By Daniel Ten Kate
Updated: New York, Oct 14 13:30
Oct. 14 (Bloomberg) — Boonsi Boongsai, a rice farmer in northeast Thailand, says he fears anti-government demonstrators in Bangkok seven hours away will end aid programs that helped double his income and improved life in his village.
The protest group that has occupied government offices for seven weeks is made up of middle-class urbanites who accuse Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat‘s ruling People Power Party of buying votes to win.
Though Thailand’s power struggle mostly plays out on the streets around Bangkok’s Government House, the real fault line is between the capital’s elite — mostly older professionals and their children — and the rural poor in places like Boonsi’s Udon Thani province.
“I want the protesters to leave so the government can get to work,” said Boonsi, wearing a straw hat, an unbuttoned green shirt and two different-colored flip-flops. “Poor people here will definitely vote for the People Power Party again if there is a new election.”
That’s why the protest group, the People’s Alliance for Democracy, is unlikely to succeed in toppling the government without the aid of a military coup. The prime minister called for peace on Oct. 12 following a police clash with protesters on Oct. 7 that left two dead and more than 470 injured. Somchai, 61, said his resignation wouldn’t solve the political standoff.
Indeed, his party likely would win again if there were a new ballot, thanks to rural northeast voters who elect a third of lawmakers in the 480-member House of Representatives. Such voters have helped elect former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Somchai’s brother-in-law, and his allies four times since 2001.
Some have gone to the capital to make their case with counter-demonstrations that the PPP provides them the best chance for a better life and has delivered in the past.
Boonsi and other villagers in this region, where 80 percent earn their living working on farms, say they have had to sell livestock and mobile phones as the protests hampered the PPP’s ability to bolster the economy.
“A few years ago you could see new houses and many cows in my village,” said Boonsi, 60, as he sat next to lush green chest-high rice paddy stalks. “Now we only have a few.”
Ten months ago, the PPP won the first election since Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 coup, taking 75 percent of seats in the northeast, the country’s poorest region. Samak Sundaravej served as prime minister until a court ruled him ineligible last month for improperly accepting compensation as host of a television cooking show. The party chose Somchai as his replacement.
Want a Say
With their votes sneered at by wealthier urbanites, country dwellers say they just want a say in running the country.
“Rural people keep picking a government and Bangkok beats them down,” said Kwanchai Sarakam, leader of a pro-government group in Udon Thani who has a picture of Thaksin and him on his desk.
Government supporters, many from the northeast, used knives, swords and metal bars in a Bangkok street fight with the People’s Alliance on Sept. 2. One person was killed and more than 43 injured. Kwanchai said he could deploy 200 buses to drive farmers 350 miles (563 kilometers) to Bangkok to recapture Government House.
“If we come down to Bangkok, we will have to clash with them,” said Kwanchai, who also led a pro-government group that confronted People’s Alliance members in Udon Thani in July. “We won’t just go down, listen to a rally and come back.”
Thaksin, a billionaire-turned-politician, won rural votes by slashing health-care costs, handing out low-cost loans and propping up crop prices. He fled Thailand in August to avoid corruption charges, claiming he couldn’t get a fair trial.
“In the rural sector, there has been an empowerment through democracy,” said Robert Broadfoot, Hong Kong-based managing director of Political and Economic Risk Consultancy Ltd. Even if Thaksin’s handouts were economically unsustainable, “the rural masses were enjoying life.”
At the same time, Thaksin enraged Bangkok’s royalist elite by helping his companies and promoting his friends in key government institutions.
Middle-class anger boiled into street protests in 2006 when Thaksin’s family sold its company to Singapore’s Temasek Holding Pte. for $1.9 billion in a tax-free sale. A military coup eight months later put the generals in charge until Samak’s party won in last December’s election.
Diluting Rural Votes
Since then, protesters have fought to remove Thaksin’s allies from power. Their leaders have proposed a new political system that dilutes the strength of rural votes. Only two of 17 Thai constitutions since absolute monarchy ended in 1932 have mandated fully elected parliaments.
“So many people in the northeast are uneducated and just take money for their votes,” said Maytham Thamthanakorn, a 30- year-old construction-materials executive, at a recent People’s Alliance rally in Bangkok. “We need to educate them.”
Farmers in the northeast, who stay abreast of current events at night via cable television, dismiss any notion that their votes are for sale.
“The Bangkok protesters have a bad impression of the northeast, but they never come to see for themselves what it’s like,” said Angkana Duangaew, 32, as she herded buffalo through a muddy, fly-filled pasture in Udon Thani. “Poor people were very happy under Thaksin.”
For many in the fifth-poorest of Thailand’s 76 provinces, Thaksin’s greatest legacy was a health-care program that cut the price of each hospital visit to 30 baht (87 cents).
“Many people tried to borrow money from neighbors when they got sick or they just stayed home,” said Buanna Sodsong, 44, who works as a maid. “Now if someone gets sick, they just go to the hospital.”