2018 in Environmental Review for Southeast Asia

November 10, 2018

By: Gregory McCann


As 2018 comes to a close it is worth taking a look at the environmental trends throughout the year, with a special emphasis on those within the last six months or so, in order to gain an understanding of what has been happening to this region’s natural heritage and so that we might know what to look for in 2019—and how to address the upcoming challenges.

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A lloincloth-clad tribesmen blockading blockading logging roads in Malaysian Borneo.

While we can say that a lot has been happening everywhere, and this is especially true for Malaysia. The country produces durian that Chinese consumers covet. This means rain forests that are currently home to tigers are being converted into plantations so that more and more of the spiky, pungent fruit can be sold to China. That means bad environmental news, with China the driver. Furthermore, clearing forests will drastically reduce the number of pollinators such as bats and other wild animals, which will in turn lower the durian’s quality.

Another fruit—palm oil—is almost always the whipping boy for conservation problems in Malaysia (and beyond), however, the country is making headway in its own sustainable certification program, which attempts to incorporate Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs) into development blueprints across Malaysian Borneo. Nonetheless, huge development projects in Peninsular Malaysia are pushing the environment to the breaking point, with gargantuan Chinese-funded residential projects such as Forest City across the strait from Singapore serving as a striking case in point.

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However, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad recently shut down several Chinese Belt and Road projects.  Malaysia also wants to ban importing plastic waste, as well as single-use plastic straws. Nonetheless, serious problems remain. Even without the durians-to-China issue, tiger numbers are tumbling fast, scenic Langkawi island is coming under so much stress that it may lose its Unesco status, while in Sarawak the forest-dwelling Penan indigenous group continue to block bulldozers and fight for their traditional lands.

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Tabin Wildlife Reserve is located in the eastern part of Sabah, Malaysia

However, a rehabilitated Bornean orangutan was successfully rewilded in Sabah’s Tabin Wildlife Sanctuary, the first orangutan to fully return to the forest after such a long spell in captivity and rehabilitation, and a clouded leopard was sighted within the vicinity of a local hospital.

Across the Strait in Indonesia ecological issues are festering as well. While a new species of songbird has been identified on Rote Island, five other bird species have lost their protected status. The endemic Sumatran laughing thrush is fast disappearing, while the Helmeted Hornbill is relentlessly persecuted in Indonesia. The caged bird trade is bringing many species to the brink of extinction in the archipelago, and biologists say many forests where they work are becoming increasingly “quiet.”

Forest fires raged in South Sumatra and Riau provinces in 2018, and Chinese developers are stubbornly pushing ahead with a hydroelectric dam in the , home to the rarest species of orangutan in the world. The Critically Endangered Sumatra rhinoceros is still in big trouble but there is a movement on to save it, while a pregnant Sumatran tigress was caught and died in a pig trap in Riau.

Like Malaysia, Indonesia has a major palm oil problem, but the country’s anti-graft department says it’s ready to take action against transgressors who are felling natural forest and breaking other laws. Sadly, the Bali government wants to build an elevated highway right on top of some of its last undeveloped sandy beaches. The small volcanic island of Krakatoa in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra has spewed lava and ash this year.   Widespread deforestation, poaching, overfishing, and plastic pollution has been taking over this island nation. Indonesian Presidential contender Prabowo has said that if he is elected to office he will review China’s Belt and Road plans, which could include a cancellation of the , and a court in Aceh recently threw down its stiffest penalty to date for two men caught trying to sell a tiger pelt.

Asia Sentinel recently reported on the surprising number of wildlife to be found in Singapore today. Thailand also received high environmental marks in a recent Asia Sentinel critique, however, Thai-language media recently uncovered a story about a Vietnamese national caught with tiger bones in the kingdom— particularly worrying report as Vietnamese poachers are among the most tenacious in Asia.

Making matters worse, a new and improved road through Kaeng Krachan National Park will likely lead to greater disturbance to the forest’s wildlife, while a few provinces to the north a Burmese national gunned down a binturong. There is rising sentiment to build a Kra Isthmus Canal in Thailand. A large crocodile was caught off the Krabi coast, a whale shark was recently spotted of Koh Racha, and local conservationists have thus far succeeded in fending off a new marina development project in Phuket. However, the deluge of Chinese tourists into the kingdom is pushing Thailand to its breaking point, and it was largely Chinese tourists who are responsible for the closing of Maya Bay in Koh Phi Phi, which remains closed indefinitely so that it can recover.

In Laos, the Nam Theun 2 Dam has been such a disaster that its main financer, the World Bank, has thrown in the towel and walked away.  In Dead in the Water: Global Lessons from the World Bank’s Hydropower Project in Laos contributing author Glenn Hunt remarks: “For one of the pillars that was supposed to be the primary source of income, it’s been an unmitigated disaster.” With about 140 dams either under construction or on the drawing board in its quest to be the “battery of Asia,” Laos faces the potential for most disasters and large-scale environmental and social degradation in a country that has already lost its wild tigers, leopards and many other species.

Despite the tragedy that unfolded in Attapeu province when a large dam collapsed, Laos remains bullish about constructing more dams. And the dam-building frenzy is harming the environment and wildlife all around the country. And while a recent Guardian write-up describing the fantastic-look Nam Et-Phou Luey ecotourism program up in the north of the country describes a healthy tiger population in this region, perhaps the author was given old data.

Wild elephants are reportedly being skinned alive in Myanmar to satisfy a new Chinese demand—for “blood beads,” which are blood-filled chunks of elephant fat. The previous link provides a window into some twisted tastes: “The online trader wants his customers to know the elephant was skinned quickly, with blood still fresh in its veins.” Chinese demand for elephant skin used in bags in jewelry was already shocking, but things can always get worse when it comes to wildlife.

But in more uplifting news from the country, Irrawaddy dolphins are being given greater protection, and the government is also cracking down on illegal wildlife trade in the city of Yangon.

Taking note of how poorly elephants working in tourism are treated across Asia, Vietnam has launched the region’s first “ethical elephant experience.” The country has also taken an interest in seeing that its shrimp farming industry become more sustainable, while the government also recently signed a deal with the EU that promises a reduction in illegal logging (though some in neighboring Cambodia have serious doubts about this). We reported earlier this year that Vietnam’s wildlife is in rough shape, and things haven’t taken much of a turn for the better since.

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Virachey National Park—A major tourist attraction in Cambodia

And finally, Cambodia.  A recent camera-trap check in Virachey National Park so delighted the Ministry of Environment that he shared some of the photos on their Facebook page; even the Thai media took notice of the results. Asia Sentinel reported earlier this year that Cambodia is probably the last hope for Indochina’s wildlife, and this still holds true, despite the fact that nearly 110,000 snares were found in a single national park. A man was recently killed by a wild boar near the Cardamom Mountains, while Kratie province is cracking down on illegal mining, and at the same time the central government is demanding that villagers who grabbed national park land return it.

In other news from the region, the Maubere tribe of Timor-Leste is bringing back ancient customary laws to help protect its forests, seas, and coastline. Chinese demand for logs is wiping out the forests of the Solomon Islands. India is losing tigers and elephants, while two elephants were struck by a train and killed in Sri Lanka.

As always, China casts a menacing shadow over Southeast Asia, and nowhere is this more clear than on the Mekong River and in the South China Sea. The region, with the help of the US and Japan, must find a way to manage Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and beyond, and the some of the numerous dams that it has planned for the region have to be cancelled or scaled down.

Beyond that, Chinese citizens have to be educated about wildlife product consumption, including shark fins, tiger parts, bear gallbladder, elephant skin and blood, and much more, which have no known scientific value. And in a shocking and disturbing announcement,  China has said that it will lift its decades-old ban on the trading of tiger parts and rhino horn, a move that will almost certainly put these species in greater danger.  Or else one of the most biologically rich regions of the world loses everything that made it so special.

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator of Habitat ID, and the author of Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor. You can support his conservation projects in Cambodia and Sumatra here.

Southeast Asia: Changing Geo-Political Dynamics in the Trump Era

August 30, 2018

Southeast Asia: Changing Geo-Political Dynamics in the Trump Era

Widespread reports of China’s hegemony over the neighboring region miss the nuance of fast-shifting political and strategic dynamics

Phnom Penh 
A historical map depicting China's flag over Southeast Asia. Photo: iStock

Is China truly establishing dominance over neighboring Southeast Asia, or is it a prevailing perception among academics and journalists who have uncritically adopted a pervasive pro-China narrative built on Beijing’s rising investment and influence in the region?

