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Thais doubt election will herald change

Loyalty to former PM Thaksin remains strong in Isan but voters are wary of the junta's stacked deck

ucanews.com reporter, Udon Thani

ucanews.com reporter, Udon Thani

Updated: March 19, 2019 04:55 AM GMT
Thais doubt election will herald change

Posters promoting political parties vie for the attention of potential voters on a street corner in the city of Udon Thani in northeastern Thailand. Many people in the northeast fear the coming elections will make little difference to their lives. (ucanews.com photo)

The loudspeaker mounted on the back of a cruising pickup truck is blaring a monotonic message about the need for “political reform” to prospective voters around the eponymous capital city of Udon Thani province.

That’s hardly unusual. In the run-up to Thailand’s national election on March 24, numerous candidates from several political parties are vying for votes in this northeastern city of 250,000 people.

What may seem unusual, though, is the fact that this specific party is reaching out to locals in Udon Thani at all. The truck has been hired by the Action Coalition for Thailand, a recently launched party fronted by Suthep Thaugsuban, a controversial figure from the country’s south.

It was Suthep who spearheaded months-long street rallies in Bangkok in early 2014 against Thailand’s last democratically elected government.

The raucous protests, which at times turned violent, served as a pretext for the Thai military to stage a coup in May that year with the ostensible aim of “pacifying” and “unifying” a politically divided country. The junta has been in charge ever since, stifling dissent.

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After walking back on its repeated promises for a parliamentary election, the military government has finally allowed a poll to proceed.

The government that was ousted by the army in 2014 had been headed by Yingluck Shinawatra, the country’s first-ever female prime minister. She was routinely mocked and insulted by Suthep and other anti-government firebrands as a venal and daft puppet of her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a previous prime minister whose government was also overthrown in a coup, in 2006.

Both Thaksin and Yingluck have fled into self-imposed exile to avoid being sentenced to prison on corruption charges, which they have labelled politically motivated.

If comments by locals in Udon Thani are anything to go by, Suthep’s Action Coalition for Thailand won’t be a formidable force at the ballot box in this electorally vital region of Thailand.

“People here are willing to throw their support behind whoever will genuinely try to make their lives better,” says a locally based university lecturer who asked to remain anonymous. “But many people do have their political preferences.”

And those preferences appear to be with the proxy parties of ex-premier Thaksin, who retains widespread support in Udon Thani and elsewhere across the populous northeast region of Thailand known locally as Isan.

“I’ll vote for Pheu Thai again,” a street vendor declares, referring to the main Thaksin-allied political party.

Suthep Thaugsuban (right), founder of Action Coalition for Thailand party, gestures as he campaigns with local officials at a market in Thailand's southern province of Narathiwat on Feb. 24, ahead of the March 24 national election. (Photo by Madaree Tohlala/AFP)


Conservative politics with a royalist bent

Since 2001, parties allied with Thaksin have won every single democratically held election. Only the first Thaksin-led government was allowed to serve its full term, however. All the other elected governments, headed by his proxies, were either deposed in a military coup or forced out of office via mass protests by the so-called yellow shirts, who were implacably opposed to Thaksin.

“I’m concerned that if Pheu Thai wins again, the yellow shirts will come out again [onto the streets] and start to protest,” the vendor adds. “They don’t want us to have our say [in how the country is run]. They think we are ignorant and we don’t know any better.”  

Hailing mostly from Bangkok’s middle and upper classes, as well as Thailand’s south where Suthep’s brand of conservative politics with a royalist bent has long dominated, the yellow shirts accused Thaksin of being irredeemably corrupt.

His opponents attributed the charismatic billionaire turned politician’s phenomenal electoral success to rigging elections through wholesale vote buying in the rice-farming communities of Isan.

No evidence of such large-scale vote buying by Thaksin’s parties has ever been produced. Instead, the politician earned the support of people in Isan through well-conceived government-sponsored development projects and other initiatives such as a universal health care scheme. They helped lift millions of people out of grinding poverty in Thailand’s rural hinterlands.  

In response to mass protests by the yellow shirts, tens of thousands of people wearing red shirts flocked from Isan to Bangkok to stage mass protests of their own in support of the beleaguered ex-prime minister and his political allies.

During a crackdown on red shirt protesters who had shut down parts of central Bangkok in 2010, more than 90 red shirts, almost all of them unarmed civilians, were gunned down by the Thai army. No soldier has ever been charged with shooting dead those civilians.

“We risked our lives during the protest in Bangkok,” recalls a tuk-tuk driver who plies his trade in the center of Udon Thani city. “I saw people get shot. Many of us barely made it out safely.”

He remains resentful of the army’s conduct during those days. He’s equally resentful of the military’s seizure of power from a government that voters like him in Isan had helped elect. “They have guns,” he observes laconically. “What can we do?”

Times have been hard for most locals in Udon Thani under the military government, the tuk-tuk driver explains. “It’s hard to make a living now. You can ask anybody here and they’ll tell you the same,” attests the man, who is in his late 40s and wears several protective amulets and lucky charms on a chain around his neck. “The generals don’t care about little people like us.”

Although signs of extreme poverty are rare around town, where locals are unfailingly polite with visitors from out of town, Udon Thani is a world away from the glitzy malls of central Bangkok with their luxury brands. Many people here eke out livings through farming or manual labor, selling food on streets and running small businesses.

There is a palpable sense of disillusionment with little overt signs that locals expect the outcome of the upcoming election to usher in drastic change in their lives.

The junta has stacked the deck in its favor by drafting a new constitution that grants an outsize role in the running of the country to unelected and unaccountable officials handpicked by the generals.

“I’ve voted for Pheu Thai before,” says the owner of a curbside refreshments and snacks kiosk. He lounges on a street bench in the afternoon heat for want of customers. “I’ll vote for them again.”

Will that make a difference, does he think?

“I don’t know,” he acknowledges with a flickering smile. “Maybe not.”

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