Until the 1970s, rural Thailand’s Suphanburi Province, located only 100 km north of Bangkok, was extremely isolated from the rest of the country. The province was the butt of jokes by other Thai people because their roads were either nonexistent or in such bad condition as to be virtually impassable.
A fable told at the time described the situation. A man from Bangkok was driving back to the city when he stopped at a coffee shop in another province. “You’ve just been to Suphanburi, right?” the shop owner said to him. The driver was astonished at what the shop keeper said and asked him how he could tell where he had just come from. “How could I not tell? Dust is all over your face, and that is red dust (p.439).” The implication of the story was that the worst roads in the region were in Suphanburi, and it was immediately obvious.
In the last couple years, Yoshinori Nishizaki has written other interesting journal articles about Suphanburi—one on the anti-meth campaigns promoted by the charismatic politician Banharn Silpa-archa, and another on the huge tower the same politician built in the major town of the province. This year he has published a piece on the way that politician has changed the self image of the Rural Thai people in his province. His technique: effective pork-barrel politics that lead to more and better roads than anywhere else in the rural part of the country.
Suphanburi was roadless due to historical circumstances and it remained without roads into the 1950s. The only way to get to the capital was via river boats, an option that was only really open during the rainy season. A road was finally completed into an adjoining province in 1956, which provided a roundabout route to Bangkok. But it was inferior—the butt of jokes.
Silpa-archa, the consummate politician, was born in Suphanburi Province in 1932. After he entered parliament in 1976, he realized that the Thai system would allow him to manipulate scarce government money and channel funds to his home province for his favorite development projects—building roads. Using his growing personal leverage, he gained more and more funding for road building in Suphanburi.
Between fiscal years 1977 and 1980, the highway construction funding available for the province jumped from 0.5 percent of the national transportation budget to 11.9 percent. Suphanburi is a medium size province, with only 1.6 percent of Thailand’s population.
Banharn went beyond just gaining funds, however. Although other provinces have only one office of the national government highway agency, by 1988 he was able to establish three in his district. Furthermore, he had the foresight to make sure that public works funded for his province were designated as continuing projects, so that the frequent changes of governments would not diminish the work in his district.
The result is that Suphanburi today has probably the best rural highway and road system in the country. The province, with 800,000 people, has a higher density of roads than all of its neighboring provinces. In 1966 it had 5 highways, only one of which had a paved surface. Thirty years later it had 59 paved highways crisscrossing the province, with many other feeder roads connecting to the hundreds of rural villages.
The thrust of Nishizaki’s article is an examination of the psychological affects of all this development on the people of Suphanburi. The author argues that there are many ramifications. Even though corruption charges against Banharn, which are probably accurate, bother some Suphanburians, they tend to overlook them in favor of all he has gained for them and their province.
The feeling of remoteness in the province has changed. People appreciate that they are connected to Bangkok and the rest of Thailand. The well-lit, excellent, smooth freeway that runs from the province directly into the capital is certainly an important part of that change. Banharn obtained 460 million baht over a five-year period from the World Bank to build that road, which was completed in 1984. A trip over the “ Banharn Highway” to Bangkok for work, entertainment, or education became much easier than before. The province felt connected to progress and modernity.
Banharn has insisted—and his power as former prime minister and the leader of one of Thailand’s major political parties gives him continuing political clout—that his highways must be very well maintained. They are wide, clean, beautiful, frequently well lighted, and without potholes. Many of the freeways have landscaped median strips. There is rarely any litter along the roads in the province, due to the armies of workers that maintain them.
The department of highways supplies over one thousand workers for maintaining the roads in the province, supplemented by workers employed by a private foundation Banharn founded for that purpose. Critics charge that it is all wasteful, pork-barrel politics, which enrich contractors who are beholden to Banharn’s purposes. But there are not many critics in Suphanburi.
There are not too many critics in other provinces either, since people recognize how much he has done for his own district—and by comparison, how little their own politicians have done for them. In other words, he is admired for his provincial favoritism, Nishizaki argues.
The critical point, though, is that Banharn is much admired in Suphanburi. The people believe that their roads are the envy of all of Thailand. Propaganda from the national highways department, picked up by the press, frequently features the roads of the province. The jokes now being told about Suphanburi reflect the pride the residents feel toward their province and its roads. There is no longer any sense of shame.
Because of the skills of the one politician, Suphanburians have replaced an imagined inferior representation of themselves with a superior vision, a dramatic change in their social identity over the course of only three decades. Nishizaki summarizes the results of extensive interviews which point out how much the road building has dramatically improved the attitudes of these people in Rural Thailand.
Nishizaki, Yoshinori. 2008. “Suphanburi in the Fast Lane: Roads, Prestige, and Domination in Provincial Thailand.” The Journal of Asian Studies 67(2): 433-467