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.


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