Two recent Southeast Asian elections denote a shifting spectrum. Last month’s general election in Cambodia, by far China’s most loyal ally in the region, was taken by some as indication of how far the country has moved away from its past Western backers and closer to Beijing.

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As Cambodia abandons multi-party democracy for one-party authoritarianism, similar to the dominance of the Communist Party in China, some see Cambodia as the first domino to fall in China’s grand regional ambition for political and economic control over the nearby region.

Indeed, some in Cambodia’s exiled opposition have claimed that the country has become a de facto “Chinese colony” under Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

The Harapan coalition’s win at Malaysia’s May 9 general election, however, pointed in the opposite direction. The long-ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) was ousted by an alliance whose campaign narrative was built in part on opposing Chinese investment, which boomed under the previous government.

Now as prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad has cancelled US$22 billion worth of Chinese-backed infrastructure projects, including a Belt and Road Initiative-inspired high-speed rail line, for reasons of fiscal prudence.

While Mahathir warned of the risk of new forms of “colonialism” during a recently concluded tour of China, he also made the diplomatic point that his government isn’t anti-China.

Indeed, some in Cambodia’s exiled opposition have claimed that the country has become a de facto “Chinese colony” under Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

The Harapan coalition’s win at Malaysia’s May 9 general election, however, pointed in the opposite direction. The long-ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) was ousted by an alliance whose campaign narrative was built in part on opposing Chinese investment, which boomed under the previous government.

Now as Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad has cancelled US$22 billion worth of Chinese-backed infrastructure projects, including a Belt and Road Initiative-inspired high-speed rail line, for reasons of fiscal prudence.

While Mahathir warned of the risk of new forms of “colonialism” during a recently concluded tour of China, he also made the diplomatic point that his government isn’t anti-China.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (L) and China's Premier Li Keqiang talk during a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on August 20, 2018.Mahathir is on a visit to China from August 17 to 21. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / HOW HWEE YOUNG

“We should always remember that the level of development of countries are not all the same,” Mahathir said this week at a joint press conference with Chinese premier Li Keqiang. “We do not want a situation where there is a new version of colonialism happening because poor countries are unable to compete with rich countries, therefore we need fair trade.”

It is undeniable that China now plays a major and growing role in Southeast Asian affairs, even if judged by only its economic heft.

A recent New York Times report noted that every Asian country now trades more with China than the United States, often by a factor of two to one, an imbalance that is only growing as China’s economic growth outpaces that of America’s.

With China’s economic ascendency projected to continue – the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts China could become the world’s largest economy by 2030 – some believe that Beijing aims to replace the US-backed liberal international order in place since the 1950’s with a new less liberal and less orderly model.

Cambodia’s case, however, tests the limits of that forward-looking analysis. The US and European Union (EU) refused to send electoral monitors to Cambodia’s general election last month on the grounds the process was “illegitimate” due to the court-ordered dissolution of the country’s largest opposition party.

Washington has since imposed targeted sanctions on Cambodian officials seen as leading the anti-democratic crackdown, while new legislation now before the US Senate could significantly ramp up the punitive measures.

Hun Sen aired a combative response to threats of sanctions, saying with bravado that he “welcomes” the measures. Some commentators read this as an indication that Phnom Penh no longer cares about the actions and perceptions of democratic nations because it has China’s strong and lucrative backing.

Yet the CPP still made painstaking efforts to present a veneer of democratic legitimacy on to its rigged elections, something it would not have done if it only cared about Beijing’s opinions. Hun Sen now says he will soon defend the election’s legitimacy at the United Nations General Assembly, yet another indication that he still cares what the West thinks.

China’s rise in Southeast Asia is viewed primarily in relation to the US’ long-standing strong position, both economically and strategically. Many see this competition as a zero-sum game where China’s gain is America’s loss.

Along those lines, some analysts saw US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent whirlwind trip to Southeast Asia as “parachute diplomacy” that only underscored certain entrenched regional perceptions of the US as an episodic actor that has no real strategy for Southeast Asia.

The Donald Trump administration certainly lacks an overarching policy comparable to his predecessor Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia,” a much-vaunted scheme with strategic and economic components that made Southeast Asia key to America’s policy of counterbalancing China.

Despite no new policy moniker, Trump’s administration has in many ways continued Obama’s scheme: Vietnam remains a key ally, support for other South China Sea claimants is unbending, military sales remain high, and containing Chinese expansion is still the raison d’etre.

It’s also been seen in the number of visits to Southeast Asia by senior White House officials, including high profile tours by Pompeo and his predecessor Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and Trump himself to Vietnam in November 2017 and Singapore in June.

A little noticed December 2017 National Security Strategy document, produced by Trump’s White House, explicitly notes that “China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.”

Yet perceptions of new Cold War-like competition in Southeast Asia often fail to note the imbalance between America and China’s spheres of influence in the region.


US President Donald Trump (L) and Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang (R) attend a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi in Hanoi on November 12, 2017.Trump told his Vietnamese counterpart on November 12 he is ready to help resolve the dispute in the resource-rich South China Sea, which Beijing claims most of. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / KHAM

Absent President Donald Trump’s Asia Policy, China emerges as the dominant  player in Southeast Asia

China’s two most loyal regional allies are arguably Cambodia and Laos, countries of less economic and strategic importance than America’s main partners Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam.

The historically pro-US Philippines has gravitated somewhat into China’s orbit under President Rodrigo Duterte, though at most there has been an equalization of its relations between the two powers rather than outright domination by China.

Strategic analyst Richard Javad Heydarian recently noted that Duterte likes to think of himself as a “reincarnation of mid-20th century titans of the so-called Non-Aligned Movement,” though Heydarian suggested that this could prompt a backlash from the Philippine public that remains resolutely pro-America.

Malaysia, another country that was thought to have been moving closer to China, has ricocheted strongly in the other direction after the change in leadership from pro-China Najib Razak to China-skeptic Mahathir Mohamad.

Thailand has boosted military ties with Beijing since the country’s military coup in 2014, which caused some panic in Washington, but a recent incident has shown just how fragile their bilateral relations remain.

After two boats sank near the resort island of Phuket in early July, killing dozens of Chinese tourists, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan blamed the Chinese tour operators, commenting the accident was “entirely Chinese harming Chinese.”

His claim led to calls in China for tourists to boycott Thailand, which could cost the country roughly US$1.5 billion in cancellations, according to some estimates. Thailand’s tourism sector is now facing a major public relations problem after China’s jingoist state-owned media lambasted Prawit’s tactless response.

More explosively, rare nationwide protests in Vietnam in June were sparked by nationalistic concerns that a new law allowing 99-year land leases in special economic zones would effectively sell sovereign territory to China.

There are strong perceptions, aired widely over social media, that Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party is too close to Beijing, a cause of resentment that some analysts suggest is the country’s biggest potential source of instability.

Even in perceived pro-China nations like Cambodia and Laos, anti-China sentiment is rising in certain sections of the public. Arguments that Chinese investment actually harms the livelihoods of many Cambodians, especially in places like coastal Sihanoukville and Koh Kong, is on the ascendency.

Social media criticism has centered on a concession deal the Cambodian government entered with a Chinese company that effectively gives it land rights to an estimated 20% of Cambodia’s coastline.

The same goes for Laos’ ruling communist party, which has taken steps to curb the growth of certain sectors dominated by Chinese investment, such as banana plantations and mining, over public complaints about their adverse health and environmental impacts.

The IMF and others, meanwhile, have expressed concerns that Laos risks falling into a Chinese “debt trap”via its Beijing-backed US$6 billion high-speed rail project, a claim that Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith felt the need to publicly rebuff in June.

Still, there is a certain misapprehension that China’s rising economic importance to the region, both as a provider of aid and investment and market for exports, necessarily equates to strong political and strategic influence.

It doesn’t always add up that way. In January, China fractionally overtook America as the largest importer of Vietnamese goods, according to the General Department of Vietnam Customs. Nonetheless, Hanoi remains decidedly pro-US in regional affairs and that position isn’t expected to change, even if its exports to China continue to outpace those to America.

More fundamentally, China’s rising economic presence in the region is in many instances destabilizing relations. Rapid growth in Chinese investment to Malaysia in recent years prompted a public backlash, a phenomena seized on by the victorious Harapan coalition. There are incipient signs the same type of backlash is now percolating in Cambodia and Laos.

Chinese investment is likely to play a role in Indonesia’s presidential and legislative elections next year, perhaps negatively for incumbent President Joko Widodo, under whose tenure China has become the country’s third largest investor.

“The relationship with China could turn toxic for [Widodo],” Keith Loveard, senior analyst with Jakarta-based business risk firm Concord Consulting, recently told the South China Morning Post.

