When I moved to Bangkok early in 1995 the events of 1992, in which some of Thailand’s brightest and best youngsters had given their blood in the cause of democracy, were the great unmentionable that hung in the air. Yet there as hope. There was a decent man as prime minister — Chuan Leekpai — and if he’d made the necessary accommodations to the voters in appointing some members of his cabinet, well nostalgia for the technocrat government of Anand Panyarachun was tinged with acceptance that this was the price of democracy. Regarding military rule the attitude was clear: Never again!
Gradually, however, over the five years I lived in Thailand, the mood soured. It was not that there was any longing for military rule. But there was increasing cynicism and despair as a succession of elections (more or less annual — forced by political manouevring) produced a depressing run of prime ministers, from the ex-road contractor Banharn Silpa-acha to the thuggish former general Chavalit Yongchaiyudh to the final one of this democratic round, the just deposed Thaksin Shinawatra. (Chuan had another go before Thaksin.) As The Economist commented in 1996 (November 23), “Elections … often produce the best government money can buy, rather than a good one.”
Thaksin was, for Thailand, a new sort of prime minister –- very much from and of the Bangkok super-wealthy commercial class. But experience elsewhere suggests that even successful businesspeople find the transition to dealing with the slippery uncertainties, the necessary horse-trading, of politics, difficult. I was at the Foreign Correspondent Club on the night Thaksin addressed it as “likely next PM.” It wasn’t a success. He speaks excellent English, but had been given a poorly written speech full of multisyllables. The club members are an anarchic lot, and quickly bored; many soon migrated to the back of the room and started playing pool and chatting. Thaksin was visibly angry. That’s not culturally usual in Thailand, and it wasn’t a good sign of a flexible, democratic character.
Yet Thailand’s troubles in trying to maintain a democratic regime cannot be blamed on any one man — even one as rich as Thaksin, who recently sold his family firm, tax-free, for $1.9bn. After all, this is the 18th coup since 1932 — there is something institutional about the Thai polity that allows, perhaps even forces, the military to step in at regular intervals — and it is not solely for the obvious reason of protecting their own interests.
The country is deeply, fundamentally split between city and country, educated and uneducated, in ways that make selecting a reasonable parliament a tremendous challenge. Bangkok isn’t the problem. It has a tremendously sophisticated, aware populace, led by an elite that is strongly attached to democratic ideals. I watched the city during the election campaign of 1995, when it voted with astonishing solidarity to keep the Chuan government of “angels,” as the press had, not entirely accurately, dubbed it. But it mattered not a jot.
For while three quarters of the wealth is generated in the cities (predominately Bangkok), three quarters of the people — the voters — live in the countryside. The excellent Thailand: Economy and Politics by Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker outlines how these peasants historically remained separated from the city and the national economy, immured in largely independent semi-subsistence economies. They have not been culturally, socially, or economically incorporated into the city culture, although today they might spend some time in it earning cash for “prestige” purchases such as electrical goods or concrete houses.
(I think of their representative one taxi-driver I encountered in Bangkok. Visibly overwhelmed by the city, and totally ignorant of its geography, he held the steering wheel, I imagined, as though they were the reins of the buffalo pulling a plough.)
In 1995, as they did before and have since, the country electorate voted for whoever paid for their votes. This happens directly (tales of cash handouts are no surprise) or indirectly (through promise of pork-barreling). A village will vote however the headman tells them to vote. And he’ll vote how the local “big man” tells him. That’s how you get, as you did in 1995, a road contractor (and a man so short he had to stand on a box to talk to Jacques Chirac for an infamous Asean photo) for PM.
It is these voters who elected Thaksin, and were they to be given the chance would elect him again. If you were to go “upcountry,” as Bangkokians call the (to them) foreign rest of their nation, you’d find peasants by the thousands who’d swear by his championing of their cause — his directing of smatterings of cash — a new road here, a new pipeline there, some debt relief for hard-pressed farmers.
Bangkok knows this. Hence its astonishingly muted reaction to the coup. Hence what the Malaysian Star dubbed a carnival coup. Hence the editorial from the Nation newspaper — a brave voice of resistance in 1992 — comparing the actions of the military to a pushing the reset button on a malfunctioning computer.
But any new constitution, any “fair” democratic arrangement approximating to “one person one vote” isn’t going to change the basic facts. “Upcountry” has changed little while Bangkok has become a developed polity, in part because of economic factors, but also in large part because education — at least education of any sort of quality to promote independence of thought and action — hasn’t reach there. That’s because it hasn’t been in the interests of anyone in power to encourage it. Local headmen don’t want independent thinkers; regional big men don’t want their supporters becoming citified. The military doesn’t want it either — Thailand technically has universal male conscription, but in practice it is conscription for the poor and ill educated. No male I knew in Bangkok had done his national service.
The final key factor is the King — both an utterly impeccable constitutional monarch (even when there isn’t a constitution) and the man who has the final, unquestioned say about anything in Thailand on which he cares to express an opinion. During the 60 years of his reign, his interventions at final, critical points have meant that — despite having a cultural and economic situation all too comparable to Cambodia’s before the Killing Fields — Thailand’s political chaos has never exploded into mass bloodshed.
So Thailand has a four-way triangle of power. I say triangle because the king is clearly at the top, the point; he’s refused to be the dictator his people sometimes beg him to be, although, well into his 70s, he must be getting very, very tired of seeing the same pattern again and again. Spread below him there’s the democratic populous of Bangkok, the mass votes of upcountry peasants, and the army — staffed by the youth of that peasantry, yet so trained in obedience it is unlikely to stand up for the interests of its own class and headed by men habituated to loyalty to a small coterie of classmates.
Floating around this misshapen triangle — variously aligned according to the economic interest of the moment — are the wealthiest businesspeople of Bangkok. Sometimes they want “order” and controls on the economically inefficient pork-barreling — hence the army gets their backing. Sometimes they want to put a good face to the West — then they are “pro-democracy.” Sometimes they’ll ride on the coat tails of a demagogue surfing the power of the peasantry.
How you turn all of those interests into a democracy I can’t imagine. If there’s a general lesson to be learned from Thailand, it is that setting up a genuine, fully functioning democracy requires a balanced society that understands politics as something more than a division of the spoils. The coup has raised a perennially stirring question in the region – does democracy work in Asia. If relatively wealthy and stable Thailand can’t manage it, the odds don’t look good elsewhere.