It was not that long ago that the people of rural northeast Thailand felt that the political happenings in Bangkok were worlds away and really made no difference in their simple but poor lifestyle. That was then, but now those simple but poor Thai people have learned the hard way of what happens when you embrace highly corrupt politicians as saviors.
In Thailand it is called Issan. It is the poorest part of Thailand with many of the people that live there having far less than a basic High school education. Many of the people there are rice farmers and have only to worry about tending to their rice crop and getting paid for it. Much of the family’s additional support comes from the adult children going to the metro Bangkok area as the wages are higher and more opportunities are there.
For the most part the people of Isaan felt their voices were too small and insignificant. Much if not all of Thailand’s political policies and money focused on Bangkok and the surrounding provinces. Were money could be made is where the politicians focused their attention. Rice was rice and could only be sold at fair market value. As a result Thailand as a whole focused on producing the world’s best rice. Jasmin rice was seen as the best as it was easy to cook and had a nice fragrance and taste. That placed Thailand as the number 1 rice producing country in the world and could ask a little more for their top quality. It also provided a significant sense of Thai pride to be the best.
Life was much simpler back then, stress was low and family bonds were strong. The King had encouraged a self sufficient lifestyle with the Thai people so as to be somewhat immune to global market influences. The tourist industry had little to do with Issan unless a member of the family was working in the tourist industry in the tourist areas of Thailand.
The Thai people greatly love their King, and they recognized it was through his efforts to change the land into some of the most productive land in Southeast Asia that allowed the Thai people to prosper. By providing irrigation and flood control, Thailand was transformed from barren to being able to produce the best rice in the world.
Enter Thaksin Shinawatra into the picture. Thaksin was a self made businessman that allowed him to make a lot of money. Not all of his business methods would be seen as ethical and fair, but none the less he did know how things worked. Thaksin saw a political opportunity in Issan in that this entire block of Thailand was not only filled with rice, it was also filled with votes.
So Thaksin set about to court the people of Issan. He made them feel they were significant and he more or less bought their votes for pennies on the Dollar. Seeing that Issan for the most part had been ignored by other politicians, Thaksin became their savior. So with the power of their votes Thaksin was swept into office and became Prime Minister.
As time went on Thaksin continued to court the people of Issan by providing some attention to them and using them in ways they could not understand. Thaksin was offering them only a fraction of the money that was theirs to begin with. Had there been minimal corruption in Thailand, the people of Issan would have seen this money and much more to enhance their lives.
As Thaksin’s corruption grew on a scale that was never before seen in Thailand, it became difficult for him to keep all of that below the surface and out of public sight. That all changed in the second half of 2005 where Thaksin was under significant political pressure to step down. So it was almost natural for the people of Issan to step in and want to support Thaksin as he was the only other person other than the King that had showed he cared.
But Thaksin was busy dealing with the people who were challenging him. His usual methods of filing various lawsuits against people who challenged him was falling short of it’s goal as there were just too many people who were fed up with his extreme corruption. This continued to escalate until Thaksin finally dissolved Parliament in early 2006 so he could seek the supporting votes from Issan.
However that all fell apart because of election irregularities and fraud that eventually caused Thaksin’s party to be dissolved in late May 2007 and Thaksin to be banned from politics for 5 years. But before things got that far Thaksin started to take extreme measures to stay in power that included arming the Forestry service and planed to have them descend on the anti-Thaksin Yellow Shirt protesters. Having Thai blood in the streets was a given as Thaksin was finding new lows. Seemingly hours before that conflict was to happen Thaksin was overthrown by a Coup in September 2006 taking him out of power. But that did not stop Thaksin.
Thaksin supporters were busy cultivating votes in Issan in an attempt to put a pro-Thaksin Government in power. However to do that bigger and bigger offerings were being made to the people in Issan to encourage their vote. The people of Issan were starting to become self aware of the political power they held. No longer were they content with what was first offered to them. It was at this point they unknowingly started their dance with the devil A.K.A. Thaksin Shinawatra.
In August 2007 a new Constitution was voted on and nearly 65% of all Thais voted for it. When you looked at the voting map, Issan was the only part of Thailand that had a near unanimous no vote. It was clear Thaksin had paid for those no votes. It was fairly obvious that few if any Thais in Issan read the Constitution as understanding it required a higher educational attainment than most people in Issan had.
Thaksin did not want that Constitution as it was designed to keep Thaksin and other people like Thaksin from removing the checks and balances and consolidating power. Once the Constitution was signed into law, Thailand held general elections.
Needless to say the pro Thaksin People Power Party (PPP) was elected, but it did not take very long before Thaksin’s level of corruption was being seen again. So roughly 8 months after the PPP came to power, once again the Yellow Shirts started to protest. But Thaksin had a counter to that, and he called on the people of Issan to wear Red Shirts and come to Bangkok to rally in his support.
