Every day, for the past two months, Anuttama “Jib” Amornvivat, a 34-year-old Pheu Thai constituency candidate, has been canvassing the streets of Huay Kwang, which would be a leisurely enough activity if her stride didn’t border on a run. Trotting alongside her, yelling out questions over the incessant barking, we soon run out of breath. But she’s not even breaking a sweat, despite the white Pheu Thai jacket, the red garland, the discreet makeup and the flowing mane of hair. We planned to simply tag along to get a feel for a day in the life of a candidate but Anuttama seemed anxious about our presence and, after a couple hours, told us she was done for the day. Here is a very short glimpse at this exciting new candidate who is very likely to be Huay Kwang’s next MP: young and foreign educated, but also heir to a powerful, staunchly Pheu Thai family.
Huay Kwang is a longstanding Pheu Thai stronghold. It was one of only five districts to elect all Pheu Thai councilors in the last city council elections. (Democrats swept all seats in 27 districts in Bangkok, a crushing win.) Despite the odds being in her favor, Pheu Thai isn’t taking too many chances with Anuttama. First of all, she is even better looking in real life than on her ubiquitous posters, which in an election, is anything but trivial. But she also has a political science degree from Chulalongkorn University, a master’s in International Business from Boston University and a master’s in International Economic Policy from Columbia University in the United States. She is currently an economics lecturer at both Chula and Thammasat, and at first glance, she could be the antithesis of the old cliches on Democrat (the party of disconnected Oxford-educated elites) versus Pheu Thai (the party of old-school patronage politics).
“Is your political color ever a problem with your colleagues at Chula. It’s a mostly Democrat school, isn’t it?” I ask.
“We don’t discuss these things. But my students are curious.”
“And can you talk to them openly?”
“It’s not really direct questions. Mostly just teasing.”
Our conversations are never much longer. When asked about policy, she gives a brief sound bite, “I’m a teacher so I believe in education.” The same quote I’ve read in the profiles that ran in the dailies. And also, “People have a lot more economic problems than we can imagine. Salaries don’t match inflation.”
But it’s not an ideal interview scenario either. Every few houses, one of the handlers racing in front of her spots someone in their backyard, then directs her to them. In the Sunday afternoon heat, most people at home are elderly, or housewives. Anuttama executes a graceful wai, then gently holds their arm, something either totally spontaneous or right out of the candidate handbook on creating rapport in five seconds flat.
The man introducing her to most homes is long time Pheu Thai district councilor, Yuth Intarapan, 67, who has recorded four straight wins since 1998. He’s able to chat amicably with the locals, and knows a thing or two about their households. When we hit a Pheu Thai pocket, matriarchs come out of their homes holding up their index (the number one) fingers, and offering assurances of their support and of her victory. “This whole house is Pheu Thai. The whole house!” one middle-age woman announces, dressed in a Pheu Thai t-shirt.
“Do you feel like this is a pointless exercise, running around wai-ing people?” Iask
“No, this is how you find out about people’s problems.”
“But you don’t really get to talk to them.”
“Sometimes you do. And you see the problems. Like this.”
Right on cue, we hit an open sewer with water so black it looks like motor oil. It’s full of trash and is not protected by a fence, so a kid could easily fall in. It illustrates her point quite perfectly. Except no one pauses to take notes or snap a picture. Nor does anyone discuss it. There are just too many streets to canvas—that is the real job at hand.
At most intersections, the big Pheu Thai campaign truck awaits. There’s a sense of being trapped in a maze, where all the streets of Huay Kwang end with the same giant white campaign truck, plastered with Anuttama’s likenesses. She has been in this maze for months—that and meetings.
“So when you’re not canvassing, you’re in meetings?” I ask.
“What makes you say that?”
“Well we’ve been trying to follow you for the past two days, and you were always in meetings. You were in meetings all morning today too, right?”
“So who are you meeting with?”
“These are mostly internal Pheu Thai meetings or are you meeting with local organizations?”
“It really depends.”
“Well, what about today?”
“Today was nothing specific.”
At first, I think Anuttama is just not in a talkative mood but then she steps in between my fellow writer Monruedee Jansuttipan and one of the Pheu Thai staff, just as Monruedee begins to question him.
“Why are you talking to him?” Anuttama asks Monruedee.
“We’re just asking questions about his involvement here.”
“He works for me.”
“Yeah, but we’d just like to know—”
She switches to Thai, explaining to Monruedee that she should speak to her directly, as she can better answer her questions. In fact, she also dismisses the aforementioned district councilor as “her staff” when I ask to specifically speak to him. It was only later that we got to find out who he was by chatting to him while she was talking to some residents. Why didn’t she want us to talk to a veteran of local politics who is clearly instrumental in connecting her to her voter base? And what terrible slip-ups did she fear her staffers would make?
We all pile into the campaign truck and drive out of the residential streets and into the commercial thoroughfares. She wais right and left. Taxis honk at the truck. For a second, we’re almost having fun. But then the truck comes to a stop in an alley and we’re told that they’re done for the day and that it’s going to rain. But no one is getting off the trucks and it feels like we’re actually being kicked out. We begin to walk towards the MRT but then spot the truck a couple blocks away. We follow and sure enough, Anuttama has started canvassing the sellers and shoppers of the local market.
We later reached Anuttama on the phone who says they ended up changing plans on the spot. The real question, though, is why did our presence and questions make her so uneasy? Granted, it is unusual for journalists here to follow candidates beyond the press conferences. But given her young age and international background, we expected Anuttama to embrace an opportunity to show the press how she works. One clue lies in her conventional—and powerful—background. She is the daughter of Pol Maj Gen Sombat, former Department of Special Investigation chief, the niece of Sompong Amornvivat, a former deputy leader of the defunct People Power Party and a cousin of former Pheu Thai MP Chulaphan Amornvivat. A level 6 public servant at 31 (according to one Pheu Thai supporter we spoke to), she worked at the Department of Export Promotion, before becoming a lecturer at the big two, Chula and Thammasart universities. We would argue this is a system where people don’t like to be asked too many questions. Ironically, it’s also the system the Red Shirts described as an entrenched elite and vowed to bring down.
Ultimately, though, it is not the press who will decide if she sits in parliament. As the sun begins to set on Huay Kwang’s market, we speak to sellers she’s just greeted in the market and they all say they like her and will vote Pheu Thai. They mention crime and flooding and the fact that they haven’t seen much happen in the past two years. But most importantly, there’s inflation cutting into their profits, and forcing them to raise prices, which in turn reduces sales. With macroeconomics and a great smile going for her, it makes sense Anuttama doesn’t want anyone overcomplicating her narrative. This is Ajarn Jib, candidate #1. She is a lecturer at Chula. She believes in education. She is beautiful. Love it or get off the truck.
Read part IV of the Campaign Trail series: Chitpas Bhirombhakdi: Singha heiress making her debut in politics.