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Chiang Mai Citylife > Articles > 2012 > 2012 Issue 03 > Rise of Clan Buranupakorn

Rise of Clan Buranupakorn

Who are the Buranupakorns?

Everyone in Chiang Mai has heard of the Shinawatra family, arguably the most (in)famous and certainly influential political clan in Thailand today. No less prominent from our fair city are the Nimmanahaeminda family, of our hippest road fame – yes, it is spelt differently – as well political pundit Tarin Nimmanahaeminda, the ex Minister of Finance. These two families have become household names in Thailand: the nouveau riche Shinawatras for their business savvy and political power play and the old moneyed Nimmanahaeminda for their ownership of vast tracts of land as well as political presence.

One Chiang Mai family is following, rapidly, in their footsteps, growing in significance and clout, at a breathtaking pace. Perhaps not known outside Chiang Mai by the general population, the Buranupakorns are emerging as one of the most influential regional families in Thailand.

Citylife first interviewed Pakorn Buranupakorn in 2001 when he was Lord Mayor of Chiang Mai, a position he maintained for two terms, and a seemingly popular starting point for the Buranupakorn family’s entré into politics. After his mayoral stint, Pakorn became a member of parliament representing Chiang Mai, but was one of the 111 banned politicians by the Constitution Tribunal for violation of election laws in 2007. No doubt when the ban lifts later this year he will become a visible player in politics once again. In 2002 we interviewed his brother Boonlert Buranupakorn when he too became mayor of Chiang Mai municipality for two terms before successfully running for Chair of the Provincial Administrative Organisation, a position he maintains today. Last year, we featured an interview with their nephew, Tassanai Buranupakorn who seems set on his political journey, having also attained the family seat of mayor. Boonlert and Pakorn are merely two siblings in a family of eleven, many with multiple off springs, so before you think we are Buranupakorned-out, we may well see many more members of the family filling the position of Lord Mayor of Chiang Mai Municipality in the years to come. Today five members of the family are already heavily involved in local and national politics.

Who are they and how have they attained such a position of power?

Boonlert and Parkorn’s father Chai Buranupakorn arrived, virtually penniless in Chiang Mai from China in the 1920s and married a local Chinese Lamphun woman, Chitra. The couple opened up a small general store in Warorot Market called Sim Chui Chai, and, as mentioned, proceeded to produce eleven children, who have now multiplied, and in a mere generation or two, created a vast family network with over twenty nieces and nephews.

In 1969 Chai Buranupakorn expanded to open a textile shop along Tha Pae Road. This was the beginning of the Buranupakorn success story, a family which seems to have been incredibly savvy with its investment as well as selection of business locations. Old timers will remember that during the sixties Warorot Market was the centre of daily commerce, but by the seventies when the textile shop opened, tourism was becoming a viable prospect and Tha Pae Road was the hub of much trade. By 1975, it was acknowledged that tourism was here to stay and the Buranupakorns decided to enter the wooden furniture market by starting up the Chiang Mai Sudaluck furniture factory along the Chiang Mai-Sankampaeng Road, a major tourism destination for the following two to three decades. In 1992, with no immediate competition to impede their growth, they had amassed enough profit to invest 200 million baht into a large wood furniture factory, monopolising the market as well as claiming their position as one of Thailand’s leading exporters of teak.

The Buranupakorn siblings were not ones to sit on their family laurels. Over the years, they invested in a multitude of businesses; opening up five factories along the Sankampaeng Road producing laquerware, silverware, brassware, painted umbrellas as well as gifts and souvenirs. Their reach was so vast that Boonlert was quoted in 2005 as saying to Manager Magazine, “For every 100 baht a tourist spends in Chiang Mai, 10 baht goes to the Buranupakorn family businesses because we reach into all sectors of tourism, our target is to claim up to 20% of tourism monies spent.” In the ensuing years the Buranupakorns have entered the hotel and property markets to similar success. In Chiang Mai, The Empress Hotel, Downtown Inn, The Small Hotel and RatiLanna Riverside Spa Resort are all properties of the Buranupakorn family as well as the Krabi Lapaya Resort and The Small Krabi Hotel. They have also, more recently, entered the real estate market, with developments such as the eleven Ornsirin Housing Estates. Boonlert told Manager Magazine in the same interview, “Our family owns and operates many businesses; each sibling is involved and invested in one another’s businesses. If someone has an idea, we will all invest in it, but allow them to operate it themselves. This means that we are all here to help one another. We all respect and love one another and this works well.”

