During the past month, I have been collecting data for my doctoral thesis on community development programmes in Songkhla province, southern Thailand. I also took this opportunity to interview villagers and NGO figures I met on the present political conflict in Thailand, and about why certain aspects of political conditions in the South are different from other regions in Thailand.
Picture 1: Songkhla is General Prem’s birthplace. This is why they have the General Prem Historical Park is based there. As an aside, Songkhla’s famous Tinsulanonda Bridge was built when Samak Sundaravej was in Prem’s Cabinet as the Minister of Transportation.
For many explanations of the present political conflict in Thailand, the southern provinces appear to outliers. In other regions of Thailand, there seems to be a considerable divide of political affiliation between the lower class and other classes. Interestingly, such a divide of political affiliation has not happened in the south. Thaksin was and remains unpopular among most people in the South, rich and poor alike. In addition, the Democrat Party has been the most popular in the region; so popular that there was almost no competition against them in most elections during the past few decades.
The Southern puzzle makes the analysis of Thailand’s present political problems more complicated. It is tempting to leave the region as an outlier, citing the “particularity” of the region as reason enough to dismiss its relevance. However, understanding the outlier may also provide a more comprehensive perspective on the process that renders social and political outcomes. Although such outcomes in terms of political affiliation are different, the process that produces the difference may be similar. Hence, in this report, I aim to incorporate what I found from interviewing people in the South, especially the poor, to provide a better understanding of the political conflict in Thailand. This report contains two sections. The first deals with general questions relating to politics in the South, with a focus on why people support the Democrats and why they don’t have much time for Thaksin. The second section answers questions that are more specific to the Red Shirt protest in May 2010; indeed, what are the Southern people’s views on “Prong-Dong”(Harmony) and “Prab-Pram”(Suppression)?
I write this report from interviews I conducted during 10-19 May 2010. My interviewees were mainly rural people involved in community development programmes; I interviewed around 15 of them for this report. I interviewed them mostly in groups of 3-5 people. I also had a chance to interview two prominent NGO figures individually.
Picture 2: Some farmers that I interviewed
Politics in the South: Personalisation, Personal Ties, and Morality
I found the reactions I got when asking why Southern people support the Democrat Party to be quite intriguing. Most interviewees could not provide a clear answer to this question right away. Their initial reaction was that they, like me, are also puzzled. It is worth noting that none of the people I interviewed declared themselves as a Democrat supporter. They tried to keep some distance from the party when providing answers. They said they also felt the Democrats have not done much at all to the Southern region. One of my informants, a farmer, said; “look at what politicians like Banharn (Silpa-archa) did to his province, we (the Southern people) have no one like that here. We have voted for the Democrats for a long time but they have completed very little improvement for us”. Another informant argued that Democrats MPs in Songkhla are rarely accessible to local people. He said; “we elected them, and they are gone from us”.
However, when I probed further about why Southern people still voted for the Democrats even they have not done much in return, most of the answers I got are related to two things. Firstly, they are related to “Chuan Leekpai (the ex-party leader, and the ex-Prime Minister)”; and secondly, the answers are related to some types of “personal” relationship with the party.
The name “Chuan” was mentioned in most of my interviews as a major reason why the South supports the Democrats. Most informants told me that Chuan has enjoyed something like a cult of personality in the South. Two interviewees said similarly; “it (the support) is based on a person, and that person is Chuan”. Apart from being from the South, his clean image and down to earth background (being the son of a local shopkeeper) were usually cited as reasons why he is loved by Southerners. A few villagers told me; “Southern people will vote for anyone that Chuan supports”. One of the informants also argued; “it was during Chuan’s leadership that the Democrat Party became a thing that belongs to the South”.
Picture 3: Chuan Leekpai (Source: www.bangkokbiznews.com)
Interestingly, when I asked whether there are any Democrat politicians that are close to Chuan in term of acceptance from Southern people, none of my interviewees could really provide the answer. Names like Banyat (Bantatthan) and Tri-rong (Suwankiri) were mentioned occasionally, but people who mentioned them conceded that these politicians are not comparable to Chuan. In addition, when I asked whether the Democrats that is led more by Bangkok elites such as Abhisit (Vejjajiva) and Korn (Chatikavanij) will still be gaining the South’s support, the answers I got were that as long as Chuan and other major politicians from the South are still with the party, the support will likely continue.
