Sat, Mar 23, 2019 - Page 5 News List

Thai ‘godfathers’ make a comeback


Supporters of the Phalang Pracharat Party attend a campaign rally in Chonburi Province, Thailand, on Thursday.

Photo: AFP

Itthipol Khunpleum grabbed the mic, bounded onto the stage and flashed a winning smile as he worked the crowd gathered for a final rally: “Chonburi... show me your hands!” he said to wild applause.

Yet he need not have bothered. The feared and revered Khunpleums have run Thailand’s eastern Chonburi Province for decades and — like the other “godfathers” who preside over swathes of the country — carry voter loyalty wherever they go.

This time the Khunpleums have thrown their lot in with Phalang Pracharat, the party of the Thai junta, which is scheming a return as a civilian government after Sunday’s general election.

In an unpredictable poll, the outcome of which has pundits in a spin, Chonburi’s eight seats could prove invaluable to a potential junta-led coalition.

“We are confident of winning,” Itthipol said, chuckling at the question of where the political loyalty of his family truly lies after years of taking posts in governments of all stripes.

“We are on the side of the people ... and not the parties who divide the people by promising democracy or dictatorship,” he said.

The Khunpleums are the source of local power in Chonburi, southeast of the capital Bangkok.

They are gatekeepers to political office, fixers of problems and businessmen whose name has been earned through cultivation of their constituents and a reputation for ruthlessness with their rivals.

The smooth, US-educated Itthipol, a two-time former mayor of Thailand’s boisterous sex capital Pattaya, was hired to advise the junta early last year, as it raced to cement pre-election alliances.

The junta installed his gruffer older brother, Sonthaya, as mayor of Pattaya, while the notorious family patriarch Somchai Khunpleum was freed early from jail on a murder conviction. The family’s vote bank is with the junta, for now.

In return, the Eastern Economic Corridor, Thailand’s biggest ever investment scheme worth nearly US$60 billion, has been signed off, promising to upgrade the Khunpleums’ patch into a technological, industrial and state-of-the-art tourism hub.

The Khunpleums are among the most famous of Thailand’s influential families.

Somchai Khunpleum — nicknamed ‘Kamnan Poh,’ as kamnan is a term for a head of a cluster of villages — is a storied bootlegger and smuggler turned local bigwig.

He carved out the family name and built a political and business empire, which sweeps in the lucrative resort town of Pattaya, visited by millions of tourists each year.

“He is a real ‘godfather,’ he does exactly what he says... he helps his people the very best he can, and he competes his hardest against his opponents,” a veteran Pattaya politician said, requesting anonymity.

Somchai Khunpleum was given a 25-year sentence for masterminding the 2003 murder of one of those opponents, a business rival, but made a dash across the Cambodian border before he could be arrested.

His impunity ended in 2013 when he was caught at a tollway in Thailand.

However, in late 2017, as the junta came knocking for Khunpleum support, he was suddenly freed early on medical grounds.

Months later his family was working for the military.

The murder conviction of the head of the Khunpleum clan has not dimmed their star power in Chonburi.

“Two tigers can’t share the same cave... It’s up to one to make the first move,” the Pattaya official said of the conviction. “Thai politics is unfortunately like this.”

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