Understanding the Situation in Thailand: A Dispatch and Analysis

by lmnop April 29, 2010
Thailand has been ruled by 100 families that descend mostly from the Thai nobility, or from powerfull Thai-Chinese business families. When the Thai nation state emerged, the nobility went into the state formations, while business was done by Chinese families, and the serfs or former slaves became farmers or workers. Thailand is one of the worlds most unequal countries, which has lead to perpetual social unrest after WWII, though it has been greatly helped by sex-driven tourism (at first, it’s now also a more traditional tourist destination), export oriented agriculture, and manufacturing re-assembly; particularly fuelled by the American investments to keep it away from the feared domino effect induced by Vietnam.

The state however has never been very mature, and typically elections were (and are still mostly) driven by canvassers who could be bought (and gave money to voters), creating the result that the investment needed to be recouped by corruption once elected. Parties were often led by mafia-type dons (called 'influential figures').

Before Thaksin, the Thailand was marked by a regular transition from military to democratic governments, in the sense explained above, and when democratic, by shifting alliances by the various party factions (most of which, except the Democrats, never really parties in the western sense, but temporary coalitions of powerful local politicians).

Into this volatile mix came modernizer Thaksin, who combined neoliberalism with a keyneisan/social-democratic redistributive platform, his model being Singapore. The problem is that though he created the first mass party and marketing driven election, he was also very power-hungry and corrupt. This antagonized the old ruling class; the middle class, the only to pay taxes, became incensed by its money funding both corruption and also his social policies (they generally despise the poor). Factions of the elite, both in business and government, were distraught by the prospect of being permanently excluded from the spoils if the Thaksin regime became permanent, and in particular, Thaksin’s personal popularity threatened to rival that of the formal head of state, which was seen as very problematic.

When Thaksin decided to sell the telecom crown jewels to Singapore, this gave the final push to create a coalition bent on ousting him. But because his policies immensely benefited the poor (70% of the population), and they supported him, they couldn't oust him, so resorted to a coup.

This coup was at first reluctantly accepted by the rural population, because it was clearly seen as backed by the monarchy, and the population dearly loves their King, both for the social policies expressed by the Royal Foundations, and his positive role as arbiter in past crises.

But the military government proved particularly inept, and they froze most of Thaksin’s social policies, if not outright dismantling them. But more crucially, instead of using the moral high ground against the generally agreed corruption, they used the legal system in clear political ways, to outlaw the former parties on the ground of electoral violantions (instead of just punishing the ones responsible for local failures).

When they attempted to legitimate that coup in elections, Thaksin's party won again with an overwhelming majority. The first Thaksin-friendly government, led by the corrupt right-wing politician Samak, did not show a particularly population friendly policy either, but when he was legally attacked and had to resign, and replaced by Thaksin’s brother in law, that incensed the royalist-middle class PAD movement, which had provoked the first coup. The opposition (called PAD, the yellow shirts) couldn't accept it, so they launched a civil disobedience campaign, culminating in the airport occupation, which brought the Thaksin-friendly government down.

This was done through a legal coup, backed by military threats against dissenting parliamentarians, enough defecting from the majority to form an alternative anti-Thaksin government.

The last government by Abhisit clearly lacked enough democratic legitimacy, and their blunders, such as a botched attempt to outlaw organic agriculture, will not have endeared it to the farming majority.

All of this was a clear sign to the poor supporters of Thaksin, that the system was no longer democratic in any real sense, as their popular choice was twice disqualified. If a democratic system no longer keeps it potential promise of allowing alternance, it is no longer a democracy. The legal system had also become suspect because of its clear political uses, and even the central institution of thai life, the monarchy, no longer appears as a neutral arbiter, as there have been too many signs of side taking. This is very worrying to the Thai elite, as it is seen as the only way to keep this fractious country united. It is often said that because the problematic nature of the succession, anti-Thaksin efforts became even more crucial for them.

The status quo thus became, in turn, unacceptable to the pro-Thaksin forces. When Thaksin saw that he would be destroyed, his money taken, but that the popular support would not die down, he decided to mobilize in the same way as the PAD, but now in the other direction, showing that no government can be formed without the consent of his side.

The result is a blocked situation, no side strong enough to defeat the other, and with forces around the monarchy having sided with the anti-thaksin forces, they have lost the usual way out which his royal arbitrage. The latter is still possible though, given the enormous credit of the King.

