David Streckfuss published an article in the Wall Street Journal that is very critical of the current government’s strategy. Worth a read, specially in terms of how it portrays the current situation in Isaan:
Fearing arrest or worse, many leaders have fled the region, gone underground or remained silent. They worry they are being watched and that their phones are bugged. Many are reluctant to meet with journalists or human-rights groups. There is a perception among red shirts that the government can do virtually anything it wants under the emergency law.
Left without access to red-shirt radio or television, many families have chosen to listen to nothing at all. They say watching the government-controlled news or even reading the newspaper upsets them too much.
The silence and the appearance of normality in the northeast, however, is deceiving. They mask feelings of fear, frustration, disgust and anger.
Historically, the mood now is not like after the coup in 2006 or even after the military crackdown in 1992 when scores of demonstrators were reported killed. It is more like Thailand after the bloody suppression of students at Thammasat in October 1976.
But best to read the whole thing here: Life Under Abhisit’s Thumb: The Thai government cracks down on dissent in the restive northeast
One of the ways to eradicate poverty in Thailand’s poorest region, the north-eastern area known as Isaan, has been to introduce new cash crops that can deal with the comparatively poor agricultural conditions. General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh introduced the Green Isaan (Isaan kiew) policy back in 1989 which saw large areas of land cultivated with rubber trees for the first time. This policy was re-emphasised under Thai Rak Thai, which had as a central policy the redistribution of resources and eradication of poverty throughout the Kingdom. In that period, the amount of land growing rubber trees was multiplied.
Rubber is usually grown in the south of Thailand, where the higher levels of rainfall are more suitable for the trees. However, there is a lack of affordable land for expansion of rubber plantations in the south and demand for the product is increasing now that the wood is considered suitable for furniture (we have some rubber wood furniture, although I cannot remember exactly what it is – but I do remember buying it). So, the opportunity in Isaan is evident, especially when new varieties can be developed that are resistant to drought and other weather conditions traditionally unhelpful for rubber.
The reasons for expanding rubber plantations in Isaan go beyond just providing an alternative cash crop for local people and also include alternative employment opportunities and the chance of reducing flooding in the region – large-scale deforestation across Thailand has made flooding during the rainy (monsoon) season a much more dangerous undertaking since the tree roots that once held the moisture in the soil had all gone. Then, after the floods, come droughts since again the roots do not hold the water. More trees should help to reduce the problem, although monocropping (as has been tried with the fast-growing eucalyptus trees from Australia) has previously caused problem of depletion of resources within the soil.
By the way, all that stuff about koala bears being stoned on eucalyptus leaves all day long and having to cling to the trunk for dear life turns out not to be true, sadly.
As most people know, many taxi drivers are from the Isaan region in the northeast of Thailand It is known as the poorest part of the Kingdom, largely because of the lack of natural resources and because the fertility of most of the land is low – there is a big salt pan which sits beneath the surface and is to blame for this.
The result is that for generations a tradition has developed which sees Isan people travel for work – most commonly coming to Bangkok. Hence, the taxi drivers.
Thai speakers can identify them immediately by their distinctive accent but there are other clues too. The first of these is a predilection for luktung (Thai country music) that is manifested by listening to the radio station that specialises in it (called Radio Luktung – the clue is in the name) or else listening to the kind of CD on which every song begins with a woman singing ‘oooooeeey’ and then going on to bemoan all the terrible things that have happened.
There are some similarities with American country music before it got all Christian and right wing, when it used to have at least an occasional element of protest about how rubbish everything was and they rather suspected it might be something to do with the bosses.
Well, Isan people do suffer from some measure of prejudice which attaches to most people who are poor or contribute to migrant labour. This is partly mitigated by the fact that nearly all Thai people are related to at least one Isan resident, because the people themselves are usually presented in a non-threatening manner and because Thais seem to have the same reverent attitude towards the farming village as the true home of the people that is called in Japanese furusato.
Of course, that does not mean that most people not fairly keen to get off the farm as soon as possible.
Bat kebab anyone? This is, apparently, one of the favourite dishes of villagers in the north-eastern province of Kalasin. Baan Toom residents, the older ones at least, are partial to the flying creatures. Prayers are offered to the spirits of the about-to-be-eaten bats, led by a local monk, and then nets are bashed into the canopies of sugar palm trees in which the bats like to sleep. The bats are startled (so would I be) and fall into the net. They are then incapacitated (probably through a swift bash on the noggin) and the fur removed. One method of preparation is to make bat larb – visitors to Thailand will no doubt be familiar with pork or duck versions of the dish. The meat is minced and cooked with ground rice, chilis, herbs and served with raw vegetables and sticky rice – very tasty it is too (I have not tried the bat version).
An alternative is to plunge the bats into boiling water and then grilling them over charcoal or deep frying them. The ‘mouse bats,’ khangkao noo in the demotic, are not just delicious in their own right but can assist men with their, so to speak, stamina.
The bat is just one source of unusual food for Isaan people of the North-East, which is a particularly poor part of the country owing to the low fertility of the soil (salt underlies much of it) and the unpredictability of the monsoon season. People also eat beetles, locusts, lizards and a variety of other living things that most other people are able to disdain. Indeed, even Kalasin youngsters seem to be turning away from the practice, as they turn away from so many other habits of the past which now seem undesirable in a globalizing world – no one on MTV would eat bats and neither will they. Possibly good for the bats themselves, though.
I wrote an article a while ago about other unusual food that Thai people eat, which you can find here. I was not the one to employ the E word.