Populism Erodes Thailand's Old Order


Senior Member
Mar 28, 2009
Populism Erodes Thailand's Old Order

by Colum Murphy
Posted June 5, 2009

Songkran, or Thai New Year, is usually a period of joy as revelers take to the scorching April streets to throw water and flour on one another. This year’s celebrations, however, were marred by violence when the antigovernment Red Shirts—mainly supporters of fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra—clashed with the police and army, resulting in two deaths and the face-losing evacuation of visiting foreign leaders attending a regional summit in Pattaya.

ThailandThe causes of the Songkran riots remain in dispute, but as the culmination of several years of escalating political struggle they are catalyzing fundamental changes to the country’s politics. The Red Shirt movement may have been weakened by the riots, but it is regrouping and restrategizing. Meanwhile, the Yellow Shirts, who led the charge to remove Mr. Thaksin from power, have decided to form their own political party.

The two sides are de-emphasizing former rallying points. The Reds are trying to play down the role of Mr. Thaksin, whose support of the protesters from exile resulted in a huge loss of credibility. (Mr. Thaksin denies he is to blame for the riots.) The Yellows are stressing less the pro-monarchy aspects of the group. Instead, both are taking up the banner of egalitarianism—political, economic and social.

The Songkran riots and their aftermath are yet another wake-up call for Thailand’s power brokers. If this populism takes root—and underlying changes in Thai society suggest the time is ripe for it to do so—the biggest losers will be the country’s elite, namely the monarchy under King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the Privy Council, the military and the bureaucracy, notably the Ministry of the Interior, all of whose hold on power is threatened. Another potential casualty is Thailand’s already battered economy as more voices appeal to the masses with calls for income redistribution and protectionism.

Changing Colors

The Red Shirts, the more common name for the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, are in a state of flux. After Songkran, many of the movement’s leaders either went into hiding or surrendered to the authorities, allowing a new crop of organizers to come to the fore.

Somyos Prueksakasemsuk is one such “second generation” leader. Sitting in a McDonald’s next to Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, he tells me that the movement is no longer exclusively about Mr. Thaksin, who was convicted in absentia of corruption and sentenced to two years in prison. (When I interviewed Mr. Thaksin in Dubai in March, he denied the charges saying they were “clearly politically motivated.”) True, most Red Shirts still support the former prime minister, Mr. Somyos says, but Mr. Thaksin is now seen more as a symbol for a broader cause—political and economic justice. The Red Shirts are “gaining momentum” elsewhere with the increased participation of people from the middle class and business community, says Mr. Somyos. He hopes to accelerate that trend by leveraging the power of the media; the Red Shirts have begun to set up their own television stations and newspapers to mobilize and inform people. (The Yellow Shirts’ own TV station and popular news Web site already are huge assets for appealing to the public.)

It’s an approach that could work, says Chaturon Chaisang, a former caretaker leader of Mr. Thaksin’s now-defunct political party, Thai Rak Thai. In the past decade Thais have tasted “edible democracy,” he says. They have seen how voting allows them to exert some influence on public policies that affect their lives. Attempts at “de-democratization,” or rolling back advances toward democracy, will fail. The Red Shirts will not stop and most likely will get more support, he says. “If they can learn from experience and if they can learn what Thai people really want ... they can gradually recover,” he says.

The People’s Alliance for Democracy—PAD or the Yellow Shirts—is also undergoing changes. The developments are spurred less by the Songkran riots than by an effort to stay relevant after the successful events of late 2008 when Yellow Shirts laid siege to Government House and Bangkok’s two airports. These sieges damaged the country’s economy but contributed to the toppling of the government of then Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, a Thaksin proxy. In 2006, the group’s protests also played a key role in the downfall of Mr. Thaksin.

The Yellow Shirts are beginning to evolve away from a pro-monarchy and anti-Thaksin stance toward the realm of social justice. That is not to say they are becoming antimonarchy. In fact, their vision of a simple life for Thais resonates strongly with the king’s economic philosophy dubbed the “sufficiency economy.” According to this Buddhism-inspired approach, Thais should be self-reliant, consume in moderation and look more to the domestic market for growth opportunities rather than rely on foreigners for exports and investment.

Somsak Kosaisook, a labor organizer and one of the leaders of the PAD, says that while the Yellow Shirts comprise different groups, there is consensus on one thing—the need to address the economic and political issues of the poor. “We would like income redistribution,” he says. “The parliament of Thailand has no farmers, no poor people, no good businessmen.”

In late May, the alliance announced that it was going to form a political party. On June 2, it unveiled its name, the New Politics Party, and appointed Mr. Somsak as leader. What this new political party means for the Yellow Shirt movement and to what degree it can become a force at the polls is unclear. Some analysts consider the formation of the party a mistake, saying that much of the PAD’s power derived from its civil-society, “outside the system” appeal.

