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Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2008

Thailand: populism vs. privilege


Thaksin Shinawatra is shaping up to be the Juan Peron of Thailand, with the significant difference that he is a rich Peron. The billions he earned in his telecom businesses enabled him to rise to the top of Thai politics — and he used his power to shift wealth and power systematically from the rich to the poor. Like a latter-day Peron, he made decisive changes in government spending patterns, and the poor loved him for it.

Thaksin's human rights record was abominable, but he was three times elected prime minister, in 2001, 2005 and 2006. However, he was overthrown by the army later in 2006 after street protests paid for by the rich and privileged: His party was disbanded, and he and 110 senior members of the party were banned from politics for five years. But the game is far from over, and Thaksin may haunt Thai politics for as long as Peron haunted Argentina.

Thaksin went into exile after the coup, mainly to avoid the corruption charges (perhaps trumped up, perhaps not) that threatened to jail him and his wife Pojaman for years. But when the generals allowed a return to democracy last year, the People's Power Party (PPP), a proxy for his disbanded Thai Rak Thai party, won a majority of seats and formed a coalition government led by Thaksin's political ally, PPP leader Samak Sundaravej.

This was awkward for the army, which now had to take orders from the allies of the people whom it had ousted in the 2006 coup, and it got even more awkward when Thaksin returned to Thailand last February. Within months the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), the group whose anti-Thaksin demonstrations had triggered the military coup of 2006, was out on the streets again demanding Samak's resignation. He was only Thaksin's stooge, they claimed, and PPP had only won the election by fooling or bribing millions of ignorant rural voters. Which brings us to the heart of the matter.

Thaksin was a populist who won the support of the poor by promising them debt relief, cheap loans, improved health care, and other services that were not previously part of the currency of Thai politics. This is hardly against the rules in other democracies, but in Thailand it infuriated the traditional political elite and their mostly urban, middle-class supporters. The peasants, instead of obediently voting for the traditional rural allies of the urban elite, were voting for Thaksin and their own economic interest.

The response of the urban elite was to create the People's Alliance for Democracy — and in Bangkok, an island of shining prosperity in a country that is still mostly poor peasants, they have lots of supporters. But the PAD has nothing to do with democracy. In fact, it claims that the ballot box gives too much weight to the ill-educated rural poor, whose votes can easily be "bought" (i.e. won) with promises of government largess.

The movement's leaders are less clear on what they want in place of democracy, but they want Parliament to be "reformed" so that most lawmakers are appointed (by them and their friends) rather than elected. Their arrogance is breath-taking — but they may not win a decisive victory. The king, who backed the coup in 2006, has stayed neutral this time, and the army chief, Gen. Anupong Paochinda, insists that the military will not stage a new coup.

The current crisis began on Aug. 26 when a mob of PAD supporters seized the prime minister's offices, Government House, which they have occupied ever since. Samak Sundaravej refused to resign, saying that "The PAD is an illegal group who have seized the Government House and declared their victory. How can that be correct?"

Samak declared a state of emergency on Sept. 2, after one person was killed and several dozen injured in street clashes between PPP and PAD supporters in Bangkok. On Thursday he promised a national referendum to resolve the crisis. Since rural people are still a large majority in Thailand, Samak will win the referendum easily, but that will not end the crisis because the People's Alliance for Democracy does not recognize the validity of rural votes.

Thaksin, who retreated abroad again last month after his wife was sentenced to three years in jail for income tax evasion, is still enormously popular with the rural poor, and could count on winning any free election in which he is allowed to stand. So he probably won't be allowed to stand. It's a recipe for interminable stalemate, like the political trench warfare that paralyzed Argentina for decades after Peron was driven into exile in 1955.

It's too bad that a figure as divisive as Thaksin was the first to try to open Thai politics up to the concerns of the poor, although a less flamboyant and abrasive politician would probably never have tried. It remains to be seen whether the PAD can shut the door again, and for how long.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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