To be sure, China has translated some of its economic largesse to strategic advantage. Philippine President Durterte, for example, said in October 2016 that his country’s one-way security ties with the US would come to an end, though America’s provision of “technical assistance” during the Marawi City siege last year cast the extent of that into doubt.

China has also developed closer ties to the militaries of Thailand and Cambodia, so much so that the latter cancelled joint military exercises with the US last year. It has also resumed its past position of shielding Myanmar’s generals from Western condemnation during the recent Rohingya refugee crisis.

But America still remains the predominant security ally of most Southeast Asian nations, something that will only become more important as concerns about the spread of Islamic terrorism heighten. This month, Washington provided an additional US$300m in security funding to the region.

Only Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar buy more arms from China than America, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The rest of Southeast Asia’s military procurements, sometimes exclusively, come from the US.

Still, some of China’s recent regional successes have been the result of America’s missteps. China has been greatly helped by Trump’s withdrawal of America from its long-standing leadership role in certain multilateral institutions, as well as his ad hoc policy towards Southeast Asia that favors more bilateralism.

Had Trump not withdrawn the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral trade deal championed by Obama that excludes China, regional trade flows would be geared more towards America, providing an important counterbalance to many regional countries’ rising dependence on Chinese markets.

By doing so, Trump allowed Beijing’s multilateral economic institutions, like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank, to gain an upper hand.

Yet most reporting on China’s influence in Southeast Asia rests on the assumption that the trends of the past decade will continue into the future. But it’s not clear that Chinese investment will keep growing at the same rate – or even faster – while America continues to fumble over how best to engage with Southeast Asia.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (C) poses with Thailand's Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai (L), Vietnam's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh (2nd L), Malaysia's Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah (2nd R) and Laos Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith (R) for a group photo at the 51st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) - US Ministerial Meeting in Singapore on August 3, 2018. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

China cannot rule out that in 2021 America could have a new president able to articulate and implement a more coherent policy towards Southeast Asia, nor that upcoming elections in Indonesia and possibly even Myanmar see the rise of anti-China candidates.

Neither can Beijing rule out that India won’t become a major player in the region, despite it so far failing to live up to expectations. A recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations, a US-based think tank, asserted that it can be “a more forceful counterweight to China and hedge against a declining United States.”

Moreover, there is great uncertainty over whether the South China Sea disputes pitting China versus the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, among others, might at some point turn hot, which would significantly alter the region’s security approach in place since the 1990s.

China’s growing trade war with the US could also impact on its relations with the region. Some believe China could soon devalue its currency in response to the US-China trade war, though Beijing says it won’t.

Not only would a devalued renminbi make Chinese-made products cheaper, negatively affecting competing Southeast Asian exporters, it would also affect the region’s supply chains as Chinese buyers would be expected to demand cheaper prices. Few, if any, in the region would win from rounds of competitive currency devaluations.

But viewing China’s power in the region vis-a-vis America’s is only part of the picture. Japan, and to a lesser extent South Korea, are also major players and potential counterweights to China.

Since the 2000s, Japan’s infrastructure investment in the region has been worth US$230 billion, while China’s was about US$155 billion, according to recent BMI Research, an economic research outfit. The balance might tip in China’s favor with the US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative, but probably not for another decade or so, BMI projects.

Tokyo rarely boasts of its own soft power in Southeast Asia. Indeed, while Philippine leader Duterte’s overtures to China are among his major talking points, quietly it has been Japan, not China, that is funding his government’s ballyhooed major infrastructure programs.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (R) and Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad shake hands during joint press remarks at Abe's official residence in Tokyo on June 12, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Toshifumi KITAMURA

Japanese diplomacy towards the region falls somewhere between China and America’s. While Washington’s, at least past, insistence on human rights and democracy-building puts off to many regional countries, Beijing’s diplomacy is more laissez faire, as long as Chinese interests are protected by sitting governments.

Tokyo, by contrast, tends to practice quiet sustained diplomacy, decidedly in support of rule of law but without the threat of punitive measures if a partner government strays. That is likely one reason why there is little anti-Japan sentiment in the region and why its relations receive much less public attention.

Malaysia’s Mahathir, whose first trip abroad after May’s election win was to Tokyo, not Beijing or Washington, has recently spoken of Japan’s importance in regional affairs.

Mahathir shaped Southeast Asia’s approach to great powers during his previous tenure as Prime Minister from 1981-2003, and his belief that Japan can play an even larger role in regional affairs could soon be taken up by other regional governments.

“Specific Southeast Asian states are now seeking to diversify their strategic partnerships, beyond a binary choice between Beijing and Washington,” reads a recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Mahathir’s apparent desire is for a more diversified regional network, similar to the hedging policies he promoted in the 1990s. Mahathir is certainly not pro-China, but neither is he pro-US.

What most Southeast Asian nations desire is not unipolarity but competition among many foreign partners that allows them to maximize benefits and negotiating leverage. When America and China, or Japan and India, compete to gain an economic and political footing, regional nations often win through the bidding.



US Social Critic Noam Chomsky Speaks on Thailand’s Political Situation

August 18, 2018

US Social Critic Noam Chomsky Speaks on Thailand’s Political Situation

By: Asia Sentinel Staff


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Professor Noam Chomsky has spoken with exiled Thai academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun exclusively for the first time on the dire political situation in Thailand. He delved into the issue of the monarchy in Thai politics, the persistent political intervention of the Thai army, the draconian lèse-majesté law which forbids anyone from criticising the royal family, and the role of Thai youths in the changing political environment.

Drawing on his own observations on American politics, Chomsky detects similar problems facing two dissimilar nations—the United States and Thailand. Although a republic, the United States has continued to worship certain political leaders as if they were gods. In Thailand, kings are seen as ultimately sacred. But the excessive reverence of the royal institution in Thailand has generated a myriad of political problems. Most evidently, it has placed the monarchy at the apex of the political structure, which, as Chomsky sees it, demands forced veneration from the public, and thus submission.

Looking into the future of Thailand, Chomsky hopes there will be dedicated efforts to confront the political regression in order to move to a more just and free political community in the country.

Pavin, an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, in Japan, conducted this interview after Chomsky moved from MIT to the University of Arizona on 1 December 2017. Pavin was charged with lèse-majesté for his criticism of the government in the aftermath of the 2014 coup in Thailand.

The project was supported by the Free Future Foundation, a Paris-based non-profit organisation designed to promote democracy and human rights.


Thailand’s Coups Politics

August 3, 2018

Thailand’s Coups Politics

by Pithaya Pookaman


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There have been 18 military coups d’etat in Thailand, of which 12 were successful, since 1932 when Phraya Pahol Polpayuhasena, leader of the People’s Party, led a group of military and police officers and civilians to proclaim the establishment of democracy in Thailand.

The latest, of course, took place in 2014 with the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra by Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who presently holds a dual position as junta leader and prime minister.  Although Thailand ranks fourth in the world in the number of coups, trailing Sudan with 31, followed by Iraq and Bolivia, military coups are deeply ingrained in the Thai psyche and tolerated by some Thais, particularly the elite and urban middle class.

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What sets the Thai coups apart from the coups in other countries is their variety, sophistry and creativity. In what is considered a variation to the classic military coups, we have had “silent coups” in which street mobs were employed by opposition parties with the connivance of the military in lieu of raw military force, and ”self-inflicted coups” perpetrated by the military government in power to rid itself of democratic and dissenting elements within the government apparatus.

New Model

However, what is at work at the moment is a new model, a “permanent coup” designed to span more than 20 years, elections or no elections.  In March, the junta laid out a plan under which any future civilian government would be “legally bound” to follow its two-decade “masterplan that would outline six “strategic areas including security, competitiveness enhancement, human resource development, social equality, green growth and rebalancing and public-sector development.  Not unnaturally for this version of the junta, “national security” is the key focus.

The present junta considers the 2006 military coup which unseated the popular government of Thaksin Shinawatra to be a “wasted coup” because the then-junta leader allowed a general election to take place without instituting adequate safeguards to prevent the recurrence of a government committed to a genuine democratic process, an anathema to the military-cum-elite establishment.  With such hindsight, the present junta has devoted more time to crafting a constitution to guarantee the continuance of the junta’s power after the election, to make sure it won’t happen again.

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The new constitution contains many novel but undemocratic features such as wholly appointed senators, an unelected prime minister, and a bizarre and complicated proportional system designed to limit the power of the politicians, weaken established political parties and marginalize the power of the people. The new charter also violates the principle of checks and balances by ceding disproportionate power to the judicial branch and so-called independent organs that actually are under the control of the junta.

