ENGAGED THAI ACADEMICS
Land and Residential Property Issues
Political changes in 1973 led to the formation of the Farmers’ Federation of Thailand (FFT) in November 1974 with support from students and academics including Thawee Muennikorn, Warin Wonghanchao, and others. The FFT called for laws allowing access to land and forests. Between 1959 and 1966, farmers lost 172,869 rais (11,659.04 hectares) of their farming land and managed to lobby the government to set up the Farmers’ Debt Investigative Committee (FDIC) in 1975, but it later failed to solve the problems. Worse yet, the farmers’ subsequent moves were considered to be aligned with communism. They were thus harshly suppressed. Leaders were arrested, and as a result, the FFT administration ordered its members to strike back using the tactics that they had learned from the Village Scout training. This unfortunately led to clashes both in urban and rural areas. Furthermore, Boonsanong Punyodyana, a prominent scholar and Secretary-General of the Socialist Party of Thailand, who carried out political actions alongside villagers, was assassinated in 1976. In 1980 Jamrat Muangyam, the last FFT Chairperson, too was assassinated. This was a major blow that ended the farmers’ struggles for land reforms leaving the movement in the hands of small-scale farmer groups instead.
Farmers banded together again in 1992 with two large groups as the main force behind the movement. The first group consisted of small-scale farmers who formed a group called the Assembly of Small-scale Farmers, with the majority of its members from the Northeast. This group had at least 10 member groups with a total of at least 500,000 individual members. The other group was the Assembly of the Poor, which was composed of a network of civil society groups working on various causes, with around 300,000 members from all over the country. The new farmers’ movement was highly powerful in negotiating with the government on a number of issues ranging from farming land protection, negotiation for title deeds, anti-dam campaigning, anti-power plant campaigning, and support for alternative agricultures. Towards the end of 1996 the Assembly of the Poor organized a mass rally at the Government House with 1,000 protesters and demanded the government to address several issues, especially the compensation for state development projects that violated farmers’ living ways and deprived local villagers of their natural resources. In May 1997 the government negotiated with the protesters and later agreed to their demands. Academics who were involved in these struggles were Praphat Pintobtaeng, Banthorn On-dam and Surichai Wun’gaeo.
Subsequent struggles were marked by the movement of the Land Reform Network of Thailand, which had a specific goal of solving land issues. It gained support from NGOs and the Academic Assembly for the Poor, led by Nidhi Eoseewong. But then the military coup in 2006 suddenly stalled the government’s responses and negotiations. As a result, a large network of civil societies was formed under the People’s Movement for Just Society (known as P-move) under the support of NGOs and academics such as Duangmanee Laovakul, who led a talk with the government in October 2012 in an attempt to push for the Community Title Deeds Act, Progressive Land Tax Act, Land Bank Act as well as other efforts to solve problems in land use in several locations. But the government was weakened, so most attempts ended with failures.
After the 2014 military coups, civil society movements’ struggles became particularly difficult. Many arrests were made of protest leaders. This is not to mention issuances of laws benefiting large investment groups and state projects barring local residents’ access to their own land. People were forced out of the land on which their livelihoods depended. Agricultural product prices were unfair. These problems prompted the P-move to stage protests and demand solutions. Their demands were not well heeded, however. The protesters were also arrested many times. Later in 2017, the P-move attempted to intensify its pressure by meeting and negotiating with the prime minister (more suitably called “junta leader”), but all of their demands were rejected with threats given during the prime minister’s press conference.
Besides livelihood issues, the people’s network also advocated residential property problems such as calling for an establishment of a special cultural zone to save sea dwellers and the Karen ethnic group from being forced from places they lived. This was done under the support by the Institute of Social Research at Chulalongkorn University. The network further called for a distribution of vacant plots for those who did not own residential properties as well as an establishment of residential zones in newly established cities since 1987. This was done through the support and guidance of several academics including Akin Rapipat, Kuntonthip Panichapuk, Apiwat Ratanawaraha and Boonlert Visetpricha. The government then responded well to these calls. But it was not long before the 2006 coup took place after which these ideas were rejected.
Thai civil society’s movement regarding forest issues has been associated with the concept of “community forests”, which promotes human-forest co-existence. This is rooted in the events in 1989 in which Huai Kaew villagers in Mae On Sub-district, Chiang Mai Province fought against a company that won a forest concession from the government. The protesters argued that the management of the forest was not a rehabilitation effort as the company had claimed. Also, local villagers were not informed prior to the operation. They demanded that local government agencies and the Forest Department invoke the concession and allow them to manage the forest under the community forest program. The demand, however, was rejected, so the protesters thus submitted a petition to the provincial governor, the Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives, and even the Prime Minister, who was in town for the mobile cabinet meeting in Chiang Mai. But because all earlier attempts had failed, the villagers and university students decided to occupy the forest and asked the workers to stop their operation. Such confrontation resulted in some protest leaders’ being arrested while others’ being shot and killed mysteriously. The Forest Department then conducted an investigation that eventually led to the revocation of the concession. This case became widely publicized that created public awareness in the North regarding local communities’ participation in the management of forest resources. At that time the attempt that aimed to relocate inhabitants out of conserved forests failed. There was thus an attempt to push for community forest law, which would authorize people’s participation of forests in their locality.