The differences between the Yellow Shirts and Red Shirts was very apparent from the beginning. The Yellow Shirts were just everyday Thai people who loved their King and country. They were not violent and more highly educated than the people from Issan. On the other hand the Red Shirts were violent and were not shy about bullying people. In many ways they resembled the Hitler Youth Movement. But not all Red Shirts were violent, many were older Thais who just wanted to show their support in numbers.
There was one other important factor about the Red Shirts, in that they were paid to attend rallies in Bangkok as well as being provided free transportation. So for many of them this was just another way to make some additional money. They Yellow Shirts however came on their own and received no payment to attend rallies. But then again most of them just had to travel across town and not spend hours on a bus from Issan.
In other examples of what was also seen as a psychological attack seeking leverage, Thaksin hired many non-Thais from Cambodia, Laos, and Burma to pretend to be Thai just to boost the Red Shirt rally numbers. When that was discovered, it backfired on Thaksin, but it also taught the people of Issan that the more numbers, the more political power they had.
But as it would be Thaksin’s greed and self serving nature got the best of him yet again. His party was once again removed by the court and in doing so the opposition Democratic party came to power in late 2008. Abhisit Vejjajiva was elected Prime Minister according to the Constitution and procedures of Parliament.
But Thaksin would have none of that and he organized his own private Red Shirt army to have a private Coup to overthrow the Democrats. That private Coup was attempted in March and April of 2009 and was eventually put down by the military.
All the while the people of Issan were seeing and learning about their political strength. They were also seeing it only really worked when voting and that using violence was a no win situation. Violence only supported Thaksin’s impatience to wait for the next elections. It was the Red Shirts that faced jail time and injury for the violence as Thaksin was outside of Thailand and not being touched at all.
A year later Thaksin made another attempt to overthrow the Government in April and May of 2010, and that resulted in Red Shirt riots that ended up burning down parts of Bangkok. Once again that was put down by the military. One thing was obvious all through this and that is Thaksin did not care about the law. He was ignoring the fact he was banned from politics until June 2012, and that he was convicted of corruption and faced jail time. He just wanted to reset things back to the day before the 2006 Coup and pickup where he left off.
It was obvious by this time Thaksin’s mental state had changed and was now dangerous. He sought payback to the people who he felt did him wrong. Rather than feeling remorse for what he did, he was angry that people had dared to challenge him. By this time both Thai and foreign doctors in the area of mental health saw all the signs of narcissism and put Thaksin in the same group as the most ruthless dictators in recent history.
But the Democratic party was compassionate and Prime Minister Abhisit told the Red Shirts that if they behaved there would be new elections. Abhisit did not want to punish the Thai people of Issan as he saw many of them were fooled because of their low education. He was hopeful this would educate them about the dangers to Thailand Thaksin posed. He was true to his word and dissolved Parliament and the people of Issan promptly voted in Thaksin’s younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra as Thailand’s first female Prime Minister as money speaks louder than words.
The people of Issan were rewarded with a rice pledging scheme paying them near double market value for their rice. Being tempted by money, the people of Issan accepted and enrolled into the program. This program would cost billions of Baht to fund and it was unrealistically hopeful by Yingluck that they could sell the rice above market value.
That rice program was riddled with corruption and besides losing billions of Baht to corruption, it eventually cost Thailand the prized number one spot in the rice market. It eventually sent Thailand to the number three spot costing Thailand loss of face that extended all the way up to the King as It was his efforts together with the Thai people who earned that top spot. Together with rice that could not be sold, in late 2013 funding ran out and many Thais were not paid for their rice leaving them in far worse condition than they started. It was at this time that the Thai people of Issan started to understand what happens when you dance with the devil.
Inside of a few months the people of Issan came to realize that Thaksin never cared for them and was only using them to stay in power, and that was a less than subtle lesson in politics they quickly learned. Many people of Issan turned to loan sharks as banks refused to fund the rice program for a variety of reasons.
Ironically there is enough money to pay them what is owed. If you take the 46 Billion Baht the courts took from Thaksin for corruption, and add the estimated money lost to corruption in the rice scheme, it should just about match what is owed to the rice farmers. But Thaksin still sees that money the courts took from him as his, and he is focused on getting it back ignoring the court ruling. He has no intention of seeing that money being disbursed to the people of Issan.
As a result of this, many people of Issan that were once Red Shirts have now turned to being Anti-Thaksin and perhaps signaling the end of his influence in Thailand. But as Thaksin said in his own words he has no reversed, and he will try yet again once he regroups.
The one overall good thing about this is the people of Issan will never be ignored by politicians again, or at least until all of today’s politicians have been replaced with new politicians who have not yet learned this valuable lesson of the political power of Issan.