Monday, December 1, 2008

Thailand at a crossroads

Nov 30, 2008

The awakening of the rural class threatens age-old institutions

By Ho Kwon Ping

I'm stuck here in Bangkok with both city airports closed for over two days. This is a dej├»¿½ vu moment. I was stuck in Phuket when that airport closed a few months ago due to demonstrators, and it took me 13 hours to return to Singapore - a three-hour drive to the port of Surat Thani, a ferry ride to Koh Samui, then a flight to Bangkok and then Singapore. In May, I was trapped for over 12 hours inside an aircraft at Chengdu airport when the earthquake hit Sichuan province.

So as a veteran of airport closures I'm rather sanguine about eventually getting out of Bangkok, and several contingency plans are already in play. But I am less sanguine about the present political crisis, and I suspect the people of Thailand will be trapped much longer in an intractable deadlock which is slowly spiralling into class conflict.

As is always the case with Thai culture, what you see on the surface is not necessarily the reality. Behind the gentle wais, or traditional Thai greeting, and friendly smiles has always lurked deep-rooted social contradictions. A dynamic, burgeoning urban middle class looks down on a huge, poor rural class which has been awakened by Thaksin Shinawatra's Peronist-style populism.

One of Asia's most vibrant intelligentsia and unfettered media co-exists with probably the world's most conservative and powerful monarchy. A fractious, corrupted political elite manipulating elections for its own gains co-exists with a military elite which has staged more coups than elections.

There is a game going on with the 'last stand' of the anti-Thaksin forces holed up in the airport. The People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) - once hugely popular with the rabidly anti-Thaksin urban class - has steadily lost support with its increasingly illegal and thuggish tactics which have badly affected the economy. The PAD wants to force the hand of the players - the military to launch a coup, or the government to resign.

The fact that the well-financed and organised PAD - a shadowy, loose group of improbable allies ranging from a maverick, austerely Buddhist and celibate army general to an opportunistic media baron once closely allied with Thaksin - is even able to occupy airports and government offices with impunity is solely due to its patronage by what Thais euphemistically call 'the highest powers'.

The agenda of the PAD, however, is so audaciously anachronistic that one can only surmise which other 21st century anachronism will benefit from the PAD's demands: that universal suffrage via an elected parliament be replaced by appointed representatives of interest groups.

This new distrust of universal suffrage - one person, one vote - is because the rural class, once reverent of only the monarchy, has responded to Thaksin's populism with an almost frightening loyalty.

When Thaksin's party, Thai Rak Thai, was banned, the rural class resoundingly voted in a new proxy party. If elections were held again with the same rules, Thaksin's proxies will probably win again - such is his popularity in the villages.

The issue of the rural class' loyalty has fundamentally changed Thai politics, which had always been an almost ritualistic charade of revolving-door politics between the military and the politicians.

Politicians would play their games, buy their votes and endlessly form ineffectual coalitions; at some point the military would step in to stage a coup with such regularity that people would hardly blink an eye.

I remember as a schoolboy in Bangkok going to school on various coup days, with the only difference being the solitary World War II vintage tank sitting on some street corner to signal that a coup was in effect.

But the unspoken rule was that these games would be played largely in Bangkok, and the rest of the country would be stable in its steadfast allegiance to only the monarchy.

Therefore, one fundamental change is the awakening of the rural class to Latin American-style populism, and the emergence of Thailand's first Juan Peron.

This is a fundamental threat to the monarchal institutions which gradually and carefully grew from powerlessness since the 1932 abolition of absolute monarchy to the pre-eminent role in Thai culture and society today.

The second fundamental change is the antipathy of the Thai urban class to military coups. Once a ho-hum event, coups are now not acceptable to the younger middle class which clearly prefers even a corrupted and imperfect parliamentary democracy to the effective authoritarianism of martial law. The military also knows that in the complex, modern Thailand of today, it cannot rule without the consent of the Bangkok urban class.

And that is the dilemma unfolding today. The military and the PAD both swear allegiance to the forces which are threatened by Thaksin's populism, and therefore the military will not take action against the demonstrators, regardless of the illegality of their actions. But it also does not want to declare a coup.

The elected government is pushing the military to take action against the PAD. The military is asking the government to resign and call new elections, which is an odd thing for an arm of a government to do. All the while, the emboldened PAD is fast becoming reminiscent of the proto-fascists in Germany and Italy before World War II.

How will all this play out? Thoughtful Thais who do not take sides are very worried. On the one hand, the genie of Peronist populism, let out of the bottle by Thaksin, can quite possibly lead a once-stable Thai society rooted in reverence for the monarchy down the road to Latin American-style politics - especially since the monarchy itself is facing an impending succession transition.

On the other hand, the solutions provided by the anti-Thaksin forces - rule by the military, or an effectively appointed parliament - are seen by many younger, modernised Thais as a throwback to the past, and anathema to their vision of a democratic Thailand.

For many decades, Thailand was one of South-east Asia's most stable and cohesive societies. There was always a final arbiter, a source of moral authority which stood high above any politics and which could intervene at pivotal times of peril.

If that authority ever became politicised and a player in the game, rather than a referee, the fundamental nature of Thai society would change irrevocably.

Whether this might occur is the biggest question my thoughtful Thai friends are asking themselves today, even as the rest of the game is played out on the streets and in the airports of the country.

The writer is executive chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings, the chairman of Singapore Management University, and chairman of MediaCorp.



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