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09BANGKOK2587 THAILAND’S LOWER NORTHEAST: A LOOK AT NEWIN CHIDCHOB’S WOULD BE FIEFDOM

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“229037”,”10/9/2009 0:33″,”09BANGKOK2587″,”Embassy Bangkok”,

 

“CONFIDENTIAL”,”09BANGKOK1491|09BANGKOK1541|09BANGKOK2418″,

 

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SIPDIS

 

STATE FOR EAP/MLS, NSC FOR WALTON

 

E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/07/2019

TAGS: PGOV, PREL, KDEM, TH

SUBJECT: THAILAND\’S LOWER NORTHEAST: A LOOK AT NEWIN

CHIDCHOB,S WOULD BE FIEFDOM

 

REF: A. BANGKOK 2418 (RUBBER SAPLING VERDICT)

B. BANGKOK 1541 (THAKSIN SUPPORTER WINS BY-ELECTION)

C. BANGKOK 1491 (BELWETHER BY-ELECTION)

 

BANGKOK 00002587 001.2 OF 005

 

Classified By: POL Counselor George Kent, reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).

 

SUMMARY AND COMMENT

——————-

 

1. (C) Newin Chidchob, godfather of government coalition

partner Phumjai Thai, has had a good year by almost any

measure. His father is Parliament Speaker; his party holds a

disproportionate number of cabinet jobs compared to its 32

MPs; Phumjai Thai aspires to increase its share of MP seats

in the next elections; and he was recently acquitted in a

corruption case (REF A). The only dark spot was the

by-election spanking Phumjai Thai suffered this summer to

pro-Thaksin Puea Thai in Newin\’s electoral stronghold in

Thailand\’s lower Northeast. During our recent visit to that

region, we met with a number of interlocutors who spoke

openly about Newin\’s widening ambitions. Already regarded as

one of Thailand\’s most unscrupulous operators, Newin has

reportedly tried to leverage his control of the Ministry of

the Interior for political gain. He has also apparently

widened his networks in the police ranks and taken steps to

expand his robust vote-buying operation. Most contacts

believe the pragmatic and opportunistic Newin is also

prepared to shift whichever the way the political winds blow

in the next election, thereby ensuring he ends up on the

winning team regardless of the outcome.

 

2. (C) Comment: Despite Newin\’s stronghold in the Northeast

provinces of Buriram, Surin, and Srisaket, his demonstrated

willingness to resort to any and all means to expand his

party\’s presence, and reported closeness to Defense Minister

Prawit and Army Commander Anupong, both of whom purportedly

harbor political ambitions and could eventually join Phumjai

Thai, there are obvious limits to Newin\’s appeal and the

efficacy of his tactics. Unlike former Prime Minister

Thaksin Shinawatra, who is revered in a large number of

provinces throughout the North and Northeast, Newin\’s

popularity vanishes quickly the further one moves from his

political epicenter in Buriram. Several MPs we spoke to

October 7-8 suggest that former PM Chavalit\’s return to

politics as part of Puea Thai could blunt Phumjai Thai\’s

expansion in the northeast. While we suspect that Newin and

Phumjai Thai may successfully add a dozen or more seats in

the next parliamentary elections, Newin\’s shenanigans are

unlikely to yield the kind of electoral bounty that would

allow Phumjai Thai to pivot from its current Kingmaking role

in Thai politics to that of a major force in and of itself.

End Summary and Comment.

 

WELCOME TO NEWIN-LAND

———————

 

3. (C) On September 30 and October 1 we travelled to three

Northeastern provinces along the Cambodian border — Buriram,

Surin and Sri Sa Ket — which together constitute the heart

of Newin Chidchob\’s political center of gravity in Thailand.

Nowhere is his influence more pronounced than in Buriram, a

province of nearly one and a half million people with a

strong Cambodian influence; Newin himself is ethnically

half-Khmer, and one of his monikers is \”the Khmer Wizard.\”

Bouncing from party to party, Newin represented Buriram in

Parliament on and off from 1986 until 2007, when he was one

of the 111 Thai Rak Thai party members banned by the

Constitutional Court from holding office for five years. He

then defected from the Thaksin orbit in late 2008, after an

extended wooing from Democrat Party SecGen Suthep, and set up

his own formal political vehicle: the Phumjai Thai party.

