The roots of the Thai crisis

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

This long running Thai crisis is a result of an unintentional clash between the conservative way of operating in a parliamentary democracy and a more modern one. It is equally related to attempts by ex-Prime Minster Taksin Shinawat and his Thai Rak Thai Party (TRT) to modernise Thai society so that the economy could become more competitive on a global level, especially after the 1996 Asian economic crisis.

Thai political leaders since the early 1970s had always adopted a laissez faire attitude to development, with minimal government planning, low wages, few trade union rights and an abdication of responsibility by governments to improve infrastructure and living standards. This strategy worked in the early years, but by the time of the 1996 Asian economic crisis it was becoming obvious that it was seriously failing. The consequences of the 1996 economic crisis are important to the understanding the Thai political crisis today. The increased inequality in Thai society as a result of free-market economic growth is also important. The top 20% now have a disposable income, after deducting living costs, of more than 10 times that of the general population.

In the first general election since the 1996 crisis, Taksin’s party put forward a raft of modernising and pro-poor policies, including the first ever universal health care scheme. Because the conservative Democrat Party had previously told the unemployed to “go back to their villages and depend on their families, while spending state finances in securing the savings for the rich in failed banks, Taksin was able to say that his government would benefit everyone, not just the rich. Taksin’s TRT won the elections and his party, under various names, has since won every single election held after that. In 2011, Taksin’s Pua Thai Party won an overwhelming majority and his sister, Yingluk Shinawat, became Prime Minister. Previously TRT had been renamed as the Pua Thai because of various judicial coups.

Taksin’s policies, and his overwhelming electoral base, came to challenge many elements of the old elite order, although this was not Taksin’s conscious aim at all. Claims by the Democrat Party, the military and the conservative elites that Taksin’s party “bought votes to win elections” are a complete distortion of the truth. These claims are also linked to criticism of his populist policies by the neo-liberals who say that they “wrecked the economy and society”. The neo-liberal conservatives would like to turn the clock back to the bad old days of laissez faire policies.

The Democrat Party has never won an overall majority in any election. The military could not compete in terms of democratic legitimacy and support. The middle class started to resent the fact that the government was helping to raise the standards of living of workers and poor farmers. This is the real basis for the prolonged crisis in society and it explains why the conservatives, the middle class and the Democrat Party are so strongly opposed to democracy. For these people democracy and voting got the “wrong” results.

Taksin went into exile after the first coup d’état in 2006, yet his parties continued to win the 2007 and 2011 general elections, which were held under military control. The previous junta wrote a military constitution in 2007 and packed the so-called “independent bodies” like the Senate, the judiciary and various commissions, with loyal supporters. The idea behind these changes was that the people needed to be “saved from themselves”. The policies of democratically elected governments needed to be reined-in by elite conservative “experts”. These anti-democratic bodies worked hand in hand with Sutep Tueksuban’s Democrat Party mobs on the streets to bring down the Yingluk government just before the May 2014 coup d’état.

This time round, after the second coup, the junta want to make sure that Taksin and his allies do not win another election. All government ministries are now controlled by military personnel.  Civil servants who were in post before the coup have been replaced by those who are loyal lapdogs or cronies of the junta. Conveniently, the so-called Counter Corruption Commission has stated that junta members do not have to declare their ill-gotten earnings before and after holding office, unlike previously elected politicians. The commission is desperately trying to find a dubious corruption charge to stick on former Prime Minister Yingluk. This would be the “legalistic” way to bar her and fellow Pua Thai Party politicians from politics. Maybe there would be chance of dissolving the Pua Thai Party too.

The junta is also looking to an appointed Burmese-style Constitutional Drafting Assembly, made up of soldiers and anti-democratic civilians, so that any future elections can be fixed in favour of the military and the conservatives. This explains the warm reception which the Burmese military representative received from the Thai junta in Bangkok this July.

Elections to local municipal and provincial councils have been abolished because the junta believe that local politics helped to build the support base for Taksin’s parties.