Thai Students Take On American Political Personas for Mock Presidential Debate

 |  March 17, 2016

The US Consulate, Chiang Mai University Faculty of Political Science and Public Administration, American Corner-CMU, and Pepsi-Cola Thailand hosted a mock presidential debate at UNISERV CMU, preempting “Super Tuesday” in the United States. The Mock Debate was an all day affair, starting off with an exhibition in the morning, food, and culminating with an afternoon of debate, trivia, and voting.

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I arrived around noon, about an hour before the official debate started. I often arrive at this type of event with a lot of background information, but being new in Chiang Mai, and a recent intern at Citylife, I arrived with a total lack of information of how the actual event will unfold. Thankfully, when I entered UNISERV, two students representing opposing sides of the political spectrum, Pond from the Democrats and Dan from the Republicans greeted me as I walked in, looking a bit lost in the hall filled with American Studies Club students and American Election information and photos.

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Pond and Dan ushered me over to the sign in, and asked how I decided to attend the event. I explained my own interest in politics, having served as a Field Organiser in President Obama’s reelection campaign, as well as my role at the event as a journalist.

Pond was excited that I was on his side of the aisle, and even more excited that I was from Michigan, as he had studied in neighbouring Wisconsin and knew students from Michigan State University studying abroad at CMU. After we bonded over the cold weather in the American Midwest, he led me over to meet some of the US Consulate staff.

Mock Debate 4I got a chance to chat with Consul General Michael Heath who told me that the reason for this debate was, “to celebrate democracy and elections.” He alluded to the fact that since there really isn’t a chance to talk about Thai politics, students could use the debate to “talk about US politics instead.” Later, while addressing the debate audience, Heath said, “My biggest hope is that you can have this same type of event next year for an election in Thailand,” to which a few members in the crowd chuckled.

Along with speaking with the Consul General, I spoke with Jennifer Barnes-Kerns, Consul Political/Economic Affairs, who had been coaching students weekly since January and Lawrence Nahlik, a Warden for the Consulate. Both expressed their excitement for the students and the debate. “The highest compliment I gave to students was you sound like a democrat or you sound like a republican,” Nahlik told me when describing an earlier practice that day.

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After speaking with my fellow expats, I wanted to get more of the Thai student perspective regarding the election. Most of the students I spoke with supported the Democrat side of the spectrum, and they told me the Republican side had trouble recruiting. Although one student said she thought Marco Rubio was “really handsome.”

Another student passionately told me, “I really like Hillary Clinton. I hope she can be America’s first female president.”

The debate itself was held in a large auditorium with two podiums on either side of a stage and a large online stopwatch displayed via overhead projector. The debate was structured to represent the overarching party’s perspectives, rather than individual candidates and was performed in two rounds.

Anchalee Norruang representing the Democrats and Sirawut Chitjai (Dan) representing the Republicans took the stage first. Both students were clearly well informed on the issues. Anchalee kicked off by responding to the question, “What is the most important issue regarding foreign policy in the next four years?” with, “ensuring our safety and promoting global integration.” Sirawut responded with, “promoting American democracy and freedom.”

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While the first two debaters brought tons of information, the second pair, Suttinan Doungpummesr, Democrat and Rachanon Charoenphon, Republican, brought the laughs. Rachanon drew gasps and laughter from the crowd when he pointed at his opponent—something all too common in American debates, but rare in Thailand. He addressed terrorism by saying, “if I find them I will send them all to the Cuba!”

The two also addressed the gun debate, Suttinan saying, “[A] gun is only the tool for the barbarian people!” Later Rachanon raised his fist in the air, a symbolic gesture of the Trump campaign at this point.

Mock Debate 8As economics and healthcare were brought up, the tension rose. “He only cares about the rich Americans. That is not okay for me,” Suttinan attacked. “You can’t get everything you want…If you have ten dollars you can’t buy [an] iPhone.” Rachanon countered. Later Rachanon told me he is actually more Democrat, but studied how to act Republican for the debate. I praised his commitment to the performance, which I found both accurate and hilarious.

A key takeaway seemed to be that the Democratic Candidates viewed Americans as part of a global society while Republicans viewed Americans as outside and separate from the citizens of other nations. Heath closed the debate, praising the students’ English ability and acknowledging that it was exactly like a US debate. “The only difference is you didn’t also attack the moderators,” he said, smiling a little.

Each person present cast a paper ballot, and while the ballots were tallied, students partook in American politics trivia. The final result was Republicans: 65 and Democrats: 153. I wonder if this will be representative on how Americans end up voting this November.