May 25, 2019
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Military junta woos rural vote ahead of elections in Thailand

Gaspar Ruiz-Canela

Nongnamkhun, Thailand, Mar 15 (efe-epa).- Thailand's military junta has been wooing voters in rural areas of northeastern Thailand, a traditional opposition stronghold, with investments and promises ahead of the elections on Mar. 24.

Known as Isan, the region represents a third of the 51.4 million Thais who will be voting and whose support has secured victory for parties linked to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck in every election held in the country since 2001.

Both Shinawatras have been charged and sentenced to corruption charges, and are currently living in exile.

Current prime minister and head of the military junta, Prayuth Chan-ocha, has undertaken millionaire investments to promote his candidacy.

During a visit to Nakhon Ratchasima, a province in Isan about 250 kilometers outside the capital city Bangkok, Prayuth was greeted by residents who called him "Uncle Tu" as he sang and smiled with them dressed in traditional attire.

As the head of the government, Chan-ocha, the sole candidate of the Palang Pracharat party, he is barred from participating in electoral acts, and so qualified the visit as an official government event.

According to a survey in February by Khon Kaen University, 44.8 percent of voters in Isan support the Shinawatra-backed Puea Thai, followed by the newly-formed Future Forward Party (21.2 percent), while the pro-military Palang Pracharat came in fourth with 7.4 percent.

This region is well aware of the Thai saying that governments are formed in provinces and dissolved in Bangkok by military coup or by the dissolution of the ruling party by the courts or the Election Commission.

Moreover, Chan-ocha this year is very likely to have the support of the 250 members of the Senate who are hand-picked by the military junta and who elect the future prime minister along with the 500 members of the House of Representatives.

"I think it went very well (with the military junta), we have been given a lot ", explained to EFE Thaweep Preephrom, a retired Thai farmer in the district of Pak Chong in Nakhon Ratchasima, also known as Korat.

While Preephrom did not say which party he would vote for, he expressed support for the conservative Democrat Party and criticized the Puea Thai.

Like many other northeastern Thais, he regretted the low price of agricultural and livestock products and the rising costs of living.

Samreung Klanklin, owner of an avocado plantation, rejected the military and underlined his support for the Puea Thai, which has fielded Perdarat Keyuraphan, Chatchart Sittipan and Chaikasem Nitisiri as prime ministerial candidates.

The landscape of Nakhon Ratchasima, the province in Isan closest to Bangkok, is dotted with rice paddies as well as corn, bananas and sugar cane plantations.

54.1 percent of the inhabitants of Isan's 20 provinces work in agriculture, which in turn represents only 20 percent of the regional GDP, according to the National Statistical Office.

As political scientist Andrew Walker explains in his book "Thailand's Political Peasants: Power in the Modern Rural Economy", Thai farmers are no longer mere peasants, as they have transitioned from poor to middle class over recent decades.

Despite the transition, Thailand still has one of the highest rates of wealth distribution and inequality in the world, and the average income in Isan is below minimum wage (about $284 per month).

Thaksin Shinawatra's enormous popularity is largely thanks to his approval of universal healthcare and soft loans for farmers in 2001 to alleviate inequality, which earned him massive support from rural areas and working classes.

Pitted against him were the wealthiest classes and the elites close to the monarchy and the army, who ousted him in a rebellion in 2006 and toppled the Yingluck government in 2014.

Both of these former prime ministers have been sentenced to prison imposed in absentia on corruption, charges which they say are trumped up as an act of political revenge by the Bangkok elites.

in 2013 and 2014, Thailand witnessed massive street protests by both anti-Thaksin and pro-royalist Yellow Shirts and the and pro-Thaksin supporters, dubbed the Red Shirts.

The issues close to those in Bangkok are far removed from those in Nakhon Ratchasima, who are more concerned with their dwindling purchasing power.

"If we have a full stomach, we can contribute something to society; otherwise, we will not be able to contribute anything," said Jipwipha Buteawdethiran next to a rice paddy in Nongnamkhun to EFE.

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