And the besieged Prime Minister can claim thumping majorities in 2 elections that were as free and fair as you’ll get in Thailand, and he has been cleared of wrong-doing by the courts.
Meanwhile, one of the more dangerous members of the serving military is making threatening noises. And the palace is busy sending not-so-covert signals that His Majesty Is Not Amused.
In this precarious situation of daily mass rallies and counter-rallies, how come the NGOs that we know and love find themselves on the same side of the barricades as the forces of darkness? Welcome to the byzantine world of Thai politics. We begin with some …
You’ll never get Thai politics unless you grasp certain basic principles. Maybe the most important is that policies very rarely matter (in fact, PM Thaksin Shinawatra has to be credited for introducing into Thai politics the idea of campaigning on a set of policies and, even more remarkably, actually trying to implement them once elected). What is crucial is personalities, or more properly, personal relationships.
Now the components of ‘civil society’ in Thailand are unusual in that they are actually opposed to Thaksin on principle. They deplore his trampling of human rights in the war against drugs of 2004 (2500 corpses and no accounting) and in the violence in the south. They rail against his creeping control of the media, especially when he decided to sue one of their own for 400 million baht  for saying what everyone knew – that his business empire has flourished apace during his premiership. And they are exasperated by the arrogance of Thaksin’s simple-minded recipes for self-aggrandizing success in dealing with issues like poverty . Partly because they focus on issues, not individuals, and partly from their long-held decision to stay away from party politics, they have had precious little effect and on their own would be no more than a minor nuisance.
It’s the other players that provide the good copy.
The current crisis has been cranked up by a TV show and, when that got yanked off the air, a series of rallies organized by Sondhi Limthongkul. Sondhi and Thaksin are from similar moulds and while the boom of the 90’s lasted, played the palsy-walsy mutual back-scratching game of the Sino-Thai capitalist elite. But while Thaksin and his telecoms empire emerged from the 1997 economic collapse relatively unscathed, Sondhi’s publishing group was deluged in debt. But so were many others. All you needed was a pet banker to bail you out. Unfortunately, when Sondhi tried to pull his strings, he had them cut off by Thaksin.
In his scorned fury, Sondhi seems to have gone for broke. Anyone in the reporting business will stumble across corporate shenanigans even without looking for them, and so Sondhi has been able to expose a steady drip-feed of corruption scandals involving Thaksin, his family, and his business circle.
The 1992 pro-democracy protestors were known as the mobile phone mob. Sondhi’s following is an e-mail mob. Mostly urban, mostly middle-class, mostly well-educated. Not above fiddling their own income tax, they can still feel outraged when it is revealed that Thaksin’s kids, through a complex maze of dummy companies, have sold Dad’s old assets for 73 billion baht tax-free.
The people at Sondhi’s rallies tend to have a high opinion of themselves, and love nothing more than ‘knowing’ things that haven’t appeared in the media. This could be genuine information that’s been censored. But a large part of it is rumour-mongered hogwash and nobody can really tell which is the gold and which the dross. All in all, not the people who are going to take lightly someone calling them ‘stupid’, which is exactly how Thaksin described them.
Sondhi gained an aura of righteousness that he could never earn for himself when he was joined by Maha Boowa and his followers. Maha Boowa belongs to a tradition of forest monks in the north and northeast of Thailand. Very strict, very clean, and in his case, very nationalistic.
While Thaksin can claim that Sondhi is motivated from jealousy, and many can easily believe that the pair of them are as bad as each other when it comes to shady dealings, Maha Boowa lends the anti-Thaksin forces a moral legitimacy.
