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After Bhumibol

19 October 2009

After Bhumibol

 By Gwynne Dyer

People get long jail sentences in Thailand for criticising the royal family, so the Thai media have been silent on the question of what happens after the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. But the king is 81 years old and he has been in hospital for a month now, so there are widespread fears that he is dying. Last week the Bangkok stock market fell by 8 percent in a day on rumours that his health is worse than the Palace admits.

Bhumibol has been on the throne for 63 years and he is universally revered. Thailand is three years into the worst political crisis it has seen since it became a more or less democratic country two decades ago, and the king is just about the only unifying and stabilising factor that remains. His death would make matters much worse.

The crisis is the result of democracy. Thailand has become a semi-developed country – average income has risen forty-fold since Bhumibol came to the throne – but most of the population is still rural and quite poor. Their votes used to be bought by powerful local politicians and delivered to whichever urban-based party paid the highest price, but no more.

As the people of the overwhelmingly rural north and north-east acquired more education and sophistication, they started using their votes to back politicians who promised to defend their interests and not just those of the Bangkok-based economic elite. In 2001, they elected a populist politician of humble origins called Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister.

Thaksin had made a fortune in telecommunications, and he probably couldn’t have won the elections if he wasn’t rich. But he did govern in the interests of the poor, and he was re-elected with an increased majority in 2005. It was how you would expect a maturing democracy to work, for the poor always outnumber the rich.

But you would also expect a backlash from the traditional ruling elite, and it came in the form of the People’s Alliance of Democracy (PAD), a yellow-shirted movement that actually aimed to roll back democracy. By provoking confrontations in the streets with Thaksin’s supporters (who took to wearing red shirts), the PAD created a pretext for its allies in the army to seize power in a military coup in 2006. Since then, Thailand has been in permanent crisis.

Thaksin was convicted of corruption in questionable circumstances and now lives in exile. His political party, Thai Rak Thai, was forced to disband after being found guilty of “electoral fraud” by the Constitutional Court, whose impartiality in this case is open to question. However, Thaksin’s supporters remain devoted to him, and when the army allowed Thais to vote again at the end of 2007, a new party that was essentially a continuation of Thai Rak Thai won the election.

The voters had got it wrong again, so the crisis continued. Two successive prime ministers who were standing in for the exiled Thaksin were forced to resign by PAD demonstrations and occupations that included a blockade of both of Bangkok’s airports. The new pro-Thaksin party was also forced to shut down by the Constitutional Court, and late last year a new government was installed that was more to the taste of the yellow-shirts.

The PAD’s urban, middle-class supporters can control the streets of the capital (with some help from the army) and even overthrow governments they don’t like, but they cannot force the rural majority to abandon its own loyalties. The country is dangerously polarised and politically paralysed – and many Thais believe that only King Bhumibol can hold the country together.

Maybe it’s true, although there are suspicions that he actively supported the 2006 coup rather than just acquiescing in it. (Again, that cannot be openly discussed in Thailand. A well-known former journalist, Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul, was recently sentenced to 18 years in prison after she suggested in a public speech that the king had backed the coup.) At any rate, the king’s death would greatly deepen the crisis, for his likely successor is not loved.

Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn has led a turbulent personal life, including three marriages. His attitude has probably not been improved by living for 57 years in the shadow of his father. He would be a perfectly serviceable constitutional monarch in normal times, but the Thai people have decided, fairly or unfairly, that they do not like him very much.

Vajiralongkorn is so lacking in the respect that has enabled his father to play a mediating, calming role that there are those who quietly suggest that his sister, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, might perform the duties of the monarchy better. It’s not impossible. Thai law has been changed to allow women to occupy the throne, and the constitution leaves the final right to designate an heir to the 19-member Privy Council of senior advisors to the king.

They are unlikely to change the succession, but the mere fact that it could happen introduces another element of uncertainty and potential conflict into the equation. Which gives Thais another reason to pray for Bhumibol’s recovery.

The almost daily reports from the Palace on the king’s condition are always upbeat, but there have been references to a “lung inflammation,” which is a delicate way of saying pneumonia. That is potentially a killer in a man of his age, and the worries of the Thai public are justified. Long live the King!

