In between a banana republic and a failed state

Project Syndicate  |  Dec 8, 2008

By Sin-ming Shaw

"Thailand's future is up for grabs," proclaimed the eminent Thai scholar Thitinan Pongsudhirak, just before the Constitutional Court ruled, in effect, that the ruling People Power Party (PPP) and its two smaller coalition partners are "illegal" and, hence, must disband, due to election fraud. Party leaders, including prime minister Somchai Wongsawat, are barred from politics for five years.

With that, Thailand's popularly elected government fell. Parliament must now reconstitute itself without the three parties loyal to Mr Somchai.

History is repeating itself in Thailand's current crisis, for the PPP under Mr Somchai was the same Thai Rak Thai party formed by ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a figure much hated by the Bangkok-based elite. The PPP was created because Thai Rak Thai was outlawed at the time of Thaksin's removal.

What is perverse is that every recent poll in Thailand shows that Thaksin remains wildly popular with the vast majority of Thais, most of whom live outside Bangkok. So, despite the ousting of two Thaksin proxies in a row by the court and the elite, Thais are likely to return yet another Thaksin loyalist if they are allowed to vote in an unrigged election.

The current crisis has been brewing for some time, but the breaking point came when anti-government protesters occupied Bangkok's main airport. They marched under the banner of the People's Alliance for Democracy, but the truth is that they resorted to undemocratic means to topple a democratically elected government.

This parade of toppled and ousted governments has led Pavin Chachavalpongpun, another eminent Thai scholar, to call his country a "failed state". That description may not yet be true, but the shadow of state failure is certainly growing.

Thaksin's unforgivable sin was his violation of Thailand's unwritten rules about how the country's ruling elites are to behave: that the winner in any power play must not shut out his opponents.

But Thaksin, a self-made billionaire, allowed his greed and huge electoral successes to get the better of him. After his two landslide victories, he thought he could have it all.

His supposedly legal "tax planning", which allowed him to pay zero capital gains tax on the billion-dollar sale of his flagship telecom company, Shin Corporation, in 2006, offended the rising urban professional classes.

But Thaksin had, by then, won over Thailand's rural population through popular policies including handouts. That rural base rewarded him by returning him to power, ignoring his personal corruption.

Thaksin's detractors call his rural strategy (which his proxy successors have followed) cynical vote buying. But Thaksin's rural base wonders why the anti-Thaksin groups and his predecessors in power never tried to do much for them. Such vote buying to win hearts and minds is, after all, a fair game for any party to indulge in.

The going "wage" for the "rent-a-crowds" at the heart of the crisis was 300 baht (HK$65) a day per person, plus food, transport and a clean yellow T-shirt - yellow being the royal colour. These protests have run, on and off, for nearly 200 days. It is widely known that the anti-Thaksin business elites provided the money.

Thailand's universally loved and respected king has not taken a public stand on the occupation of the airports nor on any other recent public demonstrations. Some analysts say anti-government leaders have hijacked the royal colour to pretend that they have his support.

Nevertheless it is widely believed that Thaksin committed lé‹Še-majest?by attempting to undermine the moral authority of the crown, a cornerstone of the kingdom, perhaps replacing it with a republic.

Until the anti-Thaksin elite can convince the rest of the country that they are serious about winning the hearts and minds of the poor, Thailand will teeter between banana republic and failed state.

Sin-ming Shaw is a former visiting fellow at Oxford University. Copyright: Project Syndicate

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