Tag Archives: Thai political crisis

Ignoring the roots of the Thai political crisis will not bring about democracy

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Today there are people who say we need to move forward and away from the past divisions between yellows and reds, as though the long lasting Thai crisis of democracy was just about people who wore different coloured shirts or merely a dispute between a few political personalities.

This is just political stupidity and intellectual bankruptcy. The crisis occurred, not because some people hated Taksin, but because of the underlying political differences based upon different visions about the future of Thai society. Class is also an important component.

In 2006 the military, the middle-classes, and the various sections of the conservative elites, set about to destroy democracy. Since 2006 there have been two military coups, a number of judicial coups and mass anti-democracy protests by royalist middle-class mobs, supported by the Democrat Party. Over a hundred pro-democracy activists have been shot down in cold blood by the military and Thai jails now hold more political prisoners than they have done for decades. How and why did this happen?

The Asian Economic crisis in 1997 was the spark that exposed the existing fault-lines in Thai society, and the actions of political actors in response to this, eventually led to a back-lash against democracy by the conservatives.

The main reason for the present Thai political crisis can be traced back to this 1997 economic crisis and the attempt by Taksin Shinawat to modernise Thai society and reduce inequality while relying on mass support for his policies at elections. These policies were also designed to benefit big business, increasing profits and competitiveness. Taksin called this a “dual track” strategy, using a mixture of neo-liberalism and “grass-roots Keynesianism”. Among this raft of policies was the first ever universal health care scheme.

Because the Democrat Party, and other elites, had ignored the plight of the poor during the crisis, while spending state finances in securing the savings for the rich and the middle-classes in failed banks, Taksin was able to say that his government would benefit everyone, not just the rich. Taksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party won the first post-1997 elections. The government was unique in being both popular and dynamic, with real policies, which were used to win the elections and were then implemented afterwards. Never-the-less, his government was not unique in the fact that it committed gross human rights abuses. Previously, the old parties had just bought votes without any policies. Taksin’s real policies reduced vote-buying and his overwhelming electoral base came to challenge the old way of conducting politics, eventually angering those who could not win the hearts and minds of the people.

The 1997 economic crisis exposed the material reality of the lives of most Thai citizens whose way of life had developed rapidly over many decades but which was in conflict with an unchanged and outdated “Superstructure”. This is the dynamic of conflict which was harnessed by Taksin.

It would be a mistake to see the present crisis as merely a dispute between two factions of the elite. It has another important dimension that cannot be ignored. We need to understand the role of the Red Shirts who had a “dialectical” relationship with their idol Taksin. There existed a kind of “parallel war” where thousands of ordinary Red Shirts struggled for democracy, dignity and social justice, while Taksin and his political allies waged a very different campaign to regain the political influence that they had enjoyed before the 2006 coup d’état.

The hypothesis that the present long-running unrest in Thailand was primarily caused by a “crisis of succession”, is a top-down view which assumes that the Thai monarch has real power and that it has been constantly intervening in politics. That is just not the case. The present junta is run by powerful generals who have used the monarchy as their tool.

It is simply banal to try to build some kind of political consensus in civil society by ignoring the root cause of the crisis just by bringing in new political faces who are not associated with Taksin’s team or the Democrat Party or the yellow shirts. This is the main idea behind the party of the “new generation”.

Without solving the real contradictions between lives of most Thai citizens whose way of life has developed rapidly over many decades and an unchanged, outdated and conservative “Superstructure”, Thai society cannot escape from a vicious cycle of crisis and coups. What is needed is concrete measures to modernise the country and to drastically decrease inequality between the poor majority and the rich elites.

For further reading on this subject see: http://bit.ly/2bSpoF2   or http://bit.ly/2cmZkAa

 

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Have the deep divisions between Reds and Yellows in Thailand been healed?

