Thailand's Political Crisis: We can resolve it but we need to change

Thailand’s political crisis in the last few years has continued. Nobody seems to have the solution to bring this crisis to a peaceful ending. The heat and tension are high and rising here in a land known for peace and smiles.

Why do we have this crisis? What is the real problem? How do we resolve the conflict? Can we reconcile? What lies ahead? This blog is an attempt to take a step back from today’s chaos and objectively analyze the current political crisis by answering these questions.

This blog, however, does not provide all the answers. It merely presents my opinion on what is the necessary condition that would lead to finding the right answers. After all, resolving the current political crisis is beyond any individual’s capability – it should and must be a collective action.

The Past

It is important for every of us to understand how modern Thai politics has developed to what it is today. Let me thus briefly go over the development of Thai politics since the 1932 military coup that brought an end to absolute monarchy. For those who are familiar with Thailand’s political development, you could skip this part.

Most of the time, modern Thai politics has been dominated by the elites, not the mass. From the 1930s to early 1970s, Thai politics was best described as “bureaucratic polity”. Thai politics was controlled entirely by the civilian and military elites and any kind of mass participation by the people was severely limited. Government is the source of power and the military bureaucrats rose to power through staging coups. These governments were plagued with corruption. Changes in government were brought about by military coups, almost every time followed by a new constitution.

The centralization of power by the bureaucrats led finally to the 1976 students’ uprising. People demanded that they no longer wanted a dictatorship and they wanted a say in the governing of the country. This subsequently led to the semi-democracy or what some call Premocracy in the 1980s. Military and civilian bureaucrats still played important roles in Thai politics.

Two factors in the 1980s would then drastically change Thai politics. The first was globalization and the spread of liberal democracy values and human rights. The second was the rise of the new economic elites who benefited from sustained economic growth, many of them in provincial areas. These provincial businessmen became influential in their provinces and developed close connection with local bureaucrats. Many of them then entered politics and came to dominate the provincial political scene.

The major breakthrough came in 1989 when Chatichai became the first popularly elected PM. His party comprised many of the provincial politician-businessmen who became MPs. Money politics, including vote buying, also became a normal practice in this new environment of electoral democracy.

Along came the problem of corruption. The elected Chatichai government was in fact nicknamed the “Buffet Cabinet” because many of the cabinet members could “eat” (corrupt) as much as they wanted to. The corruption resulted in public pressure and the Thai society did not seem to have the solution to this problem. So, eventually, the military led by General Suchinda staged a coup in 1991.

At first, many people welcomed the coup. Later on, however, Suchinda’s attempt to hold on to the power led to another popular uprising – the so-called 1992 “Black May” (some say it should be called Bloody May instead). After the military had “gone back to their barracks” following the king’s intervention, Thai politics entered a period of electoral democracy again.

Thai politics, however, was still plagued with the problem of corruption. Money politics was still the norm especially in the provinces. MPs could be “bought” and transferred between parties. Politics was personal-based, not party-based. And all governments in the 1990s are coalition governments, which were pretty unstable due to corruption practices. They were also not capable enough to deal with rapid changes happening in the world economy. Business and politics could not be separated as the business elites had close ties with politicians and they complemented each other well (crony capitalism).

To sum up, we finally got rid of military dictatorship and had achieved an electoral democracy. But our elected coalition government was weak, incapable and corrupt.

Along came the 1997 financial crisis, which revealed the lack of capability on the part of the government to manage the country in the context of rapid globalization. Money politics, corruption and unstable coalition governments also led to the movement for political reform, which eventually produced the 1997 constitution. The constitution was designed to provide checks to elected governments, to ensure that politics is clean and vote-buying is minimized. That is, it was designed to produce a "balanced" electoral democracy.

While the 1997 crisis brought down many of the old capitalists, it also presented an opportunity for the new capitalists – those in telecom business for example – to rise. Thaksin represented this new group of capitalists and took full advantage of the situation. His business had benefited from close ties and lobbying with past politicians, and now he wanted to enter politics himself.

It is important to realize that Thaksin was the first PM candidate to run his campaign with a concrete policy platform that was based on research. Moreover, Thaksin was also the first PM to deliver the policies that he had promised before the election.