All three current (while Pakorn is officially politically non-active, it is acknowledged that he is still working behind the scenes) politicians, Pakorn, Boonlert and Tassanai are firm supporters of the first family of Chiang Mai, the Shinawatras and it seems their family fortunes will be entwined, and enriched, for years to come.

Meet the Chair of Chiang Mai Provincial Administrative Organisation (PAO), Boonlert Buranupakorn

Handsome and charming, like all the Buranupakorn men, Boonlert sits at his vast desk surrounded by Buddha images and framed certificates. As chair of the most powerful office in Chiang Mai (though, his name card reads CEO), he oversees 211 local administrative bodies, working out of a large building staffed with over 340 brown-clad and obsequious bureaucrats and officials.

Boonlert, 52, graduated from Montfort College before attaining his Bachelors and Masters at Chiang Mai University in Business Management and Political Science. He entered politics in 1999 as Council Member of the Municipality before being elected as Lord Mayor in 2000. He has had a few obstacles in his career, resigning once as mayor from internal conflicts before being reelected, as well as being investigated and removed from his position of Chair of PAO by the Election Commission before being reinstated by the Fifth Region Court in 2009.

Unlike the governor, who is appointed by the central government, the Chair of the PAO is elected by the people.

Citylife:
Please tell us what you do?

Boonlert:
I oversee the following eight areas for the entire province of Chiang Mai: protection and loyalty towards king, country and religion, infrastructure, tourism development, education and health, quality of life, culture and religion, environment, and land use and zoning. I manage a budget of about a billion baht per year, but with extra projects, this number increases greatly.

Citylife:
What infrastructure projects are you currently working on?

Boonlert:
We are starting a new ring road from Hang Dong to go around to Mae Rim, through Saraphee and Sankampaeng, totalling 58 kilometres, this has recently been approved by the cabinet. The ring road will have an irrigation canal running parallel to it which will help alleviate flood problems, by bypassing the Ping River. We will complete this, as well as other large projects I have recently received approval for, within five years. We will also be adding underpasses to all intersections along the third ring road, I think there are six or seven locations, and this will cost three billion baht. My big challenge now is in trying to ask the air force if we can cut a road through their land so that our ring roads can be complete, we have a budget of 100 million for this, but we are not getting much headway with air force cooperation because of cited security reasons. This dialogue will have to be done at the top levels, between the government and the leaders of the air force. Another project we are working on is to complete the road which runs parallel to the train tracks from Chiang Mai to Lamphun. This will ease the traffic flow between the two cities. My job is not to build these things, but to pitch the ideas to the government and get budgeting approval. I am like the head of a large network of clubs and associations.

Another exciting project is to build a shortcut to Mae Hong Son via a tunnel, or multiple tunnels. This has faced quite a lot of opposition from environmentalists and it will require tens of billions, but there is hope that Burma is opening up, and if we have this route in place, it could open up unforeseen opportunities for our region.

Citylife:
What about transportation, we have talked to your brother, yourself and your nephew many times over the past decade about your ideas to organise the public transportation in Chiang Mai and working with the songtaew association, are you making any headway?

Boonlert:
This is a job for the mayor, and with only a billion baht budget a year, 300 million of which goes towards garbage disposal and 400 million towards municipal salaries, they simply can’t do it without government subsidy, which hasn’t been forthcoming. The association of songtaew has also been uncooperative and we are reluctant to hand them a subsidy which we are not confident they will manage well. A project which PM Yingluck Shinawatra is very excited about is a high speed train between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, currently Japan and China are bidding for this job and if it goes ahead will mean that train travel between the two cities can be as short as 3.5 hours.

Citylife:
After last year’s floods, what are your prevention plans for the future?

