Thailand: Thaksin And Dark Influences

2003

Andrew Brown

Since winning government over two years ago, Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party have embarked on a number of ambitious efforts aimed at tidying up society and enforcing the rule of law. For example, the social order campaign, inaugurated shortly after TRT came to government and targeting the nation’s youth and nightclub culture, has continually stressed the need for the citizenry to respect rules, regulations, self discipline and social responsibility. The much-criticised anti-drugs crusade that left more than 2000 dead, represented another example of the government’s zealous attempt to create a rules-based and more ordered society.

Another campaign will target ‘dark influences’ or ‘chao pho’ (godfathers). Over twenty years ago, British anthropologist Andrew Turton drew attention to the critically important place that these men of influence (and most are men) occupied within local structures of power in rural Thailand. Over the last couple of decades, numerous other academic studies have focused on the manner in which these shadowy figures have emerged to play key roles not only in provincial, but also in national, political life. By acting as vote-bosses during electoral contests, the chao pho have often developed close and mutually beneficial relationships with national politicians who, in return for votes, have provided political support and protection for the chao pho’s various legal and illegal business activities.

It should be interesting, therefore, to watch precisely how the government tackles the ‘godfather’ problem. The Thai Rak Thai party, it is alleged, possesses its own ‘godfathers’ and made use of others in the procuring of electoral support in the January 2001 elections. Just as the anti-drug campaign has not totally rid Thailand of its big drug barons, it is unlikely that the campaign against dark influences will totally rid the Thai social body of these nefarious, although sometimes celebrated, crime figures. In all likelihood, it will be the smaller fish, not enjoying the protection of senior state officials and politicians, who will find their interests, power and prestige under the greatest threat. Perhaps the real test of the success or otherwise of the campaign will come with the next general elections scheduled for 2005. Thai Rak Thai certainly expects to win as the Prime Minister has recently stated he expects his party to remain in power for twenty years. Whether electoral success in 2005 and beyond will depend on vote buying and the support of (the remaining) godfathers only time will tell!

WATCHPOINT: Though declared 'successful' on 1 May, the long-term results of Thaksin's war on drugs also remain to be seen.

 

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