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Friday, July 31, 2009
A crack in political dynasties
Is the era of political dynasties in Thai local politics coming to an end? What happened last week in Surat Thani, when the long-reigning Thaugsuban clan was defeated in a provincial election, was telling.
Surat Thani has long been a Democrat stronghold under the clan of Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban. With his clan's business arms deep and far-reaching in this southern province, many believed it would always be the case.
Until last week, that is.
There were three candidates for the Provincial Administrative Organisation (PAO). No.1 was both a Thaugsuban and a Democrat. No.2 was a Democrat. No.3 was a maverick newcomer who has vowed to break Surat's political monopoly.
Before the election, the Surat civil society consisting of community leaders in the town and outlying villages invited the three candidates and presented their grievances caused by environmentally destructive businesses, and asked how each candidate would redress them.
The mega prawn farm industry run by a giant agro business and a political clan, for example, has annihilated the waterways and the coastal seas with polluted waste water. How to stop this?
The Ban Don Bay which supports the livelihoods of fisherfolk in nine districts, has also practically been monopolised by cockle farm investors who have divided the coastal seas into large plots as their own private property, leaving only a very small area for the fisherfolk to live on. How to return the seas to the people?
Big trawlers, meanwhile, remain a menace. They routinely violate the law by entering the coastal seas, wiping out marine life with their fine nets and giant dredges.
How to enforce the law?
Of the three candidates, only Montree Petkhum, an underdog politician in the Democrat-dominated province, turned up to shower the town hall meeting with policy promises to crack down on environment-annihilating businesses.
Not long ago, Mr Montree would never have had a chance. But he eventually emerged as the winner.
"People desperately want change," said Taweesak Sukarat, a civil society leader. "The problems are getting intolerable and the people are resentful at being taken for granted by the politicians who think they can just run our town any way they want by continuing their political dynasty."
This yearning for change is vibrating across the country, he said. "And the defeat of the political dynasty here should serve as a wake-up call for politicians elsewhere."
Despite promises from the incoming PAO boss, the Surat civic and grassroots groups remain cautious. For right after his victory, it was revealed that he enjoys close links with the Puea Thai Party, the resurrection of Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai.
How would it be possible for him, then, to return the sea to the people when the destructive cockle farms are part of Mr Thaksin's seafood bank initiatives?
Puea Thai is also known for being an ally of big business. How could he possibly purge the mega prawn farms and intrusive trawlers as promised?
Indeed, party politics and a change of faces do not promise any real change. Electoral politics, when reduced to mere ballot box games, ends up as a political monopoly, causing nepotism, corruption and an onslaught against the environment.
The purge of dirty businesses for political gain is also unforeseeable in Surat, said Taweesak. "We're so rich with natural resources that the money barons from different political parties can just divide the spoils among themselves without much competition and conflict," he said.
"It's the small people who suffer miserably because they can no longer use the natural environment to sustain a livelihood while nature is rapidly destroyed.
"That's why we have to monitor politicians from all parties, keep pressuring them to protect the environment and to create the kind of hometown we want.
"People's participation is the key. Real change won't happen unless we make our voices heard."