Boonlert:
The Ping River flows from Chiang Dao and can handle up to 600 cubic metres of water per second. When the rains came last year, this number was added to by water from the Mae Tang River and Mae Ngad Dam in Phrao, adding an extra 200 cubic metres per second per source, hence the overflow. My idea is to make a reservoir between these two sources with controlled dams and releases so that we can manage the two extra water sources leaving the Ping River to handle its own maximum deluge. If we manage the release well, then once Mae Ping has been released, then we wait six or seven hours to release the others. This will also help with irrigation for the seven southern districts of Chiang Mai which are very thirsty during the dry months. An environmental impact assessment has been done and the project will be complete within five years.

Citylife:
Apart from flooding, are there any other environmental plans?

Boonlert:
The biggest problem here with the environment, as with many other issues, is the lack of education. We need to start with students, and in many areas this is already showing great success. Children today don’t throw garbage out, unlike when I was young. Kids take their garbage home to b e properly dispose of; it is the adults that need convincing. Much of the air pollution problems is also being resolved since the wind source comes from the Mae Chaem and Mae Sariang Districts in the south which used to burn their excess corn husks. We have now given 50 machines to this area to digest the corn husks and results are being seen.

Citylife:
You mentioned land use and zoning, what are you doing in this area?

Boonlert:
In the past the Public Works Department was in charge of this, but it has recently been transferred to my office. This is a good thing because bureaucrats in Bangkok cannot possibly have the knowledge of the area to effectively manage and zone land use. This October I am going to start going through the entire Chiang Mai province’s land use and look closely at zoning laws and permits.

Citylife:
What about within the city and surrounding areas, are you overseeing the land use here too?

Boonlert:
Yes, in the future any large buildings, shopping complexes or projects, will have to come through my office for building permission. An interesting development is also the decision to reclaim land along Nimmanhaemin Road to expand the junction. Along the Think Park side of the road down past the townhouses, around 800 square metres is to be reclaimed and a further 100 square metres from the old Amari Hotel land, sadly, extending to include the spirit house. Two extra lanes will be added but only as far down as Soi 1. I wanted to do an underpass here but it would take too much land, so we just have to expand the junction by a little to help ease traffic flow.

Citylife:
It isn’t all just administrative oversight is it? How do you think politics have affected Chiang Mai in recent years?

Boonlert:
Thaksin [Shinawatra] helped Chiang Mai to leapfrog into the future. Then the non-Phua Thai government set us back by three to four years. It is very clear and a fact. Now with Phua Thai back in power, Chiang Mai is beginning to grow again. The cabinet has recently approved a budget of 100 billion baht for development in Chiang Mai over the next ten years. This will mainly be in infrastructure and will include increasing four-lane highways to all major district towns and creating irrigation systems in the southern districts. In the past the northern districts were more commercial and populated and investment on irrigation was heavily made in those areas, anything south of Saraphee was quite neglected.

There are great expectations from this government; they are very fast at problem solving. I talked to Abhisit [Vejjajiva], but was ignored. Politics influences development. In October this year, the first budget of 9 billion will arrive to Chiang Mai.

Citylife:
So much money! Is it filtering down into the economy?

Boonlert:
The real estate business is booming. I have a private real estate development company and I personally made 1.6 billion baht last year. This year I have projected our income at four billion baht. Chiang Mai is definitely growing and the private sector is gaining in confidence. Many if not most of my property buyers are foreigners or Thais from outside Chiang Mai, much was sold after the floods last year, people are looking at Chiang Mai as a very attractive place to live or to have a second home.

Citylife:
All this development, are you afraid Chiang Mai will lose its soul, its identity, its charm?

Boonlert:
Constantly. It is a great worry of mine. Chiang Mai is getting great hardware, now we have to nurture the software which is our culture and identity; speak to kids, train students, give budgets to cultural initiatives, get people to wear Lanna costumes; this is our challenge.

Citylife:
What are you worried about?

Boonlert:
Apart from cultural and environmental degradation, I have always, since the days of mayor, worried about garbage disposal problems. Chiang Mai trucks a minimum of 500 tons of garbage a day to Hod District. This is no solution. I would like to incinerate the garbage responsibly and use the energy as a power source, but there is too much opposition to this.

Citylife:
What with the political problems of recent years, are you feeling confident that Thailand is heading in the right direction?

Boonlert:
It is all political games. The opposition is creating issues to make people doubt the government, but I am confident in this government. I am confident that there are signs of reconciliation. If there is another coup today people won’t tolerate it; we can’t go back and become a Congo.