In addition to the “Chuan” factor, I also found most answers on the question why the South supports the Democrats to be explained with reference to a range of terms associated with “personal-relations”. Many of my informants used the term “Pak-Puak (our friends)” to describe the relationship between the party and Southern people. One rural farmer said; “Southern people see the Democrats as a member of their group, and they are willing to get anyone from their group to be the Prime Minister”. Moreover, a few people said that voting for the Democrats is something that “the elders have requested”. One of them explained further that voting for the Democrats has become something like a “family tradition”. Overall, it seems that there is a connection of identities that is built upon dimensions of “personal relationship”, such as friendship or family-ties, between being “Southern” and “supporting the Democrats”.
I also asked my informants why Southern people, especially the poor, do not support Thaksin. Opinions were diverse on this topic. Most of my farmer informants argued that there are reasons to like Thaksin. They said poor people who like Thaksin are not stupid, and it is “understandable” that the poor in other regions like Thaksin. Some pointed out that there were “real benefits” that the poor gained from Thaksin’s policies, while others argued that Thaksin’s government was remarkably more efficient than other governments in providing benefits directly to the poor. One informant said “Thaksin made poor people felt they could get something directly and quickly in return for their votes”. A few informants even went as far as saying that Southern people should consider switching from the Democrats to other political parties that can do something similar to Thaksin. One rural farmer said; “if the poor in the South, like the poor from other regions, could feel that they can get direct benefits from their vote to Thaksin for long enough, they would also likely to switch their support to Thaksin”. Observing these perspectives, it seems that the close tie with the Democrats had initially shielded Southern people from voting for the Thai Rak Thai Party, and therefore, made them feel that Thai Rak Thai’s policies were not “theirs”. This has subsequently become a missing link in the reciprocal chain that could have brought the poor in the South to appreciate Thaksin.
However, I also found that “moral arguments” were often used by numbers of my informants to justify problems with Thaksin’s policies, and to explain why Southern people do not support Thaksin. One farmer argued that Thaksin has not been popular in the South because Southern people cannot be “bought” like people from other regions. Another rural farmer said Southern people do not support Thaksin because they are more “knowledgeable” than people from other regions. He also argued that Southern people are different because they are more “loyal” to the King. One interviewee said; “people in the South are not greedy, they do not allowed themselves to be led by benefits (from Thaksin)”. Members of a few NGOs I interviewed similarly argued that Thaksin is a problem because his populist policies have “destroyed” Thai communities’ “local way of life”. They were very assertive on the point that Thaksin brought capitalism to the rural poor, and made the poor, especially in the North and Northeast, addicted to him through “consumerism”.
In sum, I observed that despite the difference in outcomes in terms of political affiliation, the “logics of politics” Southern people hold are not so different from those of other regions. Issues such as “personality”, “personal relations”, and “morality” guide the way they see and relate themselves to politics. Despite big differences in personality, I suspect that “Chuan” occupies a political space in the South in a very similar way that “Thaksin” does in the North and Northeast. Moreover, the “personal relations” that Southern people have with the Democrats can, perhaps, illustrate a crucial dimension in a Thai way of relating oneself to politics. The way Southern people describe their relationship with the Democrat Party though “personal terms” reminded me of how Thai people like to compare a governance system to a family system. In addition, these “personal relations” might help provide insights into a kind of relationship that Thaksin supporters have with him. The issue of morality may divide people opinions on Thaksin. Still, what I can observe from the South is that “morality” is always a very influential filter on the way Thai people see politics. Analysing politics, for many in Thailand, is similar to moralising about politics.
