The northeast and politics

10 03 2013

At  the Huffington Post an op-ed by Stanley Weiss who “is founding chairman of Business Executives for National Security (a non-partisan organization of senior executives who contribute their expertise in the best practices of business to strengthening national security),” blah, blah, blah, who refers to the role played by Pansak Vinyaratn in linking Thaksin and his sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra:

Pansak (from Wikipedia Commons)

Pansak (from Wikipedia Commons)

Dubbed “Thaksin’s Oracle” in U.S. diplomatic dispatches revealed by the website “Wikileaks,” Pansak served as chief political advisor to Thaksin and serves as chief policy advisor to Yingluck. He has been at the heart of a strategy that has transformed rural [North] East Thailand into an economic powerhouse….

PPT readers will know about Pansak from a bunch of Wikileaks cables. Where the story gets interesting is in explaining Thaksin’s political success that Pansak makes some comments that interested PPT:

“A famous Cornell professor once lived in Northeast Thailand and came up with a term to describe the people there: cosmopolitan villagers,” Pansak tells me. “When the Thai party first started 11 years or so with Thaksin, we researched the northeast and found a net positive income — not from rice, but from other activities. Thai people in the northeast have more passports than Bangkok Chinese. They work in Gulf States and are cosmopolitan. We found that info and no one else cared.”

In fact, it wasn’t a Cornell professor, but Charles Keyes of the University of Washington in Seattle, and his “discovery” was long after Thaksin had come to power and been ditched by the palace-military coup. The “discovery,” if it was made back when Thaksin came to power and is not Pansak explaining in hindsight, is remarkable for the period in 2000-2001, when no other political party cared a fig for the Northeast:

The great innovation of Thaksin and Pansak (along with U.S.-trained academic Somkid Jatusripitak) was “the increased role of government in the allocation of credit,” as Chulalongkorn University Professor Pasuk Phongpaichit writes. But not just anywhere: “Thaksinomics” focused the government’s attention on the poor and rural areas of Thailand. Arguing that “a country is a company and a company is a country,” the self-described “CEO Prime Minister” approached the national economy like a business, looking for ways, as Pasuk explains, to “mobilize any dormant or unexploited assets including unused natural resources and neglected human resources.”

At the same time, the focus on farmers in these poor rural areas reflected Pansak’s earlier experience and ideas from the period when he worked with Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan, back in the late 1980s.The rest of the political story is well-known and Thaksin’s remarkable political longevity amongst people in the Northeast owes everything to his “populist” policy innovations.

Today Pansak says:

“The northeast keeps developing…. They have a more independent structure and exports are going straight to airfields. And VAT (tax) collection there has gone up by double digits. It’s a huge success story.”

“But,” he adds, “The Thai elite refuse to admit this success.”

Of course they don’t. They still imagine that the people of the Northeast are just cheap barbers, laborers, entertainers and waiters and waitresses who can be shoved around and exploited politically and economically. As the article explains:

Now that the poor and rural populations have awakened, there may be no turning back. “Thaksin let the genie out of the bottle,” a senior Western official tells me. “The northeast is tapped in and now awakened.”