The Poo Yai Baan in our village

by Jackie Jeane

Growing up in the United States I had the great fortune of a loving grandmother who took pride in the good old American Constitution and political system. She was active in local government and made sure that, even as a youngster, I knew what the political world was all about. I enjoyed going to press conferences and meetings with her because it made me feel important to be the cute young girl with an opinion on gun rights and such. A few politicians took note of me and even started to groom me for a political career as early as 11 years old. I worked in the capitol as a page for both the House of Representatives and the Senate and was even invited into backdoor caucus meetings. Eating a $2,000 per plate charity breakfast sitting next to, then presidential candidate, Bob Dole was an unforgettable experience.

Fortunately, I was young enough to spot the double speak and straight out lies that were all around me in that world. Before I could sell my soul, I walked away. My short political career was over by the time I turned 15 years old. That was when Fox news came out in the US and I gave up all hope in the media as well. I literally tuned out, gave my TV away and decided to live a life true to my own inner callings. I do believe that experience set the stage for me to eventually move to Canada and abroad which brings me to here and now (my favourite place to be).
I have moved around and felt at home in many different parts of the world. I do feel that I am settled, at least for the time being, in Thailand. It’s funny how feeling settled has brought out parts of me that I had long since left in the past. It’s easy to be aloof about politics and policies while travelling but once I feel at home, I start to become more aware of and involved in my community. My political roots are still deep down inside me and have crept up from time to time in Thailand. I love to keep things simple by focusing on my immediate family and village around me. Therefore, I have decided to get to know my poo yai baan or head of my village and share the experience with you. Many expats are aware of their village head but may not know exactly what they do. My past has left me inclined to find out. On a slightly chilly evening in Huai Kood, Den Chai, Thailand I sat down to learn about our poo yai baan, Khun Putiset Sootamsupajalern, and this is what he had to say.

Where are you from?
I was born in Lampang, but I have been living in Den Chai for about 40 years. As a young child I went back and forth a lot. I went to school in Lampang until 4th grade when I finally moved to school in Den Chai full time.

How many people live in Huai Kood village?
Now we have about 2,050 people.

How long have you been the head of Huai Kood?
Over 6 years. I began my term in 2012.

How long is your term?
I will serve until I am 60 years old. In the past the position was re-elected every 5 years but at this point I hold the position until I want to stop, or I am 60 years old. This is because there is no need to hold a big government election for this position. The government realised that it is very easy to change the village head and they can quickly and easily hold an election as needed.

How does one get to be Poo yai baan?
The people of the village vote.

Does your family work with you?
Yes, they help a lot. Everyone here helps a lot. We all must work together to do everything needed. One person simply cannot do it alone. Many people think it is easy money to be Poo yai baan. The truth is that I must work as well as being Poo yai baan because the salary is very little. I am lucky because I have other work on my farm as well. I plan to continue my farm and start another business that will provide jobs for the people of Huai Kood when I retire.

What does your family help with?
My daughter helps to do all the paperwork needed for official government business. My wife does everything from cooking for many people, when we have big meetings, to organising festivals. They both go with me to meetings, parades, funerals and many other events to help make sure everything runs smoothly.

Do you enjoy your work?
When everyone is working together, I feel very happy and enjoy the work. We also work with government offices and other agencies in the province. Sometimes we have different ideas on how to get things done. I would like to see these ideas brought to the people in the village to allow everyone to vote. I believe this will ensure that the people’s voices are heard and will help to get more things accomplished.

What do you do on a normal day?
The focus for myself and all the people of Huai Kood is to take care of the homes, schools and temples. Day to day that can mean doing many different things.

Every day I work on the farm where we raise chickens, cattle and fish as well as grow fruits and vegetables. After work I do whatever is needed that day in the village. Some days I attend events that are put on by the government to teach us skills which we then bring back to the village to share with the people. Skills such as how to compost or grow mushrooms etc. are shared with other Poo yai baans and we teach each other what is working well in our villages.
I also attend to any problems in our village that may have come up. I make myself available 24 hours a day. With normal jobs people go home at 5:00pm and they are finished for the day. I cannot do that because we never know when problems will arise. Water pipes break, power goes out, floods come and we cannot control when that will happen. I have even brought blankets and food to people in the middle of the night because of floods. Sometimes I get a message at 12am or 1am and I must go right away.

It’s very important to remember that the Poo yai baan is not the head of the people and does not control the people. Poo yai baan is the person at the bottom who helps all the people. It is also my job to listen to the people of Huai Kood. When we have meetings, everyone can feel safe to voice their opinions. I am responsible to bring those opinions to the government meetings and share them. Anyone that has any problems can call me for anything, so my days are different each day.

Am I the first foreigner to live here?

We have had two farang (foreign) men live here before. They have passed away already. They lived here about 25 years ago. One of them had a child here but he also moved away. You and your daughter are the first farang girls to live here.

What do you think about having a farang living in your village?
It is good! Because we have the opportunity to share ideas together and make some changes. Each country has its own style and it is nice when we can learn from each other. The ideas that are useful here we can share them with all the people in our village. For example, I have learned about a project from Japan. They built a water factory to provide clean drinking water and they allowed only the retired people in their community to buy shares of the business. That way each month they get some money back from their investment. This helps to take care of their needs as they can no longer work. The factory also provides work for the village. I plan to start the same here in the future.

How do you think it affects the town having farang living here?
Good, as well. If farang come, they help with the village and the people in the village. Farang that live here are part of the village and need to participate in the same ways as the rest of the people here. They do not think of the farang as a foreigner but rather as an older or younger sister or brother, as one of them.

What do you think I can do to be part of this community?
You already know how to help here. You look around and think about what can be done to help and you do it. For example, painting old signs and taking care of your street as well as walking in parades and participating in events. Remember, we have the Songkran Festival coming for you to be part of too. We would like you to walk in the parade with the rest of the mothers from the village.

What do you think expats can do to help small villages like this?
Thai people and farang are the same. Everyone would like to help in the small villages. The best way to start is to go make contacts in the village. Talk to the people in the hospital, government or local schools and see what they need then make a plan based on that.

Do you have paid people who help you with Poo yai baan responsibilities?
Really, everyone in the village helps but do we have three paid positions for helpers. Two people who check on everything in general and one person for safety issues.

Anything else you would like to say?

I am doing my best to help create jobs for people here. We are teaching people how to look after cattle, chickens and eggs, as well as fish. We will continue to work on the clean drinking water project when we have time. Now we focus on what we can do to make our beef and eggs the best possible. I will continue to build the farm and would like to open it as an official educational centre for the local people to learn about farming. We would also like to offer rooms for people to stay and learn about farming. We plan to keep it fun and Thai style with karaoke and big rooms for eating together. Everyone is welcome.
This experience not only opened my eyes to how welcomed I am but also touched my heart by the sheer selflessness of this position. I am a very practical person when it comes to community and life in general. I love that most of what our Poo yai baan does is the practical day to day stuff. If he sees something that needs to be done, he knows how to get it done. That is a great value to any community. I am not sure in other countries I have lived in what government official has the ability to be so hands on and in touch with the people they work for. The political games that I ran away from leave the representatives of the people either dismayed by their inability to make change or hardened by the whole system. I saw many bright-eyed young politicians who, in a few short years, sold out to the idea that if they wanted to stay, they had to play the game. My old school roots are watered by this concept of a Poo yai baan who knows my name and cares about what happens to me and my family. I am left inspired and ready to stand side by side with my neighbours as a member of this community.

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