 

4. (C) Phumjai Thai currently holds eight of the 10 seats in

Buriram; by all accounts, Newin is intent on making sure that

number soon grows to ten out of ten in the next election

 

BANGKOK 00002587 002.2 OF 005

 

cycle. According to XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX (Note:

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX and nearly killed by Newin\’s

brother in XXXXX. End Note), Newin had always treated Buriram

like his own fiefdom. Since Phumjai Thai joined the

coalition government in December of 2008, XXXX alleged,

Newin had become bolder and given up any pretense of hiding

his nefarious activities. XXXX described the current

Governor of Buriram, Mongkol Surasajja, as little more than a

Newin lackey, while claiming the provincial police force

doubled as a canvassing operation for Phumjai Thai (note:

police from Buriram and other nearby provinces are reputed to

comprise the \”blue shirt\” street operators who have appeared

in recent months during street protests by other colored

forces, from the red-shirts in Pattaya in April to the

yellow-shirts near Preah Vihear in September).

 

5. (C) According to XXX, Newin\’s co-opting of government

personnel in Buriram was so thorough that he had effectively

blurred the lines between the party and the government.

Newin did so with virtual impunity as well, secure in the

knowledge that no one would penalize Newin or the party for

violating laws prohibiting government authorities from

participating in political affairs.

 

DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES AND THE ELECTION COMMISSION

——————————————— —

 

6. (C) Given the scale of Newin\’s political dominance in

Buriram, we asked XXX whether there was anything that

could be done to counter Newin\’s political machine during the

next election. XXXX said that most of the residents of

Buriram were cowed by Newin\’s operation and would never think

of challenging him. The one exception to this was the local

Puea Thai party branch. According to XXXX, Puea Thai was

considering enlisting sympathetic Buriram housewives to

surround polling stations on election-day. There was a

general belief that if the housewives stood watch over the

polling stations and used cameras and video recorders, police

and election officials on Newin\’s payroll would be much less

inclined to pay and intimidate voters or manipulate ballots.

XXXX said that while he had never heard of anyone using

the tactic, he believed it just might work.

 

7. (C) According to members of Buriram\’s Election Commission,

vote-buying and election fraud were deeply rooted problems

firmly woven into the Thai political fabric. Several members

of the Commission told us on September 30 that

election-related corruption was not endemic to Buriram, but

rather part of a larger, nationwide problem. Nepotism, Thai

culture, poverty, and inadequate education were the driving

forces behind it in Buriram, and despite limited tools and

resources, the Buriram Election Commission was working hard

to combat it.

 

8. (C) The Commission was using radio programming as part of

its educational awareness push, deploying undercover

operators to gather intelligence on vote buying, and even

using the local equivalent of boy scouts to distribute

literature and information regarding the negative impact of

vote buying. Though none of the members of the Election

Commission specifically implicated Newin in any election

fraud activities (Note: Other contacts suggested several

members of the Commission were on Newin\’s payroll. End note),

all of our Election Commission interlocutors nevertheless

agreed it was a very serious problem.

 

NEWIN\’S APPEAL IN BURIRAM IS GENUINE

————————————

 

9. (C) According to XXXXXXXXXX University Professor

XXXXXXXXX, Newin\’s appeal in Buriram could not be

explained away simply as a function of his willingness to use

dirty political tricks each election cycle. While there was

no question Newin played the money politics game at the

highest level, there were plenty of dirty Thai politicians

 

BANGKOK 00002587 003.2 OF 005

 

who failed to translate vote-buying into success. Newin was

successful primarily because of his charisma, street smarts,

and uncommon political touch. Drawing a comparison between

Newin and former PM Thaksin, XXXXX told us that while

Thaksin could smile for the cameras and give good speeches,

he hesitated to get into the trenches to shake hands and talk

with villagers. Newin, on the other hand, loved retail

politicking, and was at his best when he was talking with his

constituents in Buriram.

