COVID-19 will be contained. The world and Thailand will win. But the patronage system (ระบบอุปถัมภ์, ra-bob-u-pha-tum) is a plague far more dangerous than any virus outbreak and thus far, has been ever-victorious in the Kingdom of Thailand.
Singtanon Nawalaksanakul was a 46-year-old commander of a mobile firefighting unit in Chiang Mai. The mountains surrounding the city have been under the blaze of forest fires for over two months. While residents and local firefighters scramble to save their city and the environs, there’s little help from the central government.
According to reports, Singtanon hung himself and left a suicide note. His family gave permission for the media to publish. This is a translation of what he wrote:
“Being born humans, we all have different perspectives. It’s sad. We are right, but not right. We are correct, but not correct. This decision doesn’t have anything to do with personal conflicts. The bureaucracy is as it has always been. Nothing can be fixed. There’s the เด็กนาย [dek nai] and the เด็กกู [dek guu]…”
Singtanon went on to give blessings to his wife and two children.
“Dek nai” literally means “child of the boss,” or a person who’s in the patronage network of the boss. “Dek guu” literally means “my child,” this is how a boss would informally refer to someone under his patronage.
Whether in times of feudalism, absolutism, dictatorship, democracy or democracy plus 250 handpicked senators and a funny calculator, public enemy number one against the progress of the Thai nation is and always has been the bureaucracy that is built around overlapping and competing patronage networks.
In the Thai bureaucracy, there are honest and hardworking civil servants, soldiers, policemen and others who just want to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. People like Singtanon.
But then, there are these people.
At the top of the bureaucracy are the “นาย” (nai) or patrons. These are powerful politicians, generals and bureaucrats. There are wonderful “nais” out there, of course. But too many of them have the following characteristics:
Vainful; egotistical. Thick-skin when lying and corrupting; thin-skin when people criticize them. Charming to your face; knife in your back. Generous with favors to the people in their patronage networks; everyone else can eat from the dust under their feet. They surround themselves with spineless flatterers and appoint them to important positions, for their talent in ass-kissing, rather than any actual intellect or integrity. They demand loyalty to the point of servitude. They love shiny things like the Gollum loves the Ring, whether badges, diplomas, certificates, awards, ranks, titles, rings, watches, talismans or any other material stuff that might plug the empty holes in their souls.
We don’t need to name names, for obvious reasons. If you have any familiarity with Thai politics, you would already see faces popping up in your head as you read the descriptions.
Then there are the “เด็ก” (dek) or members of a patronage network. There are wonderful “deks” out there, of course. But too many of them have the following characteristics.
Spineless flatterers, whose success in life comes from their weak knees, which, at any time, can bend to the ground where they may proceed to slobber at the feet of their patrons. But do not be fooled. They are only spineless under the magnificent aura of their patrons. To those who might rise up over them? They’ll attack like a venomous snake. To those who dare oppose their patrons? They are more vicious than a pitbull terrier doped up on steroids at the peak of mating season. Make them a better offer? They’ll switch patrons quicker than… well, just as quick as any member of parliament.
Again, there’s no need to name names. You should be seeing faces as you read the descriptions.
Within a patronage network, there are many levels of patrons, of course. Just as in the mafia, there’s the boss, the consigliere, the underboss, the caporegimes and the soldiers.
The underboss would behave as a “dek” to the boss, but would strutt around as a “nai” to the caporegimes and the soldiers.
The nature of the patronage network is to accumulate wealth and power.
The prestige (บารมี, ba-ra-mee) of the patron lies in his or her ability to grant favors to the network. Each network competes against each other. But alliances are formed, and switch as needed, in order to be in the position of maximum wealth and power.
At national level, this is how party coalitions are formed following a national election and how politicians switch camp before, during and after an election. This is why certain regions prosper, while others suffer, depending on which patronage network is in charge of the capital.
Now imagine… no you don’t need to imagine, it’s reality. Patronage networks dominate Thailand from the national to provincial and local level.
There’s no accountability, only favoritism. No transparency, only secrecy. The best and the brightest people are shut up and shoved aside in favor of spineless flatterers who are clueless in managing the country and serving the people. .
If you wonder “how did [insert name here] get to be [insert rank here]?” The answer is, patronage.
Patronage is the obstacle to Thailand’s advancement even during good times.
During a crisis? Well, we are living in it.