Mr. Somsak says the formation of a political party is not the issue. “What is important is giving information to the people,” he says. They must be educated about their rights and taught not to pursue excesses by taking out debt, as was commonly the case during the Thaksin era, he says. Mr. Somsak tells me about a trip to rural Khon Kaen province where he says Red Shirt supporters were receptive to his economic philosophy. “I told them: ‘If you want to improve your life, you need to embrace the cooperative [economy],’” he says. Mr. Somsak says his philosophies have also gained currency among business people, including last year when the PAD staged demonstrations calling for the delisting of the former state-run oil and gas company PTT, which was privatized in 2001.

Like the Red Shirts, the Yellow Shirts need to reflect on their recent activities, says Mr. Somsak. He even hints that the two rival groups might unite one day. “Both Yellow and Red have right and wrong,” he says. “Both of them have idealism—they want a better life for the people.” It is a sentiment echoed by Mr. Somyos of the Red Shirts. “In the near future, when both groups understand the same meaning of democracy, they will be together,” he says.

The quest for a better life is a core element of this conflict. “On the surface the conflict is between Thaksin, the Red Shirts [on one side] versus the PAD,” says Borwornsak Uwanno, secretary-general of King Prajadhipok’s Institute, a think tank monitored by Thailand’s National Assembly. “But deep down it’s a structural conflict between those who have and those who have not.”

“This conflict is inherent in the Thai economic structure and has been covered until Thaksin became prime minister,” says Mr. Borwornsak, who served in Mr. Thaksin’s cabinet. “But Thaksin changed the situation with his populist policies.” This enabled the poor to access resources, for example cheap health care, for the first time in Thai history. “A vote is no longer a vote. It is a demand to access resources,” he says. Unless viewed in this light, Thailand’s problems cannot be truly addressed. Reconciliation of the political dispute between the Red Shirts and the Yellow Shirts, he says, will not be enough. “It’s about inequalities of economics and justice,” he says.

In the period 1992 to 2007, the percentage share of household income held by Thailand’s poorest 20% remained roughly the same at around 6%. The share of the country’s richest 20% remained roughly stable at around 50%. In more than 15 years of development, the plight of the poor did not improve much. From a geographical perspective, gaps are also clear. In terms of monthly income, households in Bangkok and its environs had an average income of around 35,000 baht (about $1,000) in 2007. In the poorest region, the northeast, that figure was 13,000 baht, or roughly one-third. One explanation for this gap is that the agriculture-dependent rural areas benefited less from industrialization and globalization than urban centers, especially Bangkok.

The current global financial and economic crisis is hitting Thailand hard. The country’s political crisis makes a bad situation worse as many foreigners now think twice before investing or visiting in Thailand. The kingdom officially slipped into recession in the first quarter of 2009. Exports in the same period were down by more than 20% when compared to the same period in 2008. GDP growth was down 7.1% in the first quarter of this year over a year earlier, a far worse performance than the 4.3% growth in fourth quarter of 2008. Unemployment was 1.9% in March, or just above 700,000 people. While this may seem insignificant from industrialized nations’ standards, for a developing country such as Thailand this is a huge burden. Such grave economic concerns—both long standing and current—could fuel further political tensions. They could also enhance the appeal of groups such as the Red and Yellow shirts and their calls for a more inclusive society.

Thawilwadee Bureekul, director of research and development at KPI, offers a cultural explanation of the societal divides based on the concept of sakdhina. In a recent paper, she and co-author Robert Albritton of the University of Mississippi argue that this centuries-old cultural concept still continues to influence the evolution of democracy in modern-day Thailand. The basic premise is inequality. “In the Thai culture of patronage, everyone knows his or her place and respects seniority,” she says. Even a simple greeting such as the wai is imbued with significance as to status—depending on who wais first, most Thais will be able to gauge, if only on a subconscious level, who is the “inferior” and who is the “superior.”

Such talk normally would stay firmly in the realms of cultural anthropology were it not for the fact that the mindset also holds sway over the political realm. It effectively has kept the poor in their place, at least until now. “When the cultural basis of a nation is inherent inequality, can democracy be possible?” the authors ask.

Few Thais, rich or poor, would point to sakdhina as the main cause of their woes. Instead, the phrase frequently heard is “double standards.” Many Red Shirt supporters say that depending on who you are, the law is applied differently. For evidence, they point to the speed with which the perpetrators of the Songkran violence were pursued and contrast it with the prosecutions of those involved with the Yellow Shirt protests of 2008—many of whom have yet to be charged.

As one Bangkok-based Western diplomat notes, underclass demands are often more cultural than political. “They want to be treated with more respect and less arrogance.”

Power Games

Not everyone agrees with framing the current political situation in socioeconomic explanations. The neat constructs that academics devise and the media consume can be too removed from reality to offer practical insights. Rather, it’s about power—who has it, how to get more and how to keep it. A further layer of this argument says that no matter who comes to power, and no matter what “democratic” credentials they might claim, all talk of greater political and economic integration of the masses will quickly vanish and these “democrats” will fall into the usual pattern of Thai politicians pursuing their own self-interest.

