A deeply riven country tired of fighting struggles to heal from lingering political divisions.
In Chiang Mai, the name Shinawatra – the family of ousted prime minister and billionaire Thaksin – has deep roots.
Shinawatra Silk is a household brand, having pioneered the transformation of the fabric from a local handicraft to a regional industry.
Loet, Thaksin’s father, served as member of parliament for the city in 1969 and 1976, while his uncle Sujate, was at one time the mayor.
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It’s also a name that has divided Thailand for more than a decade, with the devout Buddhist nation split into the pro-Thaksin Red Shirts and their Yellow Shirts opponents.
Chiang Mai, a traditional Thaksin stronghold (a 2014 media report by The Australian estimated that as many as 70 per cent of Chiang Mai residents supported him), has suffered from this polarisation. In 2014, a nationwide purge – after the coup that removed Thaksin’s sister Yingluck from office – saw its provincial governor moved to Central Thailand, while its police chief was transferred to another post.
The gulf has trickled down even to the village level.
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Boonthawee, a 55-year-old village head for the community of Mu Song (literally Village No 2), deals with such divisions every day.
“I have been serving this village of 1,200 people for 11 years now. I have handled all sorts of problems: crime, drugs, illegal immigrants, drunken fights, fires. But still the most difficult is to bridge the political divide.”
Born and bred in Chiang Mai to an office worker and lottery seller, Boonthawee has seen Mu Song transform from a rice-planting community to a suburbia.
“When I was young, I would help my mother plant rice and vegetables for side income. In the mornings, I would go to school at the temple. Afterwards, I would help her sell her goods.”
After graduating from secondary school, Boonthawee became a travelling salesman, then a patrol guard on the Thailand-Myanmar border. After 17 years away from Chiang Mai, he finally returned and started work as the assistant village head.
“I returned to a very different Chiang Mai. Now, most people work in the service industry. A lot of our livelihoods depend on expats or tourists. My wife teaches foreigners how to speak Thai, while my neighbour works as a driver for hotels.”
The demographics have also changed. The past decade has seen a lot of immigrants from other parts of Thailand as well as from Myanmar. About half of the residents are not originally from here,” he said.
“Many Burmese come here to work in construction. Sometimes, as many as eight of them live in one bedroom to save money.
“The government has helped them a lot: they are registered, they have access to health care, and their children can go to school, all on Thai taxpayers’ money. As Buddhists, we are happy to help, but it does put a strain on society.”
One gets the sense that the demographic and economic factors at play have placed immense pressure on Chiang Mai.
“It is not easy. Sometimes it spills into conflict. People can get very frustrated and it is up to me as a local leader to mediate.”
Walking through the neighbourhood, Boonthawee can name and explain in detail the lives of the occupants in each house. He knows the village like the back of his hand, taking care to engage with their everyday worries.
“If there is a fire, a fight or any disturbance, the villagers call me first, before the authorities. They know that I will respond faster than anyone else and I will always be available. That’s why I sleep right next to my phone which is always on its loudest volume.”
Given the proactive involvement of the village authorities in the everyday lives of residents, I ask him what he thinks of Thaksin and his hold over northern Thailand. Boonthawee sidesteps the question, preferring to instead elaborate on his duties.
“As village head, my job is to bring together the community, not divide it. Red shirt or yellow shirt, we all need to live. I can’t let my political leanings colour my own decisions – I would cause strife to my community and it would hinder my ability to serve them.
“The government can make decrees, but it’s up to me to implement them. Village heads are still embedded into the local community and have the relationships necessary to make policy reality.
“Our country has been nothing but one argument after another in the past 10 years. It’s this village relationship that has broken down: that I can disagree with you, but ultimately we are still neighbours.”
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A man who holds his cards close to his chest, Boonthawee nevertheless reveals to me that he harbours political ambitions.
“In five years, I will turn 60 and I will retire from the village council. I want to contest at the sub-district level then and try to make a difference with a larger platform.”
Of course, standing for elections will mean identifying with a political party and advocating for a certain set of policy solutions.
“I have my opinions, but I think it’s best to wait. Everything is still unsure. There’s no point making decisions and declaring for something that might not happen.”
Will elections finally happen? Boonthawee is optimistic.
“I believe they will. Slowly, Thailand has healed from the division and I think everybody is just so tired of fighting. There is a spirit that we want to move forward, that with a new king, it’s time for a new era in Thai politics.
“I look at people like Toon, the lead singer of the rock band Bodyslam. He’s now doing a 2,192km run across the country raising money for hospitals. He is a symbol of unity; the kind of person Thailand needs more of.”
Curious, I ask Boonthawee what his dream for Thai politics is. A return to a booming economy? Thailand established as a regional leader? The uplifting of the rural poor?
With a weary but sanguine smile, he answers.
“I want the Thai people to be good neighbours to each other.”
Karim Raslan is a well-known Southeast Asian commentator and columnist. Follow Karim on Twitter: @fromKMR | Instagram: fromkmr
This article is published in collaboration with Ceritalah ASEAN. It is also published on the South China Morning Post.
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASEAN Economic Forum.