Hidayat Greenfield*
Following months of street protests, Thailand's caretaker prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was forced to make a tactical withdrawal by briefly stepping aside from his post, although refusing to relinquish power. Although this was only a partial victory for the anti-Thaksin and pro-democracy movements, it did mark the first step in dismantling the Thaksin regime – a regime that has substantially rearranged state power and institutionalized the “CEO state”. Yet democratizing the state does not simply mean reversing the changes imposed in the five long years of Thaksin’s authoritarian rule. Any moves towards genuine democratization are contingent on facing an even greater challenge: breaking from five decades of indirect US imperial rule.



As debates rage over the future political direction of Thailand and the strategies of social movements in democratizing the state, it is important to recall that the Thaksin regime has its roots in the populist nationalism that swept the country after the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98. The Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) Party utilized this nationalism, particularly anti-IMF populism, to secure electoral victory in 2001 and installed Thaksin as Prime Minister. Indeed, amid nationalist rhetoric concerning Thailand's "colonization", Thaksin's continuing attacks on the IMF reinforced his popularity and consolidated support from large segments of the Thai Left. In a televised address to the nation on 31 July 2003, Thaksin announced that the final installment of Thailand's debt to the IMF – incurred at the time of the Asian economic crisis – had been paid.  Describing the damage done to Thailand by IMF policies imposed through loan conditionality, Thaksin congratulated Thai citizens on this "victory" for the people and declared that: "We shall never go back to the days of the IMF again as long as I am in office." (1) This nationalist stance illustrated precisely the anti-IMF sentiment mobilized by the Left and utilized by the Right to bring Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai to power two years earlier.


One of the most remarkable aspects of the Thai Rak Thai Party's ascent to power in 2001 was its ability to draw into its ranks prominent figures from NGOs and social movements, as well as former Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) cadres. Once again nationalism plays a central role in explaining how ex-CPT cadres could end up joining a political party led by Thaksin, one of the wealthiest capitalists in the country. As Ji Giles Ungpakorn observed:
"On the one hand, the vast majority of ex-CPT sympathizers firmly believed that socialism died along with the Cold War and therefore they have managed to put their beliefs behind them. On the other hand, those who still believed in some form of socialist society were just as comfortable working alongside a party run by nationalist businessmen as those who no longer believed in socialism. This is because the Stalinist politics of the CPT always emphasized the importance of nationalism and class alliances with 'progressive capitalists' over and above class struggle, especially in (what the CPT called) 'the national stage' of the Thai revolution."(2)


Ultimately these broad political alliances enabled Thai Rak Thai to channel nationalist sentiment into a comprehensive political project aimed at radically reorganizing the state to better serve the interests of "progressive capitalists". As part of this process Left nationalism assisted the ruling class in channeling popular discontent into anti-IMF populism, thereby diminishing the possibility that Thai capitalism system itself would come into question. That is precisely the logic behind Thaksin's anti-IMF speech in 2003, where he explicitly declared the inseparability of capitalism and nationalism: "I have said on many occasions that under the capitalist and democratic systems, there is one common element among all the successful capitalist countries, that is, a sense of nationalism."(3)


In the immediate aftermath of the Asian financial crisis the government of Chuan Leekpai was widely seen as having sold out to the IMF, paving the way for the country's "colonization". This view was epitomized by Tienchai Wongchaisuwan (writing under the penname Yuk Si-ariya), who argued that former Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai assisted the expansion of US hegemony in the 1990s by seeking US government support and declaring loyalty to the IMF. (4) The underlying assumption was that Thai capitalism, operating within the sphere of Asian-regional capitalism, existed outside the US empire prior to the Asian financial crisis and was subjected to imperial realignment only through the US state's use of the IMF to impose neo-liberal restructuring and financial liberalization. Such an argument neglected the process by which capitalists in Thailand renegotiated, domesticated and redeployed neo-liberal ideology as part of their own class strategies directed at working class militancy.  Indeed, the class strategy of domestic capital was precisely to utilize neo-liberalism to undermine working class power, while at the same time using populist nationalism to mobilize working class discontent against the IMF.