In 1989 the Forest Department drafted the community forest law, but unfortunately there was no provision for the people’s rights to protect their forests. The law was largely about commercial use of forests. A year later, villagers, NGOs, and a group of academics including Chalatchai Ramitanon, Anan Kanjanapan, Chayan Vattanaputi jointly drafted the people’s community forest law and launched a campaign urging the House of Representatives to consider it alongside the Forest Department’s draft. With these two drafts in hand, the government ordered the Committee for the Distribution of Regional Prosperity to host a discussion between government officials, academics, private developers, and villagers on April 7-9, 1995 with the goal of proposing a new forest community draft to be endorsed by the committee. On April 30, 1996, the cabinet agreed to endorse the draft but environmental groups consisting of the Thammanat Foundation, Seub Nakhasathien Foundation, Green Earth Foundation, and the Society for the Conservation of National Treasure and Environment opposed the move arguing against having a community forest within conserved forested areas and allowing villagers make use or do any activity in conserved forests. This opposition led to a public hearing on the draft. Changes were later made that were purportedly based on the hearing but the villagers opposed the revised draft citing that the changes were not consistent with the outcome of the hearing.
The government subsequently set up a committee that revised the draft to make it consistent with the hearing results, but it still stipulated the barring a community forest within conserved forests. The people continued to oppose it. They later formed the Network of Northern Farmers to push for a state policy endorsing community rights in natural resources management and participation in policy making. In 1999, 50,000 people proposed to the National Assembly the newly drafted community forest law. The House of Representatives accepted the draft in principle and set up an ad hoc committee to consider it. No progress was made, however. The political crisis since the 2006 coup put the movement regarding community forest issues on hold.
Academics played an important role in promoting community forests. Yos Santasombat highlighted relationships between ethnic communities and forests as well as biodiversity. Chayan Vattanaputi, Pinkaew Laungaramsri, and academic institutions such as the Sociology and Anthropology Department at the Faculty of Social Sciences and the Center for Ethnic Studies and Development, at Chiang Mai University all advocated the concept of ethnoecology, which is concerned with the role of knowledge and local wisdom in forest use and management. This approach brings together cultural diversity and forest use without being marginalized or assimilated by the government. Research was conducted to explore the ethnoecology of biological resources and community rights in which not only forest use but also spiritual aspects were examined. In 1994 Chiang Mai University in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives conducted research on swidden agriculture. The findings in this research were applied to a great extent in the movement’s demands with respect to human-forest relationships.
However, recent political crises stalled the tide of the movement on community forest law. As of May 22, 2018 the National Legislative Assembly resolved to enact the law. But because the quorum was not met, the resolution was thus annulled. Since then there has been no attempt to reconsider the law.
Early fishery problems, around 1977 were characterized by tensions between local fisherfolk and trawlers who illegally fished 3,000 meters off the coast escaping authorities’ patrolling efforts. These trawlers were supported by local and outside financiers, politicians, and influential figures. Clashes occurred that resulted in deaths and injuries on both parties to the conflict.
In 1982 NGOs recognized this problem and began to work in fishing villages in order to improve the living quality of local, traditional fisherfolk and set up traditional fisherfolk groups/clubs. These groups/clubs later formed a network that eventually became the Federation of Southern Fisherfolk with support from academics such as Bampen Keowan. In 1994 different NGOs working with the Federation banded together and formed the Southern Fisherfolk NGO Network as a mechanism to support the work of the Federation.
In 1995 the Federation joined a brainstorming session in the drafting of the 8th National Economic and Social Development Plan (1997-2001) in order to set the direction in conserving and rehabilitating coastal resources. This was because the government planned to maximize fishery products in 1996. At the time commercial fishing gained a lot of governmental support. The Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives therefore issued numerous orders allowing destructive fishing gear to be used legally. Opposition ensued, especially in 1999 when Southern fisherfolk organized large scale protests with the assistance of such academics as Lertchai Sirichai and Narit Duangsuwan, who joined the protests to protect traditional fishing practices, oppose selective enforcement of laws, and conduct academic research alongside their protests.
Towards the end of the 40s and 50s fishing resources fell into the hands of business conglomerates while the local economy of fisherfolk was gloomy. With their disappearing cultural practices local fisherfolk thus hosted a protest march to the Government House, which was participated by academics from various institutions, who joined forces to support the local fisherfolk’s movement. They called for decentralized arrangement that would allow local fisherfolk to manage natural resources. They also called for a ban on trawling. NGOs such as the Green Net liaised with different fishing communities to form a network of traditional fishing and organic aquaculture resources aiming to educate locals on local fishery product development, to raise public awareness and support for traditional fishing, and to advocate activities calling for the government to support sustainable fishing.
