Banharn Silpa-archa, a leading Thai politician, has frequently been criticized in the press for corruption and scandals, but he is well loved in the rural Thai province of Suphanburi, north of Bangkok. A recent journal article describes his nonviolent approach to dealing with a major social problem in rural Thailand—drug use by young people. His methods contrast with recent government policies of violently attacking drug dealers. Banharn’s popularity appears to stem from his non-violent, inclusive, involved approach with his rural constituents.
As the leader of one of Thailand’s major political parties, the Chart Thai (CT) party, Banharn has been a member of parliament from Suphanburi since 1976 and served as Prime Minister for a year and a half, from 1995 to 1996. However, his corrupt political style has frequently been condemned in Bangkok. His rural constituents are quite aware of these criticisms, but they like him anyway because of the way he deals with a growing methamphetamine crisis, referred to in Thailand as yaa baa (“crazy drug”).
The increasing use of yaa baa in Suphanburi Province, particularly among young people, has prompted a growing rate of violence, crimes, and accidents. Police responses have been violent: one time, the commander of Thailand’s police force, in full view of the media, personally executed six drug dealers. This dramatic violence troubled Banharm and many others.
In 1997 he decided to launch a “Good Youth of Suphan” project and he picked his own province as the pilot location. The program encourages young people to adopt 11 different goals, all of which are strikingly idealistic and perhaps impractical, except for the last one which is very precise: “stay away from drugs.”
He devotes his considerable energy and influence to encouraging his constituents in the villages of his province to move in that direction. He organizes and attends meetings, village by village, to promote his anti-drug program. The author describes in detail a typical village meeting that Banharn attended to promote a drug-free province.
On April 1, 2002, he arrived on time, 9:30 am, at the village of Bang Pla Mor, a community of 1,026 people. The rice-farming village in Muang district had been preparing for months for the festivities. Over 100 local civil servants had been involved in preparing for the event. Many owed favors to Banharn, and they reciprocated his past attentions by helping prepare for a successful gathering.
No one was pressured or bribed to attend, although the advance publicity, fliers, and billboard advertising worked. About one-third of the village population, over 300 people, showed up for the celebration. When the author asked people why they were there, they replied that they agreed with Banharn—yaa baa was their problem, and they had to help conquer it.
Everything about the ceremony in the village was carefully scripted and practiced in advance. When the minister arrived, he was welcomed by a band, school students sang a welcoming song, and villagers clapped. The attendance of the provincial governor and numerous other officials added to the occasion.
A school teacher delivered the keynote speech about the harm yaa baa would cause in the village if people would start using it. The chief of the district then gave a speech that also trumpeted the determination of the district to avoid the use of the drug. He declared that “there is not a single person [in the village] who produces, sells, or is addicted to yaa baa.” An exaggeration, but the speeches definitely moved the central focus of the ceremony toward a positive view of the village as a drug-free zone.
About 30 school children appeared, all wearing “Good Youth of Suphan” T-shirts, and sang the lively theme song of the “Good Youth” program, which focused on the 11 goals of the project. The climax of the program occurred when Banharn took the stage and addressed himself to the young people of the village gathered before him. He asked one child after another if he or she was avoiding drugs, and why. The students, knowing this was coming, had of course rehearsed their answers. Why is yaa baa bad? “Because it destroys our Thai society and culture, which have been bequeathed from generation to generation. We must therefore resist it in every way we can,” one youngster replied, doubtless awestruck at having been questioned by the nation’s former prime minister.
Another student, asked by Banharn about drug use, responded, “No, I have never touched it, and I never will.” While the tone was quite serious, Banharn lightened things up periodically by making impromptu jokes to help put people at ease. His light-hearted antics helped draw the audience into the seriousness of the message. After an hour of questions and answers, the meeting assumed a more festive air when lively traditional folk dances were performed. The animated entertainment enriched, lightened, and concluded the proceedings.
The ceremony and festivities helped reaffirm common feelings of membership in the village and a united commitment to the fight against yaa baa. Antipathy toward the drug became more than a private decision: it became a social norm to which the village as a whole could be committed. The entertainment, pomp, pageantry, and drama helped establish clear moral boundaries, shared by all, against the drug.
The author, interviewing villagers afterwards, found that the people were pleased by the results. One villager, comparing Bang Pla Mor with another village which has a serious meth problem, told the author that the other community lacks the unity to solve its problem with drugs. “But in our village, Banharn helped build that unity,” she said (p.358).
Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had taken a very aggressive approach toward drug dealers; he ordered harsh crack-downs and draconian executions of them, without trials. While the people of Suphanburi may have supported the short-term need for Thaksin’s measures, they also supported Banharn’s long-term, peaceful approach to solving the drug problem, which is more in accord with their nonviolent Buddhist values. People were repulsed by Thaksin’s bloody policies, and they were appalled by reports of innocent people, mistaken as drug dealers, being gunned down by police.
By the end of 2006, Banharn had held 45 village meetings much like the one in Bang Pla Mor. The author concludes that future leaders who try violent approaches to cracking down on drug dealers may not enjoy the support that Thaksin received due to Banharn’s more peaceful, constructive methods.
Nishizaki, Yoshinori. 2007. “Constructing Moral Authority in Rural Thailand: Banharn Silpa-archa’s Non-violent War on Drugs.” Asian Studies Review 31: 343-364. A PDF version is available on the Internet.