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

When Generalissimo Prayut staged his military coup to overthrow the elected Yingluk government, he claimed that it was in order to bring about reconciliation in a country deeply divided between Reds and Yellows. He also claimed that the junta would push through political reform and end corruption. No thinking person ever believed him and, today, what seems to be the main achievement of the junta is the self-enrichment of its members.

“Reform” is a much abused word and is mainly used for what should rightly be called “anti-reforms”. This is true of Thailand, but also of the neo-liberals in the West who want to destroy trade union rights and the welfare state.

I have discussed the crafting of a system of military “Guided Democracy” by the junta in number of articles on this site, so I will address the question of whether the junta has healed the deep divisions between Reds and Yellows in society. [See: http://bit.ly/2hDTT6S ]

The fact that a number of former Yellows are now critical of Prayut’s junta might indicate that a Red-Yellow reconciliation might be possible. The exiled academic Somsak Jeeamteerasakul certainly feels that this is something worth serious consideration.

However, I have always argued that it is not possible or desirable to have unity between those who believe in freedom and democracy and those who believe that democracy has to be limited because the “wrong” people get elected by an “ignorant” electorate.

This is still the case despite the fact that not all Reds are totally committed to freedom and democracy in the strict sense of the word. Some hold narrow-minded views about Patani and GLBT people. Some supported the so-called War on Drugs. The reason why Reds can be regarded as generally pro-democratic is because they have maintained a position against military coups and unelected political bodies, while the Yellows have supported “any means necessary” to overthrow Taksin’s governments, even if it means supporting military coups. What is more, pro-democracy activists who have dared to challenge the military in recent times have generally sided with, or been sympathetic to, the Reds.

I have deliberately used a colour short hand to describe the two sides in Thailand’s political crisis. I have not used the term “Red Shirts” as this movement no longer exists, having been destroyed through deliberate neglect by Taksin and his allies. The Yellow Shirts also morphed into the multi-coloured shirts (“Salim”) and then into Sutep’s street thugs.

It is very unlikely that the mistrust and hatred of those who participated in the destruction of democracy can so easily be forgotten by the Reds and why should it be? This destruction of democracy continues with the junta’s plans for Guided Democracy. In practice it means that the kind of government favoured in the past by the majority of the population will be ruled out by the military’s constitution and its electoral rules. In the past his kind of government had many flaws but it was also forward looking, pro-modern and serious about some degree of poverty reduction. This means that if nothing changes in the near future, Thai citizens will be saddled with a neoliberal government which treats people, especially poor people, in a patronising manner while improving the lives of the rich.

Yet at the same time, what the junta, together with Taksin’s allies, have achieved is a demoralisation of hundreds of former pro-democracy activists. This has been achieved by both repression by the junta and neglect from Taksin’s people.

So an explosion of opposition to the military is not on the immediate horizon, although we must always be aware that in the right circumstances, things can change very quickly, especially if there is a new generation of activists who are determined to fight.

Ugly and dangerous royalist hysteria turning into witch-hunts

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The death of the Thai king and the atmosphere of repression under the military junta has unleashed an ugly and dangerous royalist hysteria which is rapidly becoming a witch hunt against those who believe in democracy and equality. Anyone not wearing black in the streets or anyone rumoured to have supposedly “insulted” the king is being persecuted and threatened with violence while the authorities look on approvingly. The general in charge of the ministry of “justice” has even approved of mobs bullying dissidents.

The military and police have been taking advantage of the situation and arresting any dissidents who have been accused of insulting the king by the fantatics. No hard evidence is necessary. One such person was arrested after police “found” a single methamphetamine pill.

There were three cases of angry mobs attacking people in various southern provinces only days after the death of the king. These are areas where Sutep and his Democrat Party mobs drew support for their anti-election rampage through Bangkok in 2014. Many of these thugs may now be engaging in the royalist witch-hunts.

Mob of fanatical royalists
Mob of fanatical royalists

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https://www.facebook.com/100010058258085/videos/356653494679923/

On the tourist island of Koh Samui, a howling crowd of 500 fanatical royalists forced a young woman to grovel in front of a picture of the king and ask for forgiveness at a local police station for apparently “insulting” the king. The police clearly sided with the crowd.

