The aircraft’s twin-engine roared as the ATR72-200’s breaks into slow submission to the kiss of earth. Finally, in a small landing field with a runway and surrounded by dark, brown-reddish earth and short trees. The one-hour flight from Bangkok was uneventful, and I even managed to catch a nap. Buri Ram airport, a small attractively odd building, in an old-fashioned way, with nearby shrubs gently swaying to the wind.
Sling bag tugging heavily on my right shoulder as I walked past a nodding man with a walkie talkie. Smiling lips on a weather-beaten face, he said in English, “Hello, welcome.” I returned the smile, offering my thanks “Kob kun krab” (Thank you, in Thai). Undeniably the security guard is no stranger to seeing foreigners giving blank looks around the airstrip or the Malaysian who walks in hiking boots, this particular footgear that are perhaps uncommon in this rural part of Thailand.
I would have liked to explore Buri Ram province but I had several tight schedules with my local guide, who hails from Maha Sarakham province. He was waiting for me, outside of the airport; a handsome young man peeking anxiously at the glass in an attempt to locate me. Simply known as Nat among his friends, he smiled as I emerged from the door, then we departed in his old pickup truck after the usual exchange of wai – the ritual Thai greeting of palm pressed together with a slight head-bow.
On the well-maintained straight road, an enjoyable peaceful cruise far different from the madness of Bangkok’s urban traffic madness. My eyes absorbed the paddy fields, from my right to my left, dotted with small trees, the roadside farmers selling watermelon and modest houses with similar architecture in some parts of rural southeast Asia. Then the one-hour journey led us on foot on a dirt road. The dry soil, brittle and clump of dry cray balls cracked under my boots as we walked. Nat is a patient guide, joining me for kretek smokes, and found the Indonesian clove-cigarettes to be sweet.
In good time, after passing the towering haystacks and livestock, we reached Kurang, the first village on my list. A small population, about 300 villagers who’s primary occupation is farming, living in homes, some on stilts while other structures made from cement and bricks. The dirt road, the narrow passage in between the houses, revealing life with children running about while adults gave me cautious smiles and looks. Nat is well known in this part, from what I observed, as the villagers spoke to him with ease.
After the wai, we sat cross-legged on a elevated porch, without shoes and slippers; the modest house belonged to Nu’yang, a 51-year-old farmer. She has two children, both in their mid-20s, working in Bangkok. Her curious grandson ventured closely, to watch us. Again, more pleasantries and nods, and inquiring looks. Nat doubled as translator.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” I started, then gestured with my right hand to the nearby houses.
Nu’yang smiled, as she playfully hugged her grandson. The breeze, along with the evening cold air, was refreshing and I was beginning to feel relaxed.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“Malaysia” I replied, “In my country, some of the rural houses look the same as the houses here, especially the ones on stilts and made from wood.”
We continued from there, about the houses of farmers, the farms and the rice. Naturally I was keen to know about what she thought of the government’s rice-pledging scheme. The promise made to farmers was on a fixed price for their rice harvests, and to do away with the middlemen. The villagers saw the role of the middleman as a capitalistic parasite between farmers and consumers.
Yet the scheme is not without challenges, darkened by rumors and often those in Bangkok’s political circles would say that it needs to be completely overhauled, or removed and return to the old ways of dealing in rice with middlemen and what is seen as a lop-sided venture. Though Nu’yang disagreed with this. She has faith, in the government and despite the allegation of corruption in the scheme, she believes the Pheu Thai party-led institution was working towards ensuring that the rural farmers earn a sustainable, fair income.
“Has the government paid you for your harvest?” I asked.
“No.” She replied.
“There is a delay in the payment?” I continued.
“Yes.” She answered calmly.
“Do you know the reason why the government has not paid you?” I asked.
“Mob.” Nu’yang replied.
The “mob” was the only English word she uttered. Quite a common word, to be uttered by Thais whether from the slums of Bangkok, to the high-society of Thailand’s capital, to the fishermen in the southern provinces of Thailand. Here, in this northeastern province, even the rural farmers are well aware of its meaning. Nu’yang associates “mob” with Suthep Thaugsuban, the former democract party leader, a former member of parliament to the Surat Thani province. Suthep, runs the “Bangkok Shutdown” movement, and is the chief behind the so-called “People’s Democratic Reform Committee” (PDRC) which is trying to derail the February 2 general election.
“Because of mob (political unrest in Bangkok), the government has called for (an) election. Because of Suthep, the election commission limits the government for paying us. I can’t get my payment because the EC may see that as corruption.” She explains.”
Nat and Nu’yang excitedly talked about the EC’s regulation on pre-election protocols, where disbursement of funds by government had to be controlled to avoid corruption that would sway the voters. Though I firmly believe that such regulations should not hamper what the farmers had a right to, which is the payment for their rice harvest. Unlike its counterpart in Malaysia, Thailand’s EC is independent of Yingluck Shinawatra’s government. However just because the EC is “independent” does not mean the commission’s internal politics was not laced with impartiality. The EC members are not elected by the people, nor does the organization’s mechanism subjected to accountability and transparency.
“How will the delay (in payment) affect you and your family?” I asked.
“It has not. Not much. The agriculture bank doesn’t take our land. They know our situation. And my husband and I have livestock (buffaloes) and we are not worried. This village helps our people, we have sufficient income-generating projects because we work together.” Nu’yang explained. “We worry too much if mob (PDRC) prevent us from voting, prevent government from doing their job.”
I sat back, wondering and thinking of rice, something urban folks in the region take for granted despite rice being part of the daily staple diet of most in this region of 600-million people. We consume the rice, aye, but society’s indifference to the lives that work in hardship just so as we could consume our food. Am I of the opinion that farmers in this village are dependent on their government? Maybe, however I am not them, and rural folks must be respected to make their own informed views and decisions best suited for them, their families and their village, and in the name of peace and community empowerment. Is that not what self-determination is about?
They, like many outside of the bourgeois circles, work hard in a dry terrain, blasted by the sunlight, away from the submission of extreme urban capitalism and luxuries, to find simplistic joy, of what they grow using their hands.