Hardly anyone familiar with the life and times of Thaksin Shinawatra – Thailand’s erstwhile Prime Minister, would lament his recent ouster from power following a year of political turmoil.
A former police official turned telecom tycoon turned politician, Thaksin was the epitome of everything that is wrong with Thailand – where political connections, feudal loyalties and big money combine to subvert every democratic institution.
Yet the way he went – through a military coup in mid-September endorsed by the influential Thai monarch and a month before national polls he was quite sure to win – is a deadly blow to Thailand’s fledgling electoral democracy. A democracy that till recently was the finest in all of south-east Asia and one that will take many years to regain credibility and vibrancy.
Before one gets too pessimistic I also believe that the fight for true democracy that goes way beyond the trappings of the ballot box and puts power in the hands of ordinary people, is only about to begin in Thailand. For at the root of the country’s current political crisis was not one single, wayward politician but a welter of social and economic contradictions that still remain unresolved.
Contradictions that have, over the years, spawned the following paradoxes:
A Billionaire ‘Champion of the Poor’: The rise of Thaksin Shinawatra and his newly forged Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party in 2000 was a truly unprecedented phenomenon in Thai electoral history. In a country where till then all elected governments had been large unwieldy coalitions of five or more political parties at the minimum the TRT swept to power with a clear majority.
In that election support came from the business-minded middle classes of Bangkok, northern Thailand from where Thaksin hailed and most importantly from the populous but poor and highly neglected north-east provinces. In southern Thailand the older Democrat Party, once the darling of the urban middle-classes still dominated. All in all the 2000 polls handed enormous political power to someone who was already the richest man in the land.
But in a country yet to recover from the blows of the Asian economic crisis Thaksin adopted a populist approach and played on national sentiments hurt by the ravages of global capital. Right from day one the Thaksin regime took a strident line against the humiliating terms and conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund soon after the 1997 crisis.
It repudiated the neo-liberal ideas of curbing government expenditure and instead poured billions of baht into schemes meant to revive the rural economy and small and medium scale industries. All these policies, together with his occasional tirades against ‘Western values’ were also part of a conscious effort by Thaksin to cultivate an international image similar to that of Mahatir Mohammed of Malaysia.
On the social front the Thaksin regime came up with an instant hit when it launched a universal health insurance scheme that allowed Thai citizens to avail of any medical service for just 30 baht per visit to the hospital. Various scholarship schemes aimed at rural youth and incentives for Bangkok’s taxi drivers further boosted his popularity as a ‘champion of the poor’.
Whatever else it may or may not have done the Thaksin regime with its populism surely managed to woo the country’s rural poor into believing it really cared for them, which was more than what any previous Thai regime had even bothered to do. Though urban middle class voters turned against him in the past few years the poor continued to be his most ardent supporters, providing a bulk of the votes he garnered in three elections in a row.
Interestingly enough, the brains behind the billionaire Thaksin’s populism were a close set of his advisors, many of whom had been leftwing student guerillas in the seventies. The justification given by these ‘leftists’ for jumping into bed with a monopoly capitalist was to fight ‘remnants of feudalism and imperialism by allying with the national bourgeoisie’ in Thailand.
New Clothes, Old Fashions: While the Thaksin phenomenon was certainly something new on the Thai political scene at the core were values and motivations not very different from the past.
Given the fact that Thaksin had made money all his life through cozy monopoly deals his own ascent to power meant corruption was inevitable and it happened in good measure too. His family-owned Shin Corporation, already one of the country’s largest business houses, became bigger still using new policies tailored to protect its financial interests. In the meanwhile other members of his family and close circle of friends too joined his orgy of money making.
One of the issues for example which aroused a lot of public anger against Thaksin earlier this year was his US$1.85 billion sale of Shin Corp to Temasek, a Singapore government owned investment fund, without paying over US$450 million in tax on the capital gains made. Many were also upset that a premier with ‘nationalist’ pretensions sold an important national asset to a foreign investor.
