Rachada Dhnadirek: She Who Teaches Can Do Politics Better
The idiom “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” is often used to disparage educators. Dr. Rachada Dhnadirek is a living argument against this fundamentally wrong saying.
She was not a reluctant politician in the strictest sense of the word. That was simply because there was nothing to hesitate from. It was not because she was determined to become a politician early on but quite the contrary, she never even imagined she would be one until a crucial turning point. Given her impressive educational background, she was an accomplished assistant professor for a decade. Her father runs profitable enterprises—and one option she did entertain in her youth was to join him in managing the family businesses. There was not a single politician in her family or even in her closest circle of friends. In fact, she did not personally know a single member of the Democrat Party of Thailand even when she made her decision to shift gears.
Her decision to enter politics in 2006 was a spur of the moment. And 2006 was quite a moment in the ancient kingdom’s modern history, spurred by a series of mostly unfortunate events.
In January of that year, embattled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra sold his Shin Corporation, a telecom and media giant, to Singapore’s Temasek in the hope that it will reverse a slump of his popularity amidst accusations of conflicts of interests (The Economist, 2006). But there were allegations that Thaksin avoided paying taxes from that sale which netted almost two billion dollars for his family (Prapanya, 2006). It also fueled long standing criticisms that he had been using his public office to protect his private business interests and even financially gain from it. On February 4, for example, 50,000 Thais demonstrated in Bangkok demanding for Thaksin’s resignation (BBC, 2006).
On February 24, on Thaksin’s behest, the parliament was dissolved but the new elections was boycotted by the Democrat Party and other opposition parties. The move of dissolving parliament was seen to deflect attention from the scandal-ridden government. The ruling Thai Rak Thai Party was uncontested in 278 out of 400 constituencies (The New York Times, 2006). The massive demonstrations and protests continued during the campaign and afterwards, given its inevitable outcome. The March 5 anti-Thaksin rally in front of the Government House drew an estimated crowd of 60,000 (CNN, 2006). A few days after his party won the April 2 national elections, Thaksin stepped down as prime minister and on May 8, the Constitutional Court later invalidated the said polls and declared it unconstitutional.
On September 19, the military launched a coup d’etat while Thaksin was in New York to address the U.N. General Assembly. The Declaration of Martial Law effectively dissolved parliament and revoked the constitution (Walker, 2006). The coup was bloodless and even evoked scenes from a fiesta typical in the Land of Smiles but the colorful year ended with violence. On December 31 and the following day, six small bombs were detonated in Bangkok, killing six and injuring at least 28 people, including foreigners (Mydans, 2006).
The silver lining in this tumultuous year was the kingdom-wide celebration of the Diamond Jubilee of the venerated monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who ascended the throne on 9 June 1946.
It was amidst this discontent and disquiet when Rachada decided to leave the relatively peaceful confines of the university and join the more turbulent political arena, even more tempestuous in the case of Thailand.
“I made my decision in 2006, there was political turmoil in my country. I was an ordi- nary citizen who disliked Thaksin so much. I felt that I could do more as an observer or a commentator. I could be a good player and a much better one than the existing politicians, definitely much better than the ones who deserved to be ousted.”
The author asked Rachada, an assistant professor of public administration of her alma mater, Mahidol University, who also thought courses in critical and creative thinking in Chulalongkorn University, if she discussed current national issues with her undergrad- uate and graduate students, many of whom were in the bureaucracy. “Of course, but I was a very ethical professor—very neutral in raising issues on government policies, and discuss the pros and cons with my students. As ordinary people, they were upset with corrupt politicians.”
“I was teaching public administration but my education was in corporate strategy and finance,” stated the assistant professor who earned two masters’ degrees from the United Kingdom—Nottingham University and Glasgow University. She earned her PhD in International Business from the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok.
