Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Thai coups, past, present and......?

"We have a neo-feudal society in the 21st century, which is anachronistic and incompatible with the new trends, new expectations and new demands,"
Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Will we ever learn?

Articulate blogger Ginola recently described the previous Thai coups as "easy to manage for the junta". I disagree, I think each coup in Thailand has been a tip in a power struggle. To demonstrate my reasons for thinking this we first need to ask: what really causes coups in Thailand, and why?

It was only fifteen years ago that, not for the first time, the Thai military opened fire on its own people. Their crime was protesting against the manipulation of constitutional law by the junta for the single purpose of making one of their own the next PM.

So serious was the fall out from the 1992 disaster that a social bargain had to be made. The state drew up a new constitution, a document so crucial that it became known as the "people's constitution" for it really seemed to be handing over some power to the masses. It featured new regulations, independent checking bodies and a new independent news channel to compensate for the antiquated style of media that had reported so meekly on the tragic events of the uprising.

It all seemed that change was in the air. The world was becoming globalised, Thailand's economy was getting on track and now the people had some real way of checking on the ruling elite, even if they remained so much richer than the masses.

For a while it stuck. The economic crash of '97 rocked the economy but from the ashes stepped forth Thaksin Shiniwat, a man who promised to lead Thailand back to the promised land. Democratically elected, he even became the first PM to serve out a full term. But as titanic as his rise to power was, his fall from grace was even more spectacular.

Who were the faces behind the coup of 2006 and what were their motives?

The official line of course is that the military - led by General Sonthi - made the decision independently to power forth and remove Thaksin for the sake of national unity. When that same military has control over every TV outlet and a large portion of other media, such convictions could become gospel truth for many.

But therein lied one of the very first problems for the military. The man they had removed was widely admired by the same masses they now professed to have liberated: the rural working class. The junta were painfully aware of their own poor welcome in the north east and imposed a martial law on the provinces lasting almost a year. The voices of anger were stifled but not completely silenced.

It could be argued that imposing martial law was a mistake, for it created hundreds, maybe thousands, of angry workers who found a new group of heroes to let them vent their anger: the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DAAD). Led by Jakrapob Penkair, the DAAD led protests outside the residence of the octogenarian General Prem, the president of the privy council. The numbers of protesters may have been relatively small, but their family and friends were watching.

It was a tense situation. "Pa Prem" was so well respected in the palace that he had - subconsciously, perhaps - become more than the military man he really was in the eyes of many. But Penkair and his team broke taboo of speaking publicly against Prem (something Thaksin never managed). "He allowed the coup to happen. He was a good leader for Thailand but now he must go. Nobody can expect a man his age to behave rationally" said Penkair to 'The Nation'. Penakir went one step further when speaking at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand and suggested that a judge in the trial of the former EC commissioners had had an affair with Prem.

It all seemed bizarre. The dissenters had found a direction for their rage but did they really believe that a man of Prem's age had orchestrated a military coup by himself?

Chulalongkorn University lecturer and committed Marxist Ji Unpagkorn believes that a key factor in the coup was Thailand's middle class. Ji argues that Sondhi Litmonkul's feud with former friend Thaksin Shiniwatra could have signalled the end for Thai Rak Thai. As Sondhi rallied his business contacts and appointed himself the leader of the middle class protesters - who never cared much for Thaksin anyway - he also formed alliances with some members of the working class and royalist members of the elite. Ji speculates that without the rebellion from Bangkok's new middle class, the military would never have felt confident enough to lead the coup.

But like Ji, nobody seems to believe the middle class of the 'Big Mango' wielded enough power to actually orchestrate the coup, since they lacked the mass base below them or the financial clout above them. Rather, the Bangkokians lent legitimacy to the ouster.

So if not General Sondhi and his unit, if not Prem, if not the middle class from the capital, then who?

The answer is revealed in the men we saw paraded in the government line up after the coup, not only for who they are but for how they behaved. What we saw was a group of men painfully, woefully anachronistic in their outlook. Men who seemed to belong to a past age, an age when family ties mattered more than work rate, when military rank was respected more than poverty plans for the masses, and a time when people simply shut up and accepted what was happening because those doing it were of a higher social order.

The truth is there was no "one force" behind the coup. It was an alliance of the "old money", social groups who saw that - for all his faults - Thaksin was leading Thailand towards the age of technology and populism, a time when the poor understood the power of their vote and most crucially a time of globalisation. The latter was something that could spell ruin for some members of the 'old money'.

The coup of 2006 was the brainchild of aged, elitist cliques that saw their power - and thus their wealth - falling under threat. Faced with danger, they responded in the only way they knew how, by seizing it back and clinging on.