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“Thaksin…yellow-shirts”)

Class War in Thailand

15 April 2009

Class War in Thailand

 By Gwynne Dyer

Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was humiliated last week when red-shirted protesters overran the summit of Asian leaders that he was hosting and forced him to evacuate them by helicopter, but now he is back in control. The “reds” have been driven off the streets of Bangkok by the army, and the “yellows” who fought them last year have not come out in force either. For the moment, peace has been restored.

It sounds as arcane as the street battles of the blues and greens in Byzantium fifteen centuries ago. It certainly doesn’t sound like modern politics, and indeed it is not like politics in mature democratic countries like France or India. But it is (apart from the coloured t-shirts) a great deal like 19th-century European politics.

Thailand’s democracy is less than 20 years old, and it was the growing Thai middle class that made it happen — just as it was the middle class in European countries that made the revolutions happen there in the 1800s. In both cases, they were doing it for themselves, not for the poor.

As the history of a hundred ancient empires demonstrates, the poor and the downtrodden never launched a democratic revolution. It didn’t occur to them to demand their democratic rights, because they lacked the education and the perspective even to think in those terms. Democracy only got onto the political agenda when a large and literate middle class appeared.

What the middle class were after was mainly political equality, since they were already doing quite nicely economically. But no sooner had they won it than they discovered to their horror that the poor were also infected by this idea of equality. At that point, the newly empowered middle class faced a stark choice.

Either they made a political deal that brought the poor into the system economically, or they lived forever in fear of the day when the angry poor broke into their homes. In Europe, it took most of the 19th century and a good deal of the 20th to come up with a deal that worked, but in the end various versions of the welfare state did the trick.

Most of the former colonial countries inherited the democratic system. They didn’t all make the system work, but at least they knew the rules, including how to get the poor to accept the system. Whereas Thailand, almost uniquely in southern Asia, was never colonised.

In 1992 middle-class Thais, overwhelmingly Bangkok-based, drove the army from power in a non-violent revolution that brought genuine democracy to the country for the first time. It was an exhilarating and long overdue event, but it appears that the Thai middle class really didn’t anticipate what was going to come next.

Give a country a democratic system, and pretty soon the poor will figure out how to use it for their own purposes. Their leader and voice in Thailand was Thaksin Shinawatra, an ex-cop from humble origins who became a telecommunications billionaire. He was a demagogue who cut as many corners in politics as he had in business, but he genuinely did represent the poor, both urban and rural, and they voted for him in their millions.

Thaksin won power in 2001, and began pushing through measures to give the poor access to cheap loans, medical care, and other things that the middle class took for granted. The poor loved him for it, but the urban middle class was appalled: they had lost control of politics, and their money was being spent on ignorant peasants.

Thaksin was overthrown by the army in 2006 and his party banned — but as soon as democracy was restored, the poor voted for his allies and the new party they formed. So the new government also had to be overthrown, a task that was accomplished last year by the yellow-shirted supporters of the People’s Alliance for Democracy.

In many ways the PAD is typical of conservative parties seeking to rein in the demands of the poor. It is backed by the army, the senior bureaucracy and the upper middle class, but its street fighters are drawn mostly from the aspiring lower middle class. However, this being Thailand, there is one big difference: the PAD actually wants to take democracy back from the poor.

In the parts of the world that know democracy better, the notion that the demands of the poor can be dealt with simply by disenfranchising them seems crazy — and we have the history to prove it. At the moment, however, it clearly doesn’t sound like a crazy idea to many middle-class Thais.

Really bad outcomes to this impasse are possible, including a return to permanent military rule, although that would now require repression on an almost Burmese scale. But the likelier outcome is that the Thais will find some way out of their current blind alley and back to democratic normality.

The whole history of the past two centuries proves that you have to compromise with the poor. You don’t have to give them all your wealth, but if you want to live in a stable and prosperous country then you do have to share it.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 15. (“As the history…appeared”; and “The whole history…share it”)

The Old Thailand Returns

14 December 2008

The Old Thailand Returns

 By Gwynne Dyer

The political crisis in Thailand is over, and so is the ten-year experiment with democracy. The rich and the comfortably off have risen in outraged revolt against equal treatment for the poor, and it’s back to the bad old days of shaky coalitions and bought-and-paid-for politicians. The misleadingly named People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) has won.

