This article wants to take the opinions on the referendum by people in Mukdahan province to argue against the claims put forward by the junta and its minions including politicians, academics, and the media, that northeasterners' are backward in politics, and against the superficial attitudes generally held by the urban middle class towards the rural poor.
Why people in Mukdahan didn't accept the charter.
Mukdahan province has some interesting characteristics:
1. Its people are mostly rural poor farmers, less sensitive to economic changes than urban people;
2. The province is not a stronghold of any particular political party, but is an area of constant contests among many parties such as Thai Rak Thai, Democrat, Chat Thai, Ratsadorn, Social Action, etc.;
3. Because it is not a Thai Rak Thai stronghold, Mukdahan has not been among the provinces under the martial law since the Sept 19 coup.
Despite no martial law, in the run-up to the referendum there had been movements by the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) and the various arms of the Interior Ministry: calls for meetings among heads of subdistricts and villages, villagers' pledging ceremonies for democracy development, the democracy development volunteers project, the prime minister's official visit, seminars of community leaders, opinion surveys, publicity brochures by the provincial authorities and the ISOC, meetings and seminars organized by various agencies which receive funding from the government, and local politicians' campaigns. All these were claimed to be done to persuade the people to exercise their right in the referendum, but were in fact propaganda to vote in favor of the draft constitution.
The authorities arguments as to why the people should vote for the draft charter:
1. The draft charter is more democratic than previous ones, and more beneficial to the people;
2. If rejected, the country would face unrest, there would be no general election, and probably bloodshed (don't make the military lose patience!);
3. The King wants the draft to be accepted. The King is old, and has made so many sacrifices, accept it for him.
In contrast, opponents of the draft charter only held small meetings in some areas, distributing documents explaining the illegitimate origin, process, and content of the draft, either those accepted and concealed by the charter drafters. There was no vote buying, no movements of opposing politicians and monks.
Opinions among Mukdahan people can be summarized as follows:
1. Those in favor of the charter want to have a general election, and bring the situation back to normalcy;
2. Those opposing the charter did not have sufficient time to read it, did not trust the drafters, and disliked the military and bureaucratic domination. (Note: no one mentioned the refusal to declare Buddhism national religion)
In the referendum, 104,907 people or 75.24% of eligible voters in Mukdahan rejected the charter. The province came third among the northeastern provinces that rejected the charter. The ‘no' votes were more than double the votes that Thai Rak Thai received in the 2006 general election (49,709).
According to Somkiat Pongpaiboon, an academic, columnist and staunch advocate of the coup and Democracy, the northeasterners' rejection of the charter resulted from two causes: the influence of the Thai Rak Thai Party, and the guidance of monks who rejected the charter. If so, how can the result in Mukdahan be explained?
The author believes that all the attempts made by the powers-that-be have backfired: the one-sided claims emphasizing only the advantages of the charter (which is a distorted fact in itself), the references to maintaining peace in the country, mention of the highest institution, the constant presence of security officials in most meetings and gatherings in communities, and the one-sided media representations consistently attacking the Thai Rak Thai and charter opponents, especially the accusations that Isan people received money to shoot down the charter.
Working in favor of rejection were the authoritarian bureaucratic administration, the signs of corruption in government projects such as the Happy Living Project which is among the schemes condemned as populist by the junta, and the lack of progress in the government's performance including the economic downturn and the rising price of commodities (30 baht a kilogram for sticky rice in contrast to 22 baht a kilogram for regular rice). All these influence people's feelings and may have contributed to the people in Mukdahan rejecting the drafter.
The result is a humble response of the poor in Isan to the junta. It is up to the junta, the middle class, academics, democracy advocates, and the media to listen to them and consider their voice with as much weight and dignity as that of the middle class and those in other parts of the country.
If the middle class, with their education, economic status and intelligence, who are in a better position to grab the ideals of Democracy, condemn the Isan people's courage and will to reject the charter as the actions of uneducated vote-sellers, greedy for immediate returns, and manipulated by political parties, the Isan people would probably ask in reply what the middle class's acceptance of the charter has to do with the ideology of Democracy. Is it just that they want to end conflict, to see an improved economy, and to console the King, and are afraid of bloodshed? If that I all it is, their ‘yes' vote means nothing in terms of the ideology of Democracy.
Violence after the referendum
Some non-violence advocates accept the Sept 19 coup because it was bloodless. By the same token, the Aug 19 referendum should also be non-violent. However, the coup leader Gen Sonthi Boonyaratkalin has claimed that the 14 million votes in favor of the charter were pure, and instructed the security forces to solve problems in the red zones where the charter was rejected. Is he implying the 10 million ‘no' votes are impure? What does the junta think is the problem? And how will they solve problems? What will happen to the Isan people, as the votes were counted at the polling booths, revealing how those villagers in each village see the security agencies?
Violence does not mean only physical violence. Is the reaction of Gen Sonthi as well as Isan academic Somkiat in condemning Isan people also deemed violent? Citing only the 14 million ‘yes' votes as a victory while dismissing the 10 million ‘no' votes and those who did not vote, and seeing them as the problem is the same as dividing the country into two factions. If so, what happened to the idea of ending divisions in the country, which was among the justifications of the coup? Where is the difference between the Thaksin government and the junta? And what about the junta's promise to end conflict if people voted for the draft charter? The poor in Isan can see only contempt and disrespect for their decision. Apart from the structural violence of perpetuating economic inequity, there is also the violence of disrespecting differences in thought, culture, and human dignity in Thai society.
While in Isan there are many thinkers, writers, pundits, justice advocates, academics, NGOs, etc., who love and know every aspect of Isan, the author wonders why no one has yet come out to defend the 5 million Isan people who have been condemned by the junta and its minions. So I wonder whether they agree with the junta and the middle class or whether their courage has given out.
Translated by Ponglert Pongwanan