Ngu hao (งูเห่า) or ‘cobra’ in Thai political culture means renegade politicians who betray their colleagues or the trust of people who elected them, in order to reap the benefits from joining a government coalition. The term originates from “The Farmer and the Viper”, one of Aesop's Fables, which is widely known in Thai culture:
“The story concerns a farmer who finds a viper freezing in the snow. Taking pity on it, he picks it up and places it within his coat. The viper, revived by the warmth, bites his rescuer, who dies realizing that it is his own fault.” – Wikipedia
In the Thai version, the viper of the Aesop version is turned into a cobra, maybe because it fits better in the context of a South East Asian agricultural society. Even if the details are different, the moral is generally the same: kindness to evil means betrayal or death to the benefactor.
The 1997 cobra: Vattana Asavahame
The term crept into contemporary political discourse in 1997 after Gen. Chavalit Yongchaiyudh resigned as PM in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis. The 6-party government coalition attempted to unite around a new Prime Minister while the opposition bloc also tried to wrest control.
The opposition Democrat Party persuaded Vatana Asavahame’s faction of 16 MPs to defect from the Thai Citizen Party to join a Democrat-led government, and in exchange, Vatana became the Minister of Interior. Samak Sundaravej, the founder and leader of the Thai Citizen Party at the time, told the press he was like the farmer in “The Farmer and the Cobra.”
Before joining the Thai Citizen Party, Vatana Asavahame’s faction had been in the Chart Thai Party led by Banharn Silpa-archa, but the faction split after a conflict with the leader. Samak welcomed the faction into the embrace of his party only for it to bite him, just like in the Aesop's Fable. The term has been used widely since then to refer to political defection.
The 2008 cobra: Newin Chidchob
The term emerged again in 2008 when a defection was staged by a faction of 24 MPs led by Newin Chidchob, then a close ally of Thaksin Shinawatra. The so-called ‘Friends of Newin’ faction had been very powerful in Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party, and then in the Phalang Prachachon or People’s Power Party after Thai Rak Thai was dissolved by the Constitutional Court.
Most PPP MPs came from the disbanded Thai Rak Thai Party and followed Thaksin’s policies and political ideas. The party formed the government between 2007-2008 with Samak Sundaravej and Somchai Wongsawat as the prime ministers. But the Phalang Prachachon Party was also dissolved by the Constitutional Court in 2008.
Most MPs of the disbanded Phalang Prachachon Party formed a new party which we know today as Pheu Thai. But the Friends of Newin faction defected to form their own party, called Bhumjaithai. Bhumjaithai abandoned its allegiance to Pheu Thai and joined forces with the opposition, led by the Democrats, who now had the numbers in Parliament to form a government under Abhisit Vejjajiva, a government that did not come from election. This was the government responsible for the killings at the red shirt demonstrations in 2010.
The switch was surrounded in controversy, with Bhumjaithai MPs at one time locked into rooms at the Pullman Bangkok King Power hotel without their mobile phones to prevent them from being persuaded to defect back to the Pheu Thai side. Thus, the 2008 Cobra.
The 2019 cobras: yet to be identified
Newin has now supposedly quit politics to be the manager of Buriram Football Club, but the term has become popular again after the General Election in March 2019. The results showed a close tie between 7 anti-junta parties and a pro-junta coalition led-by the Phalang Pracharat Party. So an opportunity has arisen for more cobras to defect from their parties.
And it seems the cobras have struck. The anti-junta bloc was supposed to have 242 out of 494 MPs in the House session, but only 235 voted for its own candidate, Sompong Amornvivat, as Speaker. The pro-junta bloc plus the undecided parties numbered 252 MPs, but got 258 votes in support of the Democrats’ Chuan Leekpai to be the House Speaker.
Who were the defectors? As the vote was secret, we still have no idea. The answer may become clear when the House votes for the Prime Minister and the cabinet is announced, or we may never know.
About this section:
Thailand is a country with one of the most complicated political systems in the world, and one way of understanding it is through Thai political slang, which for the uninitiated can be just as complicated. Perhaps as you read this section, you will see how crazy Thai politics is and be inspired to work as hard possible to avoid it from happening in your country.
The Bangkok Post has had a Learning English from the News for years and Prachatai English thought it might be a good idea to do something a little more advanced and cutting edge by explaining Thai political vocabulary to an international audience. If you like it, please subscribe or donate.