Thai politics

Any attempt to view Philippine politics through the prism of Thai politics, or vice-versa, can only produce a distorted picture of the situation in both countries. There are important parallelisms. But there are also great differences – especially in historical background and cultural context.

It is tempting, no doubt, to see the disgraced former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra as the Thai equivalent of deposed former president Joseph Estrada.  Both gained the highest office of their respective countries by unprecedented landslide electoral victories. Both adopted a populist approach to politics, relying on the support of a mass constituency of poor people to challenge the supremacy of traditional power wielders.  Both were tried and convicted for corruption, accused of boorish behavior, and of not showing enough respect for figures of moral authority.  And both were ousted by middle class civil society militancy and military intervention.  And finally, their expulsion from power was repeatedly legitimized by an exercise of “judicial activism.”

But that’s where the similarity ends. Thaksin came from a wealthy and influential family in Northern Thailand that made its fortune in entrepreneurial activity.  His father had been a member of parliament. Thaksin studied in the Thai police academy, and rose to become lieutenant-colonel in charge of policy and planning.  He married the daughter of a police general.  He earned a doctorate degree in criminal administration from the Sam Houston State University in Texas.  Thaksin possesses educational and professional credentials, but he is not charismatic like Erap.  What he lacked in celebrity appeal, however, he made up for by a series of interventions aimed at freeing the rural peasantry and the urban poor from misery.

He lifted the condition of Thailand’s rural poor through a sustained program of micro credit and comprehensive assistance to rural enterprises.  He launched a health care program beamed at the underprivileged that guaranteed total medical care, including surgery, for a flat rate of only 30 baht.  He legalized an existing underground lottery, running it as a professional government operation, and allotted all its earnings to social services.  These programs became known as “Thaksinomics,” a unique Thai version of Keynesian economics.  Clearly, his pro-poor stance was more than rhetoric.

Despite these successes, Thaksin remained an outsider to the Thai political establishment.  He was perceived as being too ambitious, cocky, high-handed, and abusive in the use of political power to enhance his family’s business interests.  His critics say that in his hands, governance became just another form of commercial transaction.  Using the immense wealth he gained from his early investments in the telecommunications industry, Thaksin was accused of, first, buying his way to power, and then using political power to accumulate more wealth, and to perpetuate himself in government.  He cobbled together a formidable coalition of small parties to insulate himself against recall — again, using the same power of cash he has deployed to buy voters and local officials.  Erap may be accused of many things, but this “cash and gung-ho” approach to politics is not associated with him but with Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Neither his exit from Thai politics nor the banning of his Thai Rak Thai party put an end to the long shadow that Thaksin has cast on Thai society.  Two Thaksin allies succeeded him as prime minister, riding on his considerable influence – Samak Sundaravej and Somchai Wongsawat.  They too have now both been removed by the same lethal combination of civil society, military, and judicial power. Everyone knows this is not where it ends, however.  The Thaksin forces remain in control of parliament.  Even if new elections are called, and more Thaksin allies are banned from participating, new Thaksin proxies are likely going to emerge.

For, what Thaksin represents is the face of new capitalists in Thai society, newly-rich men who dominate important sectors of a globalized Thai economy, and who now seek to translate this economic wealth into political muscle.

Though it may seem like one, this is not a class war. It is rather the clash between old and new forms of capital, between the land-based and administrative elites that have close links to the royal family, on one hand, and the new cash-rich commercial bourgeoisie that have grown in the periphery of the Thai feudal order, on the other.  The poor and the working classes, as well as property-owners, are to be found on both sides of this factional divide.  The highly-revered and much-loved King Bhumibol is the fulcrum of this rapidly shifting social order.  How long he can keep the social balance, while allowing the winds of change to modernize his nation, is a question no one can answer.

Together with the military, the King has been a stabilizing force in Thai society.  Yet even the Thai intelligentsia and middle classes within the anti-Thaksin People’s Alliance for Democracy are wary of any active intervention in politics by the monarchy or the military. They think of themselves as fighting for a substantive democracy, and not merely an electoral one. Their refusal to recognize the results of past elections won by Thaksin and their demand to limit the parliamentary voice of the rural peasantry may seem undemocratic. But it is consistent with their vision of a mature democracy based on the informed and free exercise by citizens of their will.

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