 

10. (C) XXXX told us that he had first hand experience with

Newin\’s political skills. Though XXXX did not know Newin

personally, when XXXX father passed away a few years ago,

Newin was one of the first people in Buriram to send him

flowers and a note. Newin then followed up with a phone call

to XXXXX a few days later to check in on him and ask how his

family was coping with its loss. XXX told us that as a

professor of XXXX, he could not help but be

impressed by the gesture and what it said for his finely

tuned political acumen.

 

11. (C) According to XXXX, Newin was revered in Buriram,

and the Phumjai Thai party existed simply to serve as a

vehicle for his popularity. Although Newin had openly

resorted to vote-buying during elections, the reality was

that his Phumjai Thai candidates would dominate elections in

Buriram even without vote buying, food, and drinks Newin used

to help lubricate the process on election-day. XXXXX told

us that despite the fact that Thai culture and adherence to

Buddhist norms were slowly evolving, the vast majority of

voters who took money and/or food in exchange for their votes

felt morally compelled to follow through and vote for the

candidate who paid them. According to his best estimate,

approximately 95 percent did so.

 

NEWIN THINKING BIG?

——————-

 

12. (C) Shortly after crossing over the Buriram border into

neighboring Surin, we met with MP Satit Tepwongsirirut from

the Puea Pan Din party, which is currently split, with one

wing in the coalition government and another in effective

opposition. Satit used to work side by side with Newin in

Thaksin\’s old People\’s Power Party (PPP), before striking out

on his own with PPD after its disbandment in December 2008.

Satit characterized Newin as sharp and driven, and told us

that Newin had developed a name for himself through his

tactical savvy.

 

13. (C) Newin always had the best ideas for creating a

political buzz, said Satit, who credited Newin with being the

intellectual architect behind the idea to march the

red-shirts to Privy Council Chair GEN Prem Tinsulanonda\’s

residence. (Note: we have heard many people give Newin and

his lieutenants credit for helping create the red-shirts,

particularly in shaping their early use of violence, such as

September 2, 2008, when a red mob directed by known Newin

associates attacked the yellow-shirts near Government House

in the middle of the night, leading to one red-shirt death.

End Note.)

 

14. (C) According to Satit, Newin had big goals for the next

election cycle. Satit told us that Newin believed Phumjai

Thai — which currently holds only 31 of the 480 seats in the

House of Representatives — could increase its share of MP

seats to 70 overall. In Surin alone, Satit said that Phumjai

Thai currently controlled just three of the nine seats, but

that it could realistically secure all nine in the next

election, including Satit\’s seat. Satit himself was

concerned that he would have to join forces with Phumjai Thai

if he was to keep his job, a prospect he viewed with little

enthusiasm. Satit hoped that Puea Thai would work to

counterbalance Newin in Surin, but he was not overly

optimistic.

 

BANGKOK 00002587 004.2 OF 005

 

15. (C) On the subject of Newin\’s bag of dirty political

tricks, Satit told us that Newin was willing to employ any

and all means to obtain his political objectives.

Intimidation was a favored Newin tool; he related a story of

how during the last election, Newin had paraded a caravan of

20 pick-up trucks with a police escort through downtown Surin

as a show of force. Newin then deployed all of the pick-up

trucks throughout the province to engage in vote-buying and

bullying. Satit viewed the convoy tactic as an act of

psychological warfare and said that he shuddered to think

what Newin — who Satit believed saw himself as above the law

— would do during the next election.

 

16. (C) Satit also reported on Newin\’s use of the Ministries

of Interior and Transportation (MOT and MOI) as political

tools (Note: Phumjai Thai controls three Ministries: the

Ministries of Interior, Commerce, and Transport. End Note.)

In comments that mirrored what we have heard repeatedly from

throughout the political spectrum, Satit told us that Newin

had directed the MOT to build roads and develop rural areas

based on the potential for increased voter support. Newin

had similarly challenged the MOI to find ways to bolster

infrastructure in rural areas with Phumjai Thai sympathies.

