AN UNDERCLASS STIRS
The arrival of Thaksin Shinawatra permanently changed Thai politics. Before he came onto the scene, the Bangkok establishment dominated all sides of the political competition and governed largely to the benefit of the nation’s capital. If there had been disagreements among the Bangkok elite, none were quite as ferocious as the ones to come. Nor were any of the quarrels as divisive as those that arose during and after Thaksin’s term. What Thaksin did was to upset the apple cart of the Thai political status quo by diverting to the poorer parts of the country resources that had previously been hogged by Bangkok and its middle and upper-class residents. Thaksin’s was a more inclusive brand of politics that allowed the peasants from the north and the northeast to share in the country’s economic growth. A gulf had already existed before his arrival, created by the Bangkok-centric policies of his predecessors. All he did was to awaken the people to the gulf — and the unfairness of it — and to offer policy solutions to bridge it. If he had not done so, I am convinced that somebody else would have come along to do the same.
When he took over the premiership in 2001, Thaksin was already a successful businessman and a billionaire. But if rich Thais were counting on him to show class solidarity, they would soon be sorely disappointed. He implemented policies that favoured the rural poor to an unprecedented extent. He extended loans to farmers, overseas scholarships to students from rural families and government —subsidised housing to the urban poor, many of whom had migrated to the cities in search of jobs and could only afford to live in slums. His healthcare plan targeted at those who could not pay for their own medical insurance provided coverage at just 30 baht (about US$1) per hospital visit.
To Thaksin’s opponents, he was turning the country upside down. They were not about to let him get away with it. They called him a populist and claimed his policies would bankrupt the state. (Remarkably, this did not stop them from continuing many of these policies and coming up with other similar ones when they held power from December 2008 to August 2011.) They accused him of corruption and favouring his family businesses, charges he denied. They were also unhappy with his firm — some say dictatorial — handling of the media and his controversial war on drugs in the south of the country, during which due process and human rights may sometimes have been overlooked. Nevertheless, the peasants, overwhelming in numbers, ignored the criticisms and re-elected him in 2005. The Bangkok elite ultimately could not tolerate the man. He was overthrown in a military coup in 2006.
Thailand’s capital has since experienced great upheaval. Scenes of chaos have broken out repeatedly on the streets of Bangkok since 2008, with mass protests involving either the Yellow Shirts, who oppose Thaksin and do so in the name of defending the monarchy, or the Red Shirts, made up of Thaksin’s ardent supporters. But the latest general election, held in 2011, which handed Thaksin’s sister Yingluck the premiership, was a clear vindication by the Thai electorate of the new path that Thaksin had chosen for Thailand. The peasants of the north and the northeast of the country, having tasted what it was like to have access to capital, were not going to give that up. Thaksin and his allies have now won five general elections in a row, in 2001, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2011. For Thaksin’s opponents to try to hold back the tide is futile.
Despite the recent ferment in Thai society, there is cause for optimism in the long run. The Red Shirts will continue to outnumber the Yellow Shirts for a long time because the latter group draws from a shrinking constituency. The younger generation already holds a less reverent view ofthe royal family. Furthermore, even though King Bhumibol Adulyadej is a well-respected figure, much of the prestige and magic associated with him will go when he passes on.
The army has always played a central role in Thai politics. It has made sure that no movement against the monarchy, from which it derives its strength, is allowed to raise its head. It too, however, will have no choice but to accept and to adapt to the changed situation. It is after all untenable to resist the will of the electorate for a protracted period. Given time, its ranks will also be filled by soldiers from a younger generation, less enamoured with the monarchy. The military leaders will continue to insist on privileges and will not be content with being reduced to an ordinary army. But they will also learn to live with a government made up of Thaksin’s allies. It may even be possible for the army to accept Thaksin’s eventual return to Thailand, if he can promise to get along with them and not pursue any vendettas.
There can be no reverting to Thailand’s old politics, to the pre-Thaksin era when the Bangkok elite had a monopoly on power. Thailand will continue moving along the path that Thaksin first steered the country onto. The gap in living standards across the country will narrow. Many peasants will be lifted into the middle class and will help drive the country’s domestic consumption. Thailand will do well.
Q: Some Thai analysts are less optimistic about the changes in Thai politics since the arrival of Thaksin. They speak about how in the 1990s, the prime ministers were able to develop the Thai economy with long-term policies but since Thaksin came to power in 2001, the government has been resorting to short- term populist measures and handouts to the poor.
A: No, that’s a very one-sided view. Thaksin is much shrewder and smarter than his critics. That’s why he tapped the northeast to overcome the resistance from them.
Q: But I think there is a concern about the race to the bottom, to try to win as many ofthe rural votes as possible.
A: Where do you get the money for all the handouts?
Q: That’s the problem.
A: No, before you give a handout, you must have the resources. It can only come from revenue. And if you want to give more, and the revenue is already fully balanced, you’ve got to increase taxation.
Q: Or it can come from borrowing.
A: Who will lend? Against what assets?
Q: So you don’t think it likely that Thailand will experience long-term paralysis from a general descent into populist politics.
A: I doubt it. Why would they pander excessively to the have-nots?
Q: What are your impressions of Thaksin?
A: He is a hands-on leader who works hard to get results quickly. He trusts his business experience and instincts more than economic theories. He once told me he took a trip by coach all the way from Bangkok to Singapore and he decided that he knew what made Singapore tick. So he was going to do it the same way. I don’t know whether one trip gets him to understand our black box, which has to do with education, skills, training and a cohesive society with equal chances for all. You must not forget that in the northeast there are more ethnic Lao than Thais.
Q: There was a time, at least a decade ago, when Singapore leaders were talking about Thailand as a serious competitor to Singapore, as a transport, manufacturing and medical tourism hub. Is that still the case?
A: Look at their geography. You can bypass Bangkok but you cannot bypass Singapore by ship.
Q: What about by air?
A: How high are their skills and education? They have to be better than us.
Q: Do they have the potential to be better than us?
A: First, we have the advantage of the English language. Second, we have an education infrastructure that has been producing high quality graduates, those from the polytechnics and those from the ITEs. Nobody goes without some skill. Can they develop that for 60 million people spread across the rural areas?
Q: Can we discuss the geopolitics of the region? Thailand has been an ally of the US. It was used as a base by the US during the Vietnam War. Will it continue to be an ally?
A: It makes no difference. The real question is: Do their interests coincide? You can have an alliance and it will hold good only wrhen your interests coincide. It’s like Nato. They were united when there was a Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Nato became ineffective.
Q: One view is that the turning point came when Thailand encountered problems with the Asian financial crisis in 1997 and the people realised that the US wasn ‘t there to bail them out. And they have decided since then that China may be a much more dependable friend.
A: Because the value of Thailand to the US had dropped with the end of the Vietnam War.
Q: How do you see the Thais responding to the growing dominance and influence of China in this part of the world?
A: You know the history of the Thais. When the Japanese were strong and about to attack Southeast Asia, they allowed Japanese troops into Thailand, made it easier for them to move on to Malaysia and Singapore. So whoever is the winning side, whoever is the more powerful side, that is the side they will ally themselves with.
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