Khon Kaen, Thailand – As the Thai military junta stages “happiness” projects in Bangkok, complete with choreographed dancing by soldiers and army selfie stands, locals in this northeastern city are talking about a different kind of performance.
They whisper about armed soldiers entering villages without warning, summoning dissidents with knocks on their doors, and raiding homes and “Red Shirt” radio stations.
The northeast is home to many of the country’s poor and rising middle-class farmers, labourers and service workers, and it is also a stronghold of the Red Shirts. These voters are largely supporters of a formerly deposed prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who won them over with populist policies that helped improve living conditions and dramatically reduced poverty.
The Red Shirt movement has mushroomed in the provinces north of Bangkok and a vicious cycle has been born: Red Shirts command the ballot box and elect populist governments and work against institutions aligned with the Bangkok elite trying to take back control.
I saw a truck full of soldiers pass by my house and stop at another. I'm scared that we can't be honest that we're even involved with the Red Shirts.
Since the May 22 coup d’état, the Thai military has publicly summoned and detained hundreds of high-level politicians, activists, academics and journalists, many of whom have Red Shirt allegiances. Their message is clear: Stay out of politics and let the military run the show.
In the rural northeast, the crackdown is far from transparent. Homes once lined with red flags and banners have lost their colour, and red T-shirts that typified the region a few weeks ago are likely to be hidden away rather than worn with pride.
Raids and summonses
In the town of Kranuan, a 67-year-old Thai dessert vendor, who asked to be identified only as Muan, has gathered all her red flags, red T-shirts, and red posters, stowed them in a box and buried them in her backyard.
Muan is not a well-known dissident, but she said she has seen soldiers target her Red Shirt neighbours with searches and interrogations, and she fears she could be next.
“I saw a truck full of soldiers pass by my house and stop at another,” Muan said. “I’m scared that we can’t be honest that we’re even involved with the Red Shirts.”
In Kranuan, which is 515km northeast of Bangkok, soldiers raided the home of at least one pro-democracy activist on May 30 and took him to an army base, according to iLaw, a group tracking these cases. The activist, Pichit Pitak, returned home later that day, only to be summoned again a few days later.
Interviews with villagers and others close to the movement suggest that another Kranuan resident, a former member of parliament aligned with the Red Shirts, was also taken away by dozens of soldiers who unexpectedly arrived at his house on May 22.
Bunyong Kaewfainok, a 75-year-old lawyer who has worked largely on Red Shirt cases, is concerned about the uneven actions of the military. “They are treating local people very differently since they’re not of the same standing as people in Bangkok,” he said. “There’s a serious disparity.”
‘Lack of record’
David Streckfuss, an independent scholar in Khon Kaen with deep roots in the region, sees a similar pattern.
“Most of the summonses and detentions of those the regime feels are a threat in the northeast are not published, making it very difficult for any outside source to say with much accuracy exactly how many academics, Red Shirt activists, and other pro-democracy groups have been called in,” he said.
“This lack of record has increased the fear considerably among those who have been active politically.”
Rumours of arbitrary house raids have heightened that fear. Locals in villages outside the city of Khon Kaen say in some cases soldiers are entering homes without warrants and confiscating tools that could be used as weapons, such as grass-cutters, knives and gasoline.
While some locals prefer to stay silent about these raids, others have attempted to bring media attention to the military’s provincial operations. A prominent Red Shirt radio DJ in Khon Kaen, Patcharaporn Puthaposee, has received numerous calls from villagers asking her to report on this issue, but the junta has shut down the radio stations where she works.
“In the city, people could expose this on social media. But in the villages, there isn’t a good way to get this information out since all the radio stations are closed,” Patcharaporn said.
Colonel Weerachon Sukhondhapatipak, a spokesperson for the military government, denies that house visits and raids are taking place. “There is no such policy,” he told Al Jazeera. “And in Khon Kaen, there is no such issue.”
All quiet in Khon Kaen
Soldiers and tanks that briefly took to the streets of Khon Kaen after the coup disappeared a few days later, though some scattered checkpoints remain.
A few dozen student activists organised flash mob protests against the coup, and they received a warning on June 2 through an unexpected channel. On the group’s Facebook page, a soldier, who later identified himself as Lieutenant Colonel Pitakphon Choosri, politely asked the group to put a hold on all of its activities.
A day later his tone changed. After graffiti with the words “No Coup” appeared in the city, he posted close-up photos of group members running from the scene of the crime, accompanied by a chilling threat.
“This is a battle, my little friends. You have two ways to go,” he wrote. “One: fight, be broken into pieces, and destroyed. Two: since you know that we can take a friend of yours hostage, if I were you, I would stop [your political activities] and negotiate.”
|Red Shirts rally on the outskirts of Bangkok in April [Reuters]|
The student group gave in, reported themselves to the military without any public summons, and signed a form that they would refrain from political activity. Protests in the city have since ceased.
These military scare tactics have a long history in Thailand, particularly in the northeast, where they often go unreported.
“This coup shares many of the characteristics with the coup of 1976: arbitrary detentions, house searches, a sowing of fear in society, and it focuses on psychological warfare,” said Streckfuss.
And state campaigns to curb dissent have often targeted the countryside.
“It is in Thailand’s rural periphery that the state really senses the most danger. Insurrection has almost always begun in the rural areas,” said Paul Chambers, director of the Research Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai.
In recent years, many voters in the countryside have begun to demand greater political participation. As rural voters call for a more equitable distribution of political power and wealth, they pose an increasing threat to a deeply entrenched oligarchy in Bangkok.
The Thai military announced on Friday that an interim government would be set up by September, but it could take more than a year before the country is stable enough for elections.