A Food-Seller’s View of Thai Politics

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Rising prices, injustices, corruption at root of dissent in Thailand

— by Christopher Johnson in Surat Thani, Thailand —

While many in Bangkok debate notions of democracy and reform, a poor street-food seller named “Boy” says nationwide anger at the government is mainly about two things: injustice and rising prices.

Boy, an ex-convict, says former leader Thaksin Shinawatra should serve his time in jail for his conviction on corruption charges — which Thaksin says are politically motivated. “Thaksin only has two years. He can go to jail, serve time, come out and start a new life. Same as me.”

Boy, born in a poor rural family, had to serve time. He says he was sentenced to 8 years for stabbing to death a man after gangsters attacked him during a brawl outside a disco in his native Surat Thani, a southern stronghold of anti-government protesters. After four years, King Bhumibol set him free in a wave of royal pardons. “I love the King. I did some bad things, but the King gave me another chance.”

Boy, 29, said he had to work hard in jail building furniture and other things. The billionaire Thaksin, meanwhile, has traveled the world, meeting world leaders and influencing public opinion and Thai politics through his proxies. “It’s not fair,” says Boy. “Poor people do bad things, go to jail. Rich people do bad things, win elections.”

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After getting out of jail, Boy and his wife attached a Thai-style mobile kitchen to an old motorcycle. They run electricity off a jerry-rigged car battery. They do other jobs too.

On a Friday night before the Feb. 2 election, Boy and his wife were selling somtam salad and BBQ seafood by the river in Surat Thani, the home of anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban.

Boy wears Thai flag colors on his head.

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He says police, loyal to Thaksin, sometimes pull him over and try to fine him 2000 baht on grounds of not wearing a helmet. “I tell them I love the King. Sometimes they go away, sometimes they don’t. Maybe the police love Thaksin more than the King but they cannot say that.”

He says the 2000 baht fines really hurt. He can barely get by these days. He says soaring prices for fuel and food are squeezing him and millions of other small businesses in Thailand.

“Everything is too expensive now. Prices are going up up up. Our business is going down down down because of the Thaksin and Yingluck government.”

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He says his own operating costs have tripled under the Yingluck Shinawatra administration, which won the 2011 election thanks to rural support in northern Thailand. Pointing to items, Boy compares their prices before the 2011 election, last year, and now. Propane: 150 three years ago, 280 last year, now 370 per tank, which only lasts about a week. Fuel: 18 to 38 to 43 baht per liter now — costs which pressure fishermen, farmers, food sellers and buyers. Crabs: 70 to 200 baht per kilo. Lemons (a key ingredient in Thai cuisine): 15 to 60 per kilo.

He blames the government. “Thaksin, Yingluck and their friends are getting rich from rising fuel prices. They are making our propane more expensive in order for them to raise money to pay off the money they owe to rice farmers,” he says. “They are rich people. They don’t understand how rising food costs affect poor people like us. Thaksin is a smart man, but sometimes too smart. He is a cheater.”

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He says the political divide in Thailand is also misunderstood as a fight between rich and poor. He says poor people in southern Thailand despise Thaksin, while the northern poor are more easily fooled by him. “The northern farmers work very hard. Some don’t have TVs. Some don’t know what’s really going on. Some are using wood to make fires, not propane gas like us. So they don’t feel the same effect of rising fuel prices.”

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He says “nobody” in Surat Thani will vote on Sunday. “We are going to stop the government of Yingluck and Thaksin.”

He says political canvassers have tried to bribe him to get his vote in past elections, but he refused. “Here in the south, they offer us 500 baht, but we say no. In the North, they say yes. They are even more poor than we are. They need the money.”

 

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