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Thailand’s political and social elite in denial?

by Sin-ming Shaw

BANGKOK — Thailand’s political and social fabric is fraying. Indeed, the country’s future looks as shaky as it has never been.

In other prosperous democracies, the middle class provides the glue that holds society together. In Thailand, by contrast, the bourgeoisie, centered in Bangkok, is barely emerging as a social and political force.

Instead, for a half-century, an unspoken social contract among four broad groups has held Thailand together: the “Palace” — a euphemism used here to avoid violating Draconian lese majeste laws; big business, the custodian of economic growth; the military, which ensures, first and foremost, the sanctity of the Palace and the moral values it represents; and the common people, mostly rural and urban poor, who accept the rule of the other three estates.

Thailand’s national mythology is that it is a happy Buddhist country, a “land of smiles” bound together by compassion and harmony under the benevolent blessings of the Palace and the generosity of big business. The less fortunate classes are docile, content to accept their subservient roles and satisfied with the social welfare, no matter how skimpy, provided by their betters. The poor and the military hold the Palace in genuine reverence. Palace staff and people in the countryside kneel before the monarchy not merely as a matter of protocol, but out of love and respect.

Forbes magazine ranked the Thai monarchy in 2009 as the richest of all the world’s royals, putting its net worth at $30 billion — a figure that locals consider too low. That royal wealth necessarily entails substantial investments in and with Thai big business in all sectors of the economy. Thailand’s blue-chip firms gain much from direct involvement with the Palace and from social proximity to it. One Hong Kong scion whose wife is from an elite Thai family estimates that perhaps 20 families control most of Thai business.

The Thai military is constitutionally subordinate to civilian leadership, but in reality it owes its allegiance to the Palace. In the current crisis, army generals have told the public that they are reluctant to use force, a position that was not theirs to take.

How long this inactivity will last is anyone’s guess. Mobs wearing red shirts to symbolize their loyalty to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra are camped out in two major commercial areas, paralyzing a large part of the local economy. They demand that the government dissolve the legislature, and that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva resign because he was never elected and is viewed as a front man for the traditional anti-Thaksin monied groups.

Many believe that the current crisis will pass, and that Thailand will revert to its historical harmony among the four groups. But this view ignores the country’s new political dynamics.

First and foremost, Thailand’s lower classes have decided that docility is a thing of the past. They are angry and frustrated by the status quo. Save for the handouts they got under Thaksin, they benefited little from the economic growth of the past three decades. The vast gap between the urban rich and the rest has grown worse over the years, with no discernible “trickle-down” effect.

Even in the prime commercial districts and chic neighborhoods of Bangkok, the nation’s richest city, a short walk reveals kilometers of cracked pavements, piles of uncollected garbage, and rats scurrying freely.

The sight of run-down physical infrastructure, punctuated by super-modern shopping malls with global consumer brand names well beyond the purchasing power of most citizens, is not what you would expect in an economy once described as a potential Asian Dragon. The wealthy dwell in air-conditioned houses, travel in chauffeur-driven cars, and shop in luxury malls, apparently oblivious to how the rest of the country lives. Poor rural families see too many of their children become prostitutes in order to survive.

The poor view the coup against Thaksin of 2006, and the later disbanding of his party, as revenge by the traditional elites who wanted the old ways back, and who would get what they wanted by force since they could no longer get it through the ballot box. It is a view that is not entirely wrong.

In late 2008, anti-Thaksin mobs wearing yellow shirts and led by prominent business figures occupied Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport with impunity, seeking to annul the result of a general election in which pro-Thaksin forces gained power, despite Thaksin’s exile overseas. Yellow is the color of Thai royalty, