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