The erstwhile mentor
The anti-Thaksin movement began to look like an irresistible force when Chamlong Srimuang weighed in against his former protégé. Chamlong, a former military Young Turk and born-again Buddhist, set up a political movement (movement, note, not party) in the 1980’s that would bring Buddhist morals into Thai politics. Chamlong was elected as Bangkok governor on a wave of ‘anti-politics’ enthusiasm, and eventually decided to transform his movement into a party. He cast about for support and found some in a fast-rising business tycoon. This was Thaksin’s first public  involvement in politics. It wasn’t altogether happy. A foolhardy promise to solve Bangkok’s traffic mess in 6 months was typical of the Thaksin style. Headline goals, hopelessly unrealistic time-line, oodles of PR  , but in the end a result that flatters to deceive.
The establishment with a conscience.
One of the turning points that helped draw a sharp line between 2 intransigent camps was the declaration by a group of political science deans that Thaksin’s premiership lacked legitimacy. This wasn’t predictable vitriol from known antagonists. This came from the establishment elite (one of whom oversees the education of Thaksin’s daughter). Similar petitions, letters and declarations from the great and the good have followed.
Thaksin has again and again demonstrated a thin-skinned contempt for anyone who dares cross his path, from the soldiers killed on a raid on an army arsenal which kicked off the latest bout of insurrection in the south (‘they deserved to die’ for failing in their duty) to international calls for investigations of gross human rights abuses (‘the UN is not my father’). This has provoked in his opponents expressions of naked hatred that are just not normal in Thai politics.
Now the motives of many of the anti-Thaksin forces are fairly transparent. Sondhi wants revenge; Chamlong wants repentance; the middle-class wants less corruption; and a variety of PMs-in-waiting want their turn at the trough.
But civil society wants more than a simple righting of perceived wrongs. The key is this question of legitimacy and it all goes back to the 1997 constitution, and what Thaksin was able to do with it.
The perversion of political reform
Thailand’s best constitution by all accounts (and we’ve had a fair few in years past) was passed in the aftermath of the 1997 economic disaster when confidence in the political establishment was at a very low ebb. This allowed an amazingly liberal document to emerge from the temporary vacuum.
The constitution drafters were trying to do two things. One was to set out some basic rights, and to establish mechanisms for their enforcement. Now there are glitches. You can’t, for example, stand for parliament unless you have a university degree, which effectively bars a vast majority of the population. But in the main, a good job done.
The second task was to correct some of the perceived flaws in the previous political structure. Onto the scrap-heap went a bizarre 3-members-per-constituency system that seemed to serve no purpose other than to make vote-buying something that could be calculated to 2 decimal places. Stricter rules on party membership made it harder for politicians to hop from party to party (the scandal of vote-buying was dwarfed by the far more pernicious – and more expensive – MP-buying). A party-list system introduced a degree of proportional representation.
In all, strong parties and one-party governments, a la Westminster model, were made much more likely, and shaky coalitions with no interest beyond self-enriching survival were to be a thing of the past.
To prevent a strong party from becoming a parliamentary dictatorship, the constitution mandated a raft of independent agencies, selected and largely overseen by the Senate. And the Senate was, for the first time, to be an elected body, and apolitical. No party members allowed, campaigning restricted to name, profession and educational qualifications.
The first Senate elections in 2000 should have given warning of how the best laid plans can go wrong. No politicians could stand. But wives and brothers and henchmen could, and got elected. The new National Election Commission did its best and one province had to vote 5 times before the result was allowed to stand. But by the time Thaksin was winning the first House election under the new constitution the following year, the rot had set in.
The checks and balances that the new independent agencies were supposed to provide were blocked all along the way. Enabling legislation was delayed and nobbled. Selection procedures were highly questionable. And once in office, many of those selected covered themselves in inertia and incompetence.
When the first pugnacious National Election Commission came to the end of its term , one commissioner had his application for re-appointment rejected on the grounds he filled out the form incorrectly. The head of the new do-nothing NEC was a retired military officer who had himself been yellow-carded in the Senate elections. The National Counter Corruption Commission was fired en masse for corruptly giving themselves a pay rise. The appointment of the National Broadcast Commission has been repeatedly halted by improper procedures, and is now over 6 years overdue. The first person in charge of the Freedom of Information legislation was removed because he ordered a university demonstration school to give out more information than was good for the reputation of its well-heeled clients.
