Above: From the abortive, 2014 elections: From top: The Chat Thai Pattana Party; Banharn Silpa-acha, the 21st prime minister; Move past the conflict, joining forces in reforming Thailand; Vote for Banharn, the person who works with his heart; reform Thailand, [it] can really be done
Those entering Banharn Silpa-archa’s home province of Suphanburi find a place with a level of development, cleanliness, and attention to detail unusual for Thailand. This is due to the renowned political skills of Banharn who made sure that he always brought the spoils of government back to his home province. (In contrast, the Shinawatra family is often unfavorably compared to Banharn as being new-style politicians who bring little in terms of improvements or developments to their home districts in the north.)
When Banharn died last week at the age of 83, it was passing of one of the old guard who wheeled and dealed their way into Thailand’s coalition governments over the last few decades.
As prime minister, Banharn presided over one of the fragile and inept coalition governments at the very height of Thailand’s Asian Tiger era in the 1990s. In a little more than six months after he resigned, Thailand was plunged into the Asian economic crisis of 1997. Much blame was placed on Thailand’s opaque and corrupt political system and the doling out of key decision-making posts to politicians with little economic experience.
Banharn was typical of politicians like Chavolit Yongjiyut, Chatichai Choonhavan, and Newin Chidbhob whose opportunistic factions dominated Thai political life for the last 30 years.
These men were leaders of regional power blocks. These blocks most often were centered around a single province where a local boss could dictate his own policies independently of the central government. In areas like this the big boss’ relatives and cronies hold all local political offices and win government contracts. Serious political contenders find their homes bombed or they simply disappear.
MPs blocks that grow from these roots usually follow a pattern–a businessman from a small region grows in wealth and ambition to the point where it became advantageous to make sure his own family can influence government. This means control of contracts that can be doled out to one’s own business interests and those of one’s allies.
Thais have had little expectation that politics is about ideology. The ideal for a politician has traditionally has been being a good administrator and a good conductor of the activities of government. This is the proverbial “righteous man” who manages selflessly for the good of the people. There is little, if any, ideology expected in terms of Western ideas of left and right in Thai politics.
Like Chavolit Yongjiyut’s New Aspiration Party, Banharn’s parties were seen as a corruption of the ideal of the good administrator. In the Thai viewpoint, being elected means being compromised by self-interest, and thus these parties, headed by regional tycoons, are viewed as the expressions of the rich who desire to control big money projects to reward themselves and their cronies.
Thaksin played a large part in dismantling the regional party system. Thaksin aspired to create a truly national political party with enough teeth to break up the regional fiefdoms. When Thaksin rose to power, he quickly defanged most of the regional power blocks by absorbing their factions into his Thai Rak Thai Party. These political groups were given the option to fold themselves into Thaksin’s parties and begin living by the rules of the central government or face the full pressure of the state.
Areas like Chonburi, that refused to corporate, found their leaders prosecuted. Samut Prakan also periodically felt state wrath for not cooperating. The Democrats in the south were also the target of concerted efforts to unseat long-standing MPs–sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Chavolit Yongjiyut ended up turning his once consequential New Aspiration Party over to Thaksin and entering a fitful retirement.
Thus, it is interesting that Banharn and his home province, nicknamed “Banharnburi” by the locals, remained unscathed. Banharn was even able to flirt with a Democrat alliance for a time without earning a death sentence from Thaksin via the Red Shirts (contrast this with Newin Chidchob who was hounded from politics by the Red Shirts after daring to join a Democrat-led coalition).
Banharn’s constant changing of political sides and ability to buy off potential opponents earned him the nicknames “Mr. ATM” and the “Slippery Eel.” In politics at least, this was not necessarily a negative attribute, but a signal that Banharn was the ideal person for MPs to align themselves with because he could ensure they would always land in a sitting government. A sitting government is an opportunity to pass bills to spend money. There is no profit in being in the opposition.
Above: Banharn was often mocked for his small stature, stereotypical of the old-time provincial man, especially in comparison to other world leaders. In this AP photo, taken during the APEC summit in the Philippines in 1996, Banharn is second from right, next to then-President Bill Clinton
Banharn was perhaps most notorious for the ruse that tricked the establishment into believing he would not support a Thaksin return to power.
In the first elections after the 2006 coup, Thaksin’s opponents attempted to make sure that he and his domination of politics could not return. This included a plan to make the Democrats form the core of the next government even if they were a minority party. This would be with the cooperation of other smaller regional party blocks banding together in a coalition government.
Just as today when the junta’s heavy-handed suppression of dissent is meant to send a signal to the political world that Thaksin cannot return, in 2007 a similar signal was being sent as the Democratic Party publicly met to show that that its minority partners would stick with the proposed coalition after elections to doom a triumphant Thaksin resurgence.
Banharn had several public meetings with Democratic Party leader Aphisit in which he stressed his loyalty to the proposed coalition that would block Thaksin. However, Banharn’s reputation as an opportunist caused concern as to whether he could be depended on to keep this pledge to never join a Thaksin coalition.
To allay fears, Banharn offered to kneel before the Emerald Buddha at Wat Prea Keaw and vow that he would not go back on his word as he was renowned for doing so many times before.
However, once elections were held and Thaksin’s People Power Party scored a stunning victory that doomed any Democrat Party plan to hold on to power, Banharn immediately switched sides and joined with Thaksin in forming a new government.
While Banharn’s opportunism was a strong selling point for his political alliance, it was one of the factors that reinforced in the Thai public’s mind that elected politicians cannot be trusted since those who are elected have vested self-interests. Thus, Thais tend to value the respected academic, the village leader, and the appointed permanent official over the politician who is seen as being compromised by dint of being democratically elected.
In recent years, Banharn’s political factions enthusiastically supported the Yingluck-led Pheu Thai government. Banharn even attempted to reach out to opposition politicians to join the Pheu Thai reconciliation effort, but without success. Banharn, like Newin or Chavalit or even Chalerm, was no doubt holding out hope that he could eventually serve as a compromise prime minister acceptable to both Thaksin and the establishment in the event of a future political impasse.
As in most of the political parties dominated by a single figure who has run the party as part of his family business, Banharn’s Chartthaipattana Party will now likely fade away, as already feuding factions position themselves to be part of whatever future government is elected.
Banharn in Thai news and editorial cartoons:
2013: Banharn, the Peacemaker?