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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.


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


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.


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

Pakistan: Politicians, Judges and a General

14 May 2008

Pakistan: Politicians, Judges and a General

By Gwynne Dyer

“I want to inform the entire nation that on Monday 12 May 2008, all deposed judges will be restored,” Nawaz Sharif told journalists in Lahore after a crisis meeting with the head of the other major party in Pakistan’s governing coalition, Asif Zardari. But it didn’t happen, so on 13 May Sharif pulled all nine ministers of his Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) party out of the government.

This was not just a minor spat between politicians. It heralds a major crisis in the country that is America’s most important ally in the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” and the crisis is precisely about the huge influence that the United States exercises in Pakistan.

The sixty deposed judges at the centre of the dispute were dismissed last November by the country’s military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf. All of them were really fired for defying his rule, and the Supreme Court judges among them in particular for being about to deliver a ruling that would have declared Musharraf’s “election” as president the previous month illegal.

The constitution said that no serving military officer could run for president, but Musharraf was unwilling to take off his uniform until he had won the “election” in parliament and been confirmed in the presidency. If the Supreme Court was going to rule against that manoeuvre, then the disobedient judges would just have to be removed. But the strategy that Musharraf and the United States had created to keep him in power collapsed when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December.

The plan was that Musharraf, by now a deeply unpopular figure in Pakistan, would allow a controlled restoration of democracy in which another close American ally, Benazir Bhutto, would return from exile and become prime minister. For historical reasons her Pakistan People’s Party stood a good chance of winning a free election. Afterwards, she would work together with Musharraf, now a duly elected civilian president, who would step back from the limelight but still exercise ultimate control over the military.

The strategy might have succeeded if Benazir Bhutto had not been killed in December, but much of the PPP’s popularity was really reflex loyalty to the Bhutto family. Her successor as party leader, her husband Asif Zardari, was a deeply controversial figure who could not mobilise popular support in the same way.

The PPP emerged as the largest single party when the parliamentary elections, postponed because of Benazir’s death, were finally held in February, but it did not win enough seats to form a government on its own. It had to make a coalition with the second-largest party, Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, which had no secret understandings with the United States or Musharraf.

Sharif was the elected prime minister whom Musharraf overthrew in his 1999 coup, and he is unyielding in his opposition to the general staying in office as president. When the two parties formed a coalition government two months ago, they agreed that the judges who were unjustly dismissed by Musharraf would have to be reinstated, but it turns out that they didn’t mean quite the same thing by it.

Sharif understood it to mean that the judges would get their old jobs back — whereupon the Supreme Court would deliver the ruling on the legality of Musharraf’s “election” as president that they were fired to forestall last October. Goodbye Musharraf (unless the army stages another coup to save him, which seems unlikely at this stage).

Zardari, on the other hand, remains loyal to his late wife’s deal with Musharraf, and talks about restoring the deposed judges — but not necessarily to their old jobs, and only as part of a package that also restricts their powers. In other words, they would not be able to pull the plug on Musharraf. All the influence of the United States, of course, is behind Zardari and the PPP.

The first deadline to restore the judges was missed on 30 April. The second passed without any government action on 12 May, and the following day Nawaz Sharif pulled his party out of the governing coalition, which then lost its majority in parliament. He says he may continue to vote with the PPP on an issue-by-issue basis, but what seemed to be a remarkably smooth return to democracy has been seriously destabilised.

The Bush administration’s obsession with saving Musharraf is wrong not just because it is sabotaging Pakistani democracy, but because he does not really serve US interests in the region any more.

Washington values Musharraf because he has gone along with the US strategy of aggressively pursuing “militants” and “extremists” in the Pashtun-speaking regions along the Pakistani-Afghan border. It has repaid him with large amounts of foreign aid and unfailing political support. But it was precisely that strategy that made Musharraf the least popular public figure in Pakistan, and it manufactures far more enemies of the United States (and of the Pakistani and Afghan governments) than it eliminates.

