Thailand’s Edsa 3

Having just survived a risk-filled election week, during which we suspended disbelief and reposed our collective trust in an untested automated system, we Filipinos can be forgiven for paying scant attention to the political violence that is rocking neighboring Thailand.

But we cannot ignore the Thai crisis.  It is telling us something important – not so much about Thai society itself, as about new social forces that are emerging, and a different style of politics that is taking shape, in many parts of the developing world, including the Philippines.

The Thais appear to be where Filipinos were in April-May 2001. Thousands of angry supporters of deposed leader Thaksin Shinawatra have occupied Bangkok’s central business district to denounce the politicians that had taken power with the collusion of the military, the business elite, and the urban middle class.  They come mostly from the ranks of rural and urban poor.  They have vowed to stay where they are until the government is dissolved and new elections are called.  After seven weeks of periodic clashes in which many have died, the Thai military has finally moved in to break their barricades and drive them back to the north and northeastern provinces where they came from.  Politically vulnerable and largely unorganized, this informal mass will surely be crushed.  But it will come to life over and over, both as an electoral constituency and as a political force for a new populist leader.

The turmoil in Bangkok is the same picture we saw in Manila the day Joseph “Erap” Estrada was arrested on plunder charges in April 2001, a few months after then Vice President Gloria Macapagal

Arroyo rose to the presidency by virtue of a civilian-military uprising. Metro Manila’s educated middle class, that had assumed the role of a politically mobilized civil society since the 1980s, was caught unaware by this cathartic explosion of class resentment from below.

The events in Bangkok bear an uncanny resemblance to our own recent crises.  Comparisons are unavoidable, though they can be misleading.  It is not hard to think of Thaksin as the Thai version of Erap, or of Abhisit Vejjajiva as the suave equivalent of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.  The cast of main characters and the sequence of events suggest a pattern that makes one wonder if these are the products of conscious imitation, or whether they follow a law-like course that can be explained by social science.

My hunch is that such events reflect complex shifts in developing societies like ours, but are ultimately contingent phenomena – meaning, they can easily take a different turn.  By asking where the similarities and differences are, we may understand better what larger social processes are at work in these societies.  Where do such movements draw their impulses? How long can urban popular uprisings of this sort last?

In Bangkok as well as in Manila, the typical middle class view of these movements of impoverished unorganized masses is that they are basically orchestrated by wealthy and unscrupulous politicians who prey on the gullibility and short-term needs of the poor.  In short, they are nothing more than mercenary forces that can be conjured at a moment’s notice depending on the availability of funds.  Thus their numbers are perceived to swell and recede in accordance with the flow of money.  Whatever grievances and resentments they may express in their demonstrations are accorded little weight, if any.

But, if such mobilizations are no more than paid political pageants posing as people power, how does one explain the apparent readiness of these people to risk their lives in the face of deadly dispersals?  The conventional view is that the mobilized poor who have been creating trouble in the streets of Bangkok were baited by a generous package of graduated compensation for victims who are injured, maimed, or martyred in such confrontations — courtesy of the fugitive billionaire Thaksin.

Indeed, there is much evidence to show that Thaksin may have been financing these demonstrations.  But, this cannot account for the fervor and courage that seem to animate the participants in these protests.  To put the issue rather bluntly: Did Thaksin create these disenchanted masses, or did the disenchanted masses pave the way for a Thaksin?

This is the question that a recent essay written by the prominent Thai political economist Pasuk Phongpaichit and her co-author Chris Baker has tried to answer.  They argue that Thaksin did not originally start out as a populist; that his populism “developed over time in response to social demand; that it has strong affinities with political trends elsewhere in the world owing to a common political economy; and that it helped provoke the urban middle class rejection of Thaksin, which was background to the (September 2006) coup.”

There is no space here for a detailed discussion of this phenomenon, which the authors label as “neo-populism”, distinguishing it from the 1950s populism of Peron, and from the more organized populism today of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez or Bolivia’s Evo Morales.  But it is good to remember what Thaksin signifies for the Thai poor.  He gave them more than money or health care.  “He tapped the aspirations, insecurities and sense of exclusion of this major segment of the population, and was rewarded with support that was both emotional and rational.”  In 1998, Erap found himself playing this role.  Going by the results of the 2010 election, that role seems to have been handed down to Jejomar Binay.