Democracy’s Fate Sealed

On July 6, the fate of democracy was finally sealed with the rubber-stamp approval by the junta-appointed national legislative assembly that functions as the parliament by a vote of 179 to 0. The deliberation lasted only an hour before the vote was called, an exceptionally amazing feat which should an envy of the US lawmakers in Congress.

Once it receives the expected royal endorsement, a drafting panel will prepare a master plan for six strategic areas encompassing national security, good governance, as well as economic and social matters.  When in force, all government agencies and public organizations must comply with the 20-year master plan, including budget allocation. Compliance will be monitored by the national strategy committee.

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If the government is guilty of what the military considers to be malfeasance, the prime minister and concerned cabinet members can face suspension from public office or expulsion. In addition, the junta-appointed senators will also monitor the compliance.  Although the 20-year strategy is to be reviewed every five years, any changes to the strategy will be difficult and are subjected to prior parliamentary review.

Since the junta’s 20-year vision has the force of law, it may be construed as an instrument of a “silent coup” which enables the military to force the duly elected civilian government to carry out the policy previously dictated by the junta under the threat of expulsion without resorting to deploying the tanks.  In short, it is an instrument to legally bring down a government without resorting to a classic military coup as has been the case so many times over the past eight-plus decades.

In a true democratic system, the political parties present a political platform to the people during electoral campaigns.  When an electoral victory is achieved based on sound campaign policy, the winning party will form a government to deliver on its campaign promises.

Electoral Platform Binned

However, under the junta’s 20-year strategy, the government’s electoral platform can be thrown into a garbage can and the government must dutifully carry out the junta’s 20-year plan or face legal consequences.

This plan is ingeniously conceived to project the junta’s policy well into the next five government tenures. It immortalizes the present military junta whose body will cease to exist after the election, but its spirit will still live on. Hence, the hope that the military will fade away after the election is only a pipe dream.

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Sadly for the country, the 20-year plan is but another toxic fruit of a poisoned tree planted by the coup plotters.  In an ever-changing world, it would become an outdated commodity as it would deep-freeze the country for at least two decades. The globalized world necessitates a degree of flexibility and adaptability in order to be competitive.  To change the course set by the junta by any future government or political movement would be tantamount to challenging the military dominance resulting in major political and social upheavals that could entail violence and loss of lives.

Implacable Resistance to Democracy

For the past 86 years since the inception of democracy in Thailand, the military and the elite establishment have resisted democracy. They have created a hostile environment to inhibit the development of the democratic process. To them, democracy must not be allowed to succeed.  This is reminiscent of the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution that swept across China from 1966 to 1976, unleashing destruction and misery upon the Chinese population.

While China under Chairman Mao Zedong wanted to revive the spirit of the communist revolution to root out bourgeois elements, the military-cum-elite establishment in Thailand wants to inculcate medieval Thai traditional values and rid the country of” corrupt politicians” engendered by the democratic process, which it views as a dangerous foreign import.  While the Red Guards were mobilized as the tool to cleanse the society of “imperialist” influence, the Thai semi-fascist mobs were used to destabilize democratically elected governments by seizing international airports, ransacking government offices, terrorizing the people, and shutting down the capitol city.

Ten years before the military coup to oust the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand also underwent a period of political liberalization and democratization made possible by 1997 constitution which is considered the most democratic charter to date.

Prosperity for the Peasantry

Relative prosperity and economic progress during the Thaksin administration – although it, like most Thai governments, was hardly corruption-free (but matched and exceeded considerably by the junta’s own reputation for corruption), during this period were underpinned by the phrase “edible democracy” which went to prove that democracy was not just a lofty principle but that it actually worked for the Thai people. The elitists feared that their power was being eroded by the empowerment of the mass.  Moreover, Thaksin’s effort to “drain the swamp” as part of the country’s structural reform did not sit well with the elitists.

In one swift stroke, the military coups of 2006 and 2014 reversed the democratic trend and put the country back on a semi-fascist track.  The constitution of 2017 and the junta’s 20-year strategy guarantee that the country must never again deviate from the path. With the departure of Thaksin and his sister Yingluck, the elitists and the Thai urban middle class are caught in an epidemic of “Thaksin Derangement Syndrome” as the self-exiled former prime minister still commands considerable admiration from the Thai populace and, therefore, constitutes a threat to the elite establishment.

It is therefore expected that, in a free and fair election, Thaksin’s surrogate party, the Pheu Thai Party, would win a plurality vote, if not a majority vote.  Pheu Thai win would put the junta’s 20-year strategy in jeopardy and would present a threat to the military’s stranglehold on power.  The military coup of 2014 will not be consummated until the threat of Thaksin’s political movement is permanently removed.

Pithaya Pookaman is a retired Thai ambassador living in Bangkok and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel

The Khon Kaen Model: Secondary Cities of Thailand

May 29, 2018

The Khon Kaen Model: Secondary Cities of Thailand

by Pechladda Pechpakdee@www.newmandala.org

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Many sides in Thai politics have long agreed on the need to expand development into the provinces and reduce overcrowding in Bangkok. Yet inequality between the capital city and Thailand’s next most prominent cities—what this article calls “secondary cities”—remains high, a situation not helped by how the central government allocates development funds.

The phrase “Khon Kaen Model” connotes two rather disparate meanings. The first is deeply political. In 2014, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) used “the Khon Kaen Model” to refer to a group in the province allegedly amassing forces and weapons to terrorise the citizenry. The group was arrested on 23 May 2014. But local administrators, academics and entrepreneurs refer to the Khon Kaen Model to capture the northeastern city’s unique private sector-driven approach to infrastructure development. The province of Khon Kaen is home to a first-class secondary city: situated in the heart of Isaan, connected to other parts of Thailand via high-speed railway, and on its way to being connected internationally via an airport. Khon Kaen also falls in both the East–West Economic Corridor and a sub-section of the North–South Economic Corridor.

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Four cities, from four respective provinces, could be classified as secondary cities in Thailand’s northeastern region: Khon Kaen, Nakhon Ratchasima (Korat), Udon Thani and Ubon Ratchathani. Yet Khon Kaen has only recently been one of the centres of the Northeast that it is now—it is the only of Isaan’s “big four” whose development does not spring from being a former monthon (former administrative subdivisions used in the country during the early 20th century). When one examines the Northeast’s former administrative centres from which lesser satellite cities were managed—the monthon of Udon, Roi Et, Ubon and Nakhon Ratchasima—one might be surprised to find that Khon Kaen at the time had a relatively low population density compared to the monthon.

The patronage of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat (in office 1959–63) was instrumental in kick-starting Khon Kaen’s rapid growth. Indeed, the first ever edition of the National Economic and Social Development Plan (1961–66) was drafted in Khon Kaen itself (the 12th and latest National Economic and Social Development Plan spans 2016–21). While the Plan’s schemes to reduce poverty were oriented toward snuffing the appeal of communism, which had found particularly receptive hearts in Thailand’s Northeast, infrastructure projects nevertheless accelerated Khon Kaen’s growth over a few short decades.

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Image result for khon kaen university thailand

The Ubol Ratana Dam, opened in 1966, began producing adequate electricity to sustain large-scale industry, commerce, services and irrigation. Several factories sprung up in the vicinity of the dam to take advantage of the availability of both water and electricity, producing goods from sugar to paper. Khon Kaen University, the foremost educational institution in the Northeast, opened with an agricultural and engineering faculty in the hopes of steering students towards these skills. Meanwhile, Srinagarind Hospital now administers medical services not only to the Isaan population but patients from neighbouring countries.

Perhaps transport infrastructure has most accelerated the emergence of Isaan’s secondary cities. The heart of the Northeast’s connectivity lies in the Northeastern Railway Line and Mittraphap Road (“Friendship Road”) which pass through four provinces: Nakhon Ratchasima, Udon Thani, Nong Khai and Khon Kaen. Mittraphap Road, built with financial assistance from the United States and opened in 1957, initially served as route for transporting ammunition to the Vietnam War—but it also conveniently provided a conduit for transporting Isaan’s crops and other agricultural goods. After the construction of the Railway (the Bangkok–Ayutthaya line opened in 1896 but other lines were progressively added until 1958) and Mittraphap Road, Khon Kaen exploded into a junction for flows of goods and people.

But the distribution of wealth in Khon Kaen is distinguished by it never having been a monthon, meaning there is no clear class of privilege descended from former governors who took advantage of monopolies over governance to establish a base of wealth and land ownership. Khon Kaen’s relatively short history translates into a diverse population that has been buttressed by the migration of peoples in search of economic opportunity, including a notable Sino-Thai business community. Many of Khon Kaen’s upper class do not have long ancestral roots in the province—ties may extend back only as far as a generation or two.

