The third instalment of my series on politics in the Chiang Mai area comes finally to a true representative of local political thought in action: Surapong Pongdejkhajorn; former Member of Parliament, Secretary to the Minister of Industry, Deputy Minister of Education and a member of the Constitutional Assembly of 1997.
A life-long Chiang Mai resident and local business personality, Surapong attended both Prince Royal’s College and Chiang Mai University. He has been heavily involved and interested in politics since his time as a student; witnessing the emergence of self awareness and political activity in the minds of the student youth in the early 1970s as they called for democratic reform after decades of hard-right military rule under the autocrats Field Marshal Plaek Pibunsongkram, Colonel Sarit Thanarat and Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, respectively.
He said that even at that time, when he was in high school, he had such a feeling of shared interest and heartening strength through the numbers at these protest actions in Bangkok, that he and his friends “marched together with them, still wearing (their) high school uniforms.”
Even after becoming a member of parliament and achieving other positions of power and influence within the political system, he feels that his affection for politics is really a private interest; that not only is he not what could be described as a ‘real’ politician, in the sense that he does not, and never has had, the vast amount of money and webs of influence behind him to run a campaign, but that also he is not of the type that is typically involved in the more degenerative forms of subterfuge and power interplay commonly associated with political to-and-fro in the Thai party systems.
As a result of this, he was loath to associate himself with any one party before the circumstances of electoral politics became untenable financially for him, and as such, maintained his independence, despite supporting various figures and parties in different capacities in the past, up until more recent times. He describes becoming involved in assisting the rise of Thai Rak Thai and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra because he “thought that he was a good person, someone with a great capacity to see Thailand move on from it’s tumultuous past, that he helped because his spirit wanted to help, that he had the most will power among Thai people,” but that when he saw “some things” that happened under his leadership, he withdrew his support to simply watch the events unfold. The changes that forced him to choose a political side were a time of great upheaval; the 2006 coup and subsequent changes in government caused a great disparity in the methods by which politicians ran campaigns, and as such, meant that he was forced to accept one of many offers previously refused from major political parties, eventually choosing the one that he considered to be “the best political party, but not perfect”, in order to continue his involvement in political matters. Since this time and up to the present, Surapong has been heavily involved with the Democrat Party; currently residing on the Democrat committee in Chiang Mai.
Reflecting on the current state of affairs in politics, he maintains that development is advancing in two distinct forms: one healthy and beneficial to both the systems of governance and democratic process, one very much detrimental to these ideals and the systems in which they are represented. What is beneficial is the great strides that technological advancement has made in terms of public accountability and transparency during election campaigns; meaning that degraded tactics such as assassinations and vote buying are immediately reported in the public domain, that “politicians are unable to act improperly so easily… [because of] the volume of news the average citizen is able to receive.”
On the other hand, Surapong maintains that constituents are swayed and manipulated by demagogic politicians bent on disrupting the normal operation of the state, using technological advancement, media influence, buzz wording and other techniques to misconstrue democratic principles:
“Let us really look at the Thai citizens who are calling for democracy at the moment, but don’t understand the true essence of democracy and don’t engage in democratic thought: These citizens are deceived by politicians saying that democracy is a mechanism that one may use to pursue only that which they desire. This is a problem with development progressing on a wrong course. Now development is occurring in two ways, a positive way and a negative way. People are looking only at the word democracy, but not at how to act democratically. Maybe they perceive that democracy is winning an election, or maybe that it is getting the rights or liberties that they have demanded. They haven’t thought about whether these rights and liberties are weakening, disturbing or bothering the rights and liberties of others.”
To counteract this misappropriation of ideals, he emphasises an educational approach to political theory: “We have to understand what the fundamental nature of democracy means thorough analysis of each of its principles.”
Expanding on the fundamental problems of political organisation, he explains that some politicians in Thailand, far from being true democratic representatives, rather use the electoral system as a pretext for attaining a position of influence and power over others:
“Every person has a [political] power; an autonomy, but they cannot exhibit this because we live together as 60 million people. Therefore we must have a system of representation emerge so that we may utilise this power by going through the system, by choosing a representative, but this person, instead of being truly representative, is more of a, let me use the word, ‘fake’ representative because they aren’t someone who works for us. Looking at the citizens’ representatives from past elections; after people cast their vote and these people are elected, they never listen to how the people think, or how they would like them to act. After the elections, they act as they like.”
And of course, this misuse of power and influence is not restricted to political parties and figures. The military has been part and parcel of Thailand’s political history since its modern inception:
“Since 1932, (politicians have) been utterly fearful of imposing on the prerogatives of the military, but whenever political parties are strong, the military weakens, by the same token, whenever these parties are weak or have factional problems amongst themselves, military groups will show their power, their might; these always come together. I believe this situation, in which the military is related to politics, will continue for a long time, no matter how much or how little their presence is felt.”
So we are left with the recurring themes and interpretations of this distinctly moderate, conscientious and humble man of wide political experience and insider knowledge. Themes such as responsibility, education and temperance when it comes to understanding and interpreting key political ideas, objective analysis of development and the effects of new technology, along with critical scrutiny of propaganda used by politicians in order to reach a more balanced state of affairs.