In other matters too the Thaksin administration bore the stamp of authoritarian regimes from Thailand’s past. In 2002 and 2003 as part of a so called ‘War on Drugs’ earned the ire of human rights groups the world over by carrying out a massacre of over 2000 suspected ‘drug dealers’. Activists alleged that many of those killed, often in cold blood, were either very small fry in the drug business or completely innocent people framed by a police force desperate to comply with government orders to ‘show results’.
Soon after an insurgency broke out in Thailand’s three Muslim dominated southernmost provinces in early 2004 Thaksin used the brutal might of the state to try and crush it with appalling results in terms of the wanton killings, arrest and torture of innocent civilians. Needless to say the problem festers even now with daily killings of Thai government officials and employees by Muslim separatist groups and the tit-for-tat assassinations of local Muslim leaders by the army and police.
Again on the foreign policy front, for all his protestations against Western domination, Thaksin made sure he was on the right side of the US by sending a token number of Thai troops to Iraq as part of the dubious ‘Coalition of the Willing’. The Thaksin administration also became one of the most ardent champions of the despicable military regime in neighbouring Burma.
From Collaborators To Critics: One of the primary reasons why many who are otherwise opposed to Thaksin and his government have been uneasy with the past year of public protests against him is that many of those leading the dissident movement have either collaborated with him in the past or are not really known for their democratic credentials.
Thaksin’s first foray into politics for example was as protÃ©gÃ© of Chamlong Srimuang, the quasi-Gandhian ‘hero’ of Thailand’s pro-democracy movement in 1992 which humbled the military regime of General Suchinda Krapayoon that had taken power through a coup a year before. Chamlong’s Palang Dharm party, which was a member of the ruling coalition headed by then Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, appointed Thaksin as Thailand’s Foreign Minister in the mid-nineties despite his complete lack of qualification for the post.
For the past year both Chamlong and Chuan’s Democrat party have emerged as Thaksin’s strongest critics with zero reflection upon their own role in bringing him to power. The Democrats, electorally decimated by Thaksin in two consecutive elections and in political wilderness for the past six years have been of course hoping Thaksin’s downfall will help them return to power somehow.
Another case in point is that of Sondhi Limthongkul, a Thai-Chinese media tycoon who started off the anti-Thaksin protests late last year when his talk show on state-run TV was pulled off the air for attacking the government. Since then Sondhi almost single-handedly mobilized the public against Thaksin by staging his former TV show on the streets of Bangkok. All this at a time when the latter seemed politically unassailable and all his usual political rivals were clueless about how to take him on.
But till less than a few months prior to turning foe Sondhi and his media chain were among the staunchest supporters of Thaksin condoning every act of corruption, violation of human rights or suppression of media freedoms that he indulged in.
Monarchy Vs Monopoly Capitalism: The current undoing of Thaksin has nothing to do with its corruption, contempt for human rights or any of the evil policies his government pursued. All of these and more are what successive regimes in Thailand have always stood for and a staple part of the arsenal of sins in the possession of the Thai elite.
The real reason for his downfall has been, like in business, Thaksin sought to operate in politics by setting up monopolies over everything- the police, the army, the bureaucracy, the underworld, the media, the list went on. He was of course wildly successful in all this, using a combination of money power, communication skills and sheer guile to wipe out all competition from the field. In the process he left little space for anyone else – both friends and enemies- in a country where the motto of the elites has always usually been to ‘live and let live’ (or maybe ‘kill and let kill’).
Secondly Thaksin’s success in both business and politics ultimately went to his head and he started having grandiose notions of his own ‘historic mission’ to change Thailand. His air of being the most powerful person in the land ruffled too many feathers within the country’s traditional elite, especially Thai royal circles, who saw him as a potential threat to the institution of monarchy itself. In other words he got too big for his boots in a country where the biggest feet are reserved exclusively for the Thai King – on paper just a constitutional monarch but with domestic influence greater than most heads of state have in their countries anywhere.
As part of a bizarre historical coincidence Thaksin shared the name and many of the characteristics of the first King of Thailand from two centuries ago- a Chinese warlord who rallied the Thais against Burmese invaders and set up the new kingdom in Bangkok after the destruction of the earlier capital in Ayuthaya. History has it that King Thaksin was later deposed by two of his generals who went on to start the Chakri dynasty that rules Thailand till today. Sounds too familiar.