Despite this, or because of it, the fraternity that characterises Khon Kaen’s “newly wealthy” is remarkable. These new elites are knitted together in networks that revolve around the province and a kind of regional pride. Many graduated from the Demonstration School of Khon Kaen University or Khon Kaen Wittayayon School (Isaan’s leading secondary schools)—these groups placed faith in regional education standards and resisted the trend of migrating to the capital city. Others pursued higher education in Bangkok or abroad but returned to contribute to the province’s development. A society of Khon Kaen’s elite now partake in a tradition of “gathering around the Chinese dinner table”, whereby they take turns each month to host each other over for dinner. These elites repeatedly tell me that they view each other not as “rivals in business” but as “friends in business”.

In the past, Khon Kaen’s elites—whether formally in the case of MPs or informally in the case of chao pho—appeared satisfied to leave the province’s development to the fate determined by the central government’s distribution of funds. While expectations remain low that the central government will invest in Khon Kaen’s internal transportation infrastructure, the inception of a new economic elite has blossomed alongside changes in local leadership. The laying of plans to unleash Khon Kaen’s development potential has been subsequently driven by networks of entrepreneurs, municipal officials and local academics, who proactively bypass neglect from the central government through public–private partnerships to provide public services.

Phiraphon Phatthanaphiradet, the Khon Kaen mayor from 2000–12 (and from a family of mall tycoons), espoused a governance philosophy based on the “triangle that moves that mountain” theorised by Dr Prawet Wasi: the development of a city relies on a coalition between three sectors 1) the municipal government 2) civil society 3) the scholarly community. Khon Kaen’s municipal government under Phiraphon exhibited a genuine interest in supporting political participation, winning a number of national awards including from the King Prajadhipok’s Institute. This philosophy was passed onto the current Mayor of Khon Kaen, Teerasak Teekayuphan (formerly the vice-mayor, Teerasak graduated from the same high-school cohort as Phiraphon. His family migrated from the province of Yala to Khon Kaen for business purposes).

Teerasak has recruited academics such as Assoc. Prof. Dr. Rawee Hanpachern to lead the designing of municipal development initiatives—the well-publicised “Khon Kaen Smart City” development blueprint first emerged four years ago as a partnership between the municipal government and Khon Kaen University’s Faculty of Architecture. On the other hand, private businesses are providing the extraordinary capital required to administer, provide and build the infrastructure underpinning mass services.

Public transport infrastructure in Khon Kaen—such as an ambitious 26km light rail line—is being funded and spearheaded by the Khon Kaen Think Tank (KKTT), a group of Khon Kaen’s 20 leading “new gen” businessmen. The group counts among its ranks Suradech Taweesaengsakultha, an automobile tycoon, and real-estate magnate Channarong Buristrakul. Each member contributed 10 million baht to establish the think tank and pool capital for building up the city’s infrastructure. The group of business magnates remembers well that “mobility drives the city”, but are no longer content to wait for the benevolence of the central government.

That Khon Kaen lags behind Bangkok when it comes to development is here perhaps beside that point: development communities on the ground have their eyes on following a unique path to prosperity. As one Khon Kaen citizen explained to me with pride, “We’re going to do better. We’re not following Bangkok’s vision of the future”.

Still, the “Khon Kaen Model” of private-sector driven development has met with some friction from both the central government and local communities—some cannot help but be suspicious of wealthy tycoons openly cozying up alongside politicians. When push comes to shove, it cannot be denied that the members of KKTT see business opportunities in the process of developing Khon Kaen. There have been accusations that some have exercised leverage in determining the locations of light-rail stations to push up investment in their real estate. Still, it was something of a win-win situation when KKTT, via the Cho Thavee Corporation, began trialling modern “smart bus” services in Khon Kaen (allowing Cho Thavee to in turn leverage its experience providing bus services to win a tender to supply buses to the Bangkok Mass Transit Authority).

Having worked alongside municipal governments in several committees to draft city development plans, both in Isaan and in other regions, I can say that I have never seen anything like “the Khon Kaen Model” wherein the local government and the private sector are so proactively sidestepping the central government. How the Model unfolds is well worth watching. Still, I too cannot help but ask whether the future of Khon Kaen’s development is being left in the hands of one small capitalist group. Moreover, what does the bright future foretold by the Khon Kaen Model mean for other cities with far fewer comparative advantages than those with which Khon Kaen has been blessed?

จังหวัดขอนแก่น จัดได้ว่าเป็น เมืองอันดับสองชั้นนำที่มีทิศทางการพัฒนาเมืองเชิงรุกที่น่าสนใจ ประกอบกับศักยภาพและโอกาสที่มีอยู่ อย่างการอยู่ในตำแหน่งศูนย์กลางของภาคอีสานการพัฒนาระบบรางอย่างรถไฟรางคู่ รถไฟความเร็วสูง การยกระดับสู่สนามบินนานาชาติ การอยู่ในสายทางระเบียงเศรษฐกิจสำคัญอย่างระเบียงเศรษฐกิจตะวันออกตะวันตก (East–West Economic Corridor) และแนวย่อยของระเบียงเศรษฐกิจเหนือ ใต้ (North–South Economic Corridor) ทำให้ขอนแก่นเป็นเมืองแห่งโอกาสอย่างต่อเนื่องมากว่า 50 ปีมาแล้ว โดยเส้นทางการพัฒนาเมืองขอนแก่นเป็นสิ่งที่ควรค่าแก่การศึกษาและขบคิดถึงประเด็นทิศทางการพัฒนาเมืองในระดับภูมิภาค

แผนพัฒนาฯเพื่อขจัดความยากจน ดึงมวลชนจากคอมมิวนิสต์

เมืองขอนแก่นเป็นหนึ่งในสี่เมืองหลักของภาคอีสาน อันประกอบด้วย เมืองนครราชสีมา เมืองขอนแก่น เมืองอุดรธานีและเมืองอุบลราชธานี ซึ่งตำแหน่งที่ตั้งของเมืองขอนแก่นนำมาสู่ความได้เปรียบด้านที่ตั้งที่มีศักยภาพการเป็นศูนย์กลางทางภูมิศาสตร์ของภาคอีสานและการเป็นศูนย์กลางการขนส่งทั้งเส้นทางเดินรถ รถไฟ และการพัฒนาสู่สนามบินนานาชาติ  โดยหากพิจารณาเมืองอันดับสองในภาคตะวันออกเฉียงเหนืออย่าง นครราชสีมา อุดรธานี ขอนแก่นและอุบลราชธานีแล้วนั้น เมืองขอนแก่นเป็นเมืองหลักเมืองเดียวในอีสานที่ไม่ได้มีพัฒนาการมาจากการเมืองมณฑลหลักเช่นเมืองอื่นๆ ปัจจัยที่ทำให้ขอนแก่นก้าวกระโดดขึ้นมาอย่างโดดเด่น ส่วนนึงเป็นเพราะคุณูปการจากจอมพลสฤษดิ์ ธนะรัชต์ ซึ่งเป็นนายกรัฐมนตรีในขณะนั้น ได้ให้ความสำคัญในการพัฒนาภาคตะวันออกเฉียงเหนือ จนเป็นที่มาของแผนพัฒนาเศรษฐกิจและสังคมแห่งชาติ ฉบับที่ 1 (พศ.2504-2509)ซึ่งได้เขียนขึ้นที่จังหวัดขอนแก่น เพื่อมุ่งเป้าขจัดความยากจนและการแพร่เข้ามาของลัทธิคอมมิวนิสต์ ซึ่งภาคอีสานนั้น เป็นพื้นที่เสี่ยงต่อความมั่นคงเป็นอย่างมาก หลายแห่งทางรัฐ ระบุให้เป็นพื้นที่สีชมพูและสีแดง เนื่องจากมีการระดมมวลชนและก่อความไม่สงบ จากการแทรกซึมของกลุ่มลัทธิคอมมิวนิสต์  ที่ได้ประสบชัยชนะในประเทศเวียตนามและประเทศลาวมาแล้ว