“When I was young, I wanted to be a businesswoman—either continue my dad’s business or be a stock investor. After my first master’s degree in corporate strategy and governance, I did not want to work so I took another master’s in accounting and finance.” She returned to Bangkok under the most inauspicious circumstance, intending to work in a financial institution like the stock exchange commission given her background. “In 1997, there was a financial crisis in Thailand and across ASEAN. More than half of the financial establishments closed down which disabled me to get a job in a field that I liked. Then, there was an opening (for a faculty position) in Mahidol. The crisis was a critical factor that changed my career decision from business to academic. Because of the financial crisis, corporate governance became so popular as corporations started to look for good governance.” It was her father who encouraged her to pursue an academic career, a life which she considered rather predictable.
“I teach my students to be critical thinkers (another Chulalongkorn professor tackled the creative component), and how to live in this modern world with fake news.”
One evening, after a day in the university, Rachada was watching the news on tele- vision: the usual fare of demonstrations and protest rallies occurring during those times. “Then I stood up and I talked with Dad and Mom over dinner and just said, ‘I want to be a politician. I did not want this situation to continue.’ They merely asked, ‘Are you sure?’” Rachada narrated.
“My parents were worried that being a politician you have to be nice to people all the time. I was introverted and reserved. They were confident that I would be able to fulfill the core functions of being a politician, but they were not sure that I will be happy attending all these weddings and funerals,” Rachada recounted. Like in most Southeast Asian societies, parliamentarians are expected to build personal and familial relationships with their constituents; one’s capacity for drafting sound and effective legislation often overlooked by the voters.
Her parents were very supportive—morally and otherwise. “You need financial capability as well and not just rely on somebody else as this will not allow you to be inde- pendent,” Rachada explained. “I don’t need external support as I can rely on my parents. It’s not like in America where voters support candidates.”
The author asked her if she would still consider running for elections if her parents were not capable of financing her candidacy. She replied that she probably would not. “I know that I am not thinking of making money from politics. I don’t see politics as a career for my financial needs.” This is good for her and more importantly, for Thailand. Corruption becomes more prevalent because of politicians who want to profit financially from politics—the very same politicians who spurred young and intelligent professionals like Rachada to run for office and replace bad habits with the infusion of new blood.
“Once I decided to be a politician, I did not know anyone from the Democrat Party which I wanted to join. At that time, I really did not know what to do. So, what’s next then?
I just did not want to walk into the DP headquarters and fill in the application—I don’t think I will be selected by doing this. Then by coincidence, I happened to talk to a friend whom I have not seen for ten years and told her my intention. Her father used to work with Chuan Leekpai.” Her friend’s father arranged a meeting between Rachada and the former Prime Minister. “Khun Chuan was the first Democrat I met. We met at the party headquarters. He gave his blessings.”
“It’s so nice that you are interested in politics,” the veteran politician and highly regarded statesman said to the academician who was about to become, by her own personal choice, a novice in politics.
“You started (your talks) at the top,” The author told her, remember- ing that Khun Chuan was party leader for a long time.
“Yes, the very top,” Rachada responded. “When I talked with Khun Abhisit (Abhisit Vejjajiva, the new party leader who would soon become prime minister), he wanted me to contest in a district that we had a good chance to win.” But despite the blessings and support from the two most eminent leaders of the party, there was still no assurance that she would get the nomination. There was a selection committee that picked the candidates. But she had no idea that getting the nomination was one thing but wheth- er or not there will be elections was another. “With the September 2006 coup, my and every other candidate’s political career became uncertain. So, I went back to teaching to the university but not giving up my political plans.”
“I think I have luck in politics. During the coup, I continued my political activities. Then, I happened to meet the very popular Bang Plat Councilor, Taweesak Kamolvej, who treated me as a daughter. She was appointed as chief adviser that enabled me to work in the district. Working for him with a year convinced me that I wanted to be in politics. I learned the groundwork—how to engage with voters and deal with village leaders.”
“Given your comfortable life and having studied in the Europe, was it easy for you to relate on the grassroots level?” The author frankly asked.
“I understand the grassroots and their needs and their problems and their sensibili- ties,” she responded candidly. “I have heart but I don’t understand them that well. I know their hardships and difficulties but I know it by brain. Now I also know it by heart. And I learned to solve problems by brain and by heart.”