Like so many nationalist myths there is a pervasive historical amnesia underpinning the view that Thailand's subordination to US interests occurred only after IMF intervention in the wake of the Asian financial crisis. Well before Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai went begging cap in hand to the US, the military regime of dictator, Field Marshall Sarit Thanarat, who took power in the coup of 1958, reconstituted the Thai state as part of its integration into the American empire. Playing a direct role in the Thai "nation-building" process, the US state was involved in creating major state agencies such as Thailand's Budget Bureau, National Statistical Office, National Economic Development Board, and Board of Investment. (5) This facilitated an influx of US capital that was further reinforced by Thailand's role as a strategic military and economic base for US imperialist aggression against Vietnam. So while some historians interpret Sarit's political project as a process of making the state more "Thai", (6) a more accurate interpretation is that the Sarit coup "brought into line the strategic interests of the US, the dictatorial aims of the Thai military, and the commercial ambitions of domestic capital." (7) The US military and economic support for the Sarit dictatorship and the direct role of US agencies in reorganizing the Thai state signaled an early phase of imperial alignment. (8)

This early imperial alignment is also illustrated by the role of the Thai state in the 1955 Asia-Africa Conference in Bandung. Not only did Thailand's Minister for Foreign Affairs, Wan Waithayakon, use the Conference to condemn the threat of Communist infiltration and subversion and rally support for the use of military aggression against North Vietnam, he also conveyed US President Eisenhower's "greetings" to the Bandung Conference – a message that was interpreted as both measured consent and a veiled warning. (9) Thus contrary to the myths of the Bandung Conference as an arena of Third World anti-imperialism, nation-states such as Thailand operated within the informal imperial network of the US, and for the next 50 years played a critical role in reinforcing and extending US imperial reach – a role that continues today.


A week after his anti-IMF speech Thaksin permitted the CIA to arrest an Indonesian national, Riduan Isamuddin (Hambali), in Thailand for suspected terrorist activities links to Jemaah Islamiah (JI). Hambali was already in US custody outside of Thailand when Bush made the announcement of his arrest and the US$10 million dollar reward, and only afterwards did Thaksin make his own announcement to the Thai public – an act that led Thai human rights groups to accuse Thaksin of turning the country into a "US colony". The real reward came in October at the APEC Summit, when Bush praised Thaksin for his "good work" in capturing Hambali and announced that Thailand would be given "major non-NATO ally status" – which includes access to depleted uranium anti-tank rounds and US government loan guarantees for private banks financing arms exports. (10) This nexus of free trade and state terror was further demonstrated by the commitment to finalize a US-Thai Free Trade Agreement (FTA) as yet another reward for Thailand's role in the exercise of US imperial power. Indeed, Thaksin's address to the US-ASEAN Business Council in Washington in December 2001 aptly summarised Thailand's role in the informal empire: "Throughout the colonial era, the global wars of the 20th century, and the conflicts within Asia, Thailand and the United States have remained close friends and allies. That will not change in the dawn of the 21st century." (11)


The identification of the populist-nationalist Thai leader with the US empire is symbolized by Thaksin's response to receipt of the Sam Houston Humanitarian Award in October 2002 at Sam Houston State University in Texas, where he gained his doctorate in criminal justice in the late 1970s. (12) Referring to the fact that James Baker III and former President George Bush were recipients of the award in earlier years, Thaksin declared that:

"Although I am the first Asian to get the award, you may count me as the third Texan. I consider myself a Texan – at least in spirit." (13)

In many respects this mix of Texas-trained police commander and billionaire corporate CEO turned prime minister, encapsulates precisely the nexus of US imperial power in the region, with Thailand as deputy sheriff and an internationally- integrated site of capitalist accumulation. However, to ensure the continuity of this regime the Third Texan needed to maintain political legitimacy through a nationalist agenda that at times appeared to challenge US interests. While this appealed to Left nationalists in Thailand who saw potential for challenging US hegemony, criticism of the IMF and US interference formed part of the political legitimation the Thaksin regime needed to impose neo-liberal policies that ultimately furthered US imperial interests. (14)


One of the most significant neoliberal transformations under the Thaksin regime was the establishment of the corporate Chief Executive Officer (CEO) model of governance as the basis for running the country. As a former CEO of his own telecommunications conglomerate, Shin Corporation, Thaksin has aggressively promoted himself not as prime minister of a country, but as CEO (chief executive officer) of Thailand Inc. A crucial element of this strategic reorientation of state institutions under the CEO model is the reconstitution of provincial governments, with the establishment of "CEO governors" in thirty provinces. This was widely seen as a consolidation of Thaksin's own power, bypassing key segments of the state bureaucracy. As Weerayut Chokchaimadon has argued, Thailand has become "just another company" and since "Thaksin didn't run Shin Corp as a democracy, "neither will he run the country democratically." (15)

