Thailand's Elites Resist Democracy

Thailand's Elites Resist Democracy

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If George Orwell were alive today, he might find the battle for democracy now playing out in Bangkok reminiscent of his masterpiece, “Animal Farm.”

In a parody of Stalinism, “Animal Farm”’s famous commandment was “All Animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others." It could be rephrased to parody Thai-style democracy: “All are equal under democracy, but some - namely city power elites - are more equal than others.”

What we have been witnessing over the last few weeks in Bangkok, indeed, is the peasants’ answer to that law. Some 100,000 anti-government “red-shirt” protesters came from the rural areas and disbursed around the Thai capital, blocking roadways and entrances to upscale shopping malls in a month-long protest that has now brought the Thai government to the brink.

What do they want? Immediate dissolution of parliament and a new election. In other words, they may be wearing red, but their hearts throb for real representation and democracy.

Fierce supporters of exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in 2006 in a military coup while he was traveling abroad, (he was charged and convicted of corruption in absentia), the protestors are now threatening to cause economic disaster if new elections are not carried out. Tourism is down. Investments falter and stocks sink. Some shopping malls stayed closed for days.

Thaksin, though a divisive figure in Thai politics, was democratically elected in 2001. In 2005, he won re-election by a landslide with the highest voter turn out in Thai history. A populist, and a multibillionaire, he’d done more for the rural population than all his predecessors combined, introducing effective policies to alleviate rural poverty by half in four years, and, equally enticing, implementing universal health care.

Born in the northern province of Chiangmai, Thaksin also did something else that was unprecedented: He gave the long suffering rural population a sense of upward mobility and a vision of shared governance.

In Bangkok, he was considered by many as an outsider and a usurper. He seemed a direct threat to the long established balance of power. Worse, with his growing base in the countryside and his extraordinary wealth, which he used to buy votes, he became a rival for the affection the people have for their king.

Thaksin, in effect, threatened to rewrite the de facto feudal system in which the rural population played a subservient role to the Bangkok power elite. Peasants are meant to serve the upper class, not sit at the same table, democracy or not. One doesn’t need to look very far to see how that has traditionally played out in Thailand: Practically all the laborers and servants of the middle- and upper-middle-class in the city are from the rural areas, and the massage parlors and brothels in Thailand’s infamous sex industry are populated by young, poor people from the countryside and by ethnic minorities.

In December 2007, a pro-Thaksin prime minister was popularly elected to office in the general election. It was met by massive protests, this time by protesters wearing yellow shirts who disagreed with the election, claiming fraud. Members of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), the “yellow shirts” chose the color to honor Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Representing a more urban population - in many ways the educated and white-collar class - they blocked the airport for days and stranded nearly 250,000 tourists. The constitutional court, under pressure to get the country moving again, agreed with the yellow shirts and disqualified the pro-Thaksin prime minister. 
Trouble was there was no clear evidence of fraud.

Worse, by appropriating the symbol of the monarchy, the yellow shirts effectively eradicated the neutral ground from which the monarchy usually played its best role as mediator between factions.

Indeed, the long-revered king has been strangely silent since the crisis began. Since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, it has experienced many coups and counter-coups. Yet its monarchy until recent time held enormous power, providing much needed constancy and balance. King Bhumibol Adulyadej played the central role in a pivotal moment in Thailand’s transition to a democratic system. In 1992, when the country came to a standstill in an unprecedented crisis due to pro-democracy protests, he summoned the leaders of the two opposing parties, and both men appeared together on their knees in front of the king in a televised event, which soon led to a free election. 



But that may not work this time around. King Bhumibol Adulyadej is 83 years old and ailing. His heir apparent, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, is perceived by many as the wrong choice and he doesn’t carry the same gravitas and respect as his father. Besides, the king might have been a benevolent figure among the rural population, but he could never empower them politically and economically the way Thaksin had. Whether the monarchy is relevant or even helpful in restoring balance to the current crisis is debatable. Thaksin, on the other hand, is supportive of the red shirts from abroad, and has declared that it was time “for the people to come out in revolution."


In the meanwhile, the military and much of Thailand’s security forces have wisely decided to step aside and watch the tug of war between the current government and the red shirts play out. Part of the reason: some of the police and military rank and file sympathize with the red shirts, and now many monks are joining the protesters as well. The other part has to do with how the military coup that ousted Thaksin was the catalyst to Thailand’s current turmoil, and the military, itself fractious, is now far more cautious and reserved.

Democracy hasn’t really worked in Thailand. And it’s doubtful that even with free elections that both major voting blocks will agree to the outcome. But one thing is certain: Thailand’s image of itself is changing. The tourist Mecca known as the land of a thousand smiles has shown its messy, bloody underbelly - part metropolis, part dystopia. And as the rural-urban tension continues unresolved, defined by mutual distrust, it may very well lead to something close to real revolution.

Andrew Lam is the author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora and the forthcoming "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres" due out in 2010.