Channel NewsAsia

Surat Thani residents join opposition protests after being "neglected" by Thai govt

In a lead up to the February 2 election, political campaigning in Southern Thailand has been rather subdued and overshadowed by the anti-government protest. Channel NewsAsia examines the main concerns for the local residents in Surat Thani province who have joined the anti-government rallies.

SURAT THANI, Thailand: The march of supporters from the People's Democratic Reform Council is the most visible political activity in Surat Thani during the lead up period to the February 2 elections -- the irony is that this group is campaigning for the vote to be postponed.

Their leaders said major changes need to take place first before Thailand can go to the polls.

The Democrat Party, which has dominated elections in Surat Thani for generations, has thrown its weight behind the movement, saying that reforms need to take place first before any elections can be held.

But what really brought these Surat Thani residents onto the streets is not only party politics -- some genuinely feel aggrieved by what they see as neglect from the government in Bangkok.

Accused of being anti-democratic, the grassroots leader of the People's Democratic Reform Council said they still believe in the concept of "one man, one vote" but felt that this government has constantly overlooked their concerns.

Ms Autcharapon Hormrot, People's Democratic Reform Council member for Surat Thani, said: "A part of democracy is about listening; listening to people's views before forming policy. But what has been going on is that things are imposed upon us even if we raise our hand to speak, even when we voice different opinions."

Decentralisation and the redistribution of administrative power has long been debated in Thailand but has never yielded any any real results on the ground.

In rural Thailand, especially in the South, the prevailing sentiment is that the Bangkok-appointed civil service and police apparatus have not been working in their favour. According to Damrong Thaugsuban, an elected provincial administrator in Surat Thani, this is one of the many factors that led to southern support of the anti-government movement.

Mr Thaugsuban, who is deputy chief of the Surat Thani Provincial Administration, said: "People want transparency and development, but the administrator sent by the government in Bangkok does not help. They are here to harness their private interests.

"That is why the people have demanded an elected governor so they can choose their own administrator. If this person is not good, then he or she can be removed. People can vote them out or impeach them. People want their own administrator like the system for elected governor in Bangkok."

A move to a decentralised Thai political structure is something that cannot happen overnight. For now, the centre of power remains in Bangkok. But as political tensions escalate, this crucial issue may be drowned out by other, more immediate concerns.

Suthep Thaugsuban's call for wholesale political reform struck a chord with many Thais, especially southerners who see a growing gap between the local community and Bangkok appointed officials.

It remains to be seen whether future Thai governments will be able to address this challenging issue, regardless of the political outcome in the current conflict.

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