But make no mistake, Thailand has suffered heavily from this. Our Land of Smiles is conflicted. It is heading towards the age of globalisation and free media , worldwide fashions and international stock exchanges yet those looking to steer them through the cyber age look more akin to generals from World War Two. Moreover, the international community views coups and military rule with scepticism.

To see why, we only have to look back at the track record of the junta. As Sittichai Yoon said: "I give the junta an 'F' grade across the board". The antiquated junta ruled 2007 Thailand like it was 1907 Siam, and it was a sham.

But how can we be sure this will not happen again? Thailand may have survived this time, but if the old ginger decides to snatch power once more ten years down the line, what might be different?

How another coup would affect the Kingdom is not a question anyone but the Thais can answer. All I can note is that the working class - the class Maxheadroom describes as "meek" - were the only class that were not considered by anyone to have played a role in the removal of a democratically elected government. When hurt, some surprisingly chose to vent their anger at a surprise target.

It looks to me like the rural folk fully understand the power of the vote. They might be apathetic, but only because they sense that all politicians are corrupt liars. But when pushed hard enough, the masses might just get ticked off enough to send the old ginger a message, and that might signal some major changes for Thailand.

It has happened before. In the nineteenth century Thailand's working class rebellion forced the abolition of unpaid Labour. In the seventies, a long series of strikes saw the elite reluctantly agree to pay manual labourers a living wage. The working class doubtlessly faced the same intimidation then as they do now, but they survived.

Education is slowly but surely becoming widespread in Thailand. A famous politician once said "An educated electorate is much harder to govern". Such an axiom is something that elite classes around the world are all too aware of.

Ultimately, the coup of 2006 was a battle of wills. On one side is the will of those who cannot and will not accept the reality of modernisation, of a world without a wealthy ruling class calling the shots, a world where the army are not heroes for marching in and seizing power at will, a world where everyone is educated to some degree and a world where money is earned through business acumen and not only family heritage.

On the other is a new middle class and a developing lower class, fighting for the opposite.

Right now, the power lies with the old guard. One of the biggest weapons in their arsenal is a patter line of pseudo patriotic ideals. That somehow a coup is part of a great Thai tradition, that Thailand has some "special" style of democracy which any true patriot should take pride in. It's a propaganda tool the junta have utilised many times.

Thailand has many great traditions, but the above is not one of them. To end the power struggle between the old and the new, in my humble opinion, Thais will have to ask themselves some questions. Some of them may be agonisingly difficult to answer. But answer them we must, because reality will not wait for us.

Today, blogger Ian put up a blog asking simply "What's wrong with England?". He put his thoughts, and I put mine. Ian and I both know that criticism of our country is not considered unpatriotic in our culture. On the contrary, it is almost considered a duty to be constructively critical. We are not bound by restrictions on speech other than common law, there are no people protected from criticism and English media is not subject to censorship. All these things help us to ask difficult questions and find answers they will believe can help everyone in our country. It is not a uniquely western concept and it does not make Ian or I better people, it is simply a privilege that has been fought for and won by generations before us.

I wonder, if a Thai put up a similar message, what would happen? I fear that some might accuse them of being unpatriotic, others would not say what they really feel and others still might be unwilling to criticise, perhaps because they feel guilty for doing so.

Thailand like all nations is in exciting and fast changing times. In such times we may feel that our history, culture and identity helps us to feel secure in such unchartered waters. But let's not allow that fear to stop us from learning. And learning is how any mistakes in our past are prevented from repeating over and over again.


Anonymous said...

Discussion of the true source of Thailand's political problems is illegal and unwelcome in Thai society at any rate.

hobby said...

We should not overlook the fact that if Thaksin had changed his ways slightly, a coup would not have even been possible.

I no longer blame his rural supporters, as it is too much to expect them to rise above self interest when their more educated urban counterparts set such a bad example, but I do think Thaksin's TRT party members should shoulder some of the blame for not standing up to him to smooth out his worst habits and excesses.

The junta have proven they are slow learners. Time will tell whether Thaksin has chosen to learn good things during his spell away from power (if, as I expect, one of his puppets will rise to power at some stage in the future).

I cannot see things getting any better until the populace regard people like Thaksin, Samak, Banharm etc as unsuitable to lead, and sensible aspiring politicians distance themselves from that sort of politician.

Unfortunately, I doubt it will happen in my or your lifetimes.

fall said...

Definitely one of your best piece. Why not send it to Bangkok Post, the Nation, or Prachathai(if the first two refuse to run)?
It deserve more audience exposure.

Hobby -
The main firestorm that stroke urban middle-class anti-Thaksin is his sales of Shin Corp. Half the crowd piss that he did not pay tax and another half piss that he sell national asset. On knowledge of hindsight, I would not exactly call it a slight change.

hobby said...

OK, Fall, I concede that for Thaksin, paying proper tax would not be a slight change.