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

With Thailand’s institutions only half developed following the euphoria of the early 1990s, its middle class, which once had fought for democracy, now faced an extremely tough choice as it watched Thaksin undermine the rule of law and gather enormous power around himself. Would they stick to the hard road of fighting for good governance and reform, when it could take years to oust Thaksin, if it ousted him at all? While Thailand’s political space had narrowed, it was hardly Libya or Belarus. Even under Thaksin, independent media voices still existed, with opposition newspapers openly criticizing the prime minister; the major opposition political party, the Democrat Party, still had a sizable group of seats, and could campaign openly in elections in a manner that would have been impossible in a place like Eritrea or Zimbabwe; though Thaksin enjoyed the support of the poor, Thai voters could be fickle, and it was not assured that he’d remain in power for decades. But the middle classes also realized that his populist rule stood to cost them their social and economic privileges—their dominance of banking and other business in the capital, and their links to the Thai monarchy, which assured those who had these ties of exalted status in society and business opportunities .

In Thailand, some of the anti-Thaksin protestors attended the 2006 rallies because of genuine concern about how the prime minister had amassed enormous power for himself. But others, including protest leader Sondhi Limthongkul, a wealthy media mogul who turned against Thaksin only after the prime minister threatened Sondhi’s holdings, came to the demonstrations because they realized that if Thaksin stayed in power, Thailand’s old order—in which a small number of businessmen, royalists, army officers, and civil servants had steered the country for years—would eventually be overturned. That old order, after all, had served the Bangkok middle class very well.

So, rather than battling Thaksin within the framework of democracy, and adopting some of Thaksin’s populist-style policies (which now, belatedly, the Thai government has done), the middle-class protestors endorsed a different concept of “democracy” from that of the working class, writes Marc Askew, editor of Legitimacy Crisis in Thailand. For the middle class, he says, “Western-style electoral democracy will always be compromised by Thailand’s corrupt politicians.” Indeed, many of Chamlong’s supporters encouraged a return to older forms of Thai “democracy,” in which a small oligarchy essentially controlled politics through unelected positions in parliament and the bureaucracy and the army, and the masses’ voting power mattered much less.

In elections scheduled for later this year, the party of Thailand’s urban middle class, the Democrats, will again contest the poll nationwide, running against pro-poor parties that have picked up the mantle for the exiled Thaksin. But for the Democrats to win, most Thai observers agree, the army and the royalists will have to convince some smaller political parties to join with the Democrats in a coalition. This is already happening: in the run-up to the new election, according to several Thai human rights activists, army leaders are quietly approaching top politicians and twisting arms to get them to join with the Democrat Party. In other nations, the middle classes have used similarly dubious means to push out elected leaders. Often, the middle-class men and women who first grabbed democracy in the street have turned again to the street.

In the Philippines, for example, the middle classes have become almost addicted to demonstrations designed to oust elected leaders they don’t like by means other than the ballot box. In 2001, urban Filipinos poured into the streets to topple President Joseph Estrada, a former actor who rose to power on his macho appeal with the masa, the underclass in the Philippines, and then demonstrated again in an attempt to remove his successor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

In Honduras, a similar story has played out. President Manuel Zelaya, who took office in early 2006, pushed to change the constitution to give himself more terms in office. Zelaya also enacted populist economic policies, like a hike in the minimum wage, which angered many middle-class business owners. As the day of a referendum on constitutional change drew near in 2009, Zelaya’s middle-class opponents began to openly protest his plans and agitate for him to be removed by force. In June 2009, the military stepped in, an intervention welcomed by many in the capital, Tegucigalpa. The army ousted Zelaya, forcing him into exile.

This middle-class habit of relying on street protests and military intervention to check the excesses of democratically elected populist leaders is hardly a solution. Instead, it merely motivates the working class to resort to similar tactics. Hence the events in Thailand last spring, when the red-shirted supporters of the exiled Thaksin took to the streets, sparking a deadly response from the security forces and the ultimate cataclysm of violence that destroyed central Bangkok.

Unlike, say, two decades ago, when they might have simply accepted a middleclass-backed putsch and an illegitimate government, now the Thai working class will no longer stand for it. As in the Middle East at the moment, many rural Thais have cell phones, computers, and access to the Internet; they can listen to clandestine opposition radio stations or follow opposition Thai blogs that criticize the government and play a cat-and-mouse game with censors.

As several of the authors in the book note, many poor Thais, too, have attained enough education to be able to scrutinize government promises and interact directly with local officials and politicians. Twenty years ago, with less education and more fear of Bangkok urbanites and the military, many poor Thais accepted that they could not control politics, and that their fate in life was the result of bad karma, a kind of Buddhist punishment. Today, that type of fatalism is far more rare. With Thaksin, they saw—as poor Venezuelans saw with Chávez or poor Bolivians with Evo Morales—that if they became engaged in politics and banded together, they could elect a leader sympathetic to their concerns. Thaksin was a very flawed leader, and as a billionaire himself he was hardly familiar with poverty, but his policies did endear him to the working class.

As nearly all the authors in Legitimacy Crisis in Thailand agree, Thailand is not likely to rebound quickly from its current meltdown. The decision by Chamlong and other middle-class democrats to turn against Thaksin has badly split Thailand along class lines, with trust between the middle class and the working class vanishing. That trust will be hard to rebuild, and the current government, dominated by middle-class urbanites, isn’t exactly trying: just as Thaksin once did, the government in Thailand now jails demonstrators allied with the opposition, blocks the Internet, and harasses any critical journalists. The middle class’s support for military intervention could undermine the integrity of civilian government for generations. Violence has become increasingly common in a country once regarded as one of the most stable nations in Southeast Asia and an example of democratic consolidation to other developing countries.

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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