Network Shinawatra

Network Shinawatra

Feb 4th 2014, 6:29 by R.C. | CHIANG MAI and SAN KAMPHAENG

AS STREET protests in Bangkok rage on past the elections of February 2nd, the country’s political crisis is gradually turning into something altogether more ominous: a struggle over the territorial integrity of the country itself. Since Suthep Thaugsuban, the messianic leader of the anti-government protesters in the capital, had called for a total boycott, the election itself was little more than a symbolic gesture. There was little violence in Bangkok, but not much voting either. In several southern provinces, polling was made impossible. In the north of the country however, and particularly in the second-largest city, Chiang Mai, the voting went smoothly, with nothing to disrupt it. For here the situation is exactly reversed.

Even an hour’s flight from Bangkok, there have been a few protests à la Suthepaimed against the prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra. But they have been confined mostly to the local university campus, and observers say they have attracted not more than about 1,000 people. There have been very few mass sit-ins, occupations of government buildings, street camps—or grenade attacks, such as characterise the demonstrations in the capital. Mostly Chiang Mai just carries on as normal, and the people here are in general becoming more baffled, and disillusioned, by what they see in Bangkok. It’s not too much to say that this part of Thailand now feels like a different country from the Thailand to the south. Indeed, if the protests in Bangkok carry on much longer and the violence there escalates, the two halves of Thailand might well begin to institutionalise their growing sense of separateness and alienation.

The north and north-east of Thailand, which together comprise almost half of the country’s provinces, are overwhelmingly sympathetic to the “red shirts”, as the supporters of a former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, are known (though they are not so often wearing red shirts, these days). The red shirts were formed after Mr Thaksin was deposed in a coup in 2006. Ever since they have been fighting for their man, his policies, and now his younger sister, the current prime minister, against what they perceive to be the Bangkok establishment, including what has been called the “network monarchy”: those unelected officials in the army, the privy council and other elite groups that surround the king’s family.

And even though Mr Suthep has been grabbing all the headlines with his antics in Bangkok, it would be foolish to underestimate the support and devotion that Mr Thaksin, Ms Yingluck, and indeed, all the Shinawatra clan, inspire in the north—a devotion that can be as heartfelt and fervent as anything on display in Bangkok. To understand the reach of the Shinawatras in the north, and how the family has become intertwined with the lives of so many people here, a good place to head to is San Kamphaeng, originally Mr Thaksin’s hometown, a few miles outside Chiang Mai. This is ground zero of network Shinawatra.

The Shinawatra burial ground, where the ashes of family members are interred, occupies one corner of a large Buddhist temple called Rong Dharma Samakkhi. This is where Ms Yingluck comes on occasion to pray and earn merit. Here are the memorials to the patriarch, Lert Shinawatra, a descendant of Chinese immigrants, and his wife, who were parents to ten children, including Thaksin and Yingluck, two of the country’s prime ministers. A third of the ten was married to yet another prime minister. And there is another shrine to the eldest sister, Yaowares, who died in 2009; she was Chiang Mai’s first female mayor. Ms Yingluck is said to have been especially close to her.

In a single generation then, the Shinawatras became Thailand’s most successful political family, though these office-holding siblings were already continuing a family tradition. Mr Lert was a two-term MP for Chiang Mai, and his brother Suaphan succeeded him as such. Further elections might well see the beginning of an even younger generation of Shinawatras taking office.

It was Mr Lert’s father who was mostly responsible for starting the family’s success in business, which predated its turn towards politics. He founded the original Shinawatra silk business, which it is still possible to visit just outside San Kamphaeng. Mr Lert set up many enterprises in Chiang Mai and the surrounding area, including two cinemas, a petrol station and a motorcycle dealership. By the time Mr Thaksin was born, the Shinawatras were already one of the richest and most powerful families in north Thailand, which did not stop him going on to become a billionaire in his own right, through investments in telecoms. Yingluck had been working in the family businesses when she was plucked from relative obscurity to lead the Pheu Thai party into the general election of 2011.

After so many generations of success in local business, along with the attendant patronage and political power, it’s hardly surprising that many people in the region should be fiercely protective of Ms Yingluck, the embattled prime minister. They insist that the anti-government protests in Bangkok must be opposed. If the situation there spirals out of control and Ms Yingluck is overthrown, by the army, say, or by Mr Suthep or even the courts, they say they will bring her back to Chiang Mai, the Shinawatra fief, and protect her here.

Mahawon Kawang is one who offers fighting talk when I meet him at Ms Yingluck’s former school, Yupparaj College, in the centre of Chiang Mai. He was in her class there, and is now the head of its well-endowed alumni association. He was a founder of one of the most militant of the local red-shirt organisations, and now runs a red-shirt radio station. He acknowledges that, as in any political movement, there are several shades of opinion among the red shirts, but he says they would be united against a coup. “We will come out to oppose them [the coup-makers],” he says; “We no longer have any fear. We are willing to sacrifice our lives for this cause. The red shirts won’t let themselves be beaten, like in 2010 [when about 90 of them were shot dead by police and army in the centre of Bangkok]. We will be more active…and the number of red shirts who take to the streets after the coup will be ten times more than the numbers of Mr Suthep.”

Many other red shirts mutter purposefully about how they are “preparing” for the worst. Thailand could be on the brink of a serious rupture.

 

 

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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