When the right people were, somehow, appointed, their work was still impeded. The National Human Rights Commission, probably the only agency left doing its job as intended, is required to report annually to the government. Thaksin has simply refused to accept their reports. When the Auditor-General got too close to some cases of corruption involving Bangkok’s new airport, a technical error was suddenly discovered in her appointment over 2 years earlier. She was suspended, but she carried on. Her pay was stopped, but she carried on. Eventually they changed the locks on her office.
The Supreme Institution
In this case (and in the attempted re-appointment of the National Counter Corruption Commission) the shenanigans were stopped by action from the palace. Or, more precisely, by inaction from the palace. When a new Auditor-General was selected by the Thaksin-compliant Senate, the King simply didn’t sign off on it.
The protestors on both sides of the dispute wave masses of national flags. Thaksin has always been quick to play the national card, even though much of his business empire now operates overseas. But his thunder has been stolen by the fact that he (technically, his children) sold their controlling stake in the flagship Shin Corp to Temasek, a corporation controlled by the Singaporean government. This is instantly portrayed as ‘selling the nation’ and no amount of high-minded letters to the press from capitalists pointing out that globalization works two ways will change this perception.
Many of the anti-Thaksin protestors make appeals, often couched in indirect language, for royal intervention. This has occurred before at times of national crisis and the King is seen by all as well above the fray, personally committed to the welfare of the nation, and hence as the institution of last resort.
He is also known to be no great fan of Thaksin. Even before the economic collapse he was proposing a ‘sufficiency economy’, an obvious retreat from the globalization that Thaksin’s empire has embraced so whole-heartedly. And His Majesty has repeatedly complained that his ideas have not been properly understood, and has twice given the PM a public dressing-down as part of his annual birthday address to the nation.
Since no political player dares to make a direct approach to the throne, delicate feelers have to be put out to members of the Privy Council, in particular two former military commanders (one an ex-PM). The press can report that meetings have taken place, but not a word comes out about the contents of the meetings.
So what went wrong?
In one sense, Thai prime ministers are dead easy to read. Just look at what their day job used to be, and you know how they’ll run the government. Chuan Leekpai was a lawyer, could never summon the vision to move beyond rules and regulations and lived in horror of the extra-legal ‘mob’. Banharn Silpa-acha was a provincial businessman and ran a semi-kleptocratic administration where coalition partners were paid to stay sweet, just like he used to buy public works contracts. And a whole string of military PMs, some even elected, have tried to run the show by barking orders and expecting parade-ground obedience.
Thaksin is the CEO par excellence. His cabinet is a management team and parliament little more than an unwieldy Board of Directors. The tasks of government are to be accomplished by setting goals and deadlines (however unrealistic), sacking minister-managers who don’t perform, and declaring success however questionable the result. He has no interest in a free press or the citizen’s right to know; he expects the media to function as a national public relations machine. The laws of the land are viewed through a corporate lens. If you don’t like them, then you get away with as much rule-bending as you can and when that still doesn’t let you have your way, just move the goalposts.
Voters are not citizens with rights, especially the right to think for themselves, but customers, to be cajoled, fooled and bribed into giving the Thai Rak Thai party maximum market share. When Thaksin first set out his stall with his party, he did his market research. He consulted widely, even among NGOs, wanting to know what the average Thai would find most attractive. And he latched onto 2 issues that, sure enough, turned out to be vote-winners.
One is access to health care. Every Thai can now get treatment for no more than 30 baht per illness. This is a tremendous advance in human security and has genuinely contributed to the well-being of society. Unfortunately, it is grossly under-funded and in imminent danger of collapse into a something like the previous two-tier system, but for most people it’s a huge plus in Thaksin’s favour.