While criticisms such as those expounded by Weerayut expose the authoritarian ambitions of Thaksin and point to the political and ethical shortcomings of the CEO governor model, there is a tendency to neglect the transformative effect of CEO-ization on the state and the particular interests it serves. The CEO-ization of the state is a form of flexible decentralization that consolidates central control over the provinces through a harmonized local state management system. At the same time it enforces competition between the provinces for new injections of capital.

This model is explicitly based on the corporate strategies of the agribusiness conglomerate Charoen Pokphand (CP), which uses intra-firm trade and competition to increase productivity, maximize profits and maintain flexible centralized control. This application of CP's corporate structure to the state coincides with the relocation of capital within Thailand and the financialization of agriculture, intensifying the compulsion for provinces to compete against each other. As economist Pasuk Phongpaichit has argued, a key aspect of the CEO model promoted by Thaksin is "broadening and deepening the extent of the domestic capitalist economy." In this context, Pasuk cites Thaksin's own assertion that: "Capitalism needs capital, without which there is no capitalism. We need to push capital into the rural areas." (16) For corporations like CP, this expansion into rural areas is facilitated by the use of its own CEO governance structures by state regulatory authorities and enables the implementation of its export-oriented agri-food strategy. This is based on CP's nationalistic vision of Thailand as the "Kitchen of the World" — now entrenched as one of the most important economic policies of the Thai state.

The dominance of CP in rural Thailand is increasingly matched by its urban presence, as the owner of mega supermarkets Lotus [ed: CP divested its controlling share in Lotus to Tesco to sort out cash flow problems following the financial crisis] and 7-Eleven convenience stores, and its global power. Although its name is relatively unknown, CP is the largest supplier of animal feed in the world and the fifth largest agri-food corporation, operating over 300 companies in 20 countries. Ranked among Forbes annual list of dollar billionaires, the CEO of CP, Dhanin Chearavanont, exercises extensive political influence in securing the corporation's overseas interests. As a major investor in animal feed, agrochemicals, food processing, motorcycles, seeds and supermarkets in China, Dhanin maintains close ties with the political leadership in Beijing. (17) Similar ties are maintained with the Bush family, including the hiring of former President Bush Sr. as a consultant, and the creation of joint venture businesses with Neil Bush, the brother of the George W. Bush. (18) CP also made political donations to both the Republican and Democratic parties in the US to encourage support for China's WTO accession. (19) At the time of the 2000 presidential elections in the US, the Executive Vice President of CP, Sarasin Viraphol, was quoted in the Beijing People's Daily as stating that Thailand's interests would be better served by a Bush administration, especially by its stance on free trade and China. (20)

The reorganization of the state through CP's CEO model also illustrates the privatization of the functions of the state. In his book "The Asian CEO", Korsak Chairasmisak, Vice Chairman and Chairman of the Executive Board of Directors of CP and CEO of 7-Eleven, points out that CP's 7-Eleven chain convenience stores were the main outlet for public distribution in Bangkok of the draft constitution of 1997. Faced with the legal requirement that the draft constitution be made available to the public within 45 days, it was determined that 7-Eleven stores, with two million customers a day, had greater access to the public than any state agency. (21) It was of course in CP's interests to ensure the smooth passage of the new constitution since it was no less than "a charter for Thailand's modern capitalists." (22) This relationship to the state is set to continue, as the CEO-ization of the state brings government agencies even closer to the management and operational mode of 7-Eleven stores. For Korsak this forms that basis of the future of local, national and global governance:

"I myself have a vision of the contemporary world being led by 1,000 or so largest corporations spreading their branches all over the world. These corporations will have a lot of influence on socio-economic policy of many countries as well as on the life of ordinary people." (23)

In describing the political process of achieving this vision, Korsak suggests that CEO-ization is primarily concerned with the realignment and concentration of political and economic power. Describing elected politicians as having "symbolic meaning"and using the case of Japan, Korsak states that: 

