He visited every corner of Bangkok during this critical flood crisis. He is so devoted. I have to remind myself that he is the son of His Royal Highness Prince Paribatra Sukhumbhand, and the great grandson of His Majesty King Chulalongkorn, one of Thailand’s greatest monarchs.”
This is how a secretary proudly described her boss, MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra, governor of Bangkok, in her Facebook post.
So, Bangkok residents have their own “royal” who is willing to defend their beloved capital. Sukhumbhand is certainly the right man for the right job. A member of the elite himself, Sukhumbhand enthusiastically wants to serve the interests of his Bangkok supporters, who also see themselves as the intelligent upper class. His father was once the Prince of Nakhon Sawan. Today, Sukhumbhand is undoubtedly the “Prince of Bangkok”, judging from the way he has handled the flood situation.
The devastating floods have offered Sukhumbhand a chance to prove his authority as the governor of Bangkok. And so far he has done brilliantly by working independently from the government. The priority of Sukhumbhand is obviously different from that of the Yingluck Shinawatra administration. As a result, competition, not cooperation, is the name of the game in defining the relationship between the prime minister and the Bangkok governor.
Under Sukhumbhand, Bangkok is an island unto itself. The capital has been detached from the rest of the country. It seems acceptable for other provinces to remain submerged in water. But Bangkok must be kept dry. It needs to be saved at all costs, even at the expense of intensifying the flood crisis at the national level.
What does Sukhumbhand’s Bangkok-centric approach tell us? It reveals that Bangkok is not Thailand, and vice versa. It is a state within a state. This mentality has obstructed the government from implementing an integral solution to the raging floods.
Moreover, Sukhumbhand’s ideas of tackling the floods are principally elitist and imperial. With his royal title of Mom Rajawongse – something so anachronistic in other civilised societies – Sukhumbhand performs as an old warrior who is fighting to safeguard the metropolis. But this time, the enemy is not Burmese or Cambodian. It is water. Metaphorically speaking, Sukhumbhand’s mission is to preserve Bangkok’s “independence”.
“We must not lose the capital again,” he could have said. The last time Siam lost its so-called independence was in 1776 when Ayutthaya was sacked by foreign adversaries.
But what really are these elitist views? First, Bangkok is supposedly the kingdom’s most important city; it is the pride of the nation, the seat of the much-revered monarchy, and the source of economic wealth. This is absolutely an authoritarian view that puts too much emphasis on Bangkok while neglecting other apparently not-so-vital provinces.
Bangkok might be contributing almost 41 per cent to the country’s GDP, and analysts have already warned that any substantial damage to the capital may hurt growth even more, but one must not deny that the central region has been under water for months. This area is where major manufacturing plants are located, including car-makers Toyota and Honda, electronic producers Canon, Apple, Sony and Toshiba, as well as hard-disk makers Seagate Technology and Western Digital. The floods have caused great damage to the global supply chains in these industries, thus reaffirming the fact that cities outside Bangkok are equally economically significant.
Secondly, a few months ago, when Bangkok was dry while the rural areas were already heavily flooded, Bangkok residents never expressed their concern, or sympathy, regarding the situation in those affected provinces. So, it seemed that it was all right for those provinces and people to suffer, as long as Bangkok was preserved. Today, Bangkok residents are the ones who complain the loudest. They have become hyper-hysterical about the floods. They stock up food, creating an atmosphere of panic. Ironically, they act as if they no longer have trust and faith in Sukhumbhand, the figure whom they have supported throughout the crisis.
Should such behaviour by the Bangkok residents be perceived as part of the relentless double standards that have prevailed in Thai society? If the answer is yes, then it is fair to say that Sukhumbhand has a role to play in the deepening of the gap between Bangkok and the rest of the country, at a time when Thai society remains frighteningly polarised.
The overwhelming concentration on saving and salvaging Bangkok is a reflection of the persistent concept of centralisation. As always, power and prosperity are the exclusive assets of Bangkok. It is perfectly acceptable to many Bangkok residents to keep other provinces vulnerable and powerless. It is also okay to keep them poor and underdeveloped. On this basis, they deserve to endure the floods.
But isn’t this the same attitude that presents one of the root causes of the conflict in Thailand’s deep South?
Thirdly, as Sukhumbhand continues to clash with the government, this attests to the fact that the elitist class possesses its own mind and the right to define the notion of interest – be it its own interest or that of the nation. This explains why Sukhumbhand has chosen not to listen to the government’s instructions.
The floodwater is now creeping into Bangkok. Perhaps this is a symbol of the growing resentment of other provinces, which are ready to attack Bangkok after long years of being mistreated. Bangkok has been far too selfish for far too long. Sukhumbhand has done nothing but consolidate this sense of selfishness among Bangkok’s inhabitants.
Whether Sukhumbhand loves Thailand more than those outside Bangkok is difficult to measure. His sole focus on Bangkok unfortunately prevents him from looking at the problem from a wider angle – an angle that is free from political games and cares more about the anguish of fellow Thais, no matter what region they come from.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Follow him at www.facebook.com/pavinchachavalpongpun.