An elderly woman was slapped in the face in front of police for apparently “insulting the monarchy”…

There have been numerous threats to people on social media for not changing their profiles to black and white.

Riantong Nanan
Riantong Nanan
Riantong as part of a fascist-type mob organised to disrupt elections
Riantong as part of a fascist-type mob organised to disrupt elections

Self-appointed “Witch-Hunter General”, Major General Riantong Nanan, director of Monkutwatana Hospital, has incited people to “deal” with Aum Neko, exiled trans-gender prodemocracy activist, who has been given asylum in France. He also threatened to do her harm himself.

Aum Neko
Aum Neko

A fanatical royalist also posted on her face book that someone should “deal” with me in England as a result of my call for a republic.

Fanatical royalist threatening me
Fanatical royalist threatening me

It reminds many of us of the kind of atmosphere created around the 6th October 1976 massacre at Thammasart University.

Why aren't you wearing black?
Why aren’t you wearing black?

But what it exposes more than anything is that love and respect for the Thai monarchy is hardly voluntary or natural in the case of millions of people. It exposes that the royalists are really frightened of a possible republican mood in the country after the death of Pumipon.

Let us hope that their fears are justified!!

 

Thai Paris Debates: Gramsci and building political consensus

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

During the recent Paris seminar on Thai politics, held on the tenth anniversary of the 19th September military coup, there were many interesting debates. I shall comment on the discussion around consensus and divisions in Thai society.

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Somsak Jeamteerasakul explained that in the 20 years up to the 2006 military coup, there was a “royalist” consensus or hegemony among the population, with little divisions in society. Yet since the 2006 coup, Thai society has been deeply divided. This, Somsak believes, is something that does not exist in Western democracies where he claims there is a democratic consensus.

This is obviously a broad view which ignores the continuous discontent among the Malay Muslims in Patani. But in my opinion what appeared as a “quiet period” with little political divisions among the Thai population was merely a shallow surface view. In every society there are divisions based on competing class interests. A brief look at Western Europe or the United States today reveals serious conflicts around the issues of austerity, defending the welfare state, labour rights, support or opposition to the European Union, the issue of war or the attitude to migrants and refugees. This has resulted in growing support for Socialists but also for the Fascists.

The supposed Thai consensus for 20 years before the 2006 coup was a result of economic growth but also the defeat of the Communist Party of Thailand and the weakening of political dissent. Even so, class struggle continued to bubble under the surface with strikes and protests by workers and small farmers.

The point to keep in mind here is that there is no real consensus in any capitalist society and periods of apparent class peace soon end in explosions of discontent. An important factor which ended the quiet period in Thailand was the 1997 economic crisis and the choices made in response to this by various political actors, especially Taksin and his Thai Rak Thai Party. [See http://bit.ly/2d9UUAu , http://bit.ly/2bSpoF2   or http://bit.ly/2cmZkAa  ]

Somsak is now trying to find a way to build political peace in Thai society by seeking a “democratic consensus” between red shirts, other pro-democracy activists, and the middle class. Remember that the middle class has a recent history of outright opposition to democracy and to associated measures which improve the economic status of workers and small farmers, which Taksin’s political parties tried to push forward.

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Somsak, who I regard as a friend, seems to view Marxists like myself as figures of fun who are hopelessly deluded, but he also tries to legitimise his views by quoting Gramsci on the issue of hegemony.

Now this reminds me of the mis-use of Gramsci by the leaders of the Spanish left-wing party Podemos. They claim to be attempting to build political hegemony in Spanish society by moving beyond the concept of “Left” and “Right”. They also wish to ignore the issue of class and class struggle.

Yet Gramsci was a Marxist, who did not in anyway, believe that you could move beyond or ignore class struggle. His ideas about hegemony were about how to counter the prevailing ideas of the ruling capitalist class with ideas which were in the interests of workers and small farmers. This was with the aim of moving towards a socialist revolution. It was not about building cross-class unity.