However, as disciplined as the royalist PAD is, consisting of better educated middle class professionals and a large contingent of middle-aged women, and with a well-trained militia and support from the disciplined Santi Asoke movement (a kind of ‘Protestant’ Buddhist reformation movement that forms an alternative to the mainstream Sangha), as indisciplined are the popular forces of the UDD (United Front for Democracy and against Dictatorship). Their violent outburst does not endear them to the local population, and they are probably a too regional movement based on Isaan in northeastern Thailand, the poorest region, and Chiang Mai, the northern home-state of Thaksin.

Right now, in yesterday’s editorial, while the Nation calls for a compromise, a sensible thing to do, the Bangkok Post called out for bloody repression. The latter newspaper is a traditional mouthpiece of the elite, supporting Thaksin when he was in power, and now the anti-Thaksin regime, always suppressing internal journalistic dissent against the powers that be (they removed journalists who would report on corruption in the Thaksin era). So their stance reflects the rage of the elite and their willingness to repress the movement in blood if necessary. The military, tarred by past repression, only will move if clearly backed by some political leadership willing to take the lead. A problem of course, is that all institutions of the Thai state are divided themselves between pro and anti-Thaksin forces.

As a interesting side note. In the eighties, the then military regime made a deal with the communist insurgency, and a sizeable amount of the returnees were taken in by the royal foundations, which have very progressive social aspects (organic farming, self-suffiency orientation, more egalitarianism than usual in this very hierarchical society, and participation in production, at least according to my sources). The other half went to NGO organizing, and it is these people who were attracted by Thaksin to organize his social policies. The result is that half of the left is anti-Thaksin, the other half pro, which is very confusing of course.

The PAD therefore, has some progessive elements as well, though their policy of invalidating the popular force, marks it as an essentially anti-democratic movement that wants to disenfranchise the unwashed masses (literally, hygienic class racism is very strong here).

On the other hand, the pro-Thaksin red shirts are no angels either, containing their part of former mafia dons, corrupt politicians, and people marching to render the Gay Pride impossible in Chiang Mai a few weeks ago ...

It would seem that in any case, the prospects of democracy are dim.

A first scenario is that there is a bloody repression, which can only offer temporary reprieve, as none of the underlying social problems would be solved, and Thaksin would still be popular. The danger of this approach, is that the popular forces would be forced to become independent, a much worse scenario for the Thai elite. This scenario is also rendered more complicated by the current meltdown, which means that not just the democratic hopes of the majority would be dashed, but also their economic hopes. This makes a Chinese scenario, an authoritarian regime compensated by high growth and entrepreneurial freedom, hard to imagine.

The second scenario is a historical compromise between both factions, new general elections that pro-Thaksin forces would again win, and a necessary amnesty for the corruption crimes of Thaksin. This would not sit well with the PAD forces. The only person who could force this scenario would be the Thai monarch.

I think the third scenario, an outright win of the red shirts at this stage, is highly unlikely, and they do not have enough support in the capital city.


Anonymous says:
July 18, 2010

"became incensed by its money funding both corruption and also his social policies "

what corruption? I still fail to be convinced that Thaksin was/is corrupt.

what court cases have succeeded?

a. His wife bought land in an open competitive tender against professional land companies from the agency created to rescue distressed businesses. There has been no evidence of any interference by Thaksin or anyone in the process and yet he has been convicted with 2 years gaol. Bullshit!

b. Thaksin telecommunications business Shin Corp share value rose during his time in government slightly less than the impressive rise in the SET average rise. His family sold their shares near the peak of their value. By Thai law their is no tax payable on realised gains in share value so they did not pay tax on the transaction. His assets were frozen for 3.5 years and then most confiscated (stolen) through court action recently. Another bullshit!

c. I havent heard of any other actual court cases. Allegations?

Thaksin made Suvarnabhumi Airport happen. Lots of the usual political allegations.

I havent heard of any allegations even that Thaksin or his family actually gained from any of the financial transactions, except his daughter was rumoured to be something involved in car parks. Evidence? Actual court case?

There was a furore over baggage scanners, invented by the Nation newspaper, years later they were forced to print an apology (in their Thai language "Krungthep Thairakit" paper)?

Please anyone go any actual record of evidence?

So, I still dont believe Thaksin was or is corrupt. Wealthy through his own business capability, yes. Corrupt, unproven? Allegations, only by political enemies? Believers in his corruption, lazy to look at the facts!

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