Democrats Abroad Gear Up for 2016 Election
While the discussion of Thai politics is, for now, taboo, the American political scene is alive and thriving in Chiang Mai. At least on the Democrat side.
I’m a political junkie, I’ll admit. I grew up watching political talk shows rather than cartoons on Sunday mornings. I even dropped out of college for a semester in order to move to Dayton, Ohio and work on Barack Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012. Recently, I moved to Thailand, and to be honest, one thing I thought I would miss was the 2016 American campaign cycle.
Instead, I found a thriving American political scene in Chiang Mai, including the recent “global primary”, a separate primary for United States citizens abroad that took place at the beginning of March, organised by local Democrat expats.
Let me amend that; while the American political scene is thriving on the Democrat side, I have found few signs of Republican life in Chiang Mai. One reason for this active Democrat community is the Democrats Abroad Chiang Mai chapter. I found no such Republican counterpart.
My introduction to Democrats Abroad Chiang Mai came when a fellow American teacher posted in our Fulbright ETA Facebook group: “If anyone is in Chiang Mai today or Saturday and wants to vote in the democratic primary, I got the deets…!” She also gave a link to the “Democrats Abroad” website. Her post wasn’t the only coverage the Democrats Abroad Primary received. The primary was widely publicised by Facebook advertisements and news outlets, including Citylife. On the other side, there were no notices of a Republicans Abroad Primary.
After moving to Chiang Mai in March, to do my internship at Citylife, I wanted to learn more about the Democrats Abroad; its functions and why it exists. What I have learned is that over the past thirteen years, since Democrats Abroad Thailand reorganised itself following a disbandment, it has undergone great growth under dedicated leaders. This growth has compounded during the recent global primary.
I sat down with two leaders of Democrats Abroad Chiang Mai, Shana Kongmun and Gary Suwannarat, to learn more about the organisation and its impact, as well as the people involved.
Gearing Up for 2016
Shana Kongmun has been the new chairperson of Democrats Abroad Chiang Mai since November 2015. She recently finished organising a successful primary for the chapter. She is originally from Colorado and California, but has spent many years in Thailand, living in Surat Thani before moving to the north.
Shana excitedly described to me how the Democrats Abroad Primary works. “[Democrats Abroad] have the presence of a 51st state. We send delegates to the convention.” The Thai portion of this “51st state” includes the approximately 78,500 Americans in Thailand at any given time (including tourists), around 7,000 of which are long term residents of the north. Shana also clarified, “We all still vote in our home state for the general elections.”
There are chapters of Democrats Abroad all over the globe. It is structured as a worldwide organisation, divided into regions, further divided into countries, and finally into individual chapters. Democrats Abroad Chiang Mai (and Other Northern Provinces) is a chapter under the Democrats Abroad Thailand Country organisation.
The global primary was held to give Democrat expats a voice in selecting a Democrat candidate. Since parties organise their own primaries, the Democratic Party made it possible for Democrats Abroad as a global organisation to do this. A total of 21 delegates are sent to the Democratic Convention as part of the total of 4,765 delegates; 13 of which are determined by the primary, and 8 of which are Democratic National Committee members with half a vote each. Republican expats don’t have the same outlet.
In order to vote in the primary, one had to sign up as a member of Democrats Abroad — similar to registering to vote in one’s home state in the US. More than half of the Democrats Abroad Chiang Mai voters signed up at the polls. So membership of Democrat Abroad Chiang Mai more than doubled during the Primary. Bernie Sanders ended up winning both the Democrats Abroad Chiang Mai Primary and the overall Democrats Abroad Primary. He won 69% of 34,570 valid votes cast from 170 countries worldwide. In Thailand, Sanders received 681 of 918 valid votes.
Apart from the primary, the chapter has been and will continue to be involved in a variety of events and activities, including the Mock Debate hosted at Chiang Mai University in mid-March and debate watch parties. Shana also told me of other awareness raising activities, “Once we have a candidate, we’re going to have new shirts with the name spelled out phonetically in Thai!”
“They actually had a “Town Hall Meeting” for Democrats Abroad with Bernie Sanders…Secretary Clinton couldn’t make it so Madeleine Albright represented her,” Shana said, explaining that the main purpose of the organisation is, “to advocate for Democratic expats overseas.”