Songkhla from Prong-Dong to Prab-Parm
During my first few interviews, political discussions in Thailand were dominated by the “Harmony (Prong-Dong) Plan” announced by Prime Minister Abhisit on 3 May 2010. The plan came as a surprise to the Thai public. In essence, it proposed a new election to be held 14 November 2010. However, the Red Shirts failed to reach agreement to dissolve the protest, and the crackdown of the protest began on 15 May; only 12 days after the Harmony Plan was announced. Such a dramatic change in the situation caused a major change in questions I could ask for this report. During my first few interviews, I asked my informants what they think about the “Harmony Plan”. However, after the crackdown began, I asked them their views on the crackdown instead.
Picture 4: Billboard in Singha-Nakorn District in Songkhla supporting Abhisit and calling for him not to dissolve the parliament. Many such signs were posted all over Songkhla. Ironically, they were all still there when Abhisit proposed the “Harmony Plan” to dissolve the parliament in November.
The security and political situation in Songkhla hardly changed at all during the time I conducted these interviews. People lived their life as normal. Even during the crackdown, I felt the atmosphere was too normal to believe there was a big traumatic incident going on in Bangkok. All I could see as a notable difference during the crackdown was that shopkeepers in markets and shops were really trying to catch up with TV news. TV channels I usually saw on TVs in markets and shops here were ASTV, NBT, and sometimes Nation Channel. ASTV is hugely popular in the South. Two rural villages I visited when writing this report even have a gathering point for people to watch ASTV together. During the crackdown, I found old ladies discussing the political situation loudly in the lobby of my apartment several times. What I overheard from them were mainly stories about how bad the Red Shirts were. Interestingly, I never saw these old ladies again after the crackdown finished. In addition, I once talked to a cleaning lady at my apartment during the crackdown, and she was also mad at the Red Shirts. Watching the TV news, she told me; “look at them (the Red-Shirts), they are really bad (р╣Ар╕ер╕зр╕бр╕▓р╕Б), they needed to be suppressed”.
I interviewed 7 farmers and 2 NGO figures before the crackdown began, asking them their views on Abhisit’s Harmony Plan. Only one farmer said he agreed with the plan. Most farmers said they were indifferent to the plan. They argued that a new election would not change their life and solve their problems anyway. One of them, however, said she objected the plan because she had a chance to listen to Dr.Bawornsak (Uwanno) and agreed with him that Thailand need reform instead of a new election. The two NGO figures I interviewed also objected the Harmony Plan. They similarly argued that the plan was only a political tactic, and serves only political purposes in reaching deals between politicians. One of them argued; “people will get nothing from the new election”. It is worth noting that the two NGO figures I interviewed are actively involved in the ongoing campaign “Reform Thailand” that is organised by many NGOs, Community Development Organisations, and the government.
While there was not much agreement to the Harmony Plan, the discussions that people had when I interviewed them in group were still active. There were exchanges of views between interviewees on whether the plan can help solve political problems, and if not, what else can be done? However, this atmosphere disappeared when the protest crackdown began. One villager I interviewed kept on mentioning several times that the Red Shirts were armed terrorists. He said “Abhisit has done everything right (in cracking down the protest). Abhisit has already been remarkably calm, but the Red Shirts crossed the line by using weapons”. Interestingly, during most group interviews, there was usually only one interviewee who spoke on the topic of cracking down, expressing very strong opinions. Other interviewees usually remained quiet, allowing this one person to dominate the discussions. The strong opinions that were put forward were very ASTV and NBT-like; for example, Red Shirts are bought by Thaksin, and they are heavily armed terrorists that can be killed. There were rarely exchanges of views on the crack-down. I am not sure whether people that remained quiet agreed with the opinions expressed, or were just afraid to say anything different.
Overall, there was no physical incident in Songkhla during the escalated conflict in May 2010. What I observed, however, was a notable change in the atmosphere and nature of discussions on political conflicts. The “Harmony Plan”, while it received various reactions, at least brought a deliberative process to life. This deliberative process, on the other hand, faded away after the government employed hard measures to suppress the Red Shirts. Radical opinions proliferated and dominated during the crackdown, shutting down spaces for people to express different opinions and standpoints. If a deliberative process is crucial for Thais to find their way out of the present conflict, I am not sure when and how it will come back to life again.