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Local politics that ‘you can eat’

The elections for Tambon (Subdistrict) Administrative Organizations (TAOs) across the country have just passed without much press coverage. Achara Rakyutitham writes about how people in a village up on a hill in the North see and deal with local politics.

About two weeks before the elections, Achara visited a remote village of ethnic minority hill people, one of those who have always been overlooked in terms of ‘political participation’ and have typically been dismissed as politically ignorant due to their lack of education.

But she found that the politics in this grassroots community was more tangible and ‘edible’ than even national politics.

It was Sunday.  Most villagers who were Christians did not go out to farm.  They went to church or stayed at home.  On some Sundays, there were public activities such as village meetings, meetings called by the authorities or grass cutting along public roads.

As Election Day drew near, the village teemed with campaign staff for candidates running for the position of TAO Chairperson, who came to visit the villagers, distributing 1.5-litre bottles of soft drinks and ice, which really pleased the young kids.

The handouts went on blatantly, but did not reach where Achara was staying.  Canvassers who were local villagers themselves were well aware that it was illegal, but also that knew they would be found guilty only if someone made a complaint.  The canvassers would never complain against one another as each would mind their own business.  And the villagers were too happy to care who gave what.  An outsider like Achara, however, looked naturally suspicious to the canvassers, so they were cautious in front of her.

For lunch, her Karen friend No Mue asked if she wanted to eat Khanom Jin Nam Ngiaw, local rice noodle dish of northern Thailand.  She said yes without thinking.  Almost instantly, 3-4 foam containers were placed in front of Achara and her friends.  They ate and joked among themselves, ‘Let’s have rice noodle No.3’.

Her friends who came from the city did not get it, misunderstanding that ‘No. 3’ was the size of the noodles.

Aside from the candidates’ canvassers and relatives in the village, the villagers did not care about the position of Chairperson as much as the members of the TAO.  All candidates for Chairperson were people from the lowlands, who most villagers did not know.  Many did not even know who had been Chairperson the last time, and did not see how it related to their lives.

But they knew that they had to rely a lot on the TAO members who came from their own village.

The village consists of 3 clusters, with 5 candidates from two clusters, Ban Pong and Ban Pa Bong, running for TAO seats.  Ban Khi Mu cluster with only 5 households had never had any candidate.

In the previous term, one TAO member was from Ban Pong and the other was from Ban Pa Bong.  Uncle Suk, from Ban Pong, had been elected twice, partly because he had connections with the people’s movement in Chiang Mai on behalf of the villagers.  When villagers were arrested by Forestry officials, or there were floods, he could bring in NGOs and civil society organizations to help them.  The other former TAO member, Dej, had been elected by Ban Pa Bong villagers because he was perceived as belonging to a new generation.  He had a better education, finishing junior high school, and was from the same community.

For the upcoming term, No Meu told Achara what different groups of villagers in her Ban Pa Bong cluster thought of each candidate:

The poorest families wanted Uncle Suk to be re-elected, because members of their group had been arrested by Forestry officials, and he and his civil society connections had helped them.  But other groups did not want him because he had already held the position for two terms, and they wanted a change.

The ‘power group’, which consisted of relatively well-off villagers who held official positions including assistant village head, members of the village committee overseeing funds, etc., supported Phanom, a new face who belonged in their group.

Another extended family group favoured Roj who had been a TAO member in the last but one term.  All knew that he was a bragger and a drunkard, without any leadership qualities.  But this extended family was in conflict with the power group, recently about the construction of an irrigation system.  So they wanted Roj, who himself had had particular conflict with people in the power group, to help balance the power.

Despite being the lone candidate from Ban Pa Bong, Dej, incumbent TAO member, did not attract the attention of his own neighbours as he was seen inexperienced and lacking in any achievements in his previous term.

Another candidate was Uncle Dam, a former village head whose record did not impress Achara’s friend No Meu.  According to her, this ex-village head was hardly accessible, contemptuous of the poor, and not active in solving the villagers’ problems.  He was an agent for an agro-businessman, selling corn seed and weed killer on credit to monopolize the buying of produce.  She said the villagers did not like him.  If he won, it would be because he bought votes.

Many villagers told Achara that vote buying was the normal practice in the village.  Candidates would choose to pay those who were not their relatives to collect additional votes to win the seats; with 100 baht per vote, 10,000-20,000 baht would be enough.

‘Can you just take the money and not vote for them?’ Achara asked, echoing what she had heard from government anti-vote buying campaigns.

Young village men responded, ‘No!  There are not many people in the village.  They will know if we take their money and do not vote for them.’

‘So don’t accept the money, if you don’t want to vote for them.’

‘Not possible,’ they said in a loud voice.  ‘If we refuse to accept the money, they will know for sure that we will not vote for them, and they will dislike us and we will never be able to look them in the eye.’

‘If they come to pay at our door, we have to accept it and vote for them,’ they added.

Two weeks after the elections, Achara rang No Meu for the results.  Her friend did not report on who won the seat of TAO Chairperson, except to say that no candidate from Ban Pa Bong was elected.  Uncle Suk whom she supported did not win.  The winners were Roj and the former village head Dam.  She reported with precision on the numbers of vote counts for each candidate, the number of void ballots and the number of absentees.

No Meu’s analysis proved quite close to the real outcome.  As expected, members of the extended family unanimously voted for Roj, winning him first place with over a hundred votes.  Former village head Dam got some 80 votes, just a few more than what Uncle Suk got. Phanom did not get many votes, while Dej got the smallest number, just over 30.

From Achara’s knowledge of this village for over 5 years, the reasons for voting in the elections 4 years ago were drastically different from this time.

With the villagers’ greater understanding and confidence in their rights and increasing ability to deal with the authorities by themselves, Uncle Suk’s connections with civil society were considered less important.  And the conflicts within the community became the main reason for the bragging Roj to win the most votes.

This happened in a small community of only just over a hundred households, a Karen village which many like to think of as a place of reconciliation and peacefulness.

Politics that ‘you can eat’ does not mean just rice noodles No.3.  Whatever their reasons for choosing Roj and former village head Dam, the villagers were entitled to their rights.

This political participation for tangible benefits is probably more tangible than the ideologies of ‘New Politics’ or ‘Democracy’ which are accessible for just a handful of players, while grassroots people are only allowed to cheer and receive crumbs from them, Achara said.