By Marwaan Macan-Markar
BAN NON CHIANG KHAM, Jan 12 (IPS) – For most of her adult life, Yard Sunee had to endure a reality that was worlds away from the conveniences that people in a modern metropolis like Bangkok take for granted — like ready access to tap water.
She had to wake up at 3 a.m. to secure a good spot in a crowd that would gather at a well to fill plastic buckets with water. There were mornings, she recalled, when the wait for water extended beyond an hour.
But this mother of three, who earns a living by growing rice, can wake up much later these days thanks to the installation of a water connection at her home.
This shift in lifestyle continues to win praise for the man responsible, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, from Yard and members of this community of farmers — now preparing to sow winter crops like chilli, cucumber and sugar cane.
In the largely wooden homes spread across this village Thaksin continues to be a hero long after he was ousted from power in a September 2006 military coup. He is currently in exile to avoid a jail term and several charges of corruption.
The party that Thaksin led, Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thai or TRT), began to implement a raft of pro-poor policies aimed at improving the lives of Thailand’s rural poor soon after its electoral triumph in 2001. Ban Non Chiang Kham, in Udon Thani province, was one of the country’s 70,000 villages that benefited.
State funds pumped in to help this village get piped water and a community centre exposed the community to a new process by which funds could be secured for development.
‘’We had to first elect a committee of 10 people from our village and then decide on what we wanted most,’’ said Yard, 53, who was on the committee. ‘’Our village chose water pipes. Now the two wells in the village are closed.’’
Others, like Nooma Sornkamroed, gained from the universal health care programmes that the TRT introduced such as enabling villagers to secure medical care in government hospitals for 30 baht (0.90 US cents) a visit. ‘’It removed the anxiety we felt at having to borrow money if we had a medical problem,’’ said the 52-year-old farmer. ‘’The fear of falling ill ended.’’
Policies for economic advancement are also behind the lingering loyalty towards Thaksin seven years after his administration implemented them. They ranged from micro-credit programmes and other interventions aimed at boosting grassroots economies.
Importantly, the new flow of funds helped to liberate many families from having to depend on the local loan sharks, whose interest rates and other usurious conditions kept the families in perpetual debt.
‘’There are 10 other villages in this area and they all feel this way. They cannot forget how the Thai Rak Thai policies improved their lives,’’ says Sudta Cheuynork, an elected official of the local administrative council. ‘’The number of poor people dropped here.’’
This area’s transformation is reflected in studies done by the World Bank covering the period of Thaksin’s five-and-a-half year administration. ‘’(The) poverty headcount has continuously fallen since its recent peak of 21 percent in 2000 to 9.6, or 6.1 million people, in 2006,’’ states a 2008 assessment by the Bank.
‘’The reduction was largest in the populous rural areas, especially in the north-eastern part of Thailand,’’ it adds. ‘’Nevertheless, around five million poor are currently living in the rural areas, while around 2.5 million, or 40 percent of the poor, are engaged in the farming sector.’’
But are these villagers shifting loyalties now that a new government is in power? Will they accept the pro-poor polices about to be implemented by the Democrat Party-led coalition?
‘’I don’t think so,’’ says Sudta. ‘’People already think that the offer of the Democrat Party will be like governments before the Thaksin government. They gave assistance as if people here were beggars, as if we had no dignity.’’
Some villagers here get emotional when they talk about how their political patron, Thaksin, was forced out during Thailand’s 18th putsch.
‘’His policies offered us hope that we can improve our lives,’’ says Pitsamai Chamnara, who, in a show of loyalty, has a giant picture of the ousted premier adorning an entire wall in the front room of her house. ‘’He was the best for us.’’
Thaksin’s end was precipitated by street protests during the first half of 2006, led by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). The latter targeted him for issues that mattered to its affluent, urban supporters at the time, ranging from his government’s abuse of power and nepotism to corruption.
In 2007 a military-appointed court dissolved the TRT and banned Thaksin and 110 party executives for five years on charges of election fraud.
The right-wing conservatives who supported the PAD were critical about the pro-poor policies Thaksin implemented to help communities like the one in Ban Non Chiang Kham.
While the ousted premier was accused of bribing the villagers to get their votes through state largesse, the military junta that succeeded the TRT had no qualms in ordering a fresh round of assistance to the rural poor with the aim of weaning them away from the pro-Thaksin ranks.
Elections held in December 2007 showed how deep and wide Thaksin’s support base was in the north-east when a coalition led by the TRT’s successor, the People Power Party, won 130 of the 135 parliamentary seats up for grabs in the region.
‘’We all voted for the party that was close to Mr. Thaksin and we will continue to do so,’’ says Suparb Sirikit, a retired former director of a primary school. ‘’We felt we had more power in developing this area. No more loan sharks. No more depending on outside authorities who told us what to do.’’
‘’We are prepared to wait for his return,’’ added the 62-year-old educator. ‘’This is Mr. Thaksin’s country.’’