New Generation MPs : The Hope for the Future of Thai Politics
7 New Generation MPs – dynamic leaders under the age of 40 who aim to change the way the nation views the world of politics. Background, issues, hopes
They exude a confidence born of high education and political legacy. They fill the room with their energy, they are surrounded by admiring friends and appreciative constituents…these are the New Generation MPs – dynamic Members of Parliament under the age of 40 who aim to change the way the nation views the world of politics.
Since the ratification of the new constitution in 1998, Perspective has gone in search of a select few who have what it takes to lead both their local constituencies and the national parliament to new heights in a globalizing world order. The first foray yielded one notable young politician, who eventually ascended to the leadership of his party and is poised to become prime minister. The rising star of Abhisit Vejjajiva brought with it increased expectations for all Thai MPs, and served to breathe life into the political aspirations of an entire generation of college graduates. In the last parliamentary elections alone, there were 132 candidates under the age of 30.
With the constitution’s emphasis on the qualifications of Thai parliamentarians, we now see an encouraging number of educated young leaders from the four parts of Thailand, including: From the Northeast: Tharapong Seelavongse of Udon Thani. From the South: Anwar Salaeh of Pattani. From the North: Kittikorn Lohsoonthorn of Lampang. And from the Center: Pimuk Simaroj of Bangplad, Janista Lewchalermvongse of Don Muang, Silumpa Lertnuwat of Khlongsan, and Apimongkol Sonakul of Bangrak/Sathorn. Because these MPs represent the culture and circumstance of their regions, and because the central region tends to be more developed, the center yielded more New Generation MPs. But the whole group shares similar characteristics and goals.
As Tharapong states: “We want to change the image of Thai politics. Up until now, many people have voted because they were required to do so. Many believe that all politicians are corrupt and only want to help themselves. If we can show the people that we care about them and are there to serve them, then they will grow to love the process and want to be a part of it. They will put their heart into it – they will be motivated to vote because they care about who will be their representatives.”
Apimongkol credits the new constitution for changing the political spectrum: “Because governments can now last from 4 to 8 years, we can be more effective in the policy arena, and the stability also changes politics into a full-time, formal career, with the position of MP becoming a professional job.”
It is this professionalism that distinguishes these seven MPs, as a group, from their predecessors. Just by coincidence, all seven come from families of government service, including: two ministers, a Deputy Bangkok Governor, a president of an association of village heads, two MPs, and a Governor of the Bank of Thailand. Their parents prepared them well for their turn in public service. All seven are bilingual, six hold Master degrees, six were business or civil service professionals before entering politics. Their religious beliefs include Buddhism, Islam and Christianity; and their career expertise span law, finance, trade, energy, socio-economic development, communications, real estate and engineering.
The qualifications of the New Generation MPs have taken a quantum leap in the past six years. However, some of the issues and challenges remain the same: dual role, gender expectations, age discrimination, personal safety, money politics, partisanship, and opportunity for leadership.
According to Pimuk, good MPs have to work in the parliament while at the same time taking care of the people in their constituency, and also helping their parties. “Our job is to be the coordinator between the government and the people.” But Silumpa and Kittikorn are challenged, in their underdeveloped constituencies, with having to spend the bulk of their time chasing after basic electricity and water problems plaguing the daily lives of their people. This is where their families’ political legacies have helped them in performing their roles. Silumpa said, “I grew up watching my father take care of the people as their MP, and sometimes when he wasn’t home, they would turn to me, and I would do my best to assist them.”
For Silumpa, another challenge is in balancing her political duties with society’s expectations of feminine behavior. “Sometimes if I am too honest, people can take advantage of me, but I don’t care – I will do my best,” she said. “As a woman, you have to know where you stand, you have to know when to be soft and when to be strong.” But even for this soft-spoken lady, lasting relationships come hard. “Most of the male MPs are married, but at least half of the female MPs are single, I think this is because the men still have a desire for housewives to take care of them. They may get upset if I have work to do, and cannot come home early every evening.”
Janista, who is also single, says that her schedule keeps her very busy, and sometimes she has to group the problems and issues together in order to finish her work. Because of her fame as a former TV star, Janista also has to juggle publicity engagements with work appointments. She has to walk a fine line between maintaining her image and getting her job done. “I enjoy representing my people,” she said. “My best day as a politician is when I can help people who have been treated unfairly – this is what makes me happy.”
Another issue facing New Generation MPs is the Thai people’s preference for older politicians because of the greater perceived ability attached to age. Anwar faced this when he campaigned for his parliamentary seat. “But I conquered it by sheer hard work,” he said. “I have been going from door to door to meet the people since one year before the elections, and I explained to them that I was willing to work for them. Many of them told me that this is the first time that an MP had ever visited them – usually the people had to go to the MP’s office and wait in line to see him.”
