One of the funniest and saddest photographs of Thailand’s turmoil was taken by my Reuters colleague Vivek Prakash on Silom Road in Bangkok on April 22. It shows a crowd of protesters from the so-called ‘multi-coloured shirt’ group showing their contempt for opposing ‘red shirt’ protesters encamped across the road.
One man proudly holds up a sign he has painstakingly drawn in blue pen, in English, presumably for the benefit of the foreign media covering the stand-off, condemning the reds – who are mostly but not exclusively made up of Thailand’s urban and rural poor – as “uneducate people”.
The clumsy effort to dismiss Thailand’s poor as idiots was not an isolated insult – it is at the heart of the philosophy of supporters of the current government led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, and a central tenet of faith for the royalist ‘yellow shirt’ People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) which, in an uneasy alliance with Abhisit’s Democrat Party, has led opposition to fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
Their argument is that many Thais are simply not ready for democracy. Especially in rural areas, they say, feudal patronage networks and electoral bribery are rife, and country people often know no better than to sell their votes to the highest bidder. This means that populist and venal demagogues can seize power via the ballot box by duping and bribing the poor to vote for them, and then proceed to lead the country towards ruin by corruptly enriching themselves and their cronies at the expense of Thailand’s national interest. And therefore, the argument goes, it is necessary for the enlightened elites among Bangkok’s middle and upper classes, the judiciary, bureaucracy, military brass and – above all – the monarchy, to act as guardians and custodians of democracy, intervening when necessary to prevent their less sophisticated fellow citizens from making terrible mistakes by misguidedly casting their votes for the wrong person. Western-style democracy is not appropriate for Thailand – at least, not yet – and for the moment the morally-upright and well-educated elites must steer their dim-witted rural brethren with a firm but benevolent guiding hand.
As General Sonthi Boonyarataglin, leader of the 2006 coup, said in an interview shortly after seizing power:
I suspect many Thais still lack a proper understanding of democracy. The people have to understand their rights and their duties. Some have yet to learn about discipline.
I think it is important to educate the people about true democratic rule.
Unfortunately for the backers of the coup, things did not work out according to plan. The policies the military-backed government put in place were widely seen as a disaster. When elections were held again, in December 2007, the People Power Party that was a proxy for Thaksin won by far the most seats and built a coalition government, only for the democratic choice of the people to be again thrown out by Thailand’s elites, this time through a combination of judicial intervention and mob rule. Yellow shirt protesters seized Thailand’s government buildings, forcing the elected administration to work in makeshift offices and rendering it near-impossible for them to govern the country. Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej was forced to step down after judges ruled he had abused his office by receiving nominal payments for appearing on “Tasting, Grumbling”, a cookery show on television; three months later, after the yellow shirts blockaded Bangkok’s airports in a protest that battered Thailand’s economy and international reputation, another judicial decision disbanded the People Power Party and after some political horsetrading overseen by the military, the opposition cobbled together the current coalition and Abhisit became Thailand’s prime minister.
Finally, Thailand’s government was in the hands of members of the elite with impeccable educational credentials. Abhisit was educated at England’s aristocratic Eton College and Oxford University; his finance minister, Korn Chatikavanij, is also an Oxford graduate.
Yet the unschooled impoverished masses, it appears, have still not learned what is best for them. Thailand’s crisis flared again in March as pro-Thaksin red shirts launched a new anti-government protest. The country’s media, almost exclusively pro-establishment, was appalled. “Red rage rising,” declared a headline in the Bangkok Post. “Rural hordes head for the capital.”
The protesters occupied a favourite district of Bangkok’s moneyed elite, and set up a fortified camp among the luxury shopping malls and five star hotels at the Rajaprasong intersection. By the time the military had driven them out in mid-May, fighting had killed 90 people and wounded hundreds, several buildings had been set abaze by arsonists among the red shirts, and Thailand’s economy and image had suffered another tragic blow. In the crackdown that followed, leaders of the red shirt movement were jailed, in stark contrast to the yellow shirt bosses who had occupied the airports and who remain free, and even – in the case of Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya – in charge of a crucial government portfolio. Dissenting voices were silenced, with heavy censorship of all anti-government views, tens of thousands of websites blocked, and community radio stations in rural areas shut down. A state of emergency remains in force in several provinces including Bangkok, giving Abhisit’s government wide-ranging powers to enforce order and stifle opposition.
For supporters of the establishment, the tragic events of 2010 have confirmed their worst fears about the stupidity and credulity of the masses. They point out that the ordinary red shirts who occupied central Bangkok were paid to take part in the protests, presumably at least partly out of Thaksin’s deep pockets. Furthermore, many impoverished red shirts have been told that if Thaksin returns to power, their debts will be forgiven. And the arson attacks on May 19 seemed to prove just how uncivilised and dangerous the “rural hordes” are. Now more than ever, they believe that what Thailand needs is a strong government of the elites that crushes Thaksin, safeguards the established hierarchy, and returns the Land of Smiles to social harmony with everybody knowing their place.