The problem, as we all knew, was that Thaksin’s government was as corrupt as the previous ones, or even more. Corruption under Thaksin, however, took a new form; it was no longer about bribes and commissions. Instead, it became institutionalized and in some cases legalized – the so-called policy corruption. He used his power to put in place policies that benefited his and his crony’s businesses.

It is important, also, to remember that the first Thaksin government was the first to stay for a full 4-year term. Thus, Thaksin’s rise saw a few changes in Thai politics: election campaign based on policies, stability of a one-party government, and a new form of corruption. Thaksin government also showed that the anti-corruption system put in place by the 1997 constitution was not good enough. Thaksin was able to intervene in some of these independent institutions, preventing them to function properly.

So, with Thaksin in power, Thailand finally had a stable, elected, non-coalition government that was really capable of doing the job and getting things done. Yet, the government remained as corrupt as ever.

The Crisis

Thaksin’s ills – corruption, human right abuses and arrogance, to name a few – led to protests from many Thais. Sonthi Limtongkul’s program eventually led to the formation of the PAD which is a coalition of anti-Thaksin people from all sectors – academia, media, entertainment, business and the general public. Indeed, the PAD was a positive development in Thai society because it showed that people cared about politics and wanted to make sure that the government is clean and capable. This kind of non-electoral participation indeed provides a check to the government’s power.

However, despite his ills and the PAD demonstration, Thaksin remained hugely popular among millions of Thais. Thaksin’s base is generally among the low-income population in urban and rural areas. Their craze about Thaksin is understandable though. Don’t forget that these people have been largely ignored by previous governments and Thai elites for so long. Thaksin was their hero – finally someone who cared enough to deliver some policies that benefited them. If I were one of them, I would really like Thaksin and vote for him surely. Corruption, to them, is an irrelevant factor.

In my opinion, both the pro- and anti-Thaksin groups have legitimate reasons supporting their stance. Their different viewpoints make rational sense. But our society is inexperienced in dealing with and resolving this kind of political difference. We do not know how to resolve it because the elites have always been the one resolving it for us.

We could not rely on the independent institutions to do its job effectively when Thaksin was in power. We could turn to the judiciary, and my personal opinion was that this option was not utilized adequately. In any case, in 2006, after Thaksin’s victory in a snap election was ruled illegal, we had a new Election Commission in place and we were heading into another election. It was then that the coup happened.

The coup was of course supported by anti-Thaksin groups, who realized that Thaksin would win in the forthcoming election anyway. This coup in many ways was similar to the one in 1991 which brought down the notoriously corrupt Chatichai government.

The 2006 coup was yet another piece of evidence that the Thai society lacks the know-how of how to resolve political problems.  What do we do when we don’t know what to do? We turn to elite intervention. That was why some of us welcomed the coup as it seemed like we had no other option. That was also why some people had earlier asked for a royally appointed government (but the king rejected the idea as non-sense and non-democratic).

But, indeed, as it turned out, elite intervention via the coup did not solve any of the fundamental problems. As has been the case all along our history, it was another short-sighted solution to a long-term problem. The Surayuth government was incapable of working effectively. Corruption was far from absent under his leadership. The steep rise in defense spending – the purchases of weapons and military jets – were controversial and it is hard to believe that there is no “commission” fees paid to the generals. After all, the military is an institution that is notoriously known for corruption.

The new constitution was passed controversially as many voted “yes” simply because they wanted Thai politics to move on. That kind of thinking certainly underlined a clear short-sighted view of the Thai public.

And sadly, the constitution was designed to produce weak, coalition governments. It was designed to fix the problem of one-party government (Thaksin’s), but the problem was that it fixed the problem at the wrong spot. The problem was not that we have a stable, one-party government. The problem was that Thai governments – one-party or coalition – are always corrupt. What we should have done in the new constitution was to strengthen the independent institutions, not changing election rules to ensure that governments are weak.

Thaksin’s people – the PPP – were elected. Their popularity remained high but they had to form a coalition government. Samak, with his direct and sometimes rude behaviors, was not popular among many. His government lacks capable personnel, and because it is a coalition government comprising 5 parties, he has to give ministerial posts to the leading figures of each party.

