Isaan Update: Focus on the Dao Din (Part 1)

The Dao Din are Thailand’s best known student activist group, with one activist (Pai) in prison for lèse-majesté and others facing charges of illegal assembly. Started fourteen years ago at the beginning of the Faculty of Law of Khon Kaen University, the nascent Dao Din consisted of first year students who went into the field on a project-by-project basis to survey the injustices faced by villagers in the Northeast. The Dao Din mainly consist of Faculty of Law students, around 90%, with another 10% coming from Humanities and Social Sciences, Economics, Engineering, Education, and Nursing. The following update relies on a focus group discussion held with five members of Dao Din on December 1, 2017 and covers their goals, political inclinations, relationship with Thainess, their media usage strategy, and financing. A second, follow-up column will address their their concern to be independent, their actions compared to those of other universities, membership, and viewpoint on student protests.

Goals

At present, the Dao Din are trying to survive the military dictatorship and to change the regime. Their main goals are to highlight the plight of villagers’ social problems and human rights issues in the Northeast and to pose the question why these problems are happening. They are not able to identify their most important project at present. This is because the relative importance of the projects can change rapidly depending on circumstances. It also appears the Dao Din’s egalitarian nature makes them reluctant to identity a single project as most important.

The Dao Din were asked whether they primarily saw themselves as engaged in a class struggle, in a struggle of the periphery against the center, or in an ethnic conflict, of the Thai Lao against the Central Thai. They said they were involved in all three, as they were interrelated. They were primarily involved in a struggle of the center versus the periphery because of the power imbalance, then secondarily in a class struggle and thirdly in an ethnic conflict. The issue of a power imbalance connected all three. If they could fight to reduce the power of central government, other people in the other groups (lower classes, ethnic minority communities) would have more power.

Because the Dao Din had protested against General Prayuth Chan-ocha using the three-fingered salute of The Hunger Games, the Dao Din were asked if they felt they were living in an empire, such as in the old British imperial system. They agreed that they felt they were, mainly because they felt the central government used resources from the regions to develop itself, not the villages of local people, in areas such as electricity. Thus, the Dao Din do not appear to be against development in itself.

The Dao Din are willing to ally themselves with anyone trying to confront the regime. They see villagers who see the world as they do as their natural allies, as well as those students who protested Khon Kaen University’s transition to an autonomous university. The Dao Din thus see themselves as representing village-level local issues and support a role for the public sector is providing education.

They also see as natural allies the Commoners’ Party of Thailand and the Neo Isan Movement. In both cases, Dao Din alumni are active members or leaders, thus they naturally support each other. This relationship is however not hierarchical but circular, consisting of themselves, the umbrella Neo-Isan Movement, the Commoners’ Party, and villager groups such as those in Loei protesting gold mining in Wang Saphung District and those in Nam Phong District protesting a variety of issues including polluted water. They also see their allies as including the New Democracy Movement, a loosely structured umbrella protest movement.

Other Dao Din allies exist in other regions of Thailand, including the Federation of Pattani Student and Youth (PerMas), in the Deep South, and Community Activists North in the North. The Dao Din work with these groups on major actions of overlapping interests, with the main common interest being similar opinions about centralised power.

The Dao Din see their main opponents as being, firstly, the capitalists causing the problems the villagers are facing, e.g., a factory, and secondly, those who blindly support the military. The Dao Din were clear that they do not consider the military, secret police, or police to be their enemies. They see those they encounter as individuals just doing their jobs.

Political Inclinations

The Dao Din were asked whether they thought Isan should have its own governing assembly, such as in the case of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. They were not able to say whether this would be good or not, though they preferred it over a unitary state. They felt democratically elected provincial government could also be good, although they questioned the need for a governor of any kind. Instead, they strongly endorse bottom-up democracy.

In effect, the Dao Din appear to support direct democracy, devolved to the lowest possible level, such as via the regular use of referenda, as in US states and in Switzerland’s canton system. Thus, they suggested Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) and Environmental Health Impact Assessments (EHIAs) should be voted on. The Dao Din pointed out that these processes involve democratic aspects but that these are largely not implemented. They suggested that village-level direct democracy would be ideal. In practise, the main self-governing unit in their opinion should be the city and town levels. This is because at this level, the governing unit is smaller, people can talk to the city government more easily, via the mayor or local elected village leader, or via the city council.

The Dao Din were asked about the case of the Phu Tai in Isan and whether the Phu Thai should also be self-governing along ethnic lines, i.e., whether the quasi-autonomy for the Deep South should be enjoyed along ethnic lines in other regions. At first, the Dao Din were not able to say whether a Phu Thai council would be better or not. This was regarded as a difficult question, as the Dao Din were not sure what such a council would do. The Dao Din emphasized that if people participated in direct democracy and knew their rights, this would be ideal. The Dao Din were then asked whether they would agree that the Phu Thai should have a mechanism to work together to levy taxes on themselves to build their own hospital. They agreed that local people should be able to do this, i.e., they supported loosely structured self-governing units.

Relationship with Thainess

The Dao Din believe Thainess should come from diversity, thus Myanmar and Lao people can be Thai, too, thus implying a broad and cosmopolitan concept of citizenship. The Dao Din do not believe in the concept of the state because the state relies on force to compel people to be Thai. The Dao Din believe that instead, local groups should have their own ability to determine their own futures according to their own styles and ideas. There is no need for a central government to determine the use of environmental resources. Bottom up is better in every aspect, thus full decentralisation is best.

Media Usage Strategy

The Dao Din used to publish accounts of their fieldwork in the Dao Din Magazine, a black and white photocopied handout published several times per year and distributed for a 1-2 baht voluntary contribution. At present, while the magazine is still active, the DD mainly use their own Facebook page for publicizing their actions and then repost this on their individual pages. They also liaise with villagers to spread the Dao Din message and also repost villagers’ posts. Dao Din do not have a central administrator for the page, in line with their organization as a leaderless collective, but first year Dao Din members are not allowed to post.

Financing

Financing is a major obstacle for the Dao Din, who in the past have been accused of being financed by Thaksin Shinawatra. In fact, the Dao Din mainly use their own money or raise money by playing guitar. They also band together with villagers to raise funds and homestay with villagers. Financing is a serious obstacle to developing Dao Din as they have a policy not to accept money from political sources.