But it is by no means obvious that the support of much of Thailand’s poor for Thaksin Shinawatra is evidence of their lack of understanding and the ease with which they can be bribed to support a leader who will not bring them any real benefits. Andrew Walker of the Australian National University, who runs the superb New Mandala blog with Nicholas Farrelly, has written a detailed analysis of rural voting. As he says:
Political commentators have regularly asserted that the Thai populace, and especially the rural populace, lacks the basic characteristics essential for a modern democratic citizenry. Accounts of the deficiencies of the voting population often focus on three key problems. First, uneducated rural voters are parochial and have little interest in policy issues. Lacking a well-developed sense of national interest they vote for candidates who can deliver immediate benefits. Secondly, given their poverty and lack of sophistication they are readily swayed by the power of money. Vote buying is said to be endemic. Cash distributed by candidates, through networks of local canvassers, plays a key role in securing voter loyalty. And, thirdly, rural electoral mobilisation is achieved via hierarchical ties of patronage whereby local influential figures can deliver blocks of rural votes to their political masters.
And yet, as Walker convincingly shows with his analysis of Baan Tiam village an hour’s drive from Chiang Mai, rural people may not have a deep grasp of the intricacies of politics, but they are more than capable of making a decision about which party they feel will do the most to improve their lives:
From the perspective of Baan Tiam’s rural constitution, the Thaksin government was elected because a majority of voters considered that TRT candidates and policies best matched their values for political leadership. Often the match was imperfect but, on balance, TRT was the most attractive alternative on offer. This electoral decision was swept away in a wave of urban protest that culminated in the sabotaged election of April 2006 and the coup of September 2006. Coup supporters and constitutional alchemists have sought to de-legitimise Thaksin’s electoral support by alleging that it is based on the financially fuelled mobilisation of an easily led and ill-informed rural mass. This erasure of the everyday political values contained in the rural constitution represents a much more fundamental threat to Thailand’s democracy than the tearing up of the 1997 charter.
Walker’s scholarly study reinforces points that should be obvious to anybody who gives the issue any thought – quite clearly, whatever one thinks of Thaksin Shinawatra (and my views are here), his Thai Rak Thai government made the effort to listen to what rural voters wanted and to implement policies that improved their lives. It was entirely rational for rural voters to support Thaksin, and this is not a sign of stupidity. Quite the reverse. Of course rural voters are often influenced by local concerns and by personalities, but how else are they to decide who to vote for? Until Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai transformed Thai politics a decade ago, Thai political parties had no clear agenda at all, and any voter – rural or urban, rich or poor, educated or uneducated – could only vote according to narrow issues and personalities.
Thaksin’s detractors point to his undeniable greed and corruption as evidence that rural voters were casting their ballots unwisely, but again this misses the point. As James Stent notes in his analysis of the Thai crisis:
Bangkok friends [say] that Thaksin was elected only because of the power of his wealth, and that the voters were bribed. From my own experience in the village of Baan Ton Thi in Chiang Rai, I knew that Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party was indeed alleged to have paid THB 500 to each villager to secure their votes, but in conversations with the villagers, it was apparent that these villagers genuinely liked what Thaksin was doing for them, and felt that he was the first Thai politician who talked to them about their own welfare, and who delivered on his promises…
When I asked the villagers if it were not true that Thaksin was very corrupt, the amused response invariably was “Of course, he is corrupt—all politicians are corrupt, but this is the first corrupt politician who has done something for us.” To this day, the corruption, abuses, and personal wealth of Thaksin are glossed over by his rural supporters – not denied, just treated as irrelevant.
Moreover, all parties make use of vote buying and patronage networks, and this does not mean that rural voters are not able to cast their ballots sensibly for the party that offers them the best prospects for positive change. Thongchai Winichakul, professor of Southeast Asian history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, comprehensively skewers the anti-rural prejudices of the Bangkok establishment in his 2008 study ‘Toppling Democracy’:
The blame usually falls on the less educated and poor voters, mostly in rural areas, who allegedly sell their votes in exchange for short-term and petty material benefits. They lack the proper understanding of democracy, it is said, and lack good morals because they are ignorant and uninformed due to their lack of education. They are held to be partly responsible for the failure of democracy. Most of the education campaigns against vote-buying target the rural population and the urban poor. They are held to be infected by the disease, while the urban educated middle class are less so or not infected at all. The latter are champions of democracy whose task is to clean up politics. Certainly, the discourse on vote-buying is not groundless, and there are people who care for nothing but petty material gains. But the discourse is a gross generalisation based on the urban middle-class bias against the provincial-based electoral majority.