Civil Society, Uncivil Partners: This is the most painful paradoxes of all in the current Thai political crisis -the country’s civil society groups playing into the hands of deeply conservative forces due to their blind ‘Thaksin out at any cost’ strategy.
In the absence of any organized left-of-centre political party (historically suppressed due to Thailand’s long anti-communist legacy) over the past two decades a rich and diverse set of activist groups have emerged in Thailand taking up causes ranging from human rights and environmental protection to organic farming and public health.
However, faced with Thaksin’s unassailable hold over political power, upset with his regime’s corruption and high handed behaviour and lacking a coherent national level organization of their own many of these forces jumped onto the right-wing initiated anti-Thaksin movement out of sheer desperation. The net result has been of course the sorry spectacle of some of the most ardent champions of democracy marching shoulder-to-shoulder with advocates of authoritarian rule.
A crucial mistake in particular was the support extended by many activist groups to the opposition call for boycotting snap elections called by Thaksin in April this year in response to mounting street demonstrations against him in Bangkok.
The Thaksin regime was the first government to be elected under a new Thai constitution adopted in 1997 that was fought for and even framed by the country’s various civil society groups. By asking people to stay away from elections the message that went out was that methods other than elections were needed to oust Thaksin and that the country’s Constitution was useless in protecting the rights of citizens. Not surprisingly one of the first things the new military leaders in Thailand have done is to trash the 1997 Constitution.
Commenting on the takeover by the men in green the Bangkok based liberal English newspaper ‘The Nation’ claimed that it was ‘not a coup that, according to the traditional textbook sense of the term, (that) should be roundly condemned. It is justifiable – if it gives rise to a democracy that is of a higher quality and a government that is much more responsive to the concerns of citizens than what we used to have.’ That this kind of non-biodegradable waste comes from a newspaper that played a key role in the pro-democracy movement of the early nineties against military rule is indication of the political lows to which sections of Thailand’s progressive community have sunk.
Happy Citizens Ready to Explode: If you thought there was no more space for paradoxes on Thailand’s puzzle-wrapped-in-enigma-wrapped-in-mystery political scene then watch out for the next big one – a happy, smiling citizenry on the verge of a veritable social explosion.
For what the military coup in Thailand- ostensibly carried out to ‘maintain’ social stability and ‘protect’ the institution of monarchy- is likely to end up achieving is exactly the opposite. Notwithstanding pictures of tourists and citizens posing with army tanks and handing out flowers to soldiers on the streets of Bangkok the current situation is fraught with potential for more political turmoil.
There are several reasons for this, the first among them being the simple fact that the Thai military- while taking advantage of public sentiment against Thaksin- may have miscalculated badly by carrying out a coup. Military coups, an over used form of effecting political change in Thailand, are completely out of fashion and unacceptable to even many Thais who were extremely keen to get rid of the former Prime Minister.
Already there are calls for the generals to give way to civilian authority and lift curbs on media and other freedoms. Several brave groups of students and other political activists have even lodged public protests against the coup- a trend that can only grow in the days ahead.
By tacitly backing the coup and coming out so openly against Thaksin the Thai monarchy has also damaged its carefully cultivated image of being politically neutral – something that would not have mattered so much if not for the fact that the former premier still has huge pockets of genuine support in the country. While the ageing and highly regarded Thai monarch is not likely to be affected personally so much the current events will have a deep influence on the future role of the institution of monarchy in Thailand- which all these years has been a bulwark of continuity amidst rapid change.
Thirdly, in a country of great inequalities today the masses think elections are not enough to bring about the changes needed to give them real power while the elites think elections already give too much power to the population under them. Such growing disillusionment with electoral democracy is sure to give rise to more confrontational social movements that seek to address the historically skewed balance of power and income between rural and urban Thais.
Movements with the kind of consequences Thailand’s coup makers or their backers can neither fully comprehend nor anticipate. Watch out, the paradoxes in paradise are just about to unravel.
Satya Sagar is a journalist, writer and video maker, now based in New Delhi after over a decade of stay in Thailand. He can be reached at [email protected]