Satit said significant numbers of local and provincial

administrators joined Phumjai Thai as soon as it became clear

Newin and his party would take control of these two critical

ministries.

 

17. (C) Tactically speaking, Satit said that Newin was also

using the MOI to burnish his personal image as a defender of

the monarchy. Satit said Newin had asked the MOI to erect

large posters and billboards of the King throughout Isaan.

Residents of Isaan knew that Newin was behind these

billboards; Newin hoped that this tactic, coupled with an

attempt to portray Thaksin as against the monarchy, would

help Phumjai Thai steal votes from Puea Thai in the next

election. (Note: In a lunch with Ambassador earlier this

summer, Newin repeatedly claimed he was primarily motivated

by his loyalty/defense of the monarchy, chalking up his

defection from Thaksin to a judgment that Thaksin wanted to

undermine the institution and replace the King in the hearts

of Thai. End Note.)

 

18. (C) Turning to medium and longer term goals, Satit

believed that Newin actually relished being banned from

politics and pulling the puppet strings off stage. This

allowed him to avoid blame when things failed to go according

to plan. That said, Satit believed there was no limit to

Newin\’s ambitions, and Satit said he had heard from multiple

sources that Newin believed he would one day rise to become

Prime Minister.

 

THE LIMITATIONS OF GOING GREEN

——————————

 

19. (C) Neighboring Sri Sa Ket province marks the transition

from Newin territory into a Puea Thai stronghold. Phumjai

Thai won only one of the nine MP seats (as part of the

pro-Thaksin PPP) in the most recent parliamentary elections;

the results of a recent by-election in Sri Sa Ket (REF B)

would seem to suggest that Phumjai Thai faces a steep upward

climb if it wishes to boost that number in the next round of

elections. Thaksin friend and Puea Thai MP Thanate Kruarat

told us that for now, Puea Thai was not overly concerned with

Newin and his efforts to expand Phumjai Thai\’s share of the

Sri Sa Ket parliamentary pie. Thanate claimed Newin had

little to no popular appeal in Sri Sa Ket, and he doubted

that would change anytime soon.

 

20. (C) Thanate acknowledged, however, that Phumjai Thai\’s

tactics had forced Puea Thai to take some costly steps to

counter Newin. In the by-election, for example, Thanate and

Puea Thai installed video cameras in and around all the

polling stations. Thanate then paid people to monitor each

of the video feeds and to deploy Puea Thai loyalists any time

 

BANGKOK 00002587 005.2 OF 005

 

the video monitors picked up any signs of illicit activity by

Newin\’s men. Although Thanate believed Newin was presently

little more than an irritant in Sri Sa Ket, he was

sufficiently respectful of his ability to cause problems and

manipulate the system that he felt compelled to remain

vigilant during each election.

 

BEST FRIENEMIES?

—————-

 

21. (C) Throughout the course of our trip in the lower

Northeast, we repeatedly heard that, despite the current bad

blood between Phumjai Thai and Puea Thai, the two parties

could bury the hatchet after the next election and make

common cause once again. Professor XXXX, for one,

characterized such an outcome as likely, though he thought

there would be limits to such collaboration. XXXX did not

believe, for example, that Newin would be willing to help

former PM Thaksin try to return to Thailand. Puea Thai MP

Thanate Kruarat also told us that he could easily see Puea

Thai and Phumjai Thai coalescing after the next election, a

sentiment we have heard repeatedly in Bangkok from majors

players in both Puea Thai and Phumjai Thai.

ENTWISTLE

Written by thaicables

June 29, 2011 at 7:37 am

Posted in Confidential, Newin

2 Responses

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  1. […] recently leaked US diplomatic cable from 2009 entitled “Thailand’s lower Northeast: A look at Newin Chidchob’s would be […]

  2. […] recently leaked US diplomatic cable from 2009 entitled “Thailand’s lower Northeast: A look […]


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