Thongchai notes that “rural citizens are more or less informed and conscious of their interests like their urban counterparts”, and that the assumption of superiority by the Bangkok middle classes is really a sign of their ignorance:
The urban middle class, in general, are uninformed and ignorant; their bias robs them of the opportunity to learn about their rural counterparts.
So there are compelling reasons to believe that the whole paradigm used to justify the 2006 coup, the judicial interventions of 2008, and the ongoing campaign to crush the red movement, is fundamentally flawed.
Many among the middle and upper classes in Bangkok have completely failed to grasp what is happening in their own country. Their inability to realise that the poor may have some understanding of democracy and may genuinely want to see a fairer Thailand means that they are convinced that the masses who support the red movement are doing so because they have been bought or duped by Thaksin and other “terrorist” red leaders. And as well as deriding the poor as uneducated fools, they also lament the stupidity of the foreign media and foreign governments, who have failed to understand that the establishment elites, the supporters of the status quo, are the good guys in this story, and the villain is Thaksin who has stirred up the credulous masses and paid them to undermine their own country.
The role of fugitive ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra as the main culprit is seldom being mentioned by the international community and international media. Obviously, it is beyond their imagination to conceive that one person could be responsible for such massive civil disobedience. But this is exactly the point. Thaksin has channelled his money, via his divorced wife and crony associates, to finance the demonstration.
Thai mystery writer and composer S.P. Somtow has also weighed into the debate with this surreal blog post in which he explains that foreign journalists lack the language skills to comprehend what is going on, and are desperate to portray Thailand’s crisis as a repeat of the “mythical story arc” of the 1986 Philippines uprising in order to “make sure the advertising money keeps flowing in”. It does not appear to have occurred to him that a more sensible business model for the international media to follow would be to report events dispassionately and with some degree of accuracy.
In an effort to educate uninformed foreigners about what is really going on, Thailand’s foreign ministry helpfully supplied this guide for journalists. Among other things, it explains that Thailand is fully committed to the freedom of the press but that some media inciting violence had to be shut down; that it is inaccurate to view Thailand’s crisis as rich versus poor but “such rhetoric has been employed by the protest leaders to create group emotion, playing on people’s grievances and sense of injustice”; that “the Thai monarchy is above politics”; that the “lèse-majesté law in Thailand has not been an obstacle to discussions”; and finally, that it is wrong to suggest there are double standards in Thailand:
For the present Government, there is only one standard and all are equal before the law.
Given that Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, who oversees the ministry that put out this statement, was a key figure involved in the yellow shirt occupation of Bangkok’s airports in 2008, it is clear quite how stupid the government regards the foreign media to be if it expects us to believe this stuff. Kasit remains a profound embarrassment to his nation, as he lectures foreign governments and foreign diplomats about how they should view the country’s political crisis, while his very presence at the heart of government totally disproves the image of Thailand he is trying to sell.
It is not only the foreign media that does not find the arguments of supporters of Thailand’s establishment to be credible: many foreign investment strategists have come to the same conclusion. Standard Chartered’s country risk team wrote in a quarterly analysis of global risks in April that:
It is not clear that the gravity of the position is fully understood within the Thai establishment, where hitherto the issue was seen to be Thaksin. It is now a matter of the lack of democratic credentials of the current government.
Yet among well-educated Thais in the middle and upper classes, who regard themselves as the guardians of democracy in Thailand, there appears to be little ability or willingness to think critically about the situation. This is particularly apparent in their failure to confront the dangers of the military’s increasingly pernicious role in Thai politics.
However bad Thaksin may have been for Thai democracy, it is very difficult to argue that the military has not been profoundly worse. In modern Thai history the military has proven itself adept at political meddling and blatant corruption, but far less skilled at doing what it is supposed to do – defending the country. Incredibly, it even lost a brief war against neighbouring Laos in 1987/88.
In 1992, Thailand’s middle classes in Bangkok bravely took a stand against military rule. Many were killed, but they achieved what seemed to be a decisive watershed in Thailand’s development – military intervention in politics was no longer deemed acceptable. And yet 14 years later, Bangkok’s establishment applauded the coup that overthrew Thaksin. And since then, it has been mute as the military took a driving seat in politics and as its entrenched corruption became painfully apparent.
The military’s ham-fisted efforts to rob the Thai people would be comical if they were not so damaging. The Thai air force paid far more than other countries such as Romania for Gripen jets from Sweden. A 350 million baht airship was ordered to monitor insurgents in southern Thailand despite plentiful evidence that it would be useless – it cannot fly high enough to avoid being brought down by a rifle shot and it is full of leaks. The military has asked for nearly 5 billion baht to buy 121 more armoured personnel carriers from Ukraine, even though it has yet to take delivery of 96 similar vehicles ordered in 2007 for 3.9 billion baht – the supplier was unable to provide engines for them.