การเปิดพื้นที่การพัฒนาโครงสร้างพื้นฐานได้สร้างการเปลี่ยนแปลงโฉมหน้าเมืองขอนแก่นในระยะเวลาไม่กี่สิบปี จากการพัฒนาโครงสร้างพื้นฐาน อย่างเช่น เขื่อนอุบลรัตน์ที่ผลิตกระแสไฟฟ้าได้ปริมาณมากพอที่จะให้บริการแก่ภาคอุตสาหกรรม การค้าและบริการ การชลประทานเพื่อการเกษตร  ทำให้มีโรงงงานอุตสาหกรรมจำนวนมากตั้งอยู่รอบๆพื้นที่เขื่อนอุบลรัตน์ เช่น โรงงานน้ำตาล โรงงานกระดาษ เนื่องจากมีน้ำและไฟในปริมาณที่ใช้ในการอุตสาหกรรม การสร้างมหาวิทยาลัยขอนแก่น ที่กลายเป็นสถาบันการศึกษาหลักในระดับภูมิภาค ที่เริ่มแรกมีคณะเกษตรศาสตร์และวิศวกรรมศาสตร์เพื่อการผลิตบุคคลากรมาพัฒนาท้องถิ่น มีศูนย์ผลิตบุคคลากรด้านการแพทย์และมีโรงพยาบาลชั้นนำในระดับภูมิภาคที่ให้บริการแก่ประชาชนในภาคอีสานและประเทศข้างเคียง สิ่งสำคัญคือ มีถนนมิตรภาพ (Friendship Road) ที่สร้างโดยสหรัฐอเมริกาที่มุ่งหมายเพื่อจะเป็นเส้นทางลำเลียงยุทโธปกรณ์ เพื่อสงครามเวียตนาม และในอีกทางหนึ่งก็อำนวยความสะดวกในการขนส่งพืชผล ผลิตภัณฑ์การเกษตร อำนวยความสะดวกแก่การเดินทางไปยังพื้นที่ต่างๆของภาคอีสานด้วย

ขอนแก่นในช่วงห้าสิบปีที่แล้วจึงเป็นดินแดนแห่งโอกาสในการเข้ามาหาชีวิตที่ดีกว่าของผู้คนมากมายทั้ง โดยเฉพาะในเมืองที่มีชาวไทยเชื้อสายจีนที่มีความถนัดในการทำธุรกิจ ค้าขาย เช่น ธุรกิจค้าขายเกี่ยวกับผลิตภัณฑ์การเกษตร ธุรกิจแปรรูปพืชผลการเกษตร โรงแรม ร้านอาหาร การธนาคาร เมืองขอนแก่นจึงเติบโตอย่างต่อเนื่องโดยมาจากบุคคลากรที่หลากหลายเข้ามาอยู่ในเมือง ทำให้ปัจจุบันขอนแก่นดำรงบทบาทของความเป็นเมืองหลักในภูมิภาคหรือ เมืองรอง (secondary city) โดยเป็นศูนย์กลางการค้า การบริการ การศึกษา การรักษาพยาบาล การเดินทางและอีกหลายด้าน ส่งผลให้ มีทั้งรายได้เข้าสู่เมืองจำนวนมาก และมีบุคคลากรที่มีศักยภาพในการด้านต่างๆ ซึ่งข้อแตกต่างจากเมืองอื่นๆคือ ขอนแก่นเป็นเมืองที่ไม่ได้มาจากเมืองหลักของมณฑลเดิม ที่มีเจ้าเมืองที่เก่ามีอิทธิพลในทางอำนาจปกครองเดิม มีฐานเศรษฐกิจเดิมอยู่ มีการครอบครองที่ดินเดิมจำนวนมาก อย่างเมืองอื่นๆในอดีต  ขอนแก่นนั้นเป็นเมืองแห่งการหลอมรวมผู้คนด้วย “โอกาส” คนที่ที่มาอยู่เมืองขอนแก่นจึงมีความหลากหลาย ขอนแก่นเป็นเมืองที่ไม่ได้มีประวัติศาสตร์ความเป็นมายืนยาว จึงเป็นเมืองที่มีบริบทการพัฒนาจาก “การสร้างสรรค์สิ่งใหม่” มากกว่า การ “อนุรักษ์”


คหบดีของเมืองขอนแก่น หลายคนไม่ได้มาจากรากเหง้าที่เป็นคนเมืองขอนแก่น แต่มีบรรพบุรุษรุ่น ปู่ย่า พ่อแม่ ที่เห็นโอกาสในการเข้ามาทำการค้าธุรกิจในเมืองนี้ ในอดีตผู้นำในเมืองขอนแก่นทั้งแบบทางการและไม่เป็นทางการ อย่างสมาชิกสภาผู้แทนราษฎร (สส.) นายกเทศมนตรี และเจ้าพ่อ เป็นผู้ที่มีอิทธิพล บารมีในพื้นที่อย่างเช่น เสี่ยเล้ง ฉายามังกรแห่งอีสาน ที่มีอำนาจจากความร่ำรวยในธุรกิจหลากหลายประเภท ที่ การพัฒนาเมืองในอดีตเป็นเรื่องที่ดูจะไกลตัว และปล่อยไปตามยถากรรมที่ภาครัฐจะจัดสรรแผนและงบประมาณมาให้ในท้องถิ่น อย่างเดิมที่เคยเป็นมา มากกว่าจะเป็นเรื่องที่คนขอนแก่นจะมากำหนดทิศทางการพัฒนาของตัวเอง แต่สิ่งหนึ่งที่ผู้เขียนเห็นได้ถึงความแตกต่างของคหบดีรุ่นใหม่ของเมืองขอนแก่น มีความแตกต่างจาก จากคหบดี เมืองหลักอื่นๆคือ คหบดีรุ่นใหม่เหล่านี้มีสายสัมพันธ์กันดี ไม่ได้มีความแตกแยกมีวัฒนธรรมอย่างหนึ่งที่ผู้เขียนเห็นว่า สิ่งนี้เป็นเรื่องที่ดีและเป็นจุดบ่มเพาะแห่งการร่วมมือกันพัฒนาคือ การมีแชร์โต๊ะจีน โดยกลุ่มคหบดีเมืองขอนแก่นจะมีวัฒนธรรมรวมตัวกันทานอาหารร่วมกัน โดยผลัดเปลี่ยนกันเป็นเจ้าภาพทุกเดือน ซึ่งการสมาคมสังสรรค์รูปแบบนี้ คหบดีรุ่นใหม่ต่างบอกเป็นเสียงเดียวกันว่าเป็นจุดที่ทำให้พวกเขาได้มองเห็นกันและกันจากรุ่นต่อรุ่น เป็นพันธมิตรในการต่อยอดทำธุรกิจมากกว่าจะเป็นศัตรูคู่แข่งขันดังเช่น คหบดีเมืองหลักอื่นๆ ที่มักจะไม่ลงรอยกันหรือไม่มีสัมพันธ์อันดีต่อกัน ซึ่งสิ่งนี้ผู้เขียนมองว่า เป็นต้นทุนทางสังคมที่เมืองอื่นๆไม่มีเช่น ขอนแก่น หรือ แม้กระทั่งสายสัมพันธ์ผ่านสถาบันการศึกษาหลักในจังหวัด ที่คหบดีหลายท่าน ก็จบการศึกษาระดับมัธยมในจังหวัดอย่างโรงเรียนขอนแก่นวิทยายนและโรงเรียนสาธิตมหาวิทยาลัยขอนแก่น ซึ่งทั้งสองโรงเรียนถือเป็นโรงเรียนชั้นนำในภูมิภาคในขณะนั้น ซึ่งเราจะเห็นความเป็น “ภูมิภาคนิยม” คือ คหบดีส่วนมากเชื่อมั่นในมาตรฐานการศึกษาภายในเมืองขอนแก่น โดยที่ไม่จำเป็นต้องไปเรียนในกรุงเทพ และท้ายที่สุดหลายคนได้เติบใหญ่ ไปศึกษาระดับอุดมศึกษาทั้งในกรุงเทพและต่างประเทศ แล้วได้กลับมาทำงานด้านการพัฒนาเมืองขอนแก่นร่วมกันได้ ก็ด้วยการเป็นมิตรที่ดีต่อกันในอดีต ที่ส่งผลต่อการทำงานพัฒนาเมืองร่วมกัน


