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Political Authority and Provincial Identity in Thailand

Political Authority and Provincial Identity in Thailand
Yoshinori Nishizaki
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The powerful Thai politician and former prime minister Banharn Silpa-archa has been disparaged as a corrupt operator who for years channeled excessive state funds into developing his own rural province. This study reinterprets Banharn’s career and offers a detailed portrait of the voters who support him. Relying on extensive interviews, the author shows how Banharn’s constituents have developed a strong provincial identity based on their pride in his advancement of their province, Suphanburi, which many now call “Banharn-buri” … the place of Banharn.

Yoshinori Nishizaki’s close and thorough examination of the numerous public construction projects sponsored and even personally funded by Banharn clearly illustrate this politician’s canny abilities and tireless, meticulous oversight of his domain. Banharn’s constituents are aware that Suphanburi was long considered a “backward” province by other Thais—notably the Bangkok elite. Suphanburians hold the neglectful central government responsible for their province’s former sorry condition and humiliating reputation. Banharn has successfully identified himself as the antithesis to the inefficient central state by promoting rapid “development” and advertising his own role in that development through well-publicized donations, public ceremonies, and visits to the sites of new buildings and highways. Much standard literature on rural politics and society in Thailand and other democratizing countries in Southeast Asia would categorize this politician as a typical “strongman,” the boss of a semi-violent patronage network that squeezes votes out of the people. That standard analysis would utterly fail to recognize and understand the grassroots realities of Suphanburi that Nishizaki has captured in his study. This compassionate, well-grounded analysis challenges simplistic perceptions of rural Thai voters and raises vital questions about contemporary democracy in Thailand.


Yoshinori Nishizaki, who earned his PhD at the University of Washington–Seattle, is an assistant professor of Political Science at the National University of Singapore and formerly was a research fellow in the Department of Political and Social Change at the Australian National University. His research interests include democratization, electoral politics, and state–society relations in Thailand.


Here is the story of Banharn Silpa-archa, the former PM and arch-electocrat of Thai politics, told by a scholar whose extensive field research and critical sympathy have enabled him to capture the complexity of Banharn’s talents and enduring reign. As Nishizaki demonstrates, Banharn’s success in the province of Suphanburi (aka Banharn-buri) was not built on a sleazy mix of guns, goons, and gold, but constructed through careful cultivation of a proud provincial identity and the targeted reallocation of state resources. This study by a political anthropologist attuned to the voices of Banharn’s rural constituents challenges all facile put-downs of Thai provincial voters as duped country bumpkins and charts a new direction for Thai political analysis.—Kasian Tejapira, Thammasat University, author of Commodifying Marxism: The Formation of Modern Thai Radical Culture, 1927–1958

What the reviewers are saying …

The study provides a fascinating account of how locals understand development and how this creates accountability dynamics that are based on a notion of service delivery that differs profoundly from Western development agencies … Nishizaki’s portrait of Banharn [Silpa-archa] challenges the theoretical underpinnings of many existing studies on rural politicians in Thailand and other parts of South East Asia … Nishizaki’s innovative work points to new directions in the study of local strongmen in South East Asia and beyond … [his] book also raises new and important research questions about the sustainability of ‘brand politics.’”—Michael Buehler, South East Asia Research

Yoshinori Nishizaki has amassed an astounding knowledge of former Thai prime minister Banharn Silpa-archa. [Nishizaki’s] artful, scholarly, and comprehensive treatment … is a very welcome contribution to understanding provincial politics in Southeast Asia and the long-term evolution of Thai democracy … In its empirical impact and theoretical ambition it sets a high standard for research on politics in Thailand [that] deserves imitation.—Nicholas Farrelly, Pacific Affairs

The volume is superbly and inventively researched. It artfully tells a fascinating story. It is cleverly and engagingly argued. It draws on formidable language skills … Nishizaki frames his case with great care and even greater insight … [and] with humor, meticulousness, and ethnographic skill …—Michael Montesano, New Mandala


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