Opinion: Thai ‘Influential Figures’ Are More Numerous Than Meet the Eyes

Police escort Praween Chankhlai, or Kamnan Nok, to the Criminal Court on Sept. 9, 2023.
Police escort Praween Chankhlai, or Kamnan Nok, to the Criminal Court on Sept. 9, 2023.

The new Srettha Thavisin government has declared war on influential figures and mafias following the recent killing of Pol. Maj. Sivakorn Saibua by a gunman allegedly working for a local sub-district chief (Kamnan) in Nakhon Pathom province, who is believed to be a local influential figure.

Influential figure basically means you have more power and influence than your formal job title or profession suggests. Many kamnans, technically lower in rank that district chief, or Nai Amphur, are more influential and powerful than district chief because the former are local people chosen by the locals, while the latter appointed from by the Interior Ministry in Bangkok and most often are outsider who will only be in the area for a few years.

Some, like the late Kaman Poh of Chon Buri province, was arguably once the most influential man in the province, even considered a mafia by not a few, was so successful that he eventually formed a political dynasty with some of his children successfully become mayor of Pattaya and eventually Cabinet ministers like former Culture Minister Ittiphol Kunpluem, who served under Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha administration and is now wanted for illegally signing a construction permit while the mayor of Pattaya.

Ittiphol, whose name in Thai aptly means “influential” is now believed by the authorities to have fled to Cambodia just before his arrest warrant was issued.

Moving away from local influential figures, we could say the military, which is also a state within a state, is a kind of mafia or influential organization. The covet position of army chief has for many decades been known to be more powerful than the post of supreme commander and even defense minister as it is vital in staging a successful military coup and in controlling army troops.

Nevertheless, if you think that these are the only group of influential figures in Thailand, you are very wrong. In fact, the more powerful some of these influential figures or mafias are, the less likely you will feel safe calling them mafia or influential figures due to their dark and threatening influence. Often you will call them something else, like Big (literally big man) something or Sia (rich man), with the title preceding the name, often their nickname.

Factors enabling influential figures to thrive in Thai society include low salaries for rank and file and even middle-ranking officials and officers. This tempts them to rely on earning supplementary income through corruption by serving these influential figures. Many Thai police for example, is widely regarded to be ‘compromised’ in a systematic way, where some lower ranking officers had to be part of a corrupt system to extort, collect protecting money from various businesses, particularly shady businesses, serve them, and dispatch tea money to their commanders up the command chain.

If you are a cop and found yourself in such a working environment, you have a choice of either going with the flow, turning a blind eye or being treated as an enemy of your colleagues who are corrupt police officers.

This is why in the case of the killing of a Pol. Maj. Sivakorn, six police officers were ordered to be arrested by the court and believed to play part in aiding the killing of Sivakorn and destroying evidence of the crime.

Patronage system, widespread in Thailand, is deeply rooted particularly in rural areas and among the powerful. It enables influential figures and mafias and those too powerful to be called influential figures or mafia to thrive.

These people exist and operate in Thai society like the informal sector of the Thai economy – in tandem with the formal sector. It is as if the formal sector cannot offer what these people seek and the formal sector cannot really eradicate them for, they are too numerous, powerful, and too much an integral part of the fabric of Thai society itself.