December 11, 2013
Thai Politics and The Kingdom’s Future
by W Scott Thompson*@http://www.nst.com.my
THERE are three simple absolutes around the future of Thailand, a future that should be untarnished, with its fertile climate, smiling folk, and seemingly unlimited luck.
The first point is that majorities in elections do “win”. They man the government, they give out the jobs. The second point is that “wins” are not absolute. If minorities don’t feel safe, what does one expect but for them to expose every weakness of the majority, to upset the apple cart by any means available. The third is that Thailand has irrevocably changed. The formerly poorest region has benefited from regional wealth; it wants, and is getting, commensurate power to its economic status.
On Point No. 1, it has always been the case that majorities rule, unless, of course, the military (as in Algeria in 1992 or Burma in 1991) simply decides to lock the winners up. This isn’t hypothetical, and I bring it up as a serious point. And, one should remember that in thinking about why the second point is so crucial.
For what are “majorities”? In America, because of the Electoral College, a candidate can (and has) won with a minority of the popular vote (as if there’s any other vote at that stage). In the Philippines, a good book waits to be written on how to cheat in elections. Now, just a flash disk need disappear. It used to require the divergence of a plane carrying votes and/or late arrival of a plane carrying bags of vote from the “wrong” province.
In Thailand, until the economic crisis, elections were a pretty well-staged affair. Vote-buying was on a scale to minimise the import of the actual vote.”Give them the left shoe after the village votes are cast,” I was told, as headmen passed out the right one — literally, I saw it. But, the main point is that the demographically hugely important northeast, Isan, was discounted. Its language is Thai-related, but identical to Lao. And, to the central Thai, that meant lazy.
“Isan people eat sticky rice, that’s why they are lazy and poor,” Professors told me at Chulalongkorn University, the royal academic house, in the 1970s, when I was based there. I’ve heard meretricious arguments, but this one takes the cake.
To me, the amazing thing is that it took till 2001 for someone to harness the resentment and potential of Isan. There had been feeble attempts. But psephologists — students of voting — weren’t looking at the demography.
General Thaksin (Shinawatra) just had to buy off the region to get an absolute majority, and votes are cheap in a poor region. And, that’s what he did — winning every election since then, too. His sister will win the forthcoming one, too.
Now, it is fair, but incomplete, to say that the traditional ruling elite of Bangkok was alarmed, for self-serving reasons. They were used to the perks of rule, association with the palace and the military. They saw Thaksin as a self-serving demagogue, who not only wanted to get them but also to put himself in power for life.
And, you know what? They were dead on. That’s exactly what he intended. Napoleon (Bonaparte), Ferdinand Marcos, every dictator of history, has got rid of the existing aristocracy — or whittled away its privilege and power — and replaced it with his own. That’s how they usually get started , of course, proclaiming democracy. And, Thaksin did everything he could to prove them right. Look him in the eye: this is not a man interested in democracy, but in absolute power for himself.
But, so what? He was in power, he knew how to use the instruments of power — you don’t like what the old elite is saying? Close down their media. Scare everyone with druggie roundups and kill off a few thousand, no matter that you got the little guys, not the key ones. The important point was to show everyone you are willing to kill. He made his point and after that everyone was scared of him.
The problem with the existing ruling class position is that it brought so little benefit to Isan and other poor areas. It has played catch-up fast, but it is too little too late. Now, you can’t stop the region. It gets subsidies for its rice that Bangkok resents paying and a host of other compensatory policies to speed up its growth, already faster than the kingdom as a whole.
What is happening is a general realignment of forces that transcends Thaksin, but that he sped up. The whole countryside wants more power, more of the privileges that now emanate from Palace, the First Army, and the powerful bureaucracy.
But, the elite are quick to remind us that it was their policies in the 1970s-1990s that brought the historic wave of economic growth for the nation as a whole — the fastest ever at that point, for any nation. They just didn’t pass the goodies around enough — and are now paying the price.
Can the historic “land of smiles” go on tearing itself apart, as it has been doing these Thaksin-dominated years? He won’t give up, but neither will the elite. It’s a win-lose proposition for both. But, we political scientists have a bad habit of extrapolating the present situation. But, “things change”.
After all, that’s why Thailand is in this situation, because no one thought that anyone could be so nasty as to disturb the miraculous status quo, that was bringing great growth and even more import to the Kingdom.