The second issue is debt. This is the modern plague of rural Thailand that is rapidly spreading into the cities. For Thaksin, debt is a perfectly normal way of doing business. Early in his career, he was in serious trouble with his creditors himself. He honestly believes that by making credit easier to get, he is helping Thais become richer. So his answer to the debt problem has worked both ways. Debt relief was attempted but never really got going since the worst debt was in private hands. But debt expansion has been a rip-roaring success, no matter how many bankers go to bed with worried frowns each night.
These achievements, and his neo-feudal personal largesse , play very well in a society that has very little faith in a system of democratic rights and freedoms. It is quite touching that so many commentators expect Thais to trust in democracy when no other Thai institution runs on democratic principles. Private businesses don’t; the elephantine government bureaucracy doesn’t; schools, armies and monasteries don’t; most families don’t. For many Thais, the dubious ‘freedoms’ of democracy are best exemplified in the chaos of Bangkok’s traffic.
Far better to hanker after idealized reminiscences of previous ‘strong men’, dictators who broke the rules but got things done. If Thaksin can make billions for himself, then no matter how he managed it, he’s obviously got something and it’s wise to hang on to his coat-tails, earn a few hundred baht for turning up at his rallies in a silly hat, and hope for more goodies down the line.
There are disaffected sections of society who will never vote for Thai Rak Thai: the families of assassinated drug ‘suspects’; chicken farmers whose flocks were culled in Thaksin’s duplicitous mismanagement of the avian flu outbreak. But these are isolated grievances that can be safely ignored in a political-cum-advertising campaign designed for the masses who prefer the ‘big people’ to make the decisions while they fight the day-to-day struggle for happiness, peace and security.
So Thaksin’s plutocratic legitimacy is not related to any moral stature. His professional status is based on his unapologetic knack for amassing personal wealth. His political success is measured by ‘19 million votes’, as he repeatedly reminds everyone. He believes he has a right to rule, not because he is morally good or wise (although no doubt he considers himself as exemplary in both fields), but because he is a winner. For example, although he once in a while goes through the motions, he gives no appearance of even the remotest interest in the teachings of Buddhism.
This is why the thinking elite of Thailand have turned on him. The man has reduced the nation to the status of a company which may have an airy-fairy mission statement but whose major goal is money-grubbing.
But what comes after Thaksin? Political reform in the form of constitutional amendments is accepted as inevitable by just about everyone. But even if this can be done, and it can be done right, it will merely increase the opportunity for good government. It can never close the door on bad governors. And there are plenty more where Thaksin came from.
1. US$1 = about 38 baht.
2. At the beginning of this year, Thaksin and members of his Cabinet spent a week in At Samart, a poor district in the Northeast. His visit was televised in a 24-hour ‘reality show’, so that government officials throughout the country could observe how to ‘solve poverty’. They saw him taking rides in villager’s trucks and paying thousands for the service from a ready role of banknotes. He directed farmers pleading landlessness to Land Reform officials with instructions to find them some land – immediately. Villagers wanting loans were given instant credit clearance and cash on the spot.
3. In response to the 1997 collapse, Maha Boowa organized collections of gold jewelry among his following, melted it down and presented the resulting gold bars, plus wads of donated foreign currency, to a bemused Governor of the Bank of Thailand to clear the national debt.
4. But not his first covert involvement. On his return from his doctoral studies in the US, young police officer Thaksin was assigned to ‘security’ duties in Parliament for his relatives who were MPs at the time. In fact this meant acting as bagman, delivering ‘payments’ among the faction’s MPs.
5. The Shinawatra corporate empire includes a PR firm, Matchbox, on permanent retainer to Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party.
6. The first NEC was selected by the Senate appointed before the 1997 constitution was promulgated and so got a half-term of 4½ years
7. He has, for example, paid off the traffic tickets of complaining taxi-drivers. So he can then ask them to stop any passengers muttering anti-government sentiments. Some taxis have refused to take people to anti-Thaksin protests.