So who then are the power brokers in Thailand? Real power does not lie with elected politicians but with the “elite.” This term is widely used but rarely defined. University of Leeds professor Duncan McCargo uses the term “network monarchy” to describe the elite. Specifically, the group includes royalists, a large group descended from all the children of Kings Mongkut and Chulalongkorn (Rama IV and Rama V), as well as the military, wealthy landowners, and the bureaucracy, especially the Ministry of the Interior. Another approach is to consider the elite as conservative forces, or the “old guard.” Again, this refers to the army, the bureaucracy and, of course, the monarchy. Under Thailand’s strict lèse majesté laws, critics can be jailed for “insulting” the king.

It is this elite, not politicians, who controls power in the kingdom. While some may want to hang on to power for power’s sake, others sincerely believe that they know what is best for the country and are better prepared to protect the country’s culture and way of life from the uneducated, who are out to make a quick baht.

Where is the crux of this power? A recent article in the Economist magazine cites a single individual—King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The article expresses the opinion that the king has intervened in politics in ways that have damaged the country’s interests—a view that is disputed by many Thais, who believe that the king is above politics. Not surprising, that issue of the Economist was banned in Thailand.

While limited royal interventions are permitted under the Thai Constitution, the king has rarely openly stepped in. In 1992, during a televised meeting, the king called for a truce between General Suchinda Kraprayoon and Major General Chamlong Srimuang.

While the Economist’s take is probably too simplistic, it would be naïve and plain wrong to say that the fate of Thailand is decided in Parliament alone. The bloodless coup d’état of 2006 is a more recent example of how the elites have defended their position. In that case, they were under “attack” from Mr. Thaksin, who was idolized by the masses, especially in the north and northeast provinces, and who had amassed a huge personal fortune. On the morning of Sept. 19, 2006—the same day as the coup—the king’s closest adviser and president of the Privy Council of Thailand, Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda, told me: “In this country we consider that we belong to the king. The armed forces [belong to the king]. That’s what we take oath [on] and have to profess that we have to belong to the king,” he said, echoing statements made previously and reported by the Thai media. “In horse racing they have the stable and the owner of the stable owns the horse. The jockey comes and rides the horse during the race, but the jockey does not own the horse. It’s very easy [to comprehend].”

Former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun says the army has been on the fringe or sidelines of power ever since the 1932 revolution. “It’s not only unfair but also facetious to look at democracy in developing countries and measure them by the modern Western standards. Every fledgling democracy has to go through all these struggles,” he says.

The elite seems so far to have successfully used the Yellow Shirt movement to counter Mr. Thaksin’s populism. Yet while the Yellow Shirt movement is loyal to the king, it has openly criticized the army, for example, for taking part in the coup. How long the cozy relationship between the Yellow Shirts and the elite will continue remains to be seen. The increasing calls for social justice from the Yellows mark the rise of another form of populism that, while more palatable than the Thaksin brand, nonetheless represents a threat to the elite’s position in Thai society.

Inaction by the elite, meanwhile, has alienated even further the Red Shirt supporters in the rural north and northeastern provinces. The Thaksin supporters have always been very careful to pledge their loyalty to the king. Now they also openly express their disappointment that the king has not intervened. “We have asked for the king’s intervention for a long time … But the king never comes out,” says Kwanchai Praiphana, a popular host at a Red Shirt radio station in Udon Thani, in the Red Shirt heartland.

Seeking a Solution

But is an intervention by the king the solution to Thailand’s woes? The answer to that depends on whom you ask. For the Red Shirts, such an intervention is essential. For others, such as Mr. Anand, the fact that Thailand did not have to resort to a “divine power” to appoint a prime minister to get the country out of political deadlock is testament to the resilience of Thai politics and adherence to the constitutional process.

Other factors may be preventing an intervention by the king this time—beyond the usually cited reason that the king is above politics. Mr. Borwornsak of KPI explains that in the past, interventions by the king, such as the one in 1992, involved His Majesty stepping in to prevent bloodshed in conflicts between the people and the then government. These were successful given the parties involved. “The government listened to the king,” he says. But this time around, the conflict is among the people. “If groups of people are fighting, I don’t know if royal intervention would be effective,” he says. “So it is risky for the monarchy to intervene in this situation.”

In many respects, however, talk of an intervention is moot since such a move is unlikely to bring lasting resolution to the conflict. If the underlying causes of the conflict are as deeply rooted as many academics and observers claim, then it will take more than a quick fix to put Thai politics back in order. What’s needed instead is reform of the institutions—elected and unelected—entrusted with the distribution of state resources. A growing number of Thais, Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts, share a preferred vision of their country. Increasingly, they seek to build a nation where the rigid divisions of status—political, economic and social—are broken down and power is devolved closer to the grass roots.

It’s hard to put a firm number on how many people favor such a leveling program, but the proselytizing tendencies of the Red and Yellow camps suggest the number will grow. As poor Thais learn more about their rights, demand greater transparency and exhibit less tolerance for privilege-based behavior and extraconstitutional interference in government by the army and other quarters in the elite, the pressure to reconcile the needs of different sections of Thai society will increase.

That tipping point may yet be some years off. Yet the elite would do well to acknowledge its imminent arrival and prepare itself. If it faces up to this reality, there is still time to shape the outcome and secure a role—albeit a diminished one—for itself.

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