On Political Books

May/June 2011 Bangkok on the Nile

Middle East reformers would do well to study Thailand for lessons in how not to build a democracy.

By Joshua Kurlantzick

Yet today, Thailand looks almost nothing like that model emerging democracy. The never-ending cycle of street protest, by both the middle class and the poor, paralyzes policymaking, hinders economic growth, and deters investment at a time when the country’s authoritarian competitors, like China and Vietnam, are vacuuming up foreign capital. Few Thais now trust the impartiality of the judiciary, the civil service, or other national institutions; some even have begun to wonder about the impartiality of the king, once so revered that Thais worshipped him like a god. The Thai military once again wields enormous influence from behind the scenes, a dramatic reversal from the 1990s, when most Thais genuinely believed the military had returned to the barracks for good. Perhaps worst of all, a once freewheeling media has become increasingly shuttered and servile. The Thai government now blocks over 100,000 Web sites, more than in neighboring Vietnam.

How did the model collapse so quickly? As Michael Montesano, one of the contributors to Legitimacy Crisis in Thailand, notes, the election of Thaksin Shinawatra in 2001 was a catalyst, and a warning to other emerging democracies. But many of the factors that allowed Thaksin to corrupt the Thai political system were already in evidence.

As several of the contributors note, the flaws in Thailand’s young democracy appeared very quickly after the excitement of the first protests, and the early period of post-protest change was critical, as it will be in the Middle East. After passing a new constitution in 1997, many Thai reformers relaxed, excited and comfortable that they had finally, finally achieved democracy. I lived in Thailand at that time, and even as democracy seemed to be prospering, the country was hit hard by the Asian financial crisis, which decimated Thailand’s currency, wrecked the stock market, and led to skyrocketing unemployment.

As the country, which had been one of the best-performing economies in the world for decades, slowly recovered from the financial crisis, many of my progressive Thai friends gave up their NGOs or their crusading newspaper columns and focused instead on making—and spending—money. Megamalls sprung up in downtown Bangkok to cater to this consumer exuberance, selling coffees that cost more than an average Thai person’s daily wage and mobile phones with the latest updates. Many of my Thai friends joined consulting firms or banking houses, and the stock market rebounded along with massive consumption. But with less pressure for good governance, and the media focusing on soccer and celebrity murders, the institutions that had been launched in the early 1990s withered. A new, high ranking court designed to stop graft and insider political dealing became weaker and politicized; watchdog nonprofits folded; efforts to strip the military of its remaining political powers died down.

Those early mistakes might not have mattered, but Thailand got unlucky. In 2001, Thaksin, a tycoon who sold himself as a get-things-done type, morphed into an elected populist autocrat, uninterested in compromise and any loyal opposition. Unlike previous Thai politicians, Thaksin launched several programs to help reduce poverty that proved enormously successful, including cheap universal health insurance, an initiative to provide micro-loans to villages, and others; inequality dropped significantly, and the poor had genuine reasons to celebrate Thaksin’s administration. Before Thaksin’s era, Thailand had grown strongly, but the urban middle class, in concert with the army and the royal family, had produced a closed and self-dealing economic system in which the vast majority of the benefits accrued to urbanites, often with army and palace connections, while the majority of the country, the rural poor, was excluded from the Thai miracle. It was the kind of system that, in many ways, was similar to the rise of the urban middle class in Egypt or Tunisia today: economic mobility based not so much on innovation but on connections, often to autocratic rulers.

Thaksin helped explode these connections and cronyism. But Thaksin, himself a billionaire and an extremely charismatic politician, also soon used his power to neuter the Thai media, with his company and his allies buying into major media outlets and then using the influence to silence critical reporting. He shredded the independence of Thailand’s bureaucracy and judiciary, promoting his cronies. He oversaw a crackdown on the narcotics trade that morphed into what appeared to be a witch hunt for political opponents. In the crackdown, more than 2,000 people were killed, some by suspicious gunshots to the back of the head. By 2005, after being elected a second time by a wide majority, Thaksin wielded enormous power.

The elected autocrat now seems common to new democracies, despite cultural or regional differences, and in nations with large poor populations, like Yemen, or historically repressed religious majorities, like Bahrain, it’s easy to imagine such a figure coming to power in a relatively free and fair election. Already, in Venezuela Hugo Chávez has used his domination of broadcasting licenses to replace critical private television stations with state TV, and has forced the most vocal private channel off the air. Chávez has introduced legislation that makes it a crime for critics to offer “false” information that “harms the interests of the state.”