Instead, Somsak wants to distort the ideas of Gramsci in order to achieve a compromise and political peace between the reactionary middle-classes and the workers and small farmers in Thailand. It would be a pseudo-peace based on giving up the ideals of equality, human rights and democracy. The explanation for Somsak’s views lies with his rejection of the possibility of building mass movements from below. He regards the red shirts as mere foot soldiers of Taksin and can see no way forward in terms of social movements.

Another pro-democracy activist, Rangsiman Rome, from the student NDM, also expressed a desire to “talk to the other side” in a recent BBC interview. Again, this arises from the rejection of a need to build mass social movements. [See  http://bit.ly/2dizkuE %5D and http://bit.ly/2a0A4TK   ]

Yet there is a real potential for building a new mass movement for democracy, independent of Taksin, out of the remnants of the redshirts, from the 10 million people who voted against the military’s constitution, and from the progressive students. This needs determined political and organisational work and also the creation of a left-wing political party. If such a movement became strong in the future it could pull many elements of the fractured middle-classes to support its agenda, rather than capitulating to the current reactionary agenda of the right-wing core of the middle-classes. In the past the Thai middle-classes have been pulled in the direction of supporting democracy or dictatorship, depending on the balance of class forces. This is the same for other countries. [See http://bit.ly/2aDzest ]

The sad fact that the pro-democracy movement is currently weak means that it is highly unlikely that Thai society is “waiting to explode”, as claimed by pro-democracy academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun, who also spoke at the Paris seminar.

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Somsak and Pavin’s “top-down” view of society means that they believe in the political power of the king, which is something with which I disagree. I believe that the king is a puppet of the military. But for Somsak the king’s power comes from the fact that no one can criticise him while he does not necessarily have to give out obvious orders to the military. My answer to this is to say that God can also not be criticised in many societies, yet God, despite not existing in reality, can be used as a puppet by many ruling classes! [See http://bit.ly/2cBnidg ]

Finally, one further interesting point came out of Somsak’s talk about consensus and military coups. He pointed out that a number of military coups in the past have been directed against military governments by their rivals. In other words the military has been highly fractured. For me this is another nail in the coffin of the theory of a “Deep State” opposing Taksin. [See http://bit.ly/29H0FC9 ]

How did we reach this point in Thai politics?

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Ten years ago the military, the middle-classes, and the various sections of the conservative elites, set about to destroy democracy. Since 2006 there have been two military coups, a number of judicial coups and mass anti-democracy protests by royalist middle-class mobs, supported by the Democrat Party. Over a hundred pro-democracy activists have been shot down in cold blood by the military and Thai jails now hold more political prisoners than they have done for decades. The country is now run by an arrogant but not very bright military regime. How and why did this happen?

ji

The Asian Economic crisis in 1997 was the spark that exposed the existing fault-lines in Thai society, and the actions of political actors in response to this, eventually led to a back-lash against democracy by the conservatives.

The main reason for the present Thai political crisis can be traced back to this 1997 economic crisis and the attempt by Taksin Shinawat to modernise Thai society and reduce inequality while relying on mass support for his policies at elections. These policies were also designed to benefit big business, increasing profits and competitiveness. Taksin called this a “dual track” strategy, using a mixture of neo-liberalism and “grass-roots Keynesianism”. Among this raft of policies was the first ever universal health care scheme.

coup-for-the-rich

Because the Democrat Party, and other elites, had ignored the plight of the poor during the crisis, while spending state finances in securing the savings for the rich and the middle-classes in failed banks, Taksin was able to say that his government would benefit everyone, not just the rich. Taksin’s TRT won the first post-1997 elections. The government was unique in being both popular and dynamic, with real policies, which were used to win the elections and were then implemented afterwards. Never-the-less, his government was not unique in the fact that it committed gross human rights abuses. Previously, the old parties had just bought votes without any policies. Taksin’s real policies reduced vote-buying and his overwhelming electoral base came to challenge the old way of conducting politics, eventually angering those who could not win the hearts and minds of the people.

