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Three years after coup, rural Thais yearn for democracy
[KHON KAEN, Thailand] Three years after their latest coup, Thailand's arch-royalist military is firmly dug-in.
Dissent is banned, a junta-appointed legislature makes the law - and awards the army an ever-burgeoning budget - while a new constitution gifts the military power to write the script for Thailand's next 20 years.
But discontent lingers and is at its sharpest in the country's poor but populous northeast, where the lacklustre economy and strict curbs on free expression are biting hard.
The rice-farming region, known as Isaan, is home to a third of the country's population and some of its poorest provinces.
People here voted in droves for Yingluck Shinawatra, whose elected government was toppled on May 22, 2014, by army chief turned premier Prayut Chan-O-Cha.
These days junta critics risk arrest if they speak out - while soaring prosecutions under the country's draconian royal defamation law are also stifling debate.
But in conversations with AFP reporters, opinions from Isaan varied from outright anger at Prayut's autocratic agenda to acceptance of army rule as a bitter tonic to years of violent street protests.
Yet all expressed a longing for a return to democracy and a chance to have their voice heard once again.
The old man "I want democracy, but the junta won't let it happen," said a 73-year-old man from Buriram province, who requested anonymity for fear of arrest.
"Nowadays we are under them, we cannot speak much. Even talking like this can land me in jail." "I cannot do anything, speaking in groups of five or six people is not allowed," he said, referring to a junta ban on political gatherings to head off protests.
"The Prime Minster talks a lot but he doesn't achieve anything," he said of junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha, who gives televised primetime addresses every Friday night to the nation.
"I'm not sure if (other Thais) want democracy because I don't know what is in their hearts. But I want it."
"At first we thought (Prayut) was a dictator, said 53-year-old Wassana Leepan, a farmer in Khon Kaen province, a heartland for the now silent pro-democracy 'Red Shirt' street movement.
"But later he did what previous governments have done, which was help rice farmers. It's a way for (the army) to campaign for themselves. They do good things and then villagers like them."
Farmers from the agrarian northeast formed the bedrock of support for the ousted government, which lavished Thailand's poorest region with agricultural subsidies and other rural stimulus programmes.
The junta has tried to stave off fresh political unrest with more than US$1 billion in cash handouts of its own.
"The junta gave us three things: 800 baht (S$32) per rai (around half an acre) to harvest rice, money for fertilisers and then money when we had a drought," explained Wassana.
"I admit that they helped," she said.
"But I still want an election... we want to be able to express what we like, who will be good for us.
"With elected politicians, if they are not good then at least they will not stay in power for more than four years anyway."
"If we want to conduct seminars, in terms of environmental issues or in terms of decentralisation issues, we cannot do that. We have to ask for permission (from authorities)... mostly they do not allow us," said Sataporn Roengtam, an assistant professor of public policy at Khon Kaen Universisty.
"We have to be really concerned about the presentation of our ideas." "The first thing that you cannot do is (violate) lese majeste," he told AFP, referring to a draconian law that bars criticising Thailand's monarchy with up to 15 years in prison per offence.
"The second thing you have to be really concerned about is critiquing the Prime Minister," he said of junta chief Prayut.
"We are not free to express things that we should be able to voice, such as when we think something is unfair." "This government always claims that they are working for the public interest... but in terms of local interest they don't care about who will lose out from their projects, where those people go or what will happen to their families."
"It's good that it's peaceful and there isn't any chaos. But (ingredients) are at least 50 per cent more expensive," said Srisupan Boonprom, who sells one of Isaan's most famous dishes: a spicy papaya salad known as som tam.
The junta has taken the most heat for failing to revive the kingdom's flagging economy, which is one of the worst performing in Southeast Asia.
"Other people also complain that the economy is getting worse. My customers come here and eat and I hear them complain that the economy is bad," said the 52-year-old, who runs a restaurant in Khon Kaen province.
"I haven't gotten a lot of profit (since the coup) because things are so expensive." "I want elections and a return to democracy, because then many things will be better like they were before when we used to have elected representatives."