Sunday, 7 September 2008
Thaksin - A Sense of Tragedy
The rise and fall of former Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra has all the dramatic elements of an ancient Greek tragedy.
A rich and charismatic leader is swept to power by the acclaim of the people. At first he leads them wisely and well but then through his human failings, through hubris and the dictates of fate he is stripped of power and humiliated and his people are plunged into chaos and confusion.
Only a few years ago Thaksin was a successful business man and politician basking in power and glory. Now he has fled Thailand to London, his wife convicted of corruption, he facing numerous corruption charges, his assets frozen and likely to be confiscated. He is seeking asylum as a refugee in England and facing possible extradition and has even had to sell his controlling interest in his beloved Manchester City football club. Though his story may not be finally over, how much further can you fall than this.
So spectacular a display of human weakness intrigues me, that power can corrupt so absolutely, detaching its holder from all sense of reality. The ‘yes men’ around him persuaded him that he could do anything, that he could not be touched. Rich and powerful beyond reason he wants more riches and he wants total power, to be unaccountable.
In 2001 Thailand’s streets were bedecked with campaign photos of a square faced candidate smiling benignly. With his considerable spending and media savvy Thaksin stormed to power, the first prime minister to hold majority power and not be beholden to a shaky coalition.
His first term saw many good policies aimed at transferring resources to the countryside and thus consolidating his own personal constituency of voters. Health care became universally available for a nominal charge, the million baht village loan fund provided a honeypot for small people to share a little of Thailand’s prosperity and a million cow scheme offered cows to help lift the poorest out of poverty. In consequence he became the first prime minister to complete a term in office and then to be elected a second time.
An absolute monarchy, Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. Since then there have been about thirty military coups, deposing short-lived and weak civilian governments. With so shaky and volatile a democracy, power thus accumulated in the permanent institutions such as the military and the bureaucracy and in a small gene pool of elite families that have supplied the politicians, as well as filling lucrative positions in the ministries and the judiciary.
Nothing much it seems has changed over the years and as the British ambassador, Quinton Quayle commented in an interview with the Bangkok Post (31 August 2008), when he was first posted to Bangkok in 1979, three of the big names in Thai politics were Samak, Banharn and Prem. On his return twenty eight years later all three are still prominent.
Over the years the huge majority of the population, the rural poor have thus received little attention, their interests generally overlooked. These are the rice farmers who till the soil and provide an endless supply of cheap labour for a modern economy that benefits the comfortable middle classes. Thaksin saw his opportunity and made them his people and they swept him back into power for his second term with massive acclaim.
Thus Thaksin Shinawatra had the best ever chance to change the creaking post-feudal polity of Thailand. With his huge mandate he might have permanently shifted control and resources away from the vested interests of the urban power elites in favour of the mass of the people outside the capital. He could have promoted the precious new 1997 constitution with its system of checks and balances but instead he sought to subvert it. He used his growing power to favour his own business interests and while he held office as prime minister his family wealth doubled.
His sale of Shin Corporation to Temasek Holdings of Singapore free of any capital tax was the last straw and the opposition closed in. Thaksin the upstart billionaire was treading on too many toes and the urban elite didn’t like it.
A self-style grouping, the PAD (People’s Alliance for Democracy) then started a huge campaign of street protests. Finally in September 2006 the military staged a bloodless coup and appointed a new interim government. Apart from some unfortunate economic policies, this was far from being Thailand’s worst administration. It achieved the rare distinction of drafting a new constitution and calling civilian elections within the promised year, which was no small achievement.
Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party was now banned for electoral fraud but soon was effectively reincarnated as the PPP (People Power Party), its leader Samak Sundaravej, a 73 year old veteran openly proclaiming himself as Thaksin’s nominee. This mantle assured him the votes of the rural people of the north and north east and he came to power, this time leading a shaky coalition of five parties.
Hatred of Thaksin now focused instead on Samak and the PAD demonstrators are again in the streets and have forcibly occupied Government House. Remembering the bloody ending to street protests in the seventies and nineties, the government and police have acted with restraint and have not sought to evict them. Things only got nasty when PPP supporters clashed with the PAD and one man died, though the situation remains a tinder box.
So it remains to ask who exactly are the PAD and what are their policies, key questions to which there are no easy answers.
The press has described them as a mix of business people, the middle class and urban elite, though it’s hard to know exactly what motivates them as they stay out there on the streets in the blazing sun and heavy rain for days and weeks on end.
These though are only the foot soldiers, the cannon fodder. They are fed and possibly paid by the PAD’s shadowy backers and a call went out for supplies of underwear, preferably in large sizes for middle aged females. The style of protest is not genteel though, with defences of razor wire and helmeted thugs with staves, but their use of golf clubs as weapons and shampoo to make the ground slippery for the opposition introduces an element of farce.
As for PAD policies, they hardly go much beyond hating Thaksin. It seems more an ‘alliance against democracy’ as they seem to be proposing an appointed government with only a proportion of the MPs being directly elected. In an interview in the Bangkok Post (4 September 2008), their leader Sondhi Limthongkul says that the current system depends substantially on vote buying. The MPs elected are thus only there to further the interests of those who backed them and corruptly to recover the massive investment in votes. They are not truly representative of the farmers and labourers who make up the mass of the population and so apparently appointed representatives are better.
Sondhi makes it clear that this is only ‘his own position and would need to be presented for consultation with fellow PAD leaders’. They thus seem to have no settled policy except to limit electoral democracy, rather than to reform it, and presumably to return power to the old interests who always held it before the advent of Thaksin.
As I write today, events in Bangkok continue on a knife edge. The prime minister has declared a state of emergency which passes responsibility to the army commander-in-chief to maintain order. General Anupong has stepped back however and has refused to send in his troops to remove the demonstrators, either a wise decision to avoid risking violence or implicitly distancing himself from and undermining the PM.
The Bangkok Post also reports that ‘the country’s top bureaucrats and military officers now refuse point blank to follow [prime minister Samak’s] instructions, putting him in an impossible position.’ The old power structures are again seeking control, though if Samak were to call an immediate election he or his party would again surely win.
It’s easy now to generalize that Thailand is riven down the middle and that this is a struggle between the old urban elites and rural electors wanting a real political say for the first time. Yet even that may be an oversimplification. As Ambassador Quayle put it about Thai politics, ‘the more you know, the more you don’t know… the more complicated it becomes. There’s always a layer below.’
In his interview Quayle says quite bluntly that since his first posting here all that time ago, Thailand’s political system has not developed significantly and unlike other developing countries has not progressed out of a cycle of unstable government followed by coups and autocratic regimes. In some ways time has stood still politically in Thailand, he concludes. Politics here will only mature with the end of vote buying and the development of political parties based not around a single personality but on ‘consistent strategies that clearly stand for something’.
The political jungle is thus still filled with reptiles and dinosaurs and it seems that progress in Thailand towards a modern state governed by the rule of law is very hard to achieve. Thai culture and society is hierarchical and deferential and that makes existing power structures extremely difficult to shift. When the people are kicked by their masters they just kowtow.
Uniquely, Thaksin had a real chance to achieve positive change but he chose not to try. Instead he now faces exile in London and ‘that which should accompany old age as honour, love, obedience, troops of friends he shall not look to have but in its stead curses’.
Greek tragedy, Shakespeare’s Macbeth… nothing seems to change in the affairs of man. Sufficiency is never enough and they always want more.
The name of Thaksin might have gone down in history as the man of strength and wisdom who at last helped Thailand’s politics to move forward.
It was in his grasp. He had it all but inexplicably he threw it away.
What will history say of him now?