The trials of Kamnan Poh

28 April 2003

It must be quite a shock. One week you are a big wheel. You generously offer a huge bit of land to the government. You are in line to grab the big plum -- Thailand's first legal casino. Your son is a minister. If you call a party, half the country's political elite comes. Then next week, you have a five-year jail sentence, you face a murder charge, and AMLO is panting to seize your assets.

Kamnan Poh's name is a synonym for "godfather" and "influence". For fifteen years, every journalistic review and academic study on Thailand's murky local politics has made him the star.

This is not because he has been the biggest or baddest of them all. Rather, he has been the proudest and the most confident. His rise was spectacular. Fisherman. Smuggler. Land dealer. Local politician. Big national political wheel. It's a great story and Kamnan Poh has enjoyed telling it. Of course he edited out a lot. But what he left in the accounts was breathtaking. Who else could say, "I used to have enemies in Chonburi, but they all died"? Over the past decade, he has seemed ever more secure, confident, and untouchable. A senior police officer, deputed by the prime minister to investigate Poh, reported being hauled off the case by the top man in the police hierarchy. That is influence.

So why has he suddenly run into trouble? His aides suggest it's just a hitch in the bargaining process over the casino deal. That could be true. But there's a larger context too.

The godfathers rose at a time there was not a lot of law or government in the provinces. They made lots of money by exploiting that space. And then they provided the law and government. They regulated who got the good deals. They got rid of people who made trouble. They helped out those in difficulty. When big people like ministers, generals, or senior bureaucrats came down from Bangkok, they went straight to the godfather to get things done. This was when the term "influence" came into vogue.

Then in the 1980s, parliamentary politics offered them a way to launder themselves and to upgrade themselves -- a broader range of contacts, some bigger deals, and higher status. But it also had a downside. It bought them into contact with a very different system of law and government which claimed to be superior. This started a period of uneasy transition. They were still very powerful-in fact more powerful than ever. But they had to put up with a lot of flak. "Influence" was now modified to "dark influence". Journalists portrayed them as semi-outlaws. Policemen were occasionally sent to hound them. A few got caught and a few retired.

Their survival strategy was to go legit, and to promote their sons. But this was not easy. Other countries have been through this change from a lawless environment for business and politics to a much more regulated one. Think of the transition in the US from the Kennedy patriarch to his presidential son. But in Thailand, it happened much faster. The Thai godfathers had little more than a decade. They had to bring their sons on quickly. They had to settle the blood feuds stretching back over many years and many killings. They had to get out of the bad businesses while preventing another apprentice godfather slipping into their place.

If Kamnan Poh is brought down, he can curse the 1997 Constitution and the economic crisis. The modern politicians from Bangkok want to clean up the godfathers. They want politics and politicians to have a better public image. That means cutting out the people and practices that bring politics into disrepute. The modern businessmen from Bangkok want to clean up the godfathers too. Only a few years ago, the head of a big Bangkok business dynasty was furious that he had to go cap-in-hand to Kamnan Poh before he could start a business in Chonburi.

The 1997 Constitution has rigged the political system in favour of the capital. The economic crisis has persuaded the big Bangkok businessmen they need to be in politics. This has swung the balance of power against the godfathers. A few days ago, Thaksin warned politicians to get out of organised crime. Previous prime ministers might have had the same thought, but none came out and spoke it. The warning is a measure of the growing power and confidence of Thaksin and what he stands for-the marriage of big business and government.

But for Thaksin, the timing is delicate too. The last election felled some of the godfathers, but far from all of them. Many are still members of his coalition. One more general election could change the complexion of parliament further, and reduce this problem to insignificance.

But meanwhile, the godfathers are still powerful in their own backyards. Poh is admired and liked for the way he ran and developed his hometown. The godfathers are still to a large extent the law and government in the locality. Thaksin's strategy is to court a new sort of popularity through his public leadership style, his populist policies, and his proven ability to get things done. Now the Democrat Party has committed hara-kiri, his popularity at this level is unchallenged. He is dreaming aloud about winning all 500 seats. But we don't yet know how this national popularity stacks up against the local popularity of the godfathers. At present, it's not an issue. The two are aligned together.

But if Thaksin openly challenges the godfathers, that will change. Nidhi Eoseewong once argued mischievously that Thai people support local "influence" in order to counterbalance the "power" of the central government. Will that be the story of the next election? Or will Thaksin have bypassed the godfathers? We have to wait two years to find out. Will that be too long for Kamnan Poh?

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