Giles Ji Ungpakorn
Anek Laotamatat made a name for himself in supporting the flawed mainstream idea that the Thai middle-class was key to building democracy. His paper on the 1992 uprising against the military sang the praises of the key role of the middle-classes, despite the fact that there was evidence of a much more complicated class makeup of the demonstrators. [See also https://bit.ly/1HFxyLM and https://bit.ly/2QQBxk2 ]
On Christmas day 2018, Anek made a confession on Thai PBS TV that when he looked back to the 1973 uprising against the Tanom dictatorship, if he had known what he knew now about how “bad” the democratic electoral system really was, he would have supported the continuation of the Tanom regime. He is now firmly in the camp of those who want to see Generalissimo Prayut and his junta cling on to power after the so-called elections next month.
In many ways, Anek’s political trajectory mirrors that of the Thai middle-classes and one could say that his book “The Tale of Two Democratic Cities”, provides the theoretical justification for Prayut’s system of Guided Democracy.
It is worth reminding ourselves about the political career of Anek Laotamatas through being a former supporter of the Maoist Communist Party, to becoming an academic and finally ending up as an anti-democratic politician.
On 12th April 2016 the blood-stained Generalissimo Prayut admitted that he did not trust the Thai people to elect a “good” government. This was his justification for the military constitution which restricts the power of any democratically elected governments in the future. It was also the justification for the 2006 and 2014 military coups. Military coups in Thailand have the support of liberal, right-wing, academics in Thailand.
Liberal academics in Thailand believe that Taksin cheated in elections by “tricking or buying the ignorant rural poor”. For them the rural poor were trapped in a patron-client system. The person who mapped out this view most clearly was Anek Laotamatat in his 1995 book: “The Tale of Two Democratic Cities”.
Anek Laotamatat’s book attempted to claim that the major divide in Thai democratic society was between the rural and urban areas. These were the “two democratic cities” of Thai politics. According to Anek, the divide was not just geographical but it was an issue of class too. In his view, the rural electorate were mainly small farmers and the urban electorate were “middle-class”.
The overwhelming dominance of the rural electorate in various constituencies meant that they had the voting power to elect governments. Anek claimed that these governments were mainly corrupt and deeply involved in money politics. In Anek’s view, the rural people voted for these politicians because they were “patrons” of the poor who had to prove themselves by their work record of helping local communities. Vote buying was a ceremonial part of this “patron-client” relationship and not seen as “wrong” by the rural voters. Anek believed that rural people did not vote by using “independent thought” about political policies, but were bound by ties of obligation to their patrons.
For Anek, the urban middle-classes were well educated and chose their governments and politicians using independent thought and a strong sense of “political morality”. They cast their votes after carefully considering the policies of various parties, and when the governments which were chosen by the rural poor turned out to be corrupt and immoral, they took part in street demonstrations to bring those governments down.
This was an inaccurate and extremely patronising view of Thai political society. The Thai middle-classes have a history of political opportunism, sometimes supporting barbaric acts and repressive regimes, like the 1976 massacre, the present military junta, and the cold-blooded murder of red shirt demonstrators by the military. The middle-classes also sometimes oppose military dictatorships, such as in 1992. Marxists have long defined the middle-classes as fickle and cowardly, bending with the wind according to strong political currents either from above or from below. Today the Thai middle-classes are firmly in the camp of the dictatorship.
The present anti-democratic position of the middle-classes is based on strong currents from the conservative elites to ditch democracy because it gave “too much” power to Taksin and “too much” benefit to ordinary working people in urban and rural areas. Their so-called “anti-corruption” crusade has helped place the military in power. The military is one of the most corrupt institutions in Thailand. Not only this, the main political leader of the anti-corruption crusade, which opened the door to military rule, Sutep Tueksuban, is a longstanding and classical old-style politician of the Democrat Party which uses pure “patronage” and corruption to maintain votes in the south of Thailand. This is because the party has never had any real policies.
Interestingly, Anek’s solution to the problem of political patronage, which he claimed resulted in corrupt politicians being elected from rural areas, was to get the state to increase rural development projects so that these areas became more urban-like and linked into the capitalist market through technological advances. Equally important, in his view, was the need for political parties to develop clear policies and propose new solutions. The book was written before Taksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party was ever established and it appears that TRT, Knowingly or unknowingly, followed all the major points put forward in the book for developing Thai politics. Not only was TRT the only party for over two decades to take the issue of party policies seriously, the party took a keen interest in winning votes from the rural and urban poor on the basis of such policies. The 30 baht Universal Health Care Scheme was typical. The Taksin Government then proceeded to actually honour its election promises and use state funds to develop rural areas so that they could be linked to the world market. The Village Funds and “One Tambon One Product” (O.T.O.P.) are a good examples. In short, rural voters started to vote for clear pro-poor policies, while reducing their personal attachment to local political patrons or bosses.
This is supported by the work of Australian anthropologist Andrew Walker who found that rural voters were carefully weighing up policies of various parties at election time.
Yet during the Yellow Shirt PAD campaign against Taksin before the 2006 coup, liberal academics and some social activists often quoted Anek’s book to “prove” that the rural poor were too stupid to understand democracy and that they were tied into Taksin’s new “patron-client system” via TRT’s populist policies. This was reinforced by Anek himself, who claimed, in a later book that TRT had built a new patron-client system and that this showed that Thailand could never have fully functioning democracy.
The very concept of a “patron-client system” is not about a political party which offers populist policies to the entire national electorate, carries them out and then gets overwhelmingly re-elected on a national ballot. Political patron-client systems are about individual relationships between a local political boss and the boss’s constituents. The relationship results in preferential treatment for some. It is pure nonsense to state that TRT was building a new strong patron-client system in the countryside on a national level. For those who genuinely believe in democracy, governments and political parties ought to carry out policies which the people want.
Anek Laotamatat went on to promote the idea of “Asia Values” in his attempt to justify the military regime. He argued that Thailand needed a “mixed” system where elected governments share power with the King and Thai Rak Thai Populism is replaced by “Third Way” social welfare. Anek was an ardent admirer of the British academic Anthony Giddens, favourite of Tony Blair.
The reality in Thailand is that the “two democratic cities” are made up, on one side, of the elites and middle-classes who hate democracy when it threatens their privileges, and on the other side, the urban and rural working people who cherish freedom and democracy because it is in their class interests to do so. It is the middle-classes who rely on the patronage of the military strongmen, the monarchy and conservative political Big Shots in order to protect the “old ways” which created the unequal society which we see today in Thailand.
“A Tale of Two Democracies: Conflicting Perceptions of Elections and Democracy in Thailand.” By Anek Laothamatas. In: The Politics of Elections in Southeast Asia. Edited by R. H. Taylor. Cambridge University Press, 1996.