It costs between 30-50,000 baht to have someone assassinated in Thailand, apparently. There are various gangs of killers for hire around the country, according to the Bangkok Post and police seem to know who they are but lack evidence to prosecute gang leaders. A senior officer is claiming that there may be an increase in the work of assassins if a new election is to be called in a couple of months, which is what rumours suggest will happen and that a new political party will contest it wearing yellow. Political killings have been a feature of public life for decades, as I have written here before. Some killings are intended to terrorise people who might wish to challenge the status quo (e.g. labour union activists, human rights lawyers, environmentalists) and others are intended to remove rivals or their key supporters.
Now that court-decisions have acted to end the use of ideology in Thai politics, voting will return to the money politics, personality politics and vote-buying that was so prevalent prior to the 2001 election. An interesting paper in the Journal of Asian Studies by Katherine A. Bowie suggests that vote-buying has not been endemic in rural Thailand but was an aberration of the 1990s that was brought about by conflicts between laws aiming to decentralize politics and older laws from the absolute monarchy period. Outside of that time period, vote-buying has not been a significant issue in reality, although a different perception might well be gathered from paying attention to the national media here. The paper is “Vote Buying and Village Outrage in an Election in Northern Thailand: Recent Legal Reforms in Historical Context by Katherine A Bowie. The Journal of Asian Studies. Ann Arbor: May 2008. Vol. 67, No.2.
One of the more sinister headlines of the last few days: “Army to visit Isan to soothe social disunity.” Apparently, politically influential General Anupong Paojinda is able to take time out from refusing to obey orders from a democratically elected government to launch a ‘hearts and minds’ mission among the people who have most justified reasons to be concerned about his arrival and that of his troops – especially given that few journalists find it possible to drag themselves out into the provinces to cover what is going on.
Anyone who has looked even briefly at Thai history will be struck by how lawless society has been away from the urban centres. There are endless stories of attacks by bandits and by wild animals, not to mention the depredations of unjust local rulers, especially when it came time to collect up men to serve their legal obligation of corvée labour.
Villages beyond the reach of the central government (which has mostly been weak and limited in its ability to affect what went on at a distance) felt themselves free to specialize in whatever kind of activity suited them – so there were villages specializing in different types of intoxicants, for example. Reports from Europeans showed that brawling and gangsterism among Chinese coolie labour was also a regular feature of life.
In response, military and police figures treated the provinces with a kind of wild west form of justice, secure in the knowledge that no one (important) would find out what they had done (or would complain if they did). Is General Anupong now planning to revive this form of behaviour? Let us hope that there are enough people with mobile phones or cameras who can record what is going on and can bring it to the attention of the world, bypassing the now curiously arrayed court system. The internet helped, to some perhaps limited extent, to reduce the amount of violence meted out by the violent Burmese troops against the monks and civilian demonstrators – can it do the same in Isan?
Or perhaps I am wrong to be suspicious and the military is really planning a series of calm sit down discussions over tea.