It was the PAD’s yellow-clad protesters and street-fighters who occupied government offices, and eventually both of Bangkok’s airports, in a non-stop campaign to oust the People Power Party (PPP) from power. (The yellow was to signify their allegiance to the revered 81-year-old king of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej, although it was never clear if he shared their goal.)

The government had to be overthrown by street demonstrations, not by a legitimate vote in parliament, because the People Power Party actually had a majority in parliament. The PPP’s crime, in the view of the PAD, the army, the police, the Bangkok middle class, and perhaps even the royal palace, was that the wrong people had voted for it: the rural poor.

The PPP was the descendant of Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais), the creation of Thaksin Shinawatra, the telecommunications billionaire who turned to politics in 1998. It was a new style of party for Thailand, appealing directly to the urban poor and the rural majority of Thai voters over the heads of the political bosses who had traditionally bought up their votes.

Thai Rak Thai won the 2001 election, delivering Thaksin to the prime minister’s office, and he actually kept many of his promises.

Development funds flowed into the rural areas, his “30-baht” scheme for universal health care brought medical aid to remote villages for the first time, and farmers got cheap loans. It alienated the urban elite who had previously got the biggest share of state spending, but Thaksin’s popularity soared even higher in rural areas.

He was the first prime minister ever to complete a four-year term, and in the 2005 election his party won an absolute majority of the seats in parliament — another first. Even more importantly, the political godfathers who used to buy and sell the rural vote flocked to his banner, giving him a virtually impregnable political position.

For a moment there, it looked as though Thaksin had succeeded in transforming Thai politics. He was quite autocratic in power, seeking to punish media outlets that criticised him and authorising an anti-drugs campaign that resulted in many illegal killings, but his popularity was unquestionable. And then it all fell apart.

The counter-attack by the old guard came in the form of street demonstrations against Thaksin’s new government that were used as the excuse for a military coup in 2006. The courts, which have not been exactly impartial in this affair, then ordered Thai Rak Thai disbanded because of alleged election irregularities (doubtless true, but equally true for all the other parties).

Thaksin’s party was immediately re-founded as the People Power Party, but he was not so easily able to evade a court judgement finding him guilty of conflict of interest over the purchase of land in Bangkok. The amount of money involved was paltry for a man of Thaksin’s wealth, and other Thai politicians have gone unpunished for far graver offences, but he ended up fleeing from Thailand in order to avoid a jail sentence.

The military then reckoned that it was safe to hold another election, but Thaksin’s renamed PPP won again last year: the poor knew who was on their side. Thaksin stayed in exile, but his close ally Samak Sundaravej became prime minister in his stead — and immediately faced the same legal vendetta. Early this year the courts got him for conflict of interest. The charge? He was moonlighting as the host of a television cooking show. In this struggle, no pretext is too petty.

Samak was replaced as prime minister in late September by Thaksin’s brother-in-law Somchai Wongsawat. The PAD then launched non-stop demonstrations that gradually paralysed the government. Three weeks ago they seized control of both Bangkok’s airports, shutting down the tourist trade that accounts for 6 percent of Thailand’s economy. And last week the courts came through for them again, ordering the disbanding of the PPP and two allied parties for electoral fraud.

That was the final blow. The regional godfathers, recognising that Thaksin is finished, have begun selling their services to the old-line Democratic Party again. It won’t even be necessary to carry out the PAD’s project to take the vote away from the rural population — they were proposing a parliament that was 70 percent appointed and only 30 percent elected — because the regional bosses will go back to brokering the rural vote in the good old-fashioned way.

