Since the early 1970’s, Boonsong Chaletorn – บุญส่ง ชเลธร – has fought for change in Thailand. As a young man, he joined the student movement against dictatorship. He and his friends developed an idea, and started protesting against the government.
On 14 October 1973, Boonsong and his peers made headlines worldwide, when 13 of them were arrested during a demonstration in Bangkok where the military turned violent. They were in jail for a week, but were eventually released because of the mass protests their arrest had caused.
Once freed, Boonsong went back and rejoined the student movement. He spent a lot of time helping out workers and farmers, but three years later, the students were once again in the centre of the public eye. On 6 October 1976, there was a coup d’état and the military, along with the extreme right wing, came to power. They killed almost 500 people in the process, and Boonsong had to flee.
Along with 5000 other students, he left Bangkok and joined the Communist Party in the Thai jungle. During the years he spent there, he was part of the Communists’ struggle against the government, and although he never actually fought them, he used his writing and communication skills to write articles instead.
After a while he was granted amnesty and was able to return to Bangkok where he worked as a journalist at different magazines and newspapers. After a year, he went abroad – first to England to study English, and then his Swedish adventure began. That was in the early eighties, and except for a short stay in Boston, Sweden has been his home ever since. That is, until now. Now, a man on a mission, he is back in Thailand.
Swedish welfare state
The Swedish socialism and welfare state astounded Boonsong from the minute he arrived in Scandinavia. Coming from a country where those with opinions that went against the government were forced to flee and go into hiding, he saw a world were everyone was cared for and entitled to their own beliefs. He was fascinated.
Boonsong learnt Swedish and became interested in Swedish literature. He started teaching Thai at a language school in Stockholm, and over the years, he has translated several Swedish books into Thai.
Among his translations are children’s classics, such as Pippi Longstocking, The Brothers Lionheart, and Nils Karlsson Pyssling. His own favorite, however, is a book by Ivar Lo-Johansson. He was a Swedish socialist, who came from a working class family, and did not have much of an education. But, according to Boonsong, he wanted to be something in society. He then became a writer, and the book that Boonsong translated was mainly about his life and the working class struggle. It left him feeling inspired.
“All the time that I stayed in Sweden I kept thinking ‘How can we do that in Thailand? How can we make Thailand a welfare state?’”
As a part time university professor, Boonsong has studied as well as written books about the Swedish welfare state, and he uses his expertise and knowledge to teach at Ramkhamheng University in Bangkok. His most recent book, “Welfare State Sweden”, became an instant success and the 3000 first edition copies were out of stock within a week after they had been put on the shelves.
“People often ask me if we can really create a welfare state in Thailand. They argue that Scandinavia has the best welfare states in the world because their populations are so small. There are only about nine million people in Sweden. In Thailand, we have 65 million. That’s a lot!”
“I say we have to think about it differently. If Denmark which has six million people can do like this, then 65 million people in Thailand have to do it five or ten times better than them,” he says and adds that he really believes it is possible.
After more than 30 years abroad, Boonsong has moved back to Thailand to try to implement a Scandinavian inspired welfare state in Thailand. A way for him to do that was to become involved in local politics, and he decided to run as a candidate for the 29 August local assembly election.
“I will bring welfare to Thailand, but I will start at a local level. The candidates promise and talk about simple things like the streets, the playgrounds, and how to get rid of mosquitoes. I will do like them, but I will do it more because I think about the welfare state and the journey to reach that. We will start small at local level. And I think I can do that.”
According to Boonsong, welfare is on everybody’s lips at the moment, but he feels that it has become a term that is thrown around lightly by politicians in order to get more votes.
“If you read the newspaper, every party in Thailand promises to make Thailand a welfare state. But it is not quite right. They think in the wrong way. They think welfare state means giving everything to the people for free – the bus, the train, water, electricity. That is not the way it works in Sweden. In Scandinavia the voting is free. People think freely when they decide who they vote for but in Thailand they do not. Sometimes the candidates use a lot of money to buy the votes. In Thailand, when someone has won the election, you always have to ask one more question: How did you win it?”
Lack of funds is one of the main challenges Boonsong faces during his fight for change. The New Politics Party is, as the name suggests, new and has no money. That means that he will be up against other candidates who are able to bribe people into voting for them.
To Boonsong, however, this was never even an option and, as he says, even if he did have the money, he would not want to pay people to vote for him. He is well aware, however, that the struggle between ideology and cash is a difficult one. He remains hopeful, though, and has faith that people will listen to him and, and that what he says will be enough to earn their support.
So far, it is looking good, and the reactions he gets from people are positive.
“I am the new one. I have been away, but now I am back and I have an old name that people recognize. They know me from the past and for the things I fought for. I jumped over the issues where people were divided into different colors. I have no color, and I will not involve myself in the recent conflict because it is not useful for the future. I want to look forward instead of backwards,” he says.
Plan of action
And Boonsong has been looking forward for a while. In fact, if he ever gains political power, he has a very detailed idea of what he is going to do to change society.
“The first thing I would do is go and meet the people and thank them for supporting me. The second thing is check all the laws that we have in the area. We have to change them and take everything out that is old fashioned and not useful in this time. The third is to support the local organizations. There are a lot of them but they have no support from the state. We need to give them a voice and some action. They need to tell us what they want in the areas. And then we have to change the system. Make it more modern.”
Boonsong is hopeful. He has been fighting for change in Thailand since he was very young. In the 70s, his struggle got him arrested and forced him to flee, and he spent the last 30 years thinking about how to make Thailand the best that it can be.
Boonsong is no longer a young man. He is 57 years old, and a father of two daughters who are still in Sweden. Even they realize how much it means to their father to be part of this election.
“When I told them I was going back to Thailand, my youngest daughter said to me: ‘I have a dream, and I hope one day I will be able to live it. Right now, Dad, you can do what you dream, and I am happy that you have the chance.’ It was very touching. She knows that this is what I have always wanted and that my time is coming,” he says.