Sunday, December 23, 2007

Thailand election: the invisibles

The names of the two most powerful and popular figures in Thailand will not be on the ballots today. Yet the outcome of the election will largely be determined by the one segment of the population which is most loyal to both these men.

Although it could well be argued that the popularity of HM the King is incomparably vaster, the core constituencies of the deposed prime minister and the reigning sovereign overlap considerably.

I'm talking about the rural poor.*

The two most powerful men in Thailand approach this group -- which comprises the vast majority of the Thai population -- very differently; their respective visions for rural Thailand differ immensely.

The first vision, espoused by Thai royalists, is the notion of the happy peasantry -- uncorrupted by global consumerist culture, absolutely loyal to the monarchy which protects them. This view of the Thai countryside is captured by the term "Sufficiency Economy." It's a philosophy espoused by HM the King. The path to this ends is sometimes referred to as "Thai-style democracy."

The second vision, that of the deposed populist Prime Minister, views Thailand's poor as future consumers and entrepreneurs. It sees them as members of a rudimentary welfare state which extends to them low-interest loans and medical insurance.

The basic question of Thailand today, underlying the coup -- underlying today's election -- is whether poor rural voters are full and equal participants in government. Shortly after the 2006 coup, University of Michigan historian Thongchai Winichakul wrote:
Democracy anywhere in the world is never a rule of the educated, the smarter, the urban, or the better-informed. It is a rule by popular mandate. No matter if/how ignorant people are, the elected government has the rights to rule. It is true that democracy does not mean only election. But election is the ultimate and inviolable source of legitimacy to rule. The higher moral or good ethics is not. The higher education is not. The better access to information is not. Nor are weapons or any unelected aristocrats . . .
So what's next for Thailand? General Prem,** who ought to know the answer to this question as well as anyone, had this to say:
Question: After following the events all year, what is
your main concern for the country?
General Prem: The king’s advice must be kept firmly in
mind and put it into practice.
Photo: By Jotman. Depicts the 2006 coup as it unfolded on the streets of Bangkok. More
Essentially, this is a point which has been made by observers of Thailand, summarized here.
** From this recent interview.

1 comment:

  1. Well, the BKK Post front page this morning showed PPP winning 232 seats, and on Channel 3 news this morning they were showing 233. One thing this means is that even if all the other parties form a coalition they will have only 247 or 248 seats, a very unstable situation. On the other hand, PPP could form a coalition with only Peua Pandin and have a majority of 257-8 seats, and at least a couple of the other smaller parties would surely join in.

    At the moment it's not at all clear what the military might do. Another story on the BKK Post front page describes the military as "not happy with PPP win." It also points out that their options are quite limited. Another coup is not impossible, but would be fraught with danger. It would clearly go against world opinion, and the size of PPP's plurality shows that opposition to a second coup might be great. I don't think the Thai military are willing to go to the same lengths as the Burmese junta. A repetition of "Black May" (which brought Suchinda down in 1992) could be the start of serious unrest in the country.

    So at this point we can only wait and see. Personally, I don't think I want to see Samak as PM. He's ultra-rightist, but even worse he's an ultra-nationalist, and we saw enough anti-foreign sentiment with Thaksin. On the bright side, he seemed to do a good job as governor of Bangkok, so might not be a bad PM after all.


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