The 1997 economic crisis exposed the material reality of Thai society which had developed rapidly over many decades but which was in conflict with an unchanged conservative “Superstructure”. This is the dynamic of conflict which was harnessed by Taksin.

It would be a mistake to see the present crisis as merely a dispute between two factions of the elite. It has another important dimension that cannot be ignored. We need to understand the role of the Red Shirts who had a “dialectical” relationship with their idol Taksin. There existed a kind of “parallel war” where thousands of ordinary Red Shirts struggled for democracy, dignity and social justice, while Taksin and his political allies waged a very different campaign to regain the political influence that they had enjoyed before the 2006 coup d’état.

Despite the fact that many believe that the centre of power among the conservative elites is the monarchy, the real centre of power, lurking behind the throne, is the military. King Pumipon is a weak and characterless monarch who spent his useless and privileged life in a bubble, surrounded by fawning, and grovelling toadies. He is, and always has been, a puppet of the military and the conservative elites. The hypothesis that the present long-running unrest in Thailand is primarily caused by a “crisis of succession”, is a top-down view which assumes that the Thai monarch has real power and that he has been constantly intervening in politics. That is just not the case. There is no absolute monarch in his final years causing a potential power vacuum. All sides have also agreed that the scandal-prone and despicable prince will be the next king. To place the Princess, who has no male partner, on the throne instead, would immediately destroy all the “reinvented tradition” about the monarchy and undermine its mythical legitimacy. What is more the Prince will be even more of a weak and potential tool of the military because he cares nothing about affairs of state. The issue of royal succession is therefore of little relevance here, despite it being fashionable for journalists and academics to use this as a standard explanation for the crisis. [see http://bit.ly/2cju72D ]

The crisis has not been caused by a conflict between the monarchy and Taksin or the supposed presence of an anti-Taksin “Deep State”, either. There is no Deep State in Thailand. In order to argue for the existence of a so-called “Deep State”, the power of the King has to be exaggerated, the involvement of mass movements ignored, and long-running fractures within the military and conservative elites have to be overlooked. Taksin Shinawat, as a member of the ruling class, commanded a great deal of influence over sections of the military and judiciary in his early days as Prime Minister because of his promise to modernise Thailand after the 1997 economic crisis. The conservatives only turned against him when they could not compete with his electoral advantage as they were either not prepared to join him, or were not prepared to offer the population the kind of policies that would improve their lives. Thailand does not have some stable, unchanging core, of conservative reactionaries embedded deep within the state. There are fluid and dynamic bonds between members of the ruling class as the various factions make or break alliances in an opportunistic manner. Some of Taksin’s faction were drawn from the left, while others came from the conservative and royalist right-wing, who took part in attacks against democracy during the Cold War. Samak Sundaravej is a good example of the latter. [see http://bit.ly/29H0FC9]

The results of the referendum on the junta’s draft constitution on the 7th August 2016 were disappointing and are a set-back for democracy. But we should not forget that this was never a democratic referendum and 10 million people voted against accepting the constitution.

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This is not a time to retreat and try to build some kind of political consensus in civil society, as suggested by exiled academic Somsak Jeamteerasakul. Such a suggestion is not only a pipe-dream, but in practice would result in “half democracy”. This idea stems from Somsak’s lack of confidence in the potential power and relevance of pro-democracy social movements.

The way forward is to build a mass social movement against the junta. The rich experience of Thai mass movements defeating the military in 1973 and 1992 and the huge potential of the Red Shirt movement should be revisited. It is time to stop playing symbolic games organised by a handful of self-appointed heroes. Such misguided views arise from a mistaken analysis that in the days of social media we do not need to build mass movements. Ridding Thailand of the influence of the military will take time and determined political organisation.