It really is time for Washington to drop both him and the strategy.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“The first…more”)

Pakistan Election

12 February 2008

Pakistan Election

 By Gwynne Dyer

The opinion polls could be wrong by as much as ten or fifteen percent, and they’d still tell you a lot about the state of Pakistani public opinion. As the country heads into the election that was postponed for six weeks after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December, what the polls are saying, basically, is that the president, Pervez Musharraf, is about as popular as piles.

The elections on 18 February are for the National Assembly (parliament), so they do not directly threaten the former general’s grasp on power. Musharraf had himself re-elected to the presidency last October (after attempting to dismiss the chief justice of the supreme court, whom he suspected of planning to challenge the validity of the process). But the real game is about whether he stays in power or not, and that is very much in doubt.

The depth of his unpopularity is truly impressive. A poll conducted recently by the international Republican Institute, a right-wing American organisation for the promotion of democracy abroad, gave Musharraf’s approval rating as a scant 15 percent. That is a 50 percentage-point drop since November. Seventy-five percent of respondents said that Musharraf should resign — and 62 percent believed that his government had some role in Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.

This popular conviction that Musharraf had Bhutto killed is very useful to the party she led, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), as it guarantees a large sympathy vote. It also explains the PPP’s stubborn insistence, in the face of much evidence to the contrary, that Benazir Bhutto was shot and not killed by the subsequent explosion. It seems a niggling detail to outsiders, but it matters electorally since the Pakistani public tends to believe that it is extreme Islamists who blow people up, whereas the government would employ snipers or other shooters.

A rival poll conducted at the same time by another US-based organisation, Terror-Free Tomorrow, produced almost identical results. These are not numbers that the Bush administration would be eager to hear, since Musharraf is its protege. He has been Washington’s loyal ally in the “war on terror” since September, 2001, and his government has been rewarded with about $10 billion in American aid.

Given all this, the IRI’s report that 89 percent of Pakistanis oppose any cooperation with America’s “war on terror” would be especially unwelcome to Washington. Whatever their flaws, the figures have not been manipulated to serve the purposes of the US government. So what do these polls tell us about the outcome of the election?

They say that Musharraf’s tame party in the parliament, the Pakistan Muslim League — Qaid-e-azam (PML-Q), will be thoroughly humbled in the election., winning as little as 14 percent of the popular vote. Bhutto’s PPP, now led by her husband Asif Ali Zardari, will benefit greatly from her death, winning half the votes cast and emerging as the biggest party in the new parliament.

The party of Nawaz Sharif, the man whom Musharraf ousted as prime minister when he carried out his military coup in 1999, is predicted to get 22 percent of the vote. So between them the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) are likely to get almost three-quarters of the votes. That is probably enough to drive Musharraf from the presidency if the leaders of the two opposition parties can stick together.

This is not at all what Washington intended when it put its money on Benazir Bhutto. Her return from exile began as part of a US scheme to shore up Musharraf’s tottering rule by engineering an alliance between the two.

The idea was that Bhutto, in return for an amnesty on the various corruption charges facing her, would come home, win the parliamentary election, and become prime minister. In return, Washington’s favourite Pakistani general would finally take off his uniform (three years after mandatory retirement age) and emerge as a civilian president enjoying Bhutto’s support.

No detail was overlooked. Even the date of the amnesty was chosen so that Bhutto would benefit from it while her main civilian rival, Nawaz Sharif, would not. But Benazir Bhutto’s assassination changed all that.

Whatever the Pakistani public chooses to believe, it is most unlikely that Musharraf organised Bhutto’s assassination. The political compact between the two was far from settled, but it was still Musharraf’s best hope of clinging to power. That hope is now fading fast.

On Tuesday Sharif and Zardari met in Lahore and pledged to form a coalition government after the election. It is an unlikely coalition, for the two parties have traditionally loathed each other, but if it last long enough it would have the political strength to impeach Musharraf, whose “re-election” last year was deeply suspect from a legal point of view.

That would be deeply distressing for the Bush administration, which would lose its most important and obedient ally in the “war on terror.” But it would be a very good thing for Pakistan, whose 165 million people deserve something better than an unending parade of generals ruling over them. And it would probably also be a good thing for the real struggle against terrorism in the long run, since the “war on terror” has been the main recruiting agent for Islamist extremism ever since 2001.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 11. (“This…shooters”; and “No…that”)