Armed with smartphones, volunteer election observers keep tabs on Thailand’s democracy

This article was commissioned by AGO and written by AGO collaborator Nat Sumon in partnership with HaRD Stories, a project that amplifies the voices of human rights defenders through visual storytelling and constructive journalism. For more information about HaRD Stories, visit their website, or follow them on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Photographs by Luke Duggleby.

In the early morning of 28 November 2021, Supat Arsasri quietly examined ballot boxes and boards displaying election candidates at a Buddhist temple-turned-polling station for Pathumthani province’s Khlong Sam sub-district in central Thailand. He also observed a group of local men drinking coffee nearby while carefully eyeing the arriving voters.

Meanwhile, Supat’s colleague, 24-year-old Tas Surasaranwong, was live broadcasting the opening of the polling station on a smartphone. It was the day of Thailand’s election of Tambon Administrative Organizations (TAO), the first local polls in almost eight years since the 2014 military coup.

The pair is part of We Watch, an ambitious nonprofit citizens’ network that mobilizes thousands of volunteers to hold the government and candidates accountable by observing and documenting elections in Thailand. It was founded to bolster transparency and impartiality of the polls in the wake of the country's political crisis that saw prolonged street protests locking the capital and disrupting the 2014 general election before the civilian government was eventually ousted by the military.

Following the junta's seizure of power, We Watch built a network of Thai youths passionate about civic and political engagement. In 2017, the group's volunteers observed the draft constitution referendum. Two years later, through social media recruitment campaigns, the organization deployed more than 3,000 volunteers to keep a close eye on the controversial 2019 general election. They continued their mission in the local polls held in 2020 and 2021.

Trained to spot irregularities

In the suburbs of Bangkok, local elections do not usually turn violent like they sometimes do in provincial areas. But irregularities in the suburban areas are more challenging to detect. The gathering of men drinking coffee in the temple hall may seem perfectly innocuous to the untrained eye, but We Watch staff are taught to observe and detect subtle turf war warning signs.

The constituencies that Supat, the network’s central coordinator, and Tas, a regular volunteer, observed that day were areas with some of the highest tax revenues in the country, making the electoral race particularly intense.

The counting of the ballots at the Rachathewa polling station, outside the sub-district office headquarters.

Fostering a new political generation

Since he was a teenager, Tas has been passionate about politics. He got involved in various political campaigns for progressive change and became a regular volunteer for We Watch.

“I am just a normal citizen, and observing elections is the kind of political participation that an ordinary person can take part in,” he said.

Another volunteer, 23-year-old Sugreeya Wannayuwat, was inspired to join the group in 2019 to observe the first polls after the military junta suspended democracy almost six years earlier. It also was the first election she was allowed to participate in. Determined to take an active role, she observed the polls from the early morning until all ballots were counted late in the evening.

“It was my first time voting and I wanted to do as much as I could to make sure my vote counted,” she said. “The general election in 2019 gave me a ray of hope, as it was the most democratic activity I had seen since I was in middle school.”
According to Supat, a veteran democracy activist, the work of We Watch goes far beyond recruiting volunteers to observe and document elections.

“It’s about changing an antiquated structure. It’s about fostering a new political generation,” the 38-year-old said.

We Watch regularly holds political discussions with youths from all across Thailand on constitutional and electoral law. The organization has also just launched a project mentoring ten youth groups to start online media platforms to campaign for democracy.

“The baby boomer generation has always dominated our administration of [local] government,” Supat said. “If we want to bring about changes and new ideas, we need the younger generations to play their part.”

One election at a time

One of the most interesting sub-districts to observe for Supat and his team in the 2021 TAO election was Rachathewa in Samut Prakan province. The sub-district made headlines in June that year after the news broke that the local administration had procured extravagant street lamp posts for the unusually high amount of 642 million baht or about US$19 million.

The case put a spotlight on Songchai Nokkhamin, who has been the chairman of the Rachathewa TAO for decades. The National Anti-Corruption Committee launched graft probes on the lamp posts and several other purchases made during his administration, including fire engines and CCTV cameras. Despite the controversy, Songchai ran for office again in the 2021 local election.

Rachathewa sub-district officials stand around and observe the counting process of the votes.

TAOs are the lowest tier of government, but arguably they are also the closest to the people. Most voters understand the main role of local governments is to make sure the roads are good, the streets are lit, and the garbage is collected. But Supat thinks that, most importantly, TAOs should be accountable for their decisions.

Ailada Chuprasit, a Rachathewa native who moved away for work, traveled back specifically to cast her vote in the local election. She would like to see changes in her hometown, and believes the local government should do more than just build roads and install street lamps.

"I think the result of voting lasts a long time, way beyond the seconds you spend in the polling booth," Alida said. "We need to make sure that we are better informed. If we are not, we will be stuck in the same situation, and there will be no real and lasting improvement to our community."

Her opinion is mirrored by Supat, who argues that the country’s current system of political administration often doesn’t allow communities to prosper. In his view, nepotism is ingrained so deeply it doesn’t encourage politicians to work for the citizens but rather for their own interests.

Ailada was convinced her vote could really make a difference, and she returned to the polling station to watch the count. But, as the final ballots were taken out of the boxes, she had a feeling the old administration would remain in office.

"I'm not surprised to hear the elderly praising the lights from the lamp posts or how good [the administration] is," she said. "We have time. The newer generations will be the ones running the country one day, and time will bring the change I've been looking for."
Although the local election did not bring about the changes some in the Rachathewa and elsewhere had hoped for, the polls opened up a lively democratic space buzzing with debates, discussions and exchanges that had not been seen in the country since the military took power.

Meanwhile, residents of Bangkok still patiently wait for their turn. It has been nearly a decade since the capital had an elected governor, and We Watch's volunteers look forward to monitoring the polls that are rumored to be called in mid-2022.

"I try my best to do what I can to foster democracy in Thailand," said We Watch volunteer Sugreeya. "Time is on our side. And there will be more young and new political generations to play their part in creating a democratic society for our country."
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