Thailand’s neglected northeast hopes for election ‘miracle’
In the ‘red shirt’ heartland, voters say odds may be against democratic forces but they won’t give up without a fight.
Waeng Noi, Thailand – As a deepening red sun slips from the sky behind the parched paddy fields of Isaan in Thailand’s northeast, villagers walk their floppy eared cows back home for the night and Pheu Thai Party hopeful Saratsanun Unnopporn makes her pitch for votes.
The 30-year-old first-time politician is one of 41 candidates on the ballot paper for the constituency just over an hour south of Khon Kaen city, but she is confident of victory in Sunday’s election, the first since a military coup in 2014.
“In the last five years is anyone in a better position?” Saratsanun asks the crowd of mostly white-haired villagers, speaking in the local dialect as well as Thai. The state of the economy is on everyone’s minds and the villagers shake their heads.
Isaan is Pheu Thai’s spiritual home; the country’s most populous and largely agricultural region whose people propelled telecommunications tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra to power in 2001 on a platform of pro-poor policies. People in Isaan have backed Thaksin-linked parties ever since despite the cycle of protests and military coups that have forced successive popularly elected governments – most recently Pheu Thai – from power.
Thaksin and his sister Yingluck – who was prime minister from 2011 to 2014 – live in exile.
Now, with the economy having shown little sign of improvement under the generals, many Thais are looking to support parties that will boost growth and implement policies that will make a demonstrable improvement in their lives.
‘Excited to vote’
At early voting on Sunday – a week before the election proper – people in Khon Kaen, Isaan’s second-biggest city, waited patiently beneath the fierce sun to cast their ballots.
“I’m very excited to vote,” said Nipaporn Phumipark, who was voting for the first time in her life. “I never thought I would get to do it.”
The 20-year-old Khon Kaen resident said she had decided to back the pro-military Palang Pracharat Party because the candidate in her constituency was a local man.
Others were reluctant to reveal their intentions, but some said they would be voting Pheu Thai. Under new election rules, the party is banned from using Thaksin’s name or image during campaigning.
“I like their economic policies,” said Bangon Khamsuk, 43, adding she was happy to finally be voting again. “When they were in power they made the economy better.” She said she was hoping the pro-democracy parties would win, despite a new constitution that stacks the odds in favour of the military. “I hope we will see a miracle.”
The generals’ economic initiatives have focussed mainly on modernising Thailand’s infrastructure – Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha was in Khon Kaen earlier this month to open a newly renovated central station and a light rail is also planned – but the effect of the more than 40 planned projects has yet to filter to the ground.
Growth in Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy has remained around four percent a year, below Thailand’s neighbours in the region and well below its actual potential, according to economists.
But for the people of the northeast, whose choice of government has been overthrown again and again by the elite that has traditionally dominated Thailand’s politics, it is not only economic hardship that has taken its toll.
Attitudes have also been shaped by the crackdown that accompanied the 2014 putsch.
“It might have been possible immediately after the coup for the military to initiate some real effort at bringing reconciliation to the various parties, but it was clear from the very beginning that the primary impulse was to eliminate as much of what they believed to be ‘Thaksin influence’ in Thai politics as possible,” David Streckfuss, a historian and independent scholar based in Khon Kaen, told Al Jazeera.
Scores of political critics as well as the regional and local leaders of the red shirts, who took to the streets in defence first of Thaksin and then Yingluck, fled overseas. Some villages, seen as overly sympathetic to the cause, were required to undergo “attitude adjustment” – told why military rule was good for the country and good for peace. Others found themselves detained under repressive laws.
Pornchanok Boonchai’s husband, a security guard at a bank, was arrested in May 2014 and accused of being part of a plot to topple the military government. He remains in jail where he also faces charges under the Computer Crime Act and lese-majeste law.
“He didn’t do anything wrong,” 58-year-old Pornchanok told Al Jazeera, propping herself up on pillows because an old injury made it painful for her to sit in one position for too long. “Why is he still being kept in jail, why is he still being kept inside?” Pornchanok wiped tears from her face with a tissue. “The people who took him should release him. He’s been held too long.”
Opinion polls last month suggested about 45 percent of Isaan voters were leaning towards Pheu Thai, followed by Future Forward, the upstart party of car-parts tycoon Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, at 21 percent and Palang Pracharat at seven percent. Not to be outdone, Palang Pracharat is also offering goodies to voters in the form of higher welfare payments to elderly people, financial support to farmers, and a three-year moratorium on agricultural debt.
‘I burnt it all’
Widower Kangwan Yotikha, 55, farms around three hectares of land about 90 minutes north of Khon Kaen with rice, sugarcane, rubber and fruit including mango and coconut.
Sitting in his wooden hut surrounded by banana trees, two pictures of the king on the wall behind him, he says he wants a government that understands business and does more to help farmers.
He’s reduced the amount of land dedicated to rubber with the collapse in prices, and a few metres away, his sugarcane fields are burned black.
“Life is difficult,” Kangwan told Al Jazeera. “The price of sugarcane has come down. There’s no point selling and there are no labourers to harvest it anyway, so I burnt it all.”
Kangwan once worked in Bangkok and was among thousands of red shirts who took to the streets in 2010. Now, he hopes Pheu Thai will be returned to power again.
Back in Waeng Noi, Saratsanun is explaining the new voting system to the villagers.
Under the new constitution drawn up by the military the lower house of parliament will be chosen not only through direct elections, but according to each party’s popularity. Saratsanun stresses the importance of not only voting for her, but also for the party.
“If you want Sudarat Keyuraphan [the Pheu Thai candidate] to be prime minister you must vote for Pheu Thai,” she tells them.
The odds might be stacked against Thailand’s democratic forces, but the 30-year-old is not giving up without a fight.
“No matter what laws they try to establish to weaken us, no matter what other measures they try to weaken us, we have to stand up to dictatorship,” she tells the crowd as the night closes in.
Additional reporting by Hathairat Phaholtap