Monday, 8 September 2008

Thailand’s current political crisis—an understanding

The land of the Thai’s is a quiet, peaceful country whose presence is rarely manifest in journalistic circles, and only then for stories about its cuisine, tourism or sex. However, for the last few days, or the last few months, or even the last few years (depending on ‘when’ a ‘crisis’ begins) Thailand has been troubled by increasing levels of political dissent.

There is a background to all of this, and a full description is complex, and can be found below, however, I shall summarise the situation here. There are two major factions in Thai politics, the ‘old rich and powerful’ versus the ‘newly rich and want to be powerful’. That is to say, the ‘old guard’, the traditional aristocracy and high society, versus the newly wealthy capitalist class, who have engaged the help of the poorer elements of society. The interests of the two groups clash diametrically. The capitalists want economic reform ‘a free market’ and less restrictions, while the old guard want things just as they are or even as they were.

Interestingly enough, this situation can be found in many other historical periods—a social conflict resulting from a fundamental social change that challenges the axioms of society, however, one should take care when assigning causes to effects based upon historical examples. While there are seeming parallels in history, more often than not these similar outcomes are the result of different causes. Having said that, when fundamental change occurs society adapts, either peacefully or not. For example, in 19th century England the old ruling class gradually surrendered power to the new industrial capitalists, largely peacefully. A similar process occurred in ancient Athens, in the 7th and 6th centuries BC power gradually moved from the king and aristocracy, through ‘tyrants’ to a popular democracy. In Thailand now, we can observe a similar process, but without the full historical objectivity a century or two provides.

Moving on... The background to the situation is this, irrespective of the ostensible style of government (a democratic parliamentary monarchy), Thailand is managed and owned by and for the traditional aristocracy. The various governmental instrumentality's: the police, the military, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, are all run by members of the Thai elite. The same is true for the professions. Added to this the government has a sizeable say in the economy, there are many government corporations playing major roles in how things are done (including the media). There is also the omnipresent corruption found in Thailand. Essentially, salaries are low, and the large number of government employees are expected to supplement their income, for example, I have been told that police officers keep half of their ‘on the spot’ fines (and of course, the fine is doubled for a farang). A sizeable number of lower class people are employed at low wages by the government, these people do little real work (mainly paperwork), but are ‘loyal’ to the system because they get a small piece of it, including job security. This has the curious effect that, while this mass of people are employed by the government, the elected parliament has little real control over these people, these various ‘governmental’ organisations are largely independent. The military is an extreme case, regarded as being entirely independent from governmental control. It owns TV and radio stations in its own right and has ‘1,000 generals’, who are more ‘familiar with golf than their military duties’. In essence the people who run things in Thailand are loyal to their own class and collective self-interests.

Another consequence of this elitist society is the unwritten policy of keeping people in their place. Thai education, to use but one example, is poor. For most students, those not in elite schools, ‘education’ consists of learning how to be obedient and to memorise prepared lessons. There is also the concept of ‘pastoral bliss’, that is to say, keeping people on the farm. Thailand produces large quantities of silk and is the world’s largest rice exporter, part of this agricultural success (as does much of Thailand’s business success) relies on abundant supplies of cheap labour.

The result of this pyramid of power is an establishment happy with the way things are and resistant to the idea of change. Life is good, thank you very much—from the perspective of those at the top.

This autocratic regime has produced the usual static society, with the usual factions and disputes. Thailand’s politics in the 20th century have always been unstable, a succession of ‘strong’ men, intermixed with periods of democratic rule, followed by coups. Usually, these incidents were near bloodless, however, there have been a few massacres along the way.

To return to the recent, in 2006 a newcomer came into office. Prime Minister Thaksin. Mr T is a self-made (telecommunications) zillionaire, one of the richest men in Thailand. He was a popularist, spending government money and expanding resources (e.g. housing and medical care) in the poorer areas of Thailand, regions which have been largely ignored by the central government. Of greater note he also moved to privatise many government enterprises, open up (a little) the economy. He was also accused of being ‘corrupt’ and personally profiteering from his government. This was most likely true, however, it will not surprise anyone to know that he was not the first PM of Thailand to enrich himself at the public expense.

The true crime of Thaksin was to threaten the power elites who run Thailand. Thaksin represents a change in Thai society, even a generation ago it was still largely agricultural. Now this has changed, capitalistic business is muscling in, along with a newly emergent business and middle class. These people are coming into their own power, and want their say, and their needs clash with that of the traditional elites.

Opposing Thaksin and his government was the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). This was a group originally formed in 2006, and was composed of a diverse group of conservatives and ‘elite’ groups, elements of the police/military, high Bangkok society, and the old aristocracy. This group campaigned and protested against the Thaksin government, accusing it of corruption, inefficiency, and Lèse majesté (a serious crime in monarchical Thailand).

One point must be made here and now, the mis-named PAD has little interest in democracy, apart from earnestly desiring to limit and curtail the democratic component of Thai government. The desired goal of PAD is to have 70% of the Thai parliament composed of appointed members (previous 20th century Thai constitutions have had appointed members). Appointed by PAD, or rather the leaders of PAD.

In September 2006 a military led (bloodless) coup overthrow the Thaksin government (while Mr T was out of the country). Two days later PAD voluntarily dissolved—its job done. However, after a year and a half of incompetent (surprise) military government democratic elections were held and a Thaksin oriented new government came into office. The new 72 year old prime minister Mr Samak was considered to be no more than a puppet for Thaksin, and was also widely considered to be at best only semi-competent. His cabinet were equally poorly regarded, and with good reason. Mr Samak’s government failed to deal with the host of problems facing Thailand, earning the justified disdain that many Thais feel for his government.

This continued incompetence laid the ground work for the conservative opposition to oppose the Samak government and to lead the Thai people onto the streets of Bangkok to challenge the elected parliament. On one hand there are incompetent reformers, on the other an incompetent and reactionary opposition.

In all of this the real losers will be the ‘average’ Thai person, for whom I have great respect. Over the last few years life in Thailand has become harder for many: the rising price of necessities (rice, to give but one example), economic troubles, and a host of minor issues has made it harder to smile in the land of the smile. Now, just when statesmen are most needed the Thai people get this, a petty squabble. No winners, many losers.

I cannot see a speedy nor productive resolution to this mess. There is no Solon waiting in the wings to restore order and produce a moderate government. The most likely outcome to all of this will be continued political uncertainty, with weak governments, a stagnant economy, and no prospect for an early improvement. Think Philippines, think Burma.