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The death of Thailand's "Joe the Plumber"

In the weeks following Thai Prime Minister Abhisit's rise to power, the premier has made several overtures to the kingdom's struggling northeast Isaan region.

Among the more theatrical gestures involved "Grandma Niam," an 84-year-old matriarch living in the far-east borderlands. During a campaign tour last year, Abhisit ended up on Niam's farm, where she handed him a ring from her childhood that would "wed" the urban politician to rural Thais. After his December appointment, Abhisit held the ring before cameras and renewed the vows, so to speak -- promising to always remember Niam and her rural kin.

In this recent GlobalPost piece, I equated Niam to America’s “Joe the Plumber.” Now, pointing out contrasts between a bald plumber from Ohio and a grandmother from upcountry Thailand is easy. But I think the parallel is there. Politicians have used both to put a face on the working class whose support they aggressively court.

This decade has proven that you can’t win America without Ohio and you can’t hold on to Thailand forever without a little love from rural Isaan.

Sadly, Grandma Niam recently passed away. The former balladeer died from cancer in a hospital near her home.

Niam was always an unlikely supporter of Abhisit, the posh-speaking Oxford grad who was born into Bangkok’s circle of wealth. Many in Isaan, or at least a very vocal faction, regard his Democrat party as effete and oppressive. Isaan also produces many so-called “red shirts,” a protest group that opposes the Democrats’ new grip on power. (They’re the counterpoint to the “yellow shirts,” who stormed Bangkok’s airport in November.)

In a disturbing twist, the Bangkok Post reports that a red-shirted mob surrounded Niam’s hospital in her last days and even rushed her intensive care unit to taunt her. Heartbreaking.
Protesters who hoped to stop Abhisit from attending Niam’s funeral, dropped their plans and the PM attended the funeral flanked by police.