Banharn Silpa-archa, a corrupt politician from rural Thailand, is as skilled in fostering local pride as he is in fighting yaa baa, the local name for methamphetamine. Yoshinori Nishizaki, who wrote a fascinating article a few months ago about Banharn’s nonviolent campaign to get the young rural Thai people to avoid drugs, has written another piece about the old politician’s local construction projects in Suphanburi Province.
The basic issue for the author is the importance of otherwise useless public works projects that foster local pride. To Western observers, a soaring, 123.25 metre (404.36 foot) observation tower that Banharn built in the rural province is a complete waste, when there are so many other obvious needs. The article shows the value, to the rural Thai, of an apparently worthless tower.
Suphanburi Province is distinguished from the rest of rural Thailand by the fact that it has many public works projects. The new roads and schools give the local people a feeling of pride. But the outstanding project—and perhaps the least practical—is the observation tower.
Before the tower, local newspapers tried to promote pride with their articles about minor area attractions, though nothing gained much attention. One report, for instance, pointd out that the province had “a larger trap for catching elephants” than the ones in other places, which were evidently just ordinary elephant traps.
In 1991, Banharn started the construction of a large park in the central market district of Muang, the major town of the province. The central structure of the park, the Banharn-Jaemsai Tower, named after the politician and his wife, is the second tallest in the country, and certainly the tallest in any rural part of the nation.
In absolute terms, it is hardly a world-class monument, but in terms of the relatively flat lands of rural Thailand, it is an outstanding feature on the landscape. The photo of the tower in the article shows a round structure with an observation deck at treetop level, another more than hundred feet higher, and a double observation deck over a hundred feet above that.
The cost of the structure, 100 million baht (US$3,186,000), might seem excessive, but Banharn claims that he funded the tower almost entirely out of his own pocket. The author discounts that, as do his rural constituents, who assume he used state funds for the purpose. As one resident of the town told the author, “it doesn’t make any difference to us whether he used his own wealth or state funds. The important thing is that Banharn initiated the project, and thanks to that, our hometown has this tower (p.222).”
The politician has marketed the tower aggressively all over Thailand. It is the provincial logo on promotional materials, it has been featured in national newspapers, and it has been touted on websites as an important tourist destination for rural Thailand. The tower has, indeed, attracted tourists, many from inside the country and some from abroad.
The author attended a ceremony in 1999 to dedicate a new music fountain in the park. With Banharn invited as the featured speaker, the ceremony also celebrated the tower, which he had dedicated five years earlier. As with all of his ceremonies, he relies on his interconnecting networks of subordinates, relatives, and others who owe him favors and support, to organize the local proceedings.
A crowd of around 700 citizens, media people, and civil servants gathered in the park early on the evening of September 18, 1999, to be part of the celebration. The evening began with performances of band music until Banharn arrived, at promptly 19:30 ( 7:30 PM) with the other speakers. A brass band moved into joyous music, the master of ceremonies called his name, and everyone saluted him with the wai, the Thai gesture of respect made by placing hands together. The politician was seated in the chair of honor on the platform. The master of ceremonies gave an introductory speech and the audience welcomed him with enthusiastic applause.
Banharn promoted the importance of his tower at the same time he commented on the new fountain. Although the politician is not a terribly dynamic speaker, his remarks were accompanied by a choreographed spectacle of sights and sounds. Fireworks shot into the sky when he declared the new fountain open. That was followed by smoke from dry ice, firecrackers, trumpets sounding, drums rolling, and so on.
Then the master of ceremonies, a much more dramatic speaker, took the microphone: “Look at the observation tower! Look at the music fountain! Can you believe that this is Thailand? In the past we Thais had to travel abroad to see things like these. Now we don’t have to any longer. We can now see them in Thailand. But not in Bangkok. We can see them right here in our home, Suphanburi province!”
Suphanburi is no longer an obscure part of Thailand. It is proud of its achievements, thanks to Banharn. The sentiment was amplified in the music, dancing, and entertainment that followed the formal proceedings. In the words of the author, the celebration “provided an occasion for residents of the provincial town to visualize, affirm, celebrate, bask in and embrace the uniqueness of present-day Suphanburi in an ambience filled with pageantry, emotions and populist fun (p.227).”
Nishizaki quotes numerous local people who express their pride in their good fortune to have the tower and surrounding magnificent park. They enjoy the envy that other Thais express for their achievements. They recognize that Banharn is corrupt, but they don’t mind since he provides so many projects.
The author concludes that the feeling of pride, symbolized by the B-J Tower, is important to the rural Thai residents. It may seem irrational, pretentious, and wasteful to outsiders, but the people of the province look beyond the daily economic issues and are keenly conscious of the image of their area. The tower serves to amplify local pride, so its value is much greater than other, more utilitarian, public works projects.
Nishizaki, Yoshinori. 2007. “The Gargantuan Project and Modernity in Provincial Thailand.” The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology 8(3): 217-233