สิ่งหนึ่งที่ผู้เขียนเห็นพัฒนาการของเมืองขอนแก่นมาตลอดคือ การเปลี่ยนแปลงของเจเนอเรชั่น ผู้นำทางการเมืองมีผล ต่อการพัฒนาเมืองอย่างมากในเจเนอเรชั่นที่สาม คหบดีรุ่นใหม่เหล่านี้มีความพร้อมในทุกด้าน ทั้งความมั่นคง มั่งคั่งทางเศรษฐกิจ ส่วนมีการศึกษาไม่ต่ำกว่าระดับปริญญาโท และอายุที่กำลังมีไฟในการพัฒนา โดยเห็นประสบการณ์จากกรุงเทพและต่างประเทศ ซึ่งมีบทบาทที่แตกต่างกันไป โดยทางเทศบาลนครขอนแก่นนั้น มีประวัติที่ดีมากในการด้านการสร้างความมีส่วนร่วมจากทุกภาคส่วน จนได้รับรางวัลจากสถาบันพระปกเกล้า ตั้งแต่สมัย นายกเทศมนตรี พีระพล พัฒนพีระเดช (เริ่มเป็นนายกฯ เมื่อปี 2543 ต่อจากบิดาที่เคยเป็นนายกฯมาแล้ว จนถึงปี 2555) เขามาจากตระกูลที่มีธุรกิจห้างสรรพสินค้าขนาดใหญ่ของเมืองขอนแก่นซึ่งสมรสกับลูกสาวคหบดีที่ประกอบธุรกิจด้านเครื่องยนต์การเกษตร โรงแรมและอสังหาริมทรัพย์ และจบการศึกษาจากต่างประเทศ ซึ่งในขณะนั้น พีระพลจัดเป็นผู้บริหารท้องถิ่นรุ่นใหม่ที่มีแนว ความคิดสร้างสรรค์ เน้นการมีส่วนร่วมของประชาชน และมีนวัตกรรมการบริหารใหม่ๆ จนคว้ารางวัลผลงานดีเด่นจาก หน่วยงานระดับประเทศเป็นจำนวนมาก  โดยมีความเชื่อมั่นในหลักการ “สามเหลี่ยมเขยื้อนภูเขา” ของนายแพทย์ประเวศน์ วะสี กล่าวคือ เมืองจะพัฒนาได้ ต้องมีส่วนร่วมจาก 1 ภาคเทศบาล 2 ภาคประชาชน 3 ภาควิชาการ หลังจากที่หมดวาระ ก็ได้ส่งต่อแนวคิดการพัฒนาต่อ เพื่อนร่วมทีมการทำงานพัฒนาเมือง คือ นายธีระศักดิ์ ฑีฆายุพันธ์ นายกเทศมนตรีท่านปัจจุบัน (เดิมเป็นรองนายกเทศมนตรีฯ) ซึ่งก็เป็นคหบดีที่เป็นเพื่อนร่วมชั้นเรียนกับอดีตนายก พีระพล โดยธีระศักดิ์ที่มีพื้นเพเดิมจาก อำเภอเบตง จังหวัดยะลา แต่ภายหลังได้ย้ายมาประกอบธุรกิจในขอนแก่น แต่ได้ยังดำเนินการพัฒนาเมืองด้วยอุดมการณ์เดียวกัน โดยได้สร้างทีมงานในตัวเทศบาลและดึงภาควิชาการเข้ามาทำงานพัฒนาเมืองด้วย โดยมี รศ.ดร.รวี หาญเผชิญ ซึ่งเป็นผู้นำการพัฒนาเมืองในภาควิชาการก็อยู่ในตระกูลคหบดีเก่าเมืองขอนแก่น ซึ่งได้อธิบายถึง ปูมหลังสู่ความเป็นเมืองขอนแก่นสมาร์ทซิตี้ ว่า เดิมที 4 ปีที่แล้วนั้นมาจาก การทำงานประสานกันระหว่างเทศบาลนครขอนแก่นและสถาบันการศึกษา คณะสถาปัตยกรรมศาสตร์ ม.ขอนแก่น และ ที่ปรึกษากรรมาธิการสถาปนิกผังเมืองอีสานเป็นหนึ่งในแกนนำสำคัญก็ได้ชักชวนผู้เขียนซึ่งเป็นประธานกรรมาธิการสถาปนิกผังเมืองอีสานเข้ามาร่วมทีมด้วย จะเห็นได้ว่า สายสัมพันธ์อันดีและการเปิดกว้างหาพันธมิตรการทำงาน เป็นปัจจัยสำคัญในพัฒนาการเมืองขอนแก่น

การเดินทางขับเคลื่อนเมือง (Mobility Drives City)

อาจกล่าวได้ว่า จุดเริ่มและจังหวะของการก้าวเข้าสู่ขอนแก่นโมเดลและขอนแก่นสมาร์ทซิตี้นั้น มีปัจจัยหนุนมากมาย จากโอกาสที่ขอนแก่นได้รับในฐานะที่มีตำแหน่งที่ตั้งอยู่ในระเบียงเศรษฐกิจสำคัญพาดผ่าน อย่าง (East–West Economic Corridor) ทำให้มีแนวคิดการพัฒนาเมืองที่จะสร้างโอกาส ตามศักยภาพที่ขอนแก่นมี และกำลังจะเกิดขึ้น จากโครงการขนส่งต่างๆทั้งรถไฟความเร็วสูง นำมาสู่การพัฒนารถขนส่งสาธารณะรางเบา (LRT) ที่มีการผลักดันจากหลายภาคส่วน ทั้งกลุ่มหอการค้าฯ กลุ่ม KKTT (Khon Kaen Think Thank) ซึ่งเป็นกลุ่มนักธุรกิจคลื่นลูกใหม่ที่รวมตัวกัน เช่น คุณสุรเดช ทวีแสงสกุลไทย ซึ่งเป็นคหบดีที่มีธุรกิจต่อรถยนต์ระดับประเทศอย่างกลุ่ม ช.ทวี  คุณชาญณรงค์ บุริสตระกูล คหบดีจากธุรกิจอสังหาริมทรัพย์ เป็นต้น โดยกลุ่ม KKTT เป็นกลุ่มนักธุรกิจชั้นแนวหน้าของเมืองขอนแก่น 20 คน ร่วมกันลงขันคนละ 10 ล้านเพื่อ “ต่อยอดโอกาส” การพัฒนาเมืองโดยอาศัยแนวคิด การเดินทางขับเคลื่อนเมือง (Mobility Drives City) ขับเคลื่อนประสานงานที่เริ่มจากท้องถิ่น


อย่างไรก็ตามเส้นทางการพัฒนาและผลักดันการพัฒนาเมืองเชิงรุก จากการประสานกันทั้งฝ่ายวิชาการที่มีหลักการ ฝ่ายผู้นำท้องถิ่นอย่างเทศบาลที่แข็งแกร่งและเป็นนักประสานสิบทิศ ฝ่ายกลุ่มทุนนักธุรกิจที่มีความฉลาดเฉลียวและมีชั้นเชิง ขอนแก่นโมเดลจึงไม่ใช่สูตรสำเร็จที่เมืองอื่นๆจะลอกเลียนแบบได้ง่ายๆ แม้ขอนแก่นโมเดลจะมีการเคลื่อนไหวที่หวือหวาและนับเป็นเรื่องที่ใหม่ล้ำหน้ามากในการพัฒนาเมืองของไทยที่มีการขับเคลื่อนจากภูมิภาค จนสร้างแรงกระเพื่อมไปสู่เมืองหลักอื่นๆในภูมิภาคหรือเมืองรอง (secondary cities) อื่นๆ อย่างเช่น ภูเก็ต เชียงใหม่ พิษณุโลก เป็นต้น แต่ขอนแก่นโมเดลนั้น ก็สร้างความกังวลจากภาครัฐและประชาชนบางส่วนในท้องถิ่น ขณะที่ภาครัฐไม่เชื่อมั่น เชื่อมือ ในความสามารถของท้องถิ่น ตลอดจนความเป็นไปได้ของโครงการ  ประชาชนบางส่วนก็อาจยังคงระแวงกับภาพลักษณ์ของนักการเมือง และนักธุรกิจที่มีผลประโยชน์แอบแฝงอยู่ ซึ่งก็ปฎิเสธไม่ได้ว่าความฉลาด เฉลียวมีชั้นเชิง ก็มาพร้อมกับการสร้างความระแวงจากคนรอบข้าง ดังเช่น เราจะเห็นสถานการณ์ win-win situation จากการที่ กลุ่ม KKTT โดย ช.ทวี อาศัยการใช้พื้นที่เมืองขอนแก่นเป็นเวทีจำลองความสำเร็จในการให้บริการ smart bus ที่ล้ำหน้า โดยคนขอนแก่นได้ใช้รถโดยสารที่มีความทันสมัยก่อนใคร เพื่อนำเอาความสำเร็จในการทดสอบโมเดลการให้บริการในเมืองขอนแก่นเป็นบันไดความสำเร็จไปสู่การชนะการประมูลรถ ขสมก.ในกรุงเทพมหานคร  หรือการระแวงต่อการที่กลุ่มทุนมีอิทธิพลต่อการชี้นำตำแหน่งที่ตั้งของสถานี LRT เพื่อหวังในการลงทุนอสังหาริมทรัพย์ ซึ่งจะปฏิเสธไม่ได้ว่ากลุ่มทุนเหล่านี้เห็นโอกาสในการพัฒนาของขอนแก่นโมเดล

ในขณะที่เมืองอื่นๆประสบกับปัญหาตั้งแต่การเริ่มโครงการที่ไม่มีต้นทุนทางสังคมแบบขอนแก่นโมเดลจากการรวมตัวพูดคุยและมีเป้าหมายร่วมกันหลายๆฝ่ายในการพัฒนาเมือง ผู้เขียนก็มีคำถามต่อขอนแก่นโมเดลว่า เรายอมรับได้กับสถานการณ์แบบนี้ได้หรือไม่ และเราจะอยู่ร่วมกันอย่างมั่นใจ ได้อย่างไรให้เกิดผลลัพธ์ที่เกิดประโยชน์สูงสุดแก่ส่วนรวม

หรือการตกเป็นของกลุ่มทุน กลุ่มหนึ่ง กลุ่มใด แบบการเมืองและการพัฒนาประเทศระดับชาติ?

