A Potemkin village in Thailand

A Potemkin village in Thailand

What was intended to be smile-heavy photo op left Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha with egg on his face.

I'm referring to Gen Prayut's trip to a village in Khok Sung district, Sa Kaeo last week, part of his spectacular mobile cabinet meeting programme, which, at least initially, got off without a hitch.

Gen Prayut was met with open arms by the villagers, as he came bearing gifts, in this case, farmland documents. The village, at first glance, seemed ideal. The PM pressed a button and voila! Tap water was flowing. Gen Prayut even saw -- and was made to believe -- the village had electricity, with poles and wires lining the road he travelled.

But the high spirits (and lights) quickly dimmed. Gone with the prime minister and his luminaries were the running water and electricity.

The villagers, suffice it to say, had found themselves in a Thai version of a Potemkin village. When the issue hit the headlines, local officials confessed that what Gen Prayut and his cabinet had seen was all for show. The electricity lasted long enough to stage a photo op. Even the utility poles were pulled up as soon as the prime minister pulled out.

Government spokesman Lt Gen Sansern Kaewkamnerd was quick to say the prime minister was not happy with being (figuratively) left in the dark. Well, no one is, Mr Spokesman. This is what Thais call phak chee roay na. In cooking phak chee (coriander) is used for garnishing dishes. The adage refers to ceremonious actions to keep those at the top happy (and those at the operating level safe.)

To lessen Gen Prayut's embarrassment, the authorities promised the villagers would be supplied with tap water and electricity in a few months. One can only hope this isn't yet another empty promise intended to placate the public until their attention drifts elsewhere.

None of that, of course, touches on the greater issue: Why would villagers ever be left in the dark when Thailand has such abundant energy reserves?

In any case, I believe Lt Gen Sansern is well aware that such phak chee incidents are anything but a rare occurrence in this country. Many pak chee events go unreported, while others are quickly swept under the rug.

As we know all too well, the pak chee culture runs deep here. Sometimes, I feel pity for the prime minister. He never knows when a jubilant event like the Sa Kaeo junket might end in scandal.

Some phak chee events may be harmless, like decorating a dull venue with picture-perfect flowers hours before a VIP visit. But others can cause lasting, perhaps even permanent damage.

One prominent example is when officials organise public hearings for controversial projects. More often than not, we have come to learn the state mechanism has been used to mobilise locals to show up as decorations (not participants). The high turnout is intended to create the impression that the hearing went well in order to secure approval from the central government. Remember the district officer who sent out a letter to village heads urging them to round up local villagers to a forthcoming hearing on the controversial coal-fired power plant in Krabi? When the planned mobilisation was leaked to the media, the officer was punished and the process stalled (while those who ordered him to do the herding got off scot-free).

Had the padded Krabi hearings been completed, the project would have likely been given the nod. The prime minister now needs to turn an eye to the hearings for the coal plant in Thepha district of Songkhla, which are facing similar criticism.

Another phak chee incident involved a decision by police in Chiang Mai to charge a well-respected scholar and four others for their role in a recent international conference, where they are accused of defying the regime's ban on political gatherings of more than five people, merely because some of them held a sign.

The public outcry -- "It's an academic forum, not a military camp" -- sounded loud and clear.

It is obvious that the officers involved, including members of the military, may have wanted to impress the regime by showing their relentless dedication in performing their duties. There are reports that they spied on the event, as if the Big Brother state is now upon us.

The officers may expect a reward for such diligence -- all in the name of security. They wanted to put on a big show to keep the regime happy, ensuring the higher-ups they had everything under control. But the potential cost of that "security" -- the country's reputation -- is one side-effect the regime can hardly afford to ignore.

Ploenpote Atthakor is Editorial Pages Editor, Bangkok Post.

Ploenpote Atthakor

Former editorial page Editor

Ploenpote Atthakor is former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

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