In Nicaragua, the former Sandinista Daniel Ortega survived Ronald Reagan, the Contras, and Oliver North and, after winning the presidency again in 2006, began using the judiciary to intimidate any media outlet he or his family did not control, and the police to raid the offices of one of Ortega’s most prominent media critics. Completing his power grab, in the 2008 elections Ortega presided over alleged massive fraud.

Throughout the former Soviet Union, the initial generation of elected leaders, most of whom received their political education in the Soviet system, have revealed themselves to be autocrats at heart. In Kyrgyzstan, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who had been one of the leaders of Kyrgyzstan’s 2005 Tulip Revolution against the autocratic regime of President Askar Akayev, soon proved himself nearly as authoritarian as his predecessor. Perhaps most infamously, Vladimir Putin, who learned his political lessons in the KGB, has undone nearly all the political progress made in Russia during the Yeltsin era.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.


  • Rich on May 20, 2011 2:28 PM:

    Kurlantzick's discussion of Thailand is oddly underdeveloped given his affiliation and having lived in Thailand during the 1990s. I've worked in Thailand since the early 90s and lived there through the currency crisis and the years immediately before. Thailand's recent problems with democracy are, in many respects, the latest recurrence of problems that have chronically dogged the country since independence from the absolute monarchy was declared in the 1930s. There were two major factions in the original independence movement--one centered on neo-fascist ideas and admiration for Mussolini, while the other was based on a frankly woolly set of socialist ideas--both represented a rising new "middle class" of sorts (in the European sense of the term). The neo-fascists ultimately won and their failures ultimately led to a series of military governments and their counter the previous democracy movements of the 1970s. Those ultimately led to weak governments and a long "national unity" government under General Prem (who heads the King's privy council) during the 80s. Prem operated as a benevolent despot and helped build the economy. He was succeeded by more democratically elected governments which alternated between intense corruption and ineffectual detachment from common people, which a military coup in between.

    Thailand's lack of democratic institutions clearly goes back to 30s. Corruption and the lack of strong, broad based political parties has been a problem. Many of the country's political leaders have moved all over the ideological spectrum during their careers. For example, General Chatchai (who lived in a compound down the street from me in Bangkok) had been a at various times a reformer and a corrupt army general. he ended his career with an exceptionally corrupt term as Prime Minister which was cut short by a military coup in the early 90s. Chamlong also has been all over the place and has fallen from the grace which he held after Chatchi's demise in the 90s.

    Thailand's corruption and failed democracy enabled the King to emerge from the shadows and take an active role in brokering these inevitable failure and the King took a more active role as time has gone on since the 70s, which has diminished with his health in recent years. the credibility of the royal family is now in doubt for the first time in decades and the heir apparent is the least popular member of the family and probably the least suited to any kind of leadership. the King's role generally has been constructive although he sided with those who killed democracy demonstrators in the 70s.

    To the extent that democratic ideas have not died in thailand, it has been succeeding waves of middle class people who have championed them. there also have been real grassroots efforts among the poor, although these often have been co-opted by political players such as Taksin. As for Taksin, his initial base was with the reform-minded urban middle class, although his voting base included the bought-off rural poor. The middle class quickly recognized him as the petty fascist he was, but the populist appeal remained. Thailand is a closed hierarchical society, with a heritage of slavery (still manifested in debt bondage and other disenfranchisement of the poor). This has been an impediment to developing strong political parties. Urbanization of the population and the growth of an educated middle class may change some of these dynamics, although it is likely to take many years, and a succession of more failed governments. the country is lucky in that it has the freest press in Asia. The absence of constructive royal intervention may help in the long run, although the failure of the royal family to act in recent years adds to the anxiety felt by Thai people.

  • D Fawcett on May 31, 2011 2:36 AM:

    As someone who lived in Thailand, worked in Bangkok, and was here during the coup and the riots in 2010, I find that some of Mr. Kurlantzick�s are at odds with my understanding of events. He writes that from 2006 on Thailand spiraled into "serious bloodshed" and anarchy, although the 2006 coup was bloodless and the subsequent military control of the government was far from anarchy.

    It is difficult to accept his assertion that the Thai middle class turned against democracy. Thaksin's election was ruled invalid by the courts, due to electoral fraud, and subsequent to the coup a new election was held and a civilian government returned to power. Several governments have been formed since the election as coalitions shifted and a general election has been called for early July 2011.

    I find it somewhat misleading to write that it was working class people who having lost faith in the political institutions formed the �Red Shirt� movement. The movement doesn�t seek to overthrow or even change the political institutions, but to assume control over them. They tried last year to achieve on the street what they couldn�t in Parliament, with disastrous results for the country's image. And let's not overlook that the Red Shirts are not led by the working poor and disenfranchised, but currently by the sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin, herself a member of the elite, and that the ruling Democrat Party has its share of support among the working poor as well.

    Kurlantzick writes that in May 2010 the Red Shirts refused to give way to a heavy police and army presence, overlooking that the army was called in because the police had refused to act. Further overlooked is the violence that was perpetrated by a militant faction within the protest movement. It was not simply a case of some red shirts fighting back with makeshift weapons, but with automatic weapons and grenade launchers, which had been put to use. One wonders how a more "advanced" democracy in the West would have handled a prolonged occupation of its Business District by an armed group.

    Finally, to say that Bangkok resembled Baghdad is an exaggeration, as most of the city was unaffected and most did not feel threatened. Perhaps Seattle 1999 would be a better comparison, although not as colorful. In any event, to compare Bangkok to Baghdad diminishes the real suffering that the people of that city endured.

  • Joe Feinstein on May 31, 2011 3:11 AM:

    In reading Joshua Kurlantzick�s review of Legitimacy Crisis in Thailand, I am reminded that Daniel Patrick Moynihan once famously observed, �Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.�

    In his narrative, the esteemed Mr. Kurlantzick asserts several things that simply are not so.

    To begin with, Mr. Kurlantzick states that �Thai armed forces took over the government, and Thaksin fled into exile, where he remains today.� While it is true that Mr. Shinawatra is currently in exile, that exile is not the result of the coup. Indeed, Mr. Shinawatra did not flee into exile as a result of the coup. The fact of the matter is that Thaksin was already out of Thailand at the time of the coup; he simply decided to not immediately return to Thailand. He returned to Thailand in February 2008 to face corruption charges, was arrested, and released on bail. He subsequently jumped bail in August 2008, prior to resolution of the first corruption charge, for which he was subsequently found guilty by Thailand�s Supreme Court, and currently remains in self-imposed exile. So, the only time that Mr. Shinawatra �fled into exile," He has been, and continues to be, free to return to Thailand.

    He then goes on to say, �As the middle class turned against democracy, rather than trying to fix its flaws, the working class lost their faith in the country�s political institutions. Instead, they built their own mass protest organizations, and last spring these demonstrators, clad in red�Thaksin�s signature color�took over large swaths of Bangkok�s central business district. When the so-called red shirts refused to give way to a heavy police and army presence, the security forces unleashed a furious attack, shooting live bullets into the crowds, which included many journalists. Some of the red shirts fought back with makeshift weapons and, occasionally, guns, and by the end of last May, at least eighty people had been killed in Bangkok street fighting, and thousands were injured. The Thai capital, which normally looks like a modern city, full of flashy hotels, wine bars, and coffee shops, now more closely resembled Baghdad, with gutted buildings and streets cordoned off by blockades and hospitals crammed full of bodies.�

    There are so many things wrong with that paragraph.

    First, Mr. Kurlantzick seems to have omitted the words �some of� before both middle-class and working class, as there were (and are) many in the middle-class and working class that disagreed with the protests. By most accounts, by the time the government sought to remove the protestors from Ratchprasong intersection, the number of protesters was reportedly less than 5,000 (out of a population of 65 million).

    Second, the protesters simply did not �take over large swaths of Bangkok�s central business district.� Rather, they took over only one of Bangkok�s many shopping areas.

    Third, the security forces did not unleash a furious attack on the protesters. The government surrounded the protest site, gave the protesters the opportunity to leave peacefully, and only then went in to forcibly remove the protesters that remained. Protest leaders fled the scene, later to surrender or flee the country, but other protesters opted to shoot it out with security forces.

    Fourth, the assertion that the �Some of the red shirts fought back with makeshift weapons and, occasionally, guns, ...� omits the number of M-16 assault rifles and M-79 grenades journalists observed being used by the protesters.

    And, lastly, the statement, �The Thai capital, which normally looks like a modern city, full of flashy hotels, wine bars, and coffee shops, now more closely resembled Baghdad, with gutted buildings and streets cordoned off by blockades and hospitals crammed full of bodies,� is simply wrong, plain and simple!

    One is left wondering if Mr. Kurlantzick has actually visited Bangkok during or after the 2010 protests. If n

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