Partyforumseasia: The province of Suphan Buri hast lost its patron and benefactor for decades. The 21st Prime Minister of Thailand, Banharn Silpa-archa, has so successfully channeled subsidies and development projects to his home turf and power base that the province was also known as Banharn Buri…
Banharn, who was also long term leader of the Chart Thai Pattana Party, died on April 23 at a hospital in Bangkok. After a royal sponsored funeral ceremony, attended by all top political leaders of the country, his urn was transferred to Suphan Buri.
The origins of his political career sound a bit like a fairy tale. The son of a Chinese shopkeeper in Suphan, he came to Bangkok as a teenager and helped his elder brothers in their coffee shop. Bringing coffee to the nearby Public Works Department, he met officials from his home province. When he later started a construction company they granted him a 10 year monopoly for tap water installation all over the country which made him rich. And he spent much of his money in his home province, building schools and hospitals and bringing in the royal family for their openings. The role of benevolent and generous businessmen in Thai politics has been enormous. And Banharn may be one of the most interesting examples of their ascendance to huge political influence and control of their home turf. The local denomination for these men is „chao pho“ or „nak leng“, oscillating between patron and godfather. But this influence was also promoting massive vote buying. Banharn brought money by truckloads to the rural areas which owned him the dubious nickname of “Mr. ATM” or Mr Automatic Teller Machine… Consequently, his serial re-elections were landslide victories between 60 and 90 %!!
The endemic proliferation of vote buying with vote-traders ( „hua khanaen“ ) offering their services, including a guaranteed win, to the highest bidder, irrespective of which party, was detrimental to Thailand’s once famed democratization. It is noteworthy that during the democratization process since 1973 many of the patron-godfathers moved up into party politics, the parliament and the cabinets, which allowed even bigger financial benefits and direct influence on the distribution of development projects. Banharn’s Suphan Buri province has thus been blessed with the best roads, schools, hospitals, and general infrastructure in Thailand.
Could the death of Banharn Silpa-archa be “the end of an era” like some commentators suggested, or even symbolize an end to money politics in Thailand? Unfortunately, that sounds too nice to be true. What Banharn has started in big style has been perfected by Thaksin Shinawatra, money politics extended to the whole country.
One persistently festering problem of the country is “A Culture of Impunity”, highlighted recently (27th May) by the Bangkok Post (Link):
“…a long-standing problem in our society – the inability to enforce the rule of law. (…) Money, power and connections can influence the enforcement of the law in other countries too. But in Thailand, we have examples that are more glaring and blatant. (…) While we despise and condemn the fact that the rich and wealthy can get away with murder, we must also accept that the general public here do not respect the rule of law.”
The military regime declares that it stands for law and order and against the dirty politics of the political parties. Cleaning up money politics, however, is a daunting task nearly everywhere, but especially in Southeast Asia.