there are parallels in the United States as well.

Lisa Goese said...

Awesome post Ollie! I think it’s really interesting too that the only way the villagers got what they wanted was through direct action, through physically going back and reclaiming their land without permission, instead of waiting around for the government. After encountering how beaurocratic and fragmented and sometimes corrupt the Thai government can be, it definitely makes sense that this is the most effective method for attaining their goals. I love that you made a connection to the Occupy Wall Street movement in America and around the world. It is quite a different situation, as the villagers are reclaiming lost lands and the Occupy Wall Street-ers are making a political statement. Yet, they embody a similar concept. Though some critics complain that the movement thus far hasn’t actually “done” anything, I think that physically occupying space can be quite powerful. Hey, Miley Cyrus even wrote a song about the movement and released it on her 19th birthday a few days ago! That certainly means something important is happening. Go Miley! Go Ollie!