Godfather of the east

Political intrigues are what they are meant to be: intriguing. Nothing is as it seems.

We would like to believe that man does good for the sake of goodness, that Santa Claus is real and that one day Thailand will qualify for the World Cup finals. But at the same time, we should not forget that things are rarely as they seem.

Perhaps it was good, honest police work that led to the arrest of former fugitive Somchai Khunploem, aka Kamnan Poh, aka the Godfather of the East. However, there are some circumstances involved that provide some food for thought.

Through much of the 1990s, Thailand's political landscape was dominated by provincial godfathers. They went by the names of Thienthong, Silpa-archa, Asavahame, Chidchob and Khunploem, among others.

Whether by design or accident, through the early 2000s the Thaksin Shinawatra political machine swallowed up or marginalised much of their power. Political events since the 2006 military coup are shaping Thai politics increasingly into a two-party system comprised of the Democrats and the Pheu Thai Party.

Thai politics went from being dominated by army strongmen to provincial lords, and now money merchants, with the conservative establishment acting as the opposition. It's democratic evolution, but not the pretty kind.

Looking at the landscape of the present Pheu Thai government, the ministries are well controlled by business partners, subordinates, siblings and cousins of the Shinawatra family, whether directly though ministerial positions or indirectly from behind the scenes.

The most powerful women in Thai politics not named Yingluck are Khunying Pojamarn, the former wife, and Yaowapa, Thaksin's other sister.

Justice Minister Pol Gen Pracha Promnok and Defence Minister ACM Sukumpol Suwanatat were handpicked. Finance Minister Kittiratt Na-Ranong represents a group of business allies.

The control of the Shinawatra family, however, is not complete.

Provincial godfathers are marginalised but not extinct. They still control a number of MPs, and have influence and interests that give them bargaining powers.

For example, the Silpa-archa family runs the Tourism and Sports Ministry, while the Khunploem family controls the Culture Ministry.

When Pheu Thai first took power in 2011, Sukumol Khunploem, former beauty queen and wife of then banned politician Sonthaya, son of Kamnan Poh, took over the Culture Ministry. Since the political ban has been lifted, Mr Sonthaya is now back as head of the ministry.

Their Phalang Chon Party controls seven seats in parliament, all representing Chon Buri province. At first glance this may seem a small number, but given the economic significance of the eastern seaboard, we must appreciate its strategic location as a seaport, as well as the lucrative investments, industrial estates and tourism in the region.

The Khunploem family is the power in that region.

That a man as powerful as Kamnan Poh was convicted of premeditated murder and corruption was in itself an anomaly in Thai politics. What followed, however, was simply just another day in Thai politics.

After jumping bail and disappearing in early 2006, it was reported that Kamnan Poh was residing in Cambodia, a favourite destination for Thai political fugitives. It was also reported in the Thai press that each year on his birthday he would cross the border and celebrate on Thai soil.

His birthday parties were described as lavish and attended by not just family and friends, but business partners, government officials, members of parliament and other important figures. This is Thai politics in a nutshell.

However, throughout the years and all the birthday parties attended by well known figures, there was never an attempt to make an arrest. It begs the question then: why now?

What we do know is that Kaman Poh is 75 years old and seriously ill. A day following his arrest he was admitted to the Corrections Department's hospital, after his illness flared up. Sources say he has cancer of the naval cavity, Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, a combination that could lead to serious complications.

What we also know is that national police chief Pol Gen Adul Saengsingkaew said that those who provided shelter for Kamnan Poh and those who helped him escape arrest must be questioned.

What we don't know, however, is if the boss in Dubai is pleased about all of this or not or if it's neither here nor there as far as he's concerned.

If the New York Times is to be believed, the boss in Dubai makes most of the big decisions, via Skype and whatnot. This begs the question, should arresting the head of the family reputed to wield heavy influence in the East be considered a "big decision"?

It will indeed be intriguing to keep watch on the fortunes of the Khunploem family in the future. However, we must admit that as yet there isn't enough to draw any sort of conclusion.

In fact, when it come politics, if not life in general, there's rarely ever enough to reach a conclusion about much of anything.

But as the case develops _ or doesn't _ we should keep in mind the nature of Thai politics, the shaping of the Thai political landscape and this most interesting period of in the country's history.

Or perhaps there are no intrigues here at all, just good, honest police work _ the good guy catching the bad guy.

The world would be a much better place to live in if things were so simple.


Contact Voranai Vanijaka via email at voranaiv@bangkokpost.co.th.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Voranai Vanijaka
Position: Political and Social Commentator