However, in April, 2015 the European Union issued Thailand a yellow card for IUU (Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated) fishing. As a result, the junta government followed the EU regulations by revising laws, creating national fishery plans, setting up a system to control, monitor, and follow up on fishing practices, strictly enforcing laws, and setting up a flagged catch certification system for the issuance of catch certificates for the purpose of exporting to the EU. These were considered serious reforms under the 2015 Fishery Act and its amendments, which contain harsh punishments on violators. Other measures include national fishery management plans, a hi-tech tracking system for fishing vessels, Port-in Port-out centers off the coasts of 22 provinces to monitor fishing boats before they take off. These measures directly addressed problems caused by commercial fishing. They were fiercely opposed by commercial fishers. But with the powers of Article 44, the government succeeded in solving the IUU problems and the EU finally lifted the yellow card.
The junta government’s solutions to the IUU problems had a positive outcome for traditional fishing because they wiped out illegal commercial fishing, which had negatively affected local fishferfolk for a long time. Furthermore, even though the 2015 Act and its amendments confined traditional fishing to just within 3 nautical miles off the coasts, the network of local fisherfolk managed to negotiate with the authorities to where this restriction was not enforced. This is partly because the network leaders, especially those working for the NGOs, had a good relationship with the junta government.
The labor movement has a long history, which could be traced back to the period before World War II. The Tram Workers Association was established in 1897 with the support from the government. Its goal was to negotiate with owners, most of whom were foreigners. Later in 1946 as the country was recovering from World War II, a number of labor unions were formed in different industries including printing workers, transportation workers, and pedicab drivers. In 1947 the Bangkok Labor Association was established. Their members came from 50 industries. Similar associations were also formed later, all of which were legally endorsed by the 1956 Labor Act, which allowed labor unions to be formed. The law was abolished by the 1958 military coup, however. Large unions then either became illegal and were shut down, or were split into smaller associations with much more limited bargaining powers.
However, political changes during 1973 brought about a renewed effort to form labor groups with the aid of university academics and students. More than 100 labor unions were created which became part of a network under the National Coordinating Center for Laborers. Its members staged demonstrations calling for increased wages and a new labor law but were met with a violent response with assassinations of many protest leaders. Eventually most labor organizations collapsed as a result of harsh suppressions by government after the tragic October 6 event in 1976.
Labor groups resumed their movement activities between 1987 and 1997 because of the ease of political tensions, but they were not as large as they used to be. They were smaller groups or unions advocating negotiations with business owners and the government on certain issues. Their typical moves included hosting strikes, staging demonstrations in front of businesses, occupying factories, gathering to submit petitions to the government. Their main grievances were exploitation by business owners and the government’s policy that was anti-union or curbed laborers’ freedom of expression. Labor groups also joined political activities as well. These groups included the Multi-industry Laborers, the Coordinating Center for Laborers, the Labor Union Council, Thailand’s Labor Council, Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) Labor Union, State Enterprises Workers' Relations Confederation, Thai Labor Solidarity Committee (The Omnoi-Omyai District group). During this period of time, many academics supported these groups especially in their demands regarding the Social Security Act. These academics included Nikom Chantharawitoon and economics professors from Chulalongkorn University such as Lae Dilokvidhyarat and Voravid Jaroenlerd.
Political problems since the end of 2005 created a deep divide in the labor movement because of differences in ideologies, goals, and approaches on various issues including the exclusion of state enterprises from the Labor Relations Act and a constitution draft allowing an unelected prime minister. Some labor groups joined the People’s Alliance for Democracy (also known as the “Yellow Shirts”) in ousting former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and supported the 2006 coup. Others opposed the coup and joined the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (or the “Red Shirts”).
The 2014 coup brought nearly all union activities to a standstill because business owners often used the political situation as an excuse to call off negotiations. More importantly, the declaration of martial law and other special rules effectively barred unions from staging protests. Many union leaders were summoned to report themselves at military bases. Given their dwindling bargaining powers and decreasing numbers of union members, many unions simply collapsed. The remaining unions thus cooperated as a network with support from academics. For example, Napaporn Ativanichayapong took into account the role of labor unions, NGOs, and academics in designing a network of labor unions under the concept of social movement unionism (SMU) while Lae Dilokvidhyarat hosted seminars that supported union movements on various issues. In addition to this, many labor unions joined movements on natural resources such as the P-move, but their demands tended to fall on deaf ears of the totalitarian military government.
However, the labor force represented the people’s participation that played a big part in determining policies of political parties running in the 2019 general elections. In this, academics acted an important link. Sustarum Thammaboosadee, an academic who is associated with the Future Forward Party, considered demands by labor unions in designing welfare state policies including universal pensions, which would improve workers’ post-retirement living quality based on tax money and social security policies for informal workers, which would allow them to have benefits closer to those of government officials. These moves are an attempt to push for labor rights and the reduction of inequality in the long run.