This means we basically returned to the old politics of the 1990s: unstable, weak and incapable coalition governments with ministerial posts filled up mostly by each party’s major politicians. Indeed, coup and the new constitution did nothing to fundamentally improve Thai politics.

The Problem

The clash of opinion between the pro- and anti-Thaksin (or PPP) has continued to escalate, producing deep social division in Thailand. The bad thing about this is that Thai society has become “polarized”. It’s now all about “me vs you”, “Thaksin vs PAD”, “patriots vs traitors”.  Reasons do not seem to count as much as emotions and “which side you are on”. 

Indeed, political differences have turned into a win-lose war between pro-Thaksin and anti-Thaksin, instead of constructive win-win interaction between opposite sides to find that magical political system that would serve every Thai better.

We have lost direction. We have also lost our sight on the real problem: finding the right political system that will produce a capable, stable and clean government. It has become an internal fighting between the two opposite sides. The consequence of this is simple: the Thai country and all of us have to suffer from stress, uncertainty, and economic slowdown.

It is important to recognize that this social division is not a product of any one individual. It’s not a product of Thaksin, but the product of the political system that has failed to produce a clean and capable government. We have to understand that corruption in government is not a product of a person but a produce of the system. Corruption was inevitable in an environment where big businesses and politics are inseparable, where personal connection with government people was necessary to bring about policies that would enable your business empire to make more profits.

The real problem facing us is finding the right political system that is based on popular sovereignty (produces relatively stable and capable majority-elected government) with proper checks and balances to minimize corruption, and finding the right mechanism to resolve political conflicts.

The real problem is also to design a political system that accommodates everyone’s interests, one that takes into account all stakeholders of each particular issue to express their thoughts freely.

We haven’t found that chemistry yet, and it seems like we’re not going to find it in the foreseeable future if the internal political division continues like it is today.

The Future

The near future doesn’t look good. On the short term, both the government and the PAD are not going to give up their quest. The government is arrogant and seems to be pushing on constitutional amendment. Deep social division has produced violent clash in Udon Thani last week. The society seems to be relying on the judiciary to bring corrupt politicians to justice but the burden and pressure put on the court is enormous. And even if the court was able to bring those corrupt politicians to justice, it won’t solve the problem with our political system.

We urgently need to reconcile. Reconciliation does not mean we have to converge our thinking to the same ideas. We do not need to think the same, but we need to stop thinking in the “me vs you” way. We have to respect others and understand why they think differently than us.

Peacefulness and I have different views of the PAD and the government, but we both have good intention for Thailand and want to have a clean and capable government. The PAD should stop thinking that bringing this government down at all cost is a victory (because it won’t be a victory simply because it won’t change our political system). The pro-government group also needs to open up their eyes and ears, and understand that the government is far from perfect and needs scrutiny from all sides including from the PAD.

Bangkok middle-class people who are anti-Thaksin should also stop looking down on pro-Thaksin Isaan people as uneducated or succumbed to vote-buying. We all have brains and can think about what is best for ourselves. What is best for a rural villager can be very different from what is best for a Bangkok middle class. We Thais all want to live a good life in this country, and internal political fighting that goes too far without reasons is damaging all of our lives. After all, the principle of democracy is that everybody has an equal say in the governing of the country.

Only when we stop thinking about each other as “the other side” that we can together focus our energy on discussing about how to improve our political system. Instead of spending time quarrelling each other and arguing that “I am right/smart” and “you are wrong/stupid”, we need to spend time discussing about how to improve the working of the independent institutions, how to strengthen the judiciary’s check on the government without interfering too much on government’s work.

We need to work together on our differences for the benefits of Thai society. The elites have been doing this for us for a long time, and they have not done it successfully. We need to do our job.

This is, to me, the true meaning of “unity” or “reconciliation”. Constructive dialogue based on respect of each other’s differences and based on the good intention we all have for this country. This is the necessary condition for us to find the right conflict-solving mechanism to resolve the current crisis and achieve a long-term solution for a better political system that produces better governments. If we do not soon change our attitude, the social division will only become deeper and deeper, and violent clashes between opposite ends could be more frequent and bloody. The consequences can be bad, really bad for us all.

I still choose to remain optimistic.

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