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Thai Rak Thai

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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.

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

“For…apart”)

Class Struggle in Thailand

20 January 2008

Class Struggle in Thailand

By Gwynne Dyer

The Thai army hasn’t the faintest idea what to do next.

Sixteen months ago, after weeks of anti-government demonstrations by opposition party supporters in Bangkok, the military overthrew the elected government of billionaire Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, accusing him and his wife of corruption. They put in a former general as interim prime minister, promised a swift return to democracy, and set about rewriting the constitution to give themselves a bigger permanent role in politics. They also raised the military budget sharply, presumably as a reward to themselves for saving the country from Thaksin.

For a while, things went well. The coup was popular at first, at least in Bangkok. Last May the military regime got the courts to order the dissolution of Thaksin’s party, Thai Rak Thai, and to ban 110 of its senior officials from taking part in politics for five years. But the economy stumbled, and Thai Rak Thai simply re-formed as the People Power Party (PPP). When the promised election to return the country to civilian rule was held last month, the PPP won.

It didn’t get quite enough seats to rule alone, but it has now formed a coalition with five other parties that gives it a comfortable majority of about 315 members in the 480-seat parliament. Thaksin’s party is back in power, and he says that he will be back in Thailand by April. (He has been living in self-imposed exile, claiming that he could not get a fair trial on the corruption charges while the military were still in power.)

In the meantime, the PPP is being led by Samak Sundaravej, who openly says that he is Thaksin’s proxy. Thaksin has said that he does not want to return to power, but the new government will be taking his advice on a daily basis, and he could always change his mind. All of which poses a problem for the soldiers who overthrew him in September, 2006, but what is going on in Thailand is not really a military-civilian power struggle. It is a struggle between the city and the country.

It was only Thaksin’s great wealth that enabled him to rise so fast in politics, for he was not a member of the traditional political class. The country’s politics has long been dominated by a Bangkok-based elite that had close ties to the bureaucracy, the military and the monarchy. Local political bosses in the provinces delivered the peasants’ votes in return for cash and favours, but Thailand was governed by and for the urban middle class.

Thaksin, the great-grandson of a Chinese immigrant, came from the north of the country, and made his money in mobile phones. He was the ultimate outsider, and when he won the 2001 election (the cleanest in Thailand’s history), he really upset the insiders.

He started spending the government’s money on the villages where the majority of Thais still live: everything from a debt moratorium for farmers to micro-credit, better schools, and above all universal health-care. During his five years in office the proportion of Thais living in poverty dropped by half, and health insurance even became available to the country’s two million foreign workers. But of course this meant diverting some money from the traditional concerns of the urban middle class.

The Thai economy grew strongly through all this, allowing Thaksin to pay off the country’s debt to the International Monetary Fund two years early. He was always a populist and sometimes an outright demagogue. He had a nasty authoritarian streak that came out in actions like his “war on drugs” that saw 2,700 people killed in seven weeks (the police deny that they were operating death squads, but then they would, wouldn’t they?) and his clumsy and brutal attempts to quell the insurgency in Thailand’s three mostly Muslim southern provinces. But he won the 2005 election with an even bigger landslide than 2001.

Was he corrupt? Not by the very low standards of traditional Thai political practice, if only because he was too rich to need to steal. Thailand’s traditionally dismal rating on the corruption indexes maintained by various international organisations actually improved on his watch. But then in September, 2006, to the great joy of the Bangkok middle class, he was overthrown by the army.

Now that military intervention has been decisively rejected by the electorate, and the successor to the party that Thaksin created is coming back to power. The poor have spoken, and it will be difficult for the military to ignore what they have said. Real politics has reached Thailand at last.

What will happen next is a series of mini-crises, as the army and the middle class struggle to come to terms with the fact that they have lost control of the country. It may even blow up into a major crisis and a new military intervention. But it is much more likely to end up with a permanent change in the nature of Thai politics. The country is leaving the “South-East Asian model” — military interventions, downtrodden peasantry, elite dominance — and moving towards the welfare-state style of democracy that prevails in most of the developed world. And a good thing, too.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“It was…class”; and “The Thai…2001”)