Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

A new Siamese tragedy

Thailand's recent military coup - the 18th since 1932 - ousted a leader, Thaksin Shinawatra, who had already lost moral legitimacy and much of his political power. In pre-empting the democracy of the street, argues Walden Bello, the country's military has administered a cure that will prove worse than the disease

November 1, 2006
8 min read

Democracy on the ropes

Thai democracy was in bad shape before Thaksin Shinawatra came to power in January 2001. The first Chuan Leekpai government in 1992-95 was marked by the absence of even the slightest effort at social reform. The government of former provincial businessman Banharn Silipa- Archa, in 1995-96, was accurately described as ‘a semi-kleptocratic administration where coalition partners were paid to stay sweet, just like he used to buy public works contracts’. Then followed, in 1996-97, the government of Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, a former general, which was based on an alliance among big business elites, provincial bosses and local godfathers.

Relatively free elections were held during this period, but they served mainly to determine which coalition of elites would have its turn at using government as a mechanism of private capital accumulation. The massive corruption, especially under Banharn and Chavalit, repelled the Bangkok middle class, while the urban and rural poor saw no sign of democracy making a change in their lives.

Thailand under IMF rule

Democracy suffered a further blow in 1997-2001 following the Asian financial crisis. This time it was not the local elites that were the culprit. It was the IMF, which pushed for very severe cuts in public spending, decreeing many corporations bankrupt, liberalising foreign investment laws and privatising state enterprises. The IMF assembled a $72 billion rescue fund, but the money was spent not to save the economy but to enable the government to pay off foreign creditors.

When the Chavalit government hesitated to adopt these measures, the IMF pressed for a change in government. The second Chuan government complied fully, and for the next three years Thailand had a government that was accountable not to its people but a foreign institution. Not surprisingly, it lost much of its credibility as the country plunged into recession and one million Thais fell under the poverty line.

The Thaksin years: monopoly capitalism-cum-populism

Thailand was a severely compromised democracy by the time Thaksin won the 2001 election on an anti-IMF platform.

In his first year in office, he inaugurated three heavy spending programmes that directly contradicted the IMF edicts: a moratorium on farmers’ existing debt, along with facilitating new credit for them; medical treatment for all at only 30 baht (less than a dollar) per illness; and a one million baht fund for every district to invest as it saw fit.

These policies did not bring on the inflationary crisis that the IMF and conservative local economists expected. Instead they buoyed the economy and cemented Thaksin’s massive support among the rural and urban poor.

This was the ‘good’ side of Thaksin. The problem was that, having secured his support with these programmes – and with practices that analysts Alec and Chanida Bamford called ‘neofeudal patronage’ – he began to subvert freedom of the press, use control of government to favour his businesses and those of his cronies, buy allies, and buy off opponents.

His war on drugs, using his favourite agency, the police, resulted in the loss of over 2,500 lives. This bothered human rights activists but was popular with the majority. He also assumed a hardline, purely punitive policy toward the Muslim insurgency in the three southern provinces that merely worsened the situation there. His championing of a free trade agreement with the US created an opposition coalition of activists and threatened agricultural and industrial interests. High-handed, arrogant, unwilling to listen and vindictive, he was his own worst enemy.

Nonetheless, Thaksin appeared to have found the formula for a long stay in power, supported by an electoral majority, when he overreached. In January, his family sold their controlling stake in telecoms conglomerate Shin Corp to a Singapore government front called Temasek Holdings for $1.87 billion. Before the sale, Thaksin had made sure the revenue department would interpret or modify the rules to exempt him from paying taxes.

This brought the Bangkok middle class to the streets to demand his removal.

In response, Thaksin dissolved parliament and called an election for 2 April. His coalition won 57 per cent of the vote, but the polls were boycotted by the opposition, leading to an opposition-less parliament. After a not-too-veiled suggestion by the revered King Bhumibol, the supreme court found the elections to be in violation of the constitution and ordered them to be held again. Thaksin resigned as prime minister and said he would act as caretaker PM until fresh elections were held.