It is a sad outcome, but not a surprising one. Relatively few Asian countries are openly run as dictatorships nowadays — China, Vietnam and Burma are the main exceptions — but the urban elites and the big land-owners really still call the tune in most of the so-called democracies. Thaksin had his faults, but he was trying to break Thailand free from that model. Unfortunately, he failed.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 7. (“It was…goal”; and

“For…apart”)

Thailand: Populism vs. Privilege

5 September 2008

Thailand: Populism vs. Privilege

By Gwynne Dyer

Thaksin Shinawatra is shaping up to be the Juan Peron of Thailand, with the significant difference that he is a rich Peron. The billions he earned in his telecomms business enabled him to rise to the top of Thai politics — and he used his power to shift wealth and power systematically from the rich to the poor. Like a latter-day Peron, he made decisive changes in government spending patterns, and the poor loved him for it.

Thaksin’s human rights record was abominable, but he was three times elected prime minister, in 2001, 2005, and 2006. However, he was overthrown by the army later in 2006 after street protests paid for by the rich and privileged: his party was disbanded, and he and 110 senior members of the party were banned from politics for five years. But the game is far from over, and Thaksin may haunt Thai politics for as long as Peron haunted Argentina.

Thaksin went into exile after the coup, mainly to avoid the corruption charges (perhaps trumped up, perhaps not) that threatened to jail him and his wife Pojaman for years. But when the generals allowed a return to democracy last year the People’s Power Party (PPP), a proxy for his disbanded Thai Rak Thai party, won a majority of seats and formed a coalition government led by Thaksin’s political ally, PPP leader Samak Sundaravej.

This was awkward for the army, which now had to take orders from the allies of the people whom it had ousted in the 2006 coup, and it got even more awkward when Thaksin returned to Thailand last February. Within months the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), the group whose anti-Thaksin demonstrations had triggered the military coup of 2006, was out on the streets again demanding Samak’s resignation. He was only Thaksin’s stooge, they claimed, and PPP had only won the election by fooling or bribing millions of ignorant rural voters. Which brings us to the heart of the matter.

Thaksin was a populist who won the support of the poor by promising them debt relief, cheap loans, improved health care, and other services that were not previously part of the currency of Thai politics. This is hardly against the rules in other democracies, but in Thailand it infuriated the traditional political elite and their mostly urban, middle-class supporters. The peasants, instead of obediently voting for the traditional rural allies of the urban elite, were voting for Thaksin and their own economic interest.

The response of the urban elite was to create the People’s Alliance for Democracy — and in Bangkok, an island of shining prosperity in a country that is still mostly poor peasants, they have lots of supporters. But the PAD has nothing to do with democracy. In fact, it claims that the ballot box gives too much weight to the ill-educated rural poor, whose votes can easily be “bought” (i.e. won) with promises of government largesse.

The movement’s leaders are less clear on what they want in place of democracy, but they want Parliament to be “reformed” so that most lawmakers are appointed (by them and their friends) rather than elected. Their arrogance is breath-taking — but they may not win a decisive victory. The king, who backed the coup in 2006, has stayed neutral this time, and the army chief, Gen. Anupong Paochinda, insists that the military will not stage a new coup.

The current crisis began on 26 August when a mob of PAD supporters seized the prime minister’s offices, Government House, which they have occupied ever since. Samak Sundaravej refused to resign, saying that “The PAD is an illegal group who have seized the Government House and declared their victory. How can that be correct?”

Samak declared a state of emergency on Monday, 2 September, after one person was killed and several dozen injured in street clashes between PPP and PAD supporters in Bangkok. On Thursday he promised a national referendum to resolve the crisis. Since rural people are still a large majority in Thailand, Samak will win the referendum easily, but that will not end the crisis because the People’s Alliance for Democracy does not recognise the validity of rural votes.

Thaksin, who retreated abroad again last month after his wife was sentenced to three years in jail for income tax evasion, is still enormously popular with the rural poor, and could count on winning any free election in which he is allowed to stand. So he probably won’t be allowed to stand. It’s a recipe for interminable stalemate, like the political trench warfare that paralysed Argentina for decades after Peron was driven into exile in 1955.

It’s too bad that a figure as divisive as Thaksin was the first to try to open Thai politics up to the concerns of the poor, but a less flamboyant and abrasive politician would probably never have tried. What remains to be seen is whether the PAD can shut the door again, and for how long.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“The current…votes”)