Which Way Thailand Now
It strikes me politics in Thailand never addresses the key issues of the day but creates dominant personality cults which focus solely on the politicians themselves. Which war lord is going to grab power next and what vested interests do they serve? Politics is not so much a contention between opposing principles and ideas but a crude struggle for power between rival patronage groupings.
Living in a village in Isaan I see this happening even at the local level. Elections here are always welcomed as you’ll hope to collect a few hundred baht for the promise of your vote. A candidate for a minor position in local government, orbortor or whatever, invests a considerable sum to buy his way into power but winning the post will reap a useful dividend. Nothing can ever be had without being bought.
Even a farang living in Thailand openly gets asked for bribes by officials and many times I’ve been stopped by police asking for cash before going on my way. Right up the ladder to the top, office holders use their position for their own benefit. Nobody did this better than Thaksin Shinawatra who used the government coffers to buy the favour of the ordinary voters and became unusually rich during his terms of office. As he was the first leader to make it his policy to benefit the poor farmers, his followers now do not begrudge him his questionable billions.
Every political movement or party, even a street protest, whether Yellow or Red shirted, thus needs a powerful backer dispensing patronage. Even if you are an ordinary worker sincere in your protest you cannot survive at the barricades without being paid 200 baht a day. A genuine mass movement of the rural poor can thus be hijacked and distorted by those who use it in pursuit of power.
So what of the recent disturbances in Bangkok? Were they a genuine struggle for democracy by the disenfranchised poor or something else entirely? Was it instead a power struggle in which the traditional political, bureaucratic and military elites were resisting an alliance of the newly rich and the rural poor?
Perhaps it was both, a broad populist movement which came to be bankrolled and controlled by another patronage grouping seeking power. If the Red Shirt movement was a grass roots movement of ordinary people seeking to better their lives, they soon lost control of it and it became something else entirely. Sadly, the underlying imbalances within Thai society and the sharing of political power and wealth remain unresolved.
Whatever view you take of this ongoing conflict, as you strip away another layer from the tear stained onion of Thai politics, there’s always another skin to be found beneath.
A recent article in Newsweek boldly stated that of South East Asia’s modern economies, ‘only Thailand is disintegrating’ and is ‘becoming ungovernable and a failed state’.
That’s not how it feels living in Thailand though.
At the time of the troubles, if you were not in the immediate vicinity of the disturbances, life went on as normal. For all its problems, this does not feel anything like a failed state to me but is a well-managed and broadly stable society.
In the last fifty years the country has in fact made enormous strides, creating an impressive infrastructure of roads, power supply, schools and hospitals even in the remotest areas, everything managed by a clunkingly complex bureaucracy.
Through the Thaksin years and beyond, outward signs of increasing prosperity have been increasingly evident in the countryside, even if this has been largely based on inward remittances. The comprehensive powers of the police and bureaucracies and the influence of the Chinese dominated commercial sector means that the country is effectively run. Nonetheless, a deferential society such as this may allow pressures and resentment to build up if power is imposed from above and wealth is not equitably shared.
Newsweek ascribes Thailand’s relative decline to a poor education system based on rote learning and to concentrating on lower value manufacturing for foreign companies. At an early stage of its development, this approach has served Thailand well, though as Singapore realized in the eighties, lower wage economies can soon become uncompetitive and it is then necessary to gear up and go ‘hi-tech’.
Basic education that avoids critical thinking and maintaining low wages is an essential of the old approach and a cause of dissention today. Thailand’s mass labour that fuels the factories is made up of economic migrants from the countryside who passively work for poor wages, but as they become more urbanized and aware, it is they who are now protesting.
Newsweek sees a dangerous polarization between the Yellow and Red factions, though that observation states the growing problem rather than identifying solutions. In conclusion, statesmanlike leadership has been lacking, it says, and is needed to pull Thailand out of it present troubles.
Of recent prime ministers, the spatula wielding Samak, who was removed from office by the courts for hosting a TV cooking programme, was the antithesis of statesmanship. However, Thaksin himself had many leadership qualities and even occasionally talked about the rule of law. The current prime minister, Abhisit Vejajiva is a man of considerable political skill who would impress any audience for his grasp of democratic principle and who looks good on the international stage.
Yet he is in a bind that no one man could disentangle, nor would his backers want a different allocation of power and wealth. A general election is, however, due some time in 2012, so Abhisit’s task is to grimly hang onto power for as long as he can, aware that the will of the people is likely to upset the applecart and hand power back to the other side.
A further layer to the onion of Thai politics is its history. Thailand is still a young country and the democratic revolution begun in 1932 when the absolute monarchy was abolished is not yet complete. Furthermore, its far provinces are only recently integrated and then imperfectly. The northern kingdom of Lanna with its centre in Chiang Mai was substantially cut off by the mountains until recently, and the jungly scarps of the Korat plateau made Isaan, the great north east, very difficult to access from Bangkok. Only by herculean feats of civil engineering were railways pushed through at the beginning of the twentieth century to make the nation a manageable political entity. (See “How the Trains Made Thailand”, my blog article of 31September 2010.)
On many occasions during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the peoples of Isaan have resisted rule from distant Bangkok and these rebellions have been firmly put down. A major communist movement in the north east during the Cold War era was perhaps the last of these insurrections, but the tensions have not yet gone away.
Sanitsuda Ekachai, a columnist for the Bangkok Post uses the term ‘racist nationalism’ to describe the expectation of the central Thai power elite that the minorities should conform to their brand of ‘Thainess’ and be culturally assimilated. The failure of the clod-hopping Laos of Isaan to conform to that stereotype condemns them to exclusion and ridicule and to be the eternal funny men of every comedy and farce on Thai television.
Newly developing societies often progress at two speeds but the divisions in Thai society are glaring with few opportunities for the poor and minimal social mobility. The privileged seem satisfied with the status-quo. I recently read an articulate but angry rant by a highly educated Thai against the Red Shirts. She argued that the protests were risking the economy and her long running gravy train. Why couldn’t they just go back to their buffaloes was the underlying theme. After all, if Thai farmers are poor that can only be because they’re stupid.
It strikes me that educated urban Thais often seem to know or understand little of the conditions in which rural people live; or they don’t want to know. There is also a tendency to say that some of the protesters behaved badly and so the grievances of the poor should be dismissed. However, the Red Shirts do not formally represent the interests they claim to speak for and violence on the fringes of the protest in no way devalues the complaints of the poor.
Now the Thai farmers are losing patience. Thaksin gave them a taste of what was possible for them and understandably they want more. The trouble is that conducting a peoples’ protest pure and simple is well nigh impossible in Thailand and even if they can eventually exert their power at the ballot box they will almost certainly choose the wrong leaders.
It is highly ironic who they seem to have chosen as their champion so far!
In conclusion, there are many new nations where a comprehensive corruption of power allows office holders at all levels to use their position primarily to benefit themselves, where the police can be bought and the rule of law does not operate. It is always hard to see away out.
So which way Thailand now?
There are no glib answers but the Thais do have a knack for soldiering on in adversity and slow progress towards a modern state is always possible. However, the present tensions will grumble on until the centre of gravity in Thai politics shifts quite radically against the traditional holders of power and the economy is rebalanced to allow a fairer sharing of wealth and opportunity with mass labour.
My own key idea is that a major policy of regional development should be designed to devolve factories to provincial centres, thus bringing the modern economy to the rural areas. To bring jobs to the people could thus help save the essence Thai rural society which currently is disintegrating as workers migrate to the bloated urban centres.
It won’t be easy though and it will take time.
I think the bomb that went off outside Big C on Rajadamri Road yesterday indicates that deep problems remain.