 

My full paper written for “10 years of Politico-Social Crisis in Thailand”, a seminar organised by “Free Thais for Human Rights and Democracy” at CCFD-Terre Solidaire building, Paris, France, 19/9/2016, can be viewed here: http://bit.ly/2bSpoF2  or http://bit.ly/2cmZkAa

So-called “Succession Crisis” does not explain dictatorship

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

A couple of years ago it was fashionable for journalists and political commentators to try to explain the collapse of democracy in Thailand as being due to a “Succession Crisis”. The more extreme view was to predict a “Game of Thrones” war between the Prince and the Princess over who would succeed King Pumipon. Some muttered darkly that the Queen might take over. Those obsessed with military factions mapped out possible scenarios involving soldiers “belonging” to the Queen, the Princess or the Prince. The more subtle version was to say that there was “disquiet” among many Thais about what would happen when the King died. The king, so this argument went, was a “stabilising force” within Thai society.

thai-king-birthday_2011

Yet, observing Thai society today, Pumipon might as well be dead already. For some years now he has been so elderly and frail that he has not been capable of taking part in any public duties. Prayut’s military junta has not even bothered to perform the theatrics, common in previous times, of “taking orders” or consulting with the King. Today those insulting Generalissimo Prayut are now being charged with “breaking the law” as though the junta head himself was the monarch.

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The mask hiding the real power in Thai society has finally slipped. Ever since the 1932 revolution that ended the absolute monarchy, the military, the business elites and the top bureaucrats have been the real power in Thailand, hiding behind a myth that the King is somehow “in charge”. This elite myth inflated the King into a god-like figure. Yet the King-God has no clothes.

The Prince is clearly set to be the next King, unless we can turn Thailand into a republic. There is no internecine war over the succession and the middle-classes and even a substantial number of Red Shirts are prepared to tolerate or even carry-on worshipping the Prince. This is despite the fact that Wachiralongkorn is a half-wit who is only interested in indulging his own whims.

The Queen is equally incapable of anything, being even frailer than the King.

There is no quarrel over succession. There is no “instability” caused by succession either.

During the entirety of Pumipon’s reign he was a weak and cowardly individual who owed his position in society to the actions of the conservative elites, especially the military. He is beholden to them and only acted when told to do so by them. The military’s obsession with using and protecting the monarchy stems from this. They are extreme royalists because, for them, being a royalist means being pro-military. Lèse majesté exists in Thailand in order to protect the un-democratic powers of the elite who masquerade as incarnations of the King.

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All the political activists charged with lèse majesté in the last ten years, including myself, have primarily been critics of the military and the conservative elite’s interventions in politics against elected governments.

During the entirety of Pumipon’s reign, Thailand experienced decades of political crisis between 1973 and the mid-1980s. The present political crisis erupted in the run up to the 2006 military coup. Pumipon cannot be said to have provided any significant “peace and stability” for the Thai people. The opposite is true. He has tolerated and looked kindly upon those causing carnage in society and those who have sought to destroy democracy.

What the elites mean by “stability”, in association with the King, is really about using the King to stabilise elite power and privileges. This is why millions of Thais are holding their breath, waiting for things to get better after the King dies. But things will not get better just because of Pumipon’s death in the future.

The present Thai crisis and the authoritarian rule of the military junta, who have long out-stayed their welcome, are due to a three dimensional conflict between the unelected conservative elites who have held power under military rule or have monopolised electoral politics since 1932, and a new brand of electoral politics introduced by Taksin Shinawat’s Thai Rak Thai Party in 2001. It is a three dimensional crisis because Taksin’s policies were extremely popular with the electorate, especially the universal health care scheme and a number of pro-poor job creation projects. The majority of the population, who in reality had been totally ignored or suppressed by previous governments, found that they had a political stake in society. Taksin needed their electoral support and they relied on his government to improve their lives. Taksin’s electoral power could not be challenged by the unelected conservative elites at the ballot-box. The old elites and the middle-classes felt that they had lost out to a winning coalition between Taksin and the rural and urban working people.