After the coup, many politicians wanted to run under the Democrat Party and despite the nomination she received before, she was not assured that she would still be the official candidate for Bang Plat. But working for the district for a year with Councilor Taweesak earned her a good feedback.
In a town hall-like assembly of the party, she was just asked to give the synthesis of the meeting. She summarized the proceedings, did a SWOT analysis and presented strategic rec- ommendations. Khun Abhisit and the rest of the party leadership took notice. She clinched the nomination and won the much coveted seat of Constituency 12, which before only included the District of Bang Plat. BangkokNoi, Talingchan and Taweewatana were added in Constituency 12 in 2007.
“I grew up in a good family who always thought me to do good things. I was raised to believe in myself. I have a good education. I see the virtue of having good politicians. I am capable and independent—I understand the conditions of Thai politics,” she stated when asked of qualities that would make her a good politician.
When asked how her academic background is applied to her work in parliament, she replied that the principles of governance can be applied to all aspects, from the local to the national to the global. “The difference lies on which appropriate mechanisms for transparency and checks and balances are appropriate over time.” She is cognizant that policies must not only be sound but must also resonate with the grassroots. In many instances, good and effective policies are not popular, at least, on the short-term.
Rachada is a strong advocate of women’s rights. “Gender-based violence is a big problem in Thai society. It’s the attitude: Thai women, they tolerate their violent husbands, and female teenagers who do not know their rights.” Thailand has laws against violence against women, but the problem is their enforcement.
She cited the case of an 11-year old girl whose Thai-Muslim family allowed her to marry a 41-year old man from Malaysia. This was against the Thai national law and even the Shariah Law in Malaysia where the minimum age for marriage is 15. But the Shariah law which is practiced in certain parts of Southern Thailand does not specify the minimum age for marriage. But this was not only a gender issue, for Rachada, it was a problem of poverty. This was a loophole that would have been addressed in the pertinent committee in parliament. But with Martial Law declared in 2014, there was no parliament to speak of. Rachada was on her second term as a member of parliament during the latest coup.
Rachada is working with the Women’s Friends Salvation that engages with Muslim women in the South. She also wants to encourage women to enter politics, starting with little things like learning how to speak out and not to underestimate themselves. Even without parliament, she pushes for certain agenda that are close to her heart.
Rachada is, by no measure, a member of a political dynasty. Nevertheless, this daughter of privilege has the heart for those who have less in life and the mind to actu- ally do something about it. She is the antithesis of self-entitlement, self-enrichment and self-aggrandizement that often inflict so many politicians in Southeast Asia.
Indeed, those who can, do; those who teach, can do it better.
BBC. (2006, May 08). Thai Court Rules Election Invalid. Retrieved from BBC News: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/4983600.stm
CNN. (2006, March 05). Thousand Protest Against Thai PM. Retrieved from CNN: http://edition.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/asiapcf/03/05/thailand.protests/
Mydans, S. (2006, December 31). Bombings in Bangkok Kill 2 and Injure at Least 28. Retrieved from The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/31/world/asia/31cnd-thai.html
Prapanya, N. (2006, February 25). Thailand’s PM dissolves government. Retrieved from CNN: http://edition.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/asiapcf/02/24/thailand.government/
The Economist. (2006, January 26). Thaksin Cashes in His Chips. Retrieved from The Economist: https://www.economist.com/news/2006/01/24/thaksin-cashes-in-his-chips
The New York Times. (2006, April 03). Thai Prime Minister’s Majority Undercut by Boycott. Retrieved from The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/03/world/asia/thai-prime-ministers-major...
Walker, P. (2006, September 19). Thai Military Claims Control After Coup. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2006/sep/19/thailand
First published on the book, Compelled by Duty, Conscripted by Destiny: Portraits of 16 Asian Women at the Frontline of Democratic Struggle, authored by John Joseph S. Coronel.
In cooperation with the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (www.cald.org)