"[A]ll that the Prime Minister can do is [to] persuade his country's businessmen to increase investment. Whether or not an investment is made, and how much it will be, the final decision is with the CEO of the enterprise in question. The CEO is the one who has been given a mandate to 'act' for people from other societies. The CEO has been entrusted with the control and management of world productive resources, such as manpower, capital and technology. The CEO, as a result, comes to possess tremendous power to direct the trend of our world. "(24)


As with globalization, the neo-liberal political project of transforming state power through CEO-ization is depicted in ruling class discourse as a "trend" – both inevitable and irreversible. And as with globalization, this trend has been resisted through organized popular movements and mass protest. But such movements also face an inherent and debilitating limitation when nationalism becomes the primary reference point for resistance. While logical from the point of view of raising popular awareness, nationalism tends to obscure more that it reveals about the world in which we live, institutionalizing historical amnesias, justifying alliances with domestic capitalists and ultimately acting as a means of mobilizing popular resistance in ways that reinforce rather than confront capitalism and US imperial power.

The broader relevance of this for anti-globalization movements lies in the fact that capitalism appropriates the defence of the "local" as a means of re-legitimating itself. This is epitomized by the solidaristic call by Korsak Chairasmisak, the CP executive and 7-Eleven CEO cited earlier, for Thai family shopkeepers to become owners of a 7-Eleven convenience store as a means of resisting the pressures of transnational corporations: "We will support them to become strong enough to withstand competition from foreign multinational corporations who have begun to cast an eye on Thailand's retail business." (25) The fact that 7-Eleven (headquartered in Texas with 26,000 stores in 18 countries) is itself a multinational corporation is obscured, as it is reinvented as a local company challenging the interests of foreign multinationals. This is indicative of the challenges posed by the localization strategies of international capital. Given this challenge, it also serves as a sobering reminder to those activists advocating local alternatives to globalization that "localization" strategies should be rooted in a more coherent class analysis. In the absence of class analysis, and with the persistence of the false dichotomy of "foreign versus national" capital, the radical defence of the local risks incorporation into capitalist localization strategies – class strategies that will fragment or demobilize popular resistance.

12 June 2006

* Hidayat Greenfield is a labour research activist and union organizer working in East and Southeast Asia, and is a corresponding editor of The Socialist Register.

This article is based on a longer essay published in an edited volume, The Empire Reloaded: "Bandung redux: Imperialism and Anti-Globalization Nationalisms in Southeast Asia", in Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (eds), The Empire Reloaded, The Socialist Register 2005. London: Merlin Press/New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004, pp.166-196. For further information, please visit: http://socialistregister.com/




