Pelaburan

1 family, 5 candidates: Dynasties rule rural Thailand

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Campaign posters for the upcoming general election are seen in the Thai province of Sa Kaeo last week. (AFP pic)

SA KAEO: Politics is a family affair for the Thienthong clan, one of Thailand’s most enduring political dynasties, with five members running in next month’s general election from two different parties.

They are one of many families woven into the fabric of Thai politics, the most famous of which is Shinawatra, whose patriarch Thaksin was prime minister from 2001 to 2006 and continues to find himself in exile abroad.

The financial rewards of elected office – a member of parliament earns about US$3,500 a month – may be little more than pocket change for these ultra-rich clans, but the influence it brings can be very lucrative for their business interests.

The Thienthong family built its fortune on a successful logistics business in the eastern part of the country, which includes a major border crossing with Cambodia, and has dominated the region’s politics since the 1970s.

Ahead of the May 14 vote, their name was plastered on campaign posters along the rough country roads of impoverished rural Sa Keo province.

Kwanruen Thienthong, her daughter Trenuch and nephew Sorawong are vying for three seats in the Sa Keo constituency.

Sorawong is running for Pheu Thai, the main opposition party that is doing well in the polls, while the two women are members of the army-backed Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), which led the remaining ruling coalition.

The Soravong brothers are also running for Pheu Thai: Surachart in the Bangkok constituency and Surakiat on the party list.

“Politics is politics. Family is family. We have different views on politics, but we are still a family,” Sorawong told AFP.

Trenuch began her career as an MP for the predecessor Pheu Thai party more than 20 years ago, but defected to the PPRP, was re-elected in 2019 and serves as Minister of Education.

For voters in Sa Keo, a family’s track record on the ground matters more than party names or political ideology.

“They go down to all the areas and when there is work or there is a request for help from the local people, they help,” Treenuch supporter Sirinthip Savangkloy told AFP during the noisy rally.

Local base

Rural Thailand is permeated with the influence of these wealthy, powerful clans, and some of their local support relies on personal and political intervention.

“When my cousin died, I went to ask them to arrange a funeral and they did, so I can’t leave them,” Boonma Neunamhum, another Trenuch supporter, told AFP.

They can offer voters a measure of local stability and influence in a kingdom with a turbulent political history marked by a dozen coups since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932.

Pasuk Phongpaichit, an economist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said it flourished during the upheavals that rocked Thailand in the 1970s and 1980s.

“During that period … they could make a lot of money and influence the system without the rule of law and symbiotic relationship with the local military, local police and powerful bureaucrats,” Pasuk told AFP.

“As soon as they became rich, they could establish power over local deputies. Then they saw an opportunity to enter politics.”

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But political power has proved insufficient to save Thaksin, a former telecoms tycoon ousted in a 2006 coup who now lives in self-imposed exile abroad to avoid what he says are politically motivated corruption charges.

Despite these changes, Forbes still estimates his fortune at more than US$2 billion, although that puts him only 14th on the list of the richest people in Thailand, far behind the Chearavanont brothers, who own Thailand’s largest conglomerate CP Group.

And Shinawatra’s influence on Thai politics has not waned: Thaksin’s sister Yingluck was prime minister from 2011 to 2014, and his daughter is one of Pheu Thai’s candidates for the job this time around.

Stability

For nearly 50 years in the National Assembly and in the Cabinet, the Thienthongs were part of Thailand’s political landscape, and in the 1990s they had a reputation for making or breaking governments.

In addition to the five candidates this year, Trenuch’s brother Thanit has been elected as an MP five times, the last time defeating another Thienthong, Sonthidey.

But with youth street protests calling for political change in 2020, the upcoming election could be a turning point for these clans, Pasuk said.

“These elections have two systems. One dominated by political families and a new generation of young voters who are likely to find parties with ideologies and long-term agendas more appealing. Which one will win this time? It’s very uncertain,” she told AFP.

But the dynasties have shown remarkable resilience and adaptability to survive the topsy-turvy world of Thai politics.

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