22 Jan. 2008

Two Tales Of Thailand

I've always thought Thailand's former billionaire prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, was a scoundrel and a Big Business stooge. But this article in The Canberra Times paints quite a different picture:
... what is going on in Thailand is not really a military-civilian power struggle. It is a struggle between the city and the country.

It was only Thaksin's great wealth that enabled him to rise so fast in politics, for he was not a member of the traditional political class.

The country's politics has long been dominated by a Bangkok-based elite that has close ties to the bureaucracy, the military and the monarchy.

Local political bosses in the provinces delivered the peasants' votes in return for cash and favours, but Thailand was governed by and for the urban middle class.
Thaksin, the great-grandson of a Chinese immigrant, came from the north of the country, and made his money in mobile phones.

He was the ultimate outsider, and when he won the 2001 election (the cleanest in Thailand's history), he really upset the insiders.

He started spending the Government's money on the villages where the majority of Thais still live: everything from a debt moratorium for farmers to micro-credit, better schools and, above all, universal health care.

During his five years in office the proportion of Thais living in poverty dropped by half, and health insurance even became available to the country's two million foreign workers.

But of course this meant diverting some money from the traditional concerns of the urban middle class.

The Thai economy grew strongly through all this, allowing Thaksin to pay off the country's debt to the International Monetary Fund two years early.

He was always a populist and sometimes an outright demagogue.

He had a nasty authoritarian streak that came out in actions like his "war on drugs" that saw 2700 people killed in seven weeks (the police deny that they were operating death squads, but then they would, wouldn't they?) and his clumsy and brutal attempts to quell the insurgency in Thailand's three mostly Muslim southern provinces.

But he won the 2005 election with an even bigger landslide than 2001...

The poor have spoken, and it will be difficult for the military to ignore what they have said. Real politics has reached Thailand at last.

What will happen next is a series of mini-crises, as the army and the middle class struggle to come to terms with the fact that they have lost control of the country.
It may even blow up into a major crisis and a new military intervention.

But it is much more likely to end up with a permanent change in the nature of Thai politics.

The country is leaving the South-East Asian model military interventions, downtrodden peasantry, elite dominance and moving towards the welfare-state style of democracy that prevails in most of the developed world.

And a good thing, too.
I'm not able to ignore Thaksin's violent excesses and pandering to international Big Business quite as easily as Gwynne Dyer, but it's interesting to hear the story from that angle. It will be interesting to see where the country goes from here.

NB: I'm off to Phuket for holidays later this year, my first real holiday in a very, very long time.