1. "Repayment of the Final Installment of Thailand's Debt under the IMF Programme", Speech by Thaksin Shinawatra, Prime Minister of Thailand, Government House, Bangkok, 31 July 2003.
2. Ji Giles Ungpakorn, "A Marxist history of political change in Thailand", in Ji Giles Ungpakorn, ed., Radicalizing Thailand: New Political Perspectives, Bangkok: Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University, 2003, pp.32-33.
3. "Repayment of the Final Installment of Thailand's Debt under the IMF Programme", Speech by Thaksin Shinawatra, Prime Minister of Thailand, Government House, Bangkok, 31 July 2003.
4. Yuk Si-Ariya, "American imperialism and the war to usurp hegemony" in Phitthaya Wongkun, ed., Wikrit Asia (Asian Crisis), Second Edition, Bangkok, Amarin Publishing/Witthithat Project, 1999, pp.49-51.
5. Peter F. Bell, "Thailand's economic crisis: A new cycle of struggle," in Ji Giles Ungpakorn, ed., Radicalizing Thailand: New Political Perspectives, Bangkok: Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University, 2003, pp.55-57.
6. Thak Chaleomtiarana, Thailand: The Politics of Despotic Paternalism, Bangkok: Social Science Association of Thailand, 1979, pp.140-141
7. Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker, Thailand: Economy and Politics, Second Edition, Bangkok, Oxford University Press, p,131.
8. Sarit's loyalty to the US empire was satirized in Khamsing Srinawk's "The Peasant and the White Man", where a peasant farmer's dog – old Somrit (bronze) – is taken away by a White Man who promises to train Somrit as an obedient guard dog. This parodies Sarit's return from the Walter Reed hospital in the US. In the story, the dog returns alienated from the peasant farmer, refusing to eat simple food. The farmer must dress himself in his best clothes and feed better food to the dog, but Somrit – forgetting who raised him – turns and bites his master. Khamsing Srinawk, "The Peasant and the White Man", in The Politician and Other Stories, Third Edition, Bangkok: Silkworm Books, 2001, pp. 70-80.
9. Addresses by Delegations – Thailand, Centre for the Study of Asian-African and Developing Studies, Collected Documents of the Asian-African Conference, 18-24 April, 1955, Jakarta: Agency for Research and Development, The Department of Foreign Affairs, 1983, p.111; "Eisenhower sends US greetings", Indonesian Observer, 20 April, 1955.
10. The Thaksin regime further escalated the US-led "War on Terror" by massacring 108 Muslims in the southern city of Pattani on 28 April 2004, including the execution of 32 people who had sought refuge inside the 400 year-old Mosque.
11. Quoted in The Nation (Bangkok), 28 February 2004. This quote was used in an article concerning Thaksin's angry response to a US State Department report on human rights violations in Thailand. In his response Thaksin declared that such criticism rendered the US  "a useless friend".
12. Not long after receiving this award for "notable contributions to humanity" and "empowerment of others toward equality for humankind", Thaksin authorized a "war on drugs" that gave legitimacy to greater police violence and led to more than 2,500 deaths in a few months.
13. Thaksin was the fourth after Secretary of State James Baker III in 1993, former Polish President Lech Walesa in 1996 and former President George Bush in 1998. Quoted in Michael Graczyk, "Thai prime minister gets Texas university's highest award", The Associated Press, 23 October 2002.
14. As Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin have argued, the hegemonic power of the US empire does not necessarily entail "a transfer of direct popular loyalty to the American state itself." In fact, "the greatest danger to it is that the states within its orbit will be rendered illegitimate by virtue of their articulation to the imperium." Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, "Global Capitalism and American Empire", in Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, eds, The New Imperial Challenge, The Socialist Register 2004, London, Merlin Press,pp.32-33. Available online: http://socialistregister.com/
15. Weerayut Chokchaimadon, "Thailand faces prosperity and contradictions", The Nation, 25 September 2003.
16. Pasuk Phongpaichit, "A country is a company, a PM is a CEO", Seminar on Statesman or Manager? Image and Reality of Leadership in Southeast Asia, Centre for Political Economy, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, 2 April 2004.
17. CP's investment license in China is Number 0001, indicating the early move into China under the name of Chia Tai. In April 2003, 21 workers at a Chia Tai poultry processing plant in Shandong Province died in a fire that exposed the brutal labour regime imposed by CP in its factories in China. Workers were ordered to remain at their posts during the fire and several died there, more fearful of punishment by the factory managers than the fire itself.  See "Twenty-one lives lost in 5 April blaze at the Qingdao Zhengda food factory", China Labour Bulletin, 12 April 2003.
18. Dan E. Moldea and David Corn, "Influence Peddling, Bush Style", The Nation, 23 October 2000. As a series of newspaper reports (and full page advertisements by CP's telecommunications subsidiary) in the Thai press show, CP hosted former President Bush visit to Thailand in January 1994 after his visit to China, providing the context for calls for a softer US stance on China and promotion of China's WTO accession.
19. "10 Years After the Kader Factory Fire: Thailand's CP Group and Corporate Responsibility", Asian Food Worker, May-June 2003, pp.1;6; "CP and rights", The Nation (Bangkok), 15 May 2003.
20. "Thailand Benefits From Bush's Policies if He Wins in Election", The People's Daily (Beijing), 10 November 2000. These interests are now articulated through the head "CEO Ambassador" based in Washington who is directly answerable to Thaksin as CEO of the country.
21. Korsak Chairasmisak, The Asian CEO in Action, Bangkok: Post Books/DMG Books, 2003, p.140.
22. Ji Giles Ungpakorn, "A Marxist history of political change in Thailand", in Ji Giles Ungpakorn, ed., Radicalizing Thailand: New Political Perspectives, Bangkok: Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University, 2003, p.17.
23. Korsak Chairasmisak, The Asian CEO in Action, Bangkok: Post Books/DMG Books, 2003, p.131.
24. Korsak Chairasmisak, The Asian CEO in Action, Bangkok: Post Books/DMG Books, 2003, pp.43-44.
25. Korsak Chairasmisak, The Asian CEO in Action, Bangkok, Post Books/DMG Books, 2003, p.146.