BANGKOK — An environmentalist turned politician seeking to gain a toehold in power through Sunday’s election said poachers wouldn’t get off so easy under his watch.
Speaking from the campaign trail about this morning’s conviction of a powerful construction magnate, the leader of the Thai Forest Conservation Party said hunters would be punished with more jail time than the 16 months given to Premchai Karnasuta.
But before he can change the laws, Damrong Phidej has an election to win. His measure of victory is modest – a single seat in the parliament.
While his is an unapologetically single-issue party, it’s one they are banking on the public supporting. Damrong became a household name as an environmental defender by busting illegal logging operations during two stints as national parks director between 2005 and 2012. Casual observers might recognize him as the 67-year-old poised alongside animals in campaign posters.
Yelling into the phone aboard a bus speeding to his next rally in sun-beaten Isaan this past Friday, the leader of the largest environmental party tuned his message into capital concerns, declaring his disgust with Bangkok’s ceaseless building at the expense of green space.
“Enough already! Just stop it. Stop the condos, stop those townhouse rentals. There are no plants in Bangkok, only 300 rai in Lumpini Park. If I get a seat, I will push for an 800-rai park around the Makkasan area,” Damrong said.
Increasing green spaces, clearing the skies of pollution, ushering organic veggies to market and expanding forest lands sound like a lot of promises to swallow, but the 35-year veteran of government service says he need only win one seat to deliver.
Though his party’s membership of 12,482 is about half that of mid-sized rivals such as Bhumjaithai and Phalang Pracharat, Damrong hopes a laser focus on the environment will draw the minimum 70,000 votes needed.
“I don’t even know if we will get even one seat,” he said. “But one representative from us will fight harder for the forest than 200 people from another party.”
Unlike most of the smaller parties fielding fielding only a few candidates, Thai Forest Conservation is contesting 349 districts nationwide, including every constituency in Bangkok. That’s on par with the Phalang Pracharat, Bhumjaithai, Action Coalition and Seri Ruam Thai parties, which are each fielding the maximum 350 candidates.
“Let us speak for them,” proclaim the party’s posters, which show Damrong photoshopped next to a black panther.
As for where he stands on other issues, Damrong is noncommittal.
“We’ll only work on issues about the forest. Other parties will take care of the other issues like the economy, social issues and education,” he said. “I want to ask if I can focus on just this one issue, because I really know it well.”
Not all the eco-warriors back his campaign; one sees the juxtaposition with wildlife as merely another form of exploitation.
“I don’t agree with using the black panther as a campaign tool,” said Thatchapong Kaedum, leader of an activist group founded in the wake of the black panther poaching scandal. “The black panther should be a symbol for justice, not to gain votes.”
Thatchapong added that someone who has “always worked in government” is an unlikely agent for change.
Damrong claims to be agnostic on the central question before voters – continued military rule – but has a record of praising junta leadership.
Most of Thai Forest’s candidates are environmentalists and people who have worked with Damrong in the parks department.
Damrong gained fame during the Yingluck Shinawatra years for demolishing illegal resorts on protected lands. In 2012 he led a 4,000-strong force of rangers and park officials to raid nine encroaching resorts, including the 200-million-baht Baan Thalay Mhok Resort built northeast of Bangkok in the Thap Lan National Park.
He founded the party as the Thai Forest Land Reclamation Party later that year to contest the 2014 election. The poll was voided by the courts, leaving Damrong and his allies fighting for the environment outside the halls of power. Fast-forward to late last year when he announced that he would leave retirement to run the party again.
To appeal to urban voters, he’s talked up solutions to Bangkok’s livability issues, most notably its hazardous PM2.5 particulate pollution. He says the prescription is simple – more trees and green spaces.
Mushrooming unregulated construction is one reason for the increasingly unbreathable air. Condos vaulting into the sky must also rise to green construction standards in order to reduce carbon emissions, and every unit should be offset by mandatory green space. On a larger scale, he aims to lobby for city funding to set aside more green spaces, specifically a park in the Makkasan area, where the state railway owns large tracts of undeveloped land.
“Bangkok desperately needs more parks. We need another green lung,” he said.
As for plastic use, he said the state must lead the way in going cold turkey by taking them out of circulation at public institutions such as schools, hospitals and prisons. He said Thailand should force consumers to pay small fees for plastic bags.
“We can’t get the private sector to follow suit if the state doesn’t do it first. Then, the people will pick it up themselves,” he said.
He believes that rampant plastic use is a recent and reversible development.
“Before, Thai people used banana leaves as packaging. Only in the past 30 years did we start to use plastic. We survived without it before,” he said. “But now plastic pollutes everything, damaging forests and driving insects into our homes.”
He also aims to campaign for Thais to only grow and consume organic vegetables rather than rely on GMO products.
“When provincial people come into Bangkok, they’re shocked at the size of the vegetables there because they’re stuffed full of chemicals,” he said. “And this goes into people’s bodies and now the hospitals are chock full of the sick.”
Outside the city, Damrong wants to expand forest land by encouraging farmers to plant trees – and increasing the punishment for poaching animals.
He said Thailand’s forests – 2 million rai (320,000 hectares) of protected forests and 1 million rai of national parks – are perpetually ravaged by illegal development and hunters. But many encroaching on the land are forest-dwellers, not luxury resort owners.
Therefore he’s proposed that existing residents pay rent of 10 baht per rai to the government and be compelled to reserve 10 percent of their land for protected types of trees. He plans to set up a government environment fund to pay people who plant and maintain their own mini-forests.
“If the farmers get profit from plants, then they will protect them,” he said. “If we change their job from farming to growing forests, then they might actually profit more from planting forests than farming.”
He wants more than the current 15 species afforded protected status and anti-poaching laws strengthened.
“Hunting for recreation should be punished most harshly, because it’s done by millionaires with big, dangerous weapons,” he said. “The punishment must be distinct from a poor person shooting small squirrels to eat.”
Threading a Needle
Damrong says he doesn’t have a dog in the fight for who will lead the country after the election or where his party would fall in the spectrum.
“I wouldn’t vote for anyone to be the PM. I don’t want to call myself a political party and be either on the left or right or be a minion of the larger parties,” he said by phone.
Still he has a record of comments expressing support for the ruling junta’s most controversial figure, deputy leader Prawit Wongsuwan.
When Gen. Prawit became engulfed in a luxury watch scandal, Damrong decried it as a smear campaign to “destroy his character.”
A month later he applauded Prawit for his role in canceling a road-expansion project in a national park in the central province of Phetchabun.
“Those merchants want bigger roads for Thailand 4.0, but Thailand’s forests will become 0.4 if Gen. Prawit resigns,” Damrong said at the time.
Now he says the best net good can come from being a voice for the genuinely voiceless.
“I want to focus on forests, a small thing that will help many people,” he said. “If we plant trees today, we will be well-fed for our entire lives with forests that live hundreds of years.”