Shana has views about why she thinks American expats tend to be more liberal than conservative. “Even when you start talking politics with Americans overseas, they tend to be liberal here, I don’t know about other places…I think that people living overseas develop a broader understanding of the world around them…Something I think we’re losing in the United States…and living in another country is you have to learn acceptance, and you have to learn tolerance,” she concluded.
Building an Expat Base
After meeting with Shana, I sat down with Gary Suwannarat, the former chairperson of Democrats Abroad Thailand, and Democrats Abroad Chiang Mai.
Gary represents the foundation of Democrats Abroad Thailand, having stepped in to restructure the Thai chapter after it disbanded in 2000. Her interest in politics goes back to her childhood. When she was nine, her father was elected to a local position in eastern Colorado. “Politics was always part of the discussion around the dinner table,” said Gary. After attending university in Iowa, she moved to Thailand with her Thai husband and has lived here for 38 years.
“Democrats Abroad Thailand fell apart after the Supreme Court selected Bush as president,” she explained. In 2003, Gary began to work with a group of likeminded people to rebuild the organisation. “I felt it was important to be part of the larger organisation and not just a club…we needed fifty members to be recognised and reinstated as a country group…and [after getting fifty members] we grew from there.”
“There’s virtually no level of US policy that doesn’t affect not just Americans that live abroad, but people all around the world. So that’s what keeps me engaged,” Gary said. She stressed the importance of elections, not just at the national level, but all the way down to local elections.
As an example, Gary explained, “There was a provision slipped into a highway bill that allows the US government to confiscate the passport of anyone who owes 50 thousand dollars or more in taxes, which is a whale of a lot to owe…but confiscating a passport or not issuing a new one…turns Americans into basically stateless people. I don’t think that’s going to be good for anybody. The individuals involved or the US government either.” Additionally, Democrats Abroad are involved in lobbying to amend the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) because they have found that it has negative implications for many Americans abroad. “Banks say they just cannot meet the reporting requirements of the US government,” Gary said. Because of this some banks refuse to open accounts for Americans overseas.
Gary also provided me with some background on Republicans Abroad Thailand. “In the 1990s [they] disbanded. They reorganised as an organisation [mainly] for contributions…but really don’t exist as an institution.”
After a quite a search, I was able to sit down with a resident Chiang Mai Republican, Bill Mason. Mason is a former military man, who while originally from the American south, spent a good portion of his life travelling with the Navy. He ended up on Thailand because he likes Thai culture and felt he could live comfortably here on his pension. He is a Trump supporter. It was Shana actually who put me in contact with Mason, one of her fellow Rotary Club members.
After discussing policy positions at length, Mason addressed the scenario in which Hillary Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee: “Hopefully [young people] do one of two things. Either you’ll come over to the dark side and vote for Trump, or [young people will] sit on your hands. Just don’t go to the polls.” Mason then lamented, “Even if Trump is elected, for the most, part America is a lost cause”
This perceived lack of hope for America, and the youth’s apparent political apathy, might partially explain why Republicans are not as active here. Mason also is under the impression there are more Democrats than Republicans among Chiang Mai expats, a common impression amongst most Americans living here, though neither he nor I could substantiate his claim.
“In Thailand, we don’t see so many [young Americans],” Gary admitted, and went on to explain that Democrats Abroad plans to have outreach programmes to Thai universities this upcoming semester to make sure students studying abroad have an understanding on how to vote from abroad.
I spoke to a young American expat, Brandon Tensley, who currently writes about Burmese politics for the Irrawaddy. I wondered if he felt involved or connected to American politics, since he himself works in a political field. “There’s definitely a scene, but it’s often overshadowed by [western tourists],” Tensley told me. He hasn’t gotten involved in the American political scene, but told me he did cast an absentee ballot.
Perhaps this is where Democrats Abroad can grow — reaching out to young people and getting them involved. But at least from talking to Tensley, young, politically minded Americans are voting. That’s probably the most important thing.
As a fellow young person, I’m excited to see so much energy around the election, even in another country. The Democrats Abroad Chiang Mai activity has served as a reminder to me that American politics are part of a big picture that has ramifications worldwide. I feel as both a member of the American community and the global community it is my responsibility and privilege to stay involved with US politics.
To learn more about Democrats Abroad, visit the website: www.democratsabroad.org