Most astonishing of all was the saga of the GT200 scanners that were supposedly able to detect explosives, drugs and even people, bought at vast expense by the military and some government departments. The GT200 was a not-particularly-elaborate scam – the devices are useless lumps of plastic without any mechanical parts. Yet faced with overwhelming evidence that the military had been comprehensively swindled, Thai army chief General Anupong Paochinda convened a press conference of all the top military brass in February to insist to the Thai people that the GT200 actually works.
Even Thaksin would have thought twice about trying to get away with such a blatant deception. Yet Thailand’s educated establishment, while well aware of just how corrupt the military is, has chosen to engage in a willing suspension of disbelief. In a betrayal of their vows to stamp out corruption, Thailand’s ruling classes have submissively accepted the military’s behaviour. They have also chosen to turn a blind eye to clear human rights abuses by the military – most notably the murder of hundreds of Rohingya refugees from Burma – while loudly denouncing past atrocities by Thaksin administrations such as the war on drugs and the killing of Muslims in southern Thailand at Kru Sae and Tak Bai, even though many actually backed these actions at the time.
Worse, many educated Thais who mock and denounce the veneration of Thaksin by Thailand’s poor have shown embarrassing adulation for the armed forces. Military spokesman Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd has graced the cover of at least two high-society magazines (here and here) and was hailed by the Nation newspaper as “the country’s coolest colonel”. The Nation even provided an “exclusive video” of the contents of the colonel’s bag, with simpering journalists scarely able to contain their excitement.
This kind of behaviour would be roundly ridiculed if it came from Thailand’s poor – it would be seen as more evidence of their lack of sophistication and inadequate education. But it appears to be perfectly acceptable if it comes from the establishment.
Thailand’s middle and upper classes are in a similar state of denial over the uncomfortable fact that in order to stay in power, Abhisit’s government has had to do deals with some of the country’s most venal and corrupt politicians – most notably, Newin Chidchob. Their view seems to be that anything is justified as long as it helps keep out a pro-Thaksin government.
And yet it is clear to any objective observer that the rights and freedoms of the Thai people are more curtailed now than they ever were under Thaksin, and that corruption is worse. Thais who support the current regime argue that this is necessary for the sake of democracy. Their view is reminiscent of the infamous statement of a U.S. major during the Vietnam war about the American military’s bombardment of the town of Bến Tre: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” Apologists for the current regime appear to believe that it has been necessary to destroy Thai democracy in order to save it.
Democracy is imperfect and flawed, in Thailand or anywhere. As Winston Churchill famously said: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Voters may often make rash choices that they come to regret, but that is how society learns. If you think a government is pursuing policies that are bad for your country, you need to come up with alternative policies that will win the support of voters. You don’t send in the military, dissolve legitimate governments through dubious judicial interventions, shut down media that disagree with you and treat even peaceful protest as treason.
As James Stent argues, Thailand’s Democrat Party has consistently failed to come up with a credible democratic response to Thaksin’s popularity:
The Democratic Party … proved from the time of Thaksin’s election in 2001 unable to rethink its approach and image, or to present rural voters with any sort of credible alternative to Thaksin. The educated middle and upper classes of Bangkok were seething with resentment, but my own feeling at the time was that either they would have to put up some viable political alternative to Thaksin, or accept that they were going to have to live under the man for some time to come, as the inevitable price they paid for having failed to develop an inclusive national vision that reached out to and involved the poorer majority of voters who now had turned to Thaksin as their political idol.
Having failed to develop such a vision, Thailand’s establishment has decided to dispense with democracy for the time being. Instead of overcoming dissent with better arguments and better policies, they have simply done their best to outlaw opposition. They have resorted to tactics employed by intellectually bankrupt dictatorships which, unable to win the support of the majority of their people through democratic means, turn to censorship, intimidation and repression. And a great many educated Thais have given this their full support, while continuing to blame the poor for the failure of democracy in Thailand.
One of the most eloquent recent denunciations of oppressive rule in Thailand came from Abhisit Vejjajiva in 2008, when he was still in opposition and two yellow shirt protesters were killed during clashes in Bangkok:
For all that has happened, the PM cannot deny his responsibility, either by negligence or intention. What is even worse than laying the blame on the authorities is vilifying the people. I have never thought that we would have a state which has the people killed and seriously injured, and then accuses the people of the crimes. This is unacceptable. I have heard those in the government always asking people if they are Thai or not. Considering what you are doing now, it is not a question of being Thai or not, but whether you are human at all.
It is a tragedy for Thailand that so many educated Thais who should know better have abandoned principles that they claimed to support less than two years ago.
What is the point of being educated if you have forgotten how to think?