ในอนาคตอันใกล้นี้ เรากำลังจะมีโอกาสอย่าง รถไฟความเร็วสูงจาก กรุงเทพ ผ่านโคราช ขอนแก่น อุดร หนองคาย ไปสู่ลาวและจีนนั้น หากยังไม่ได้มีการเตรียมพร้อมที่ดีของเมือง ซึ่งก็จะเป็นที่น่าขบคิดว่า  อนาคตของขอนแก่นที่มีปัจจัยหนุนส่งที่พรั่งพร้อมและเมืองอื่นๆที่มีความพร้อมน้อยกว่าจะเป็นอย่างไร?  ผู้เขียนพิจารณาว่าจะเป็นเรื่องที่น่าเสียดายหากมีการ “ซ้ำประสบการณ์เดิม” กับประสบการณ์ทางการเมืองระดับชาติและการพัฒนาเมืองอื่นๆ หากไม่มีการเตรียมการณ์พัฒนาและวางแผนที่ดี หรือแม้กระทั่งการเกิดอุปสรรคที่จะไม่ทำให้เกิดขอนแก่นโมเดลที่เป็นการเคลื่อนไหวพัฒนาเมืองในระดับท้องถิ่น โดยคนขอนแก่นจะมีโอกาสเป็นผู้กำหนดวิถีและรูปแบบในการพัฒนาเองและเป็นตัวอย่างในการขับเคลื่อนเมืองรองอื่นๆต่อไป

About the Author

Pechladda Pechpakdee Pechladda Pechpakdee

ผศ.ดร.เพชรลัดดา เพ็ชรภักดี อาจารย์ประจำคณะสถาปัตยกรรมศาสตร์ ผังเมืองและนฤมิตศิลป์ มหาวิทยาลัยมหาสารคาม และประธานกรรมาธิการสถาปนิกผังเมืองอีสาน มีความสนใจในเรื่องการเมืองและการพัฒนาเมือง โดยจบการศึกษาด้าน Development Studies จาก School of Politics and International Studies, The University of Leeds, UK มีประสบการณ์ในด้านการศึกษาวิจัยและวางแผนพัฒนาเมืองให้กับ กรมโยธาธิการและผังเมือง การเคหะแห่งชาติ และเทศบาลต่างๆ

Pechladda Pechpakdee is based in the Faculty of Architecture, Urban Design and Creative Arts at Mahasarakham University. She has worked on city development plans with Thailand’s Department of Public Works and Town and Country Planning, the National Housing Authority and a number of municipal governments. She is the President of the Isaan branch of the Thailand Urban Designers Associations.



Southeast Asia’s middle classes and the spectre of authoritarianism

April 12, 2018

Southeast Asia’s middle classes and the spectre of authoritarianism

A survey by Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living in ASEAN (HILL ASEAN) found that the middle class has been expanding rapidly in  ASEAN countries, including Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

In 1848, Karl Marx opened his manifesto with an eloquent sentence: “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism.” One hundred and seventy years later, Laos,Cambodia, and Vietnam are among the fastest growing economies of twenty-first century capitalism and the Chinese Communist Party plans to abandon the post-Mao doctrine of putting its assembly above any individual leader. Communism, which once materialised so prominently in East Asia, is little more than a faded ghost, haunting no one. Yet another spectre has taken its place in Asia—the spectre of authoritarianism.

Whether in terms of China’s attempts to establish a life-long chairmanship, Philippine’s systematic dismissal of habeas corpus or—as my work Owners of the Map analyses—Thailand’s new forms of constitutional dictatorship, a new wind of authoritarianism is blowing over East Asia. Contrary to existing theories of the “end of history” or of “democratic transition” this wind does not waft against the wish of the middle classes, but rather with their support, and it is not a temporary breeze, destined to died out, but rather a stable wind, one that carries forward an alternative system of governance.

Much has been written on this trend as the result of geo-political, military, and economic push and pull between the patronage of the United States and that of China. These explanations, while important, miss a central element evident to anyone who spends time with office managers, business executives, and traditional elites in Thailand: the growing popularity of authoritarian ideology among local middle class, a popularity that finds its roots in the shifting local meaning of words like corruption, good governance, and rule of law.

During the last decade, the understanding of corruption among Thai middle classes underwent a radical transformation. Corruption today does no longer refer to someone misusing public office for private gain. The word’s semantic universe has expanded to include three major components. Firstly, a traditional understanding of corruption as taking advantage of your position to steal money or gain. Secondly, an idea of moral corruption, related to the intrinsic immoral nature of one’s personality. And, thirdly, a vision of electoral corruption that reframes any redistributive policy favouring the working masses as a form of vote-buying. Under these new meanings, elections themselves become a corrupt practice, one that favours populist leaders who, through policies, gain popular support without necessarily producing “good governance.”

The discourse of good governance itself has become central to Thai middle classes’ ideological flirtations with authoritarianism. This mantra entered the country after the 1997 economic crisis, pushed by the IMF and the World Bank. These institutions understood the concept as a technocratic category, one that mostly meant efficient and transparent governance. In Thailand, however, the concept was translated by conservative political ideologues as thammarat, the governance of Dhamma, transforming good governance into righteous governance, a governance that does not rely on electoral support but rather on alignment with the monarch, the thammaraja.

While these semantic shifts in ideological categories may take local forms, they do not occur in an international vacuum. Previous authoritarian phases in Thailand—particularly the period between 1945 and 1992—had been supported, both economically and ideologically, by the United States and its anti-communist rhetoric. Since the 2014 coup, the junta has been looking to China for similar patronage.

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Cambodia is experiencing a rising middle class which has fueled a boom in smart phone access, now the primary access point for the internet.Young Cambodians today are speaking English fluently. Photo/Ian Taylor

The alignment between the two governments has not just been the result of real politic and shifting international alliances but also rooted in parallel claims about the rule of law and corruption. In 2002, the 16th Chinese Communist Party Congress endorsed a new rhetoric of legalism, as a more efficient system to deal with equal and fair participation. Political scientist Pan Wei, in a famous article that took the shape of a political manifesto for legalism stated that “rule of law directly answers the most urgent need of Chinese society—curbing corruption in times of market economy. Electoral competition for government offices is not an effective way of curbing corruption; it could well lead to the concentration of power in the hands of elected leaders.”

The middle class president

Jokowi’s developmentalist democracy goes beyond a simplistic personal attribute or set of beliefs: it is inherent to his class status.






While not as sophisticated as Professor Pan, and not with the same ability to govern as the Chinese Communist Party, the system emerging in Thailand since the 2014 coup looks quite similar: a legalistic system in which non-elected officers create and enforce the law, above and beyond the electoral will of their population. The Thai transition from a polity in which people make the rules through elected parliamentarians to one in which the rules are imposed from above for the people and parliament to follow, has been legitimised on a basic principle: the superiority of unelected “good people” over elected politicians in preventing corruption and establishing good governance.

It would be easy to dismiss these changes has temporary push backs. Yet, my work argues, something deeper is changing around Southeast Asia, something that we will not see or understand unless we stop working under preset theories of democratic transition and we engage ethnographically with the shifting landscapes of class alliances, everyday ideologies, and forms of governance. These transformations, in fact, are particularly resistant to quantitative analysis and questionnaires. Often they do not imply the emergence of new terminologies or ideological concepts but rather the re-signification of words like corruption, good governance or rule of law. It is only when we spend long stretch of time with people and participates to their lives that these new meanings emerge.

The risk of failing to see these transformations is a familiar one to people in the US: becoming aware of the emergence of a new political and social order when it is too late to do anything about it.

This post first appeared at the University of California Press blog.