Polarisation but not gridlock

The country was not in gridlock prior to the coup; certainly, it was far from descending into civil war.

The moral tide had turned against Thaksin, as his resignation showed. He had lost control, criticism was widespread in a media that was once tame, and the pressure was on for him to quit before the elections, originally scheduled for 15 October but rescheduled for November. On 20 September, two days after the coup, the People’s Alliance for Democracy had planned to stage a mass rally to begin the final push against him.

Of course, the outcome was not guaranteed, nor was violence out of the question. But indeterminacy and periods of polarisation before the resolution of disputes are part and parcel of the risks that come with democracy. Thais were wrestling to resolve the question of political succession through democratic, civilian methods. The seeming chaos of it all was a part of the growing pains of a democracy.

And it seemed like ‘people power’ or the democracy of the streets would, as in the people’s uprising of May 1992, successfully determine political succession, creating an important precedent in democratic practice.

Cure worse than disease

That is the vibrant democratic process that the military coup cut short. This move, everybody agrees, was unconstitutional, illegal, and undemocratic. Many also say, however, that it is popular and it is valid because it ended a crisis.

This is questionable. The coup may have temporarily ended the crisis but at the pain of provoking a much deeper one.

Thailand’s first really popularly-approved constitution, inaugurated in 1997, has been abolished by military fiat. This constitution, approved after consultation with civil society, placed many controls on the exercise of parliamentary and executive power, and on the behaviour of politicians and bureaucrats. The anti-Thaksin coup leaders, for all their rhetoric about ‘restoring democracy,’ simply tore up the very democratic document that Thaksin had systematically subverted.

Some people say that the coup leader and army chief, General Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, is sanguine about stepping aside.

But personal predilections are no match for institutional interests.

More than any other military in southeast Asia, the Thai military has shown a propensity for intervening in the political process, having launched some 18 military coups since 1932. Thai military men have an ingrained institutional contempt for civilian politicians, regarding them as blundering fools. The generals have often promised to return to civilian rule after a coup, but proceeded to rule directly or indirectly through militaryappointed civilians.

General Sondhi’s words must be taken with the same seriousness as his assurance days before the takeover that military coups ‘were a thing of the past’.

Already, the generals have drafted an interim constitution that makes them ‘advisers’ to an interim civilian government.

Indeed, their circle has been joined by key authoritarian figures who wield power independently of them. The interim prime minister, Surayud Chulanont, is a former supreme commander of the armed forces. While he has been portrayed as a military reformer who has tried to depoliticise the army, he rose to prominence as a counterinsurgency expert. An elite unit he commanded was involved in the bloody repression of civilians during the May 1992 uprising against the last military dictatorship.

A member of the privy council, the advisory body to the king, Surayud is known to be a traditionalist and royalist. He will hardly be independent. General Sonthi has arrogated to himself the power to fire him.

Where next for Thailand?

Thailand now is in an institutional vacuum that is fast being filled by the old conservative (as opposed to populist) right. But the final outcome is not determined. A great deal depends on Thailand’s increasingly mobilised civil society.

It is essential, first, to stand on principle and condemn the coup as a return to a Jurassic past.

There can be no ifs or buts.

Some activists say that beyond this, the movement must insist that the 1997 constitution remains in force. They also propose the setting up of a People’s Interim Council, with many of its leaders drawn from the People’s Alliance for Democracy, that would, among other things, organise new elections very quickly – in short, a system of ‘parallel power’.

Though important, these are short or medium term measures.

Of greatest importance is whether popular leaders will be able to formulate a truly transformative political programme to bridge the gap between the middle-class based people’s power movement and the alienated lower classes that formed the electoral base of the deposed regime.

Such an alliance would set democracy in Thailand on truly firm foundations. The question is: will Thai civil society rise to this historic challenge?

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency


8