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It is this that explains the violent middle-class Yellow Shirt protests and the various military and judiciary coups against elected governments led by Taksin and his supporters. It is this situation that explains why the present military junta are trying to force through an undemocratic constitution in order that they and the other conservative elites can retain power in future sham elections.

Obsession with the monarchy and life after Pumipon cannot explain anything about this crisis.

[In the next few weeks I shall be publishing a critique of the “Deep State” theory which some are attempting to use to “explain” the Thai crisis. ]

The 1997 economic crash and the crisis of Thai democracy

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The period leading up to the 1997 economic crisis was a period in which the Thai economy grew at a phenomenal rate. Average GDP growth rates reached 8% and on occasions the annual rate was in double figures. The main beneficiaries, naturally, were the rich. Between 1975 and 1988 the richest 20% of the population increased their share of national wealth from 43% to 55.4%, while the share controlled by the poorest 20% dropped from 6% to 4.5%.

The economic crisis was a shock to everyone for no one had predicted it. Once the crisis broke, political scapegoats were quickly found in order to protect the status-quo. The more neo-liberal sections of the big business community, who had always harboured a dislike for the “populist” and “unreliable” New Aspiration Party (NAP), quickly suggested the idea that the crisis was all the fault of Prime Minister Chawalit Yongjaiyut’s government.

Once Chawalit resigned, his government was replaced by a Democrat Party-led coalition under Chuan Leekpai. The new finance minister, Tarrin Nimmanhaemind, was regarded as a reliable “bankers’ man”. This suggestion was born out by the fact that the government quickly moved to nationalise the private debts of 56 failed banks and finance companies.

The same enthusiasm for the use of public finances was not shown towards helping the poor and the unemployed who were worst hit by the crisis. The government passed a bill allowing it to withhold state contribution to the private sector employees’ Social Insurance Fund and repeatedly delayed the implementation of an unemployment benefit scheme. The World Bank estimated that in early 1999 the unemployment figure was 2.6 million or 8% of the workforce. Figures quoted by academics varied from 1.5 million to 4 million. However, a much more reliable indicator of the effect of the crisis on jobs was the “quality of employment”. According to one survey carried out for the National Economic & Social Development Board, there was a 12.6% decline in earnings rates and a 4.4% decline in hours of employment in the first half of 1998. These were the main factors behind a fall in real incomes of 19.2% over this period.

Over-capacity and falling rates of return, the cause of the crisis, were not merely confined to the well-publicised real estate sector, which happened to be the initial trigger for the crash. The declining rate of Thai industrial exports was an important factor which led to the run on the baht, and this was due to over-production of export products on a global scale.

In the general election of January 2001, Taksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party (TRT) won a landslide victory. The election victory was in response to the previous Democrat Party government policy which had totally ignored the plight of the rural and urban poor. TRT also made 3 important promises to the electorate. These were (1) a promise to introduce a Universal Health Care Scheme for all citizens, (2) a promise to provide a 1 million baht loan to each village in order to stimulate economic activity and (3) a promise to introduce a debt moratorium for poor peasants. They kept these promises and built a strong supporter base among the majority of the population.

The policies of TRT arose from a number of factors, mainly the 1997 economic crisis and the influence of both big-business and some ex-student activists from the 1970s within the party. The “Taksin wing” of big-business believed that there was an urgent need to modernise the economy and turn the electorate into stake-holders in society.

It is this mass support for Taksin’s party that set the stage for the present political crisis. The middle class, the military and other sections of the conservative elites only tolerated democracy in the past when there was no competition for concrete policies at elections and when they could all eat their share of rich pickings at the economic table. Taksin’s political dominance upset the apple-cart.

Therefore the junta’s current claims to be reforming Thai democracy are the exact opposite of the truth. What they want is to turn the clock back and reduce the democratic space.

[See previous article on this site: BACKWARD, ANTI-DEMOCRATIC AND INFANTILE: THE JUNTA’S 2015 DRAFT CONSTITUTION]