“Sometimes,” said Anwar, “I have made a visit the day that someone just got killed in the area. I have gone to the very spot of the murder in order to show them that I care about them, and that I am available to help if I can. I am not afraid of death, in fact, I have already asked my wife if she can take care of the family in case anything happens to me.” Anwar attributes his stubbornness and will to win, to his father who, he said, “is very strong. He had to be strong in order to rise to his position as leader of the village heads in Pattani.” To his mother, he credits his willingness to do good. “She used to tell me, ‘Don’t forget who you are,’ and also, ‘If you do good, you will win.’”
Anwar’s unswerving confidence finds its counterpart in Pimuk, who has gained the respect of his fellow MPs for his objective communication style as well as for his personal qualities. Asked how he joined politics, Pimuk said, “I just walked in and signed up.” When his application made its way into the hands of top party leaders, they questioned him for not mentioning his family connections. According to Pimuk, he just wanted to apply like everyone else, to start from the bottom and work his way up. He even refused to run in a “safe” constituency, preferring instead to try his hand at capturing the seat in his very competitive hometown. “I was not looking for safety. I wanted a constituency where I would be comfortable and proud to be the MP. I sleep there, so if there is a fire, I can get there in 10 minutes and try to help.”
Pimuk has a passion for equality. He abhors the fact that some kids start life with less budget and lower quality schools. Pimuk would like to see all the children start life with the same basic opportunities. “Then what they do after that is up to them, but at least the community could give them all an equal start.” But, as Janista said, “MPs do not have a budget for projects, we can only make connections. We must reflect what the people have to say, and this will stimulate the cabinet ministers to create policies to help our people.”
Pimuk’s desire to bring a higher quality of life to the people is shared by both Tharapong and Apimongkol. “I used to follow my dad all over Thailand when he was the Permanent Secretary of Finance, and Governor of the Bank of Thailand,” said Apimongkol. “I was an only child and so therefore I got close to the people we visited because they were the only ones I had to talk to.” As a child, Apimongkol saw the discrepancies in wealth distribution and quality of life, and would now like to use his position to help bridge this gap.
Tharapong’s interest in development and education stems from his family’s five generations of experience in the Esarn region. He says that he learned everything about national politics and taking care of the local people from his father, who was an MP and Deputy Minister of Transport and Communications. “My father talks about the seven factors for happiness, which are: house, food, medicine, clothes, good society, good family, and good farm or job. The eight sadness factors are the lack of these, plus the extra sadness of the old people having to live by the ‘rope to the cradle’.” In other words, in the poor provinces, instead of resting in peaceful retirement, grandparents have to babysit their grandchildren while their sons and daughters work hard in distant jobs, just to send money back home. These families can never catch up to their financial needs.
Tharapong would like to see more industry in his province so that the workers would not have to go abroad to work, paying great sums money to job placement agencies, and living apart from their families. He would also like to see the farmers get fair prices for their crops. And the schools should be consolidated into four efficiently run districts instead of spreading the resources out in diluted directions. Tharapong’s great frustration is that key funds have not been allocated for water management, which would greatly help to balance the extremes of draught and flooding each year in the northeast region.
As for the securing of development funds, Kittikorn declared this as his main activity in taking care of his constituency. He stresses that the people need help in solving everyday problems with utilities and other miscellaneous concerns, but that even though they are poor, the people in his constituency tend to be satisfied with what they have. According to Kittikorn, “It is the nature of people to be selfish. When we cultivate the feeling of satisfaction, there will be less corruption.”
In managing the allocation of funds, the constitution has stressed the separation of administrative and legislative duties, giving MPs only the opportunity to offer ideas, not the power to do city planning. They have no budget in hand, and cannot issue orders to government officials. This means that the New Generation MPs have the unenviable challenge of solving very real problems with only their skills at coordination and networking. Because of this, professional expertise and personal qualities are now more important than ever.
The big question now is how this translates to opportunities for leadership, and to the transition to the next generation of leaders. Will the opposing parties be able to cooperate for the good of the country in pushing forward key policies that would benefit the people? Will the established old guard MPs allow the fresh new ideas of young politicians to permeate the corridors of power, or will they be relegated to the far corners?
A few months ago, Tharapong was sent to the United Nations in New York to speak on the subject of Innovative Financing for Development, and brought back knowledge from MPs of other national governments. Will these ideas have an impact on the way the Thai Parliament does business? Janista and Silumpa are straining against the tethers of gender expectations to work on more than the traditional female MP issues. How far will they be allowed to go? Pimuk and Apimongkol want to push the limits of law making to create a better quality of life for all the citizens of Thailand. Will the hands of these MPs be freed to address national issues effectively and lastingly?
These New Generation MPs are the leaders of tomorrow. The question is when tomorrow begins.