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Thailand turns: next stop Banana Republic

by Sin-ming Shaw

BANGKOK — “Thailand’s future is up for grabs,” proclaimed the eminent Thai scholar Thitinan Pongsudhirak last week just before the country’s Constitutional Court ruled, in effect, that the ruling People Power Party (PPP) and its two smaller coalition partners are “illegal,” and hence must disband because of “election frauds” committed by party executives a year ago.

Party leaders, including Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, are barred from politics for five years. With one stroke, the popularly elected government fell. Parliament must now reconstitute itself without the three parties loyal to Somchai.

History is repeating itself: The PPP under Somchai was the same Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) Party formed by the ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a figure much-hated by the country’s Bangkok-based elite. The PPP was created because TRT had been outlawed at the time of Thaksin’s removal.

The perverse thing about all this is that every recent poll in Thailand shows that Thaksin remains wildly popular with the vast majority of Thais, most of whom live outside Bangkok. So, despite the ousting of two Thaksin proxies in a row by the court and the elite, Thais are likely to return yet another Thaksin loyalist if they are allowed to vote in an unrigged election.

The current crisis has been brewing for some time, but the breaking point came when antigovernment protesters occupied Bangkok’s main airport. The protesters marched under the banner of the “People’s Alliance for Democracy,” but the truth is that they have resorted to undemocratic means to topple a democratically elected government.

This parade of toppled and ousted governments has led Pavin Chchavalpongpun, another eminent Thai scholar, to call his country a “failed state.” That description may not yet be true, but the specter of state failure is growing.

Thaksin’s unforgivable sin was to violate Thailand’s unwritten rules on how to treat the country’s ruling elites. For one, the winner in a power play must not shut out his opponents. In a land of “smiles” and plenty, the winner must not take all.

But Thaksin, a self-made billionaire, allowed his greed and huge electoral successes to get the better of him. After his two landslide victories, he thought he could have it all. The traditional Bangkok elites had always thought of him as an uncouth upstart. Once in power, he essentially shut them out of the “grabbing” game, preserving it for himself and his cronies.

Thaksin’s supposedly legal “tax planning,” which allowed him to pay zero capital gains tax on the billion-dollar sale of his flagship telecom company, Shin Corporation, in 2006, offended the rising urban professional classes.

By then, Thaksin had won over Thailand’s rural population with popular policies including handouts. Some of these projects were the proverbial bridges to nowhere. Others met real rural needs: cutting medical costs, providing subsidized agricultural loans, and maintaining price supports. Thaksin’s rural base rewarded him by returning him to power, ignoring his personal corruption.

Thaksin’s detractors cynically call his rural strategy (which his proxy successors have followed) “vote buying.” But Thaksin’s rural base wonders why the anti-Thaksin groups never tried to do much for them. Vote buying to win hearts and minds is, after all, is fair game for any party to indulge in.

The going “wage” for the “Rent-A-Crowds” during the crisis was 300 baht a day per person, plus food, transportation and a clean yellow T-shirt — yellow being the royal color. These protests ran, off and on, for nearly 200 days, with crowd sizes ranging from a few hundred to tens of thousands. It is widely known that anti-Thaksin business elites provided the money to keep people in the streets.

Thailand’s loved and respected king has not taken a public stand on the occupation of the airports or on any other recent public demonstrations. Some analysts say antigovernment leaders have hijacked the royal color to pretend that they have his support.

It is widely believed that Thaksin committed lese-majeste by attempting to undermine the moral authority of the crown, a cornerstone of the kingdom, and perhaps replace it with a republic that he would control. After Thailand’s queen presided at the recent funeral of a protester killed in a clash with police, policing of the protests became utterly passive. The queen is rumored to have said she would pay the medical expenses of any injured demonstrators.

The anti-Thaksin factions have failed to produce a knockout in any recent general election. Street protests remain their sole weapon.

Until the anti-Thaksin civilian elite can convince the rest of the country that they are serious about winning the hearts and minds of the poor, Thailand will remain on a knife edge between banana republic and failed state.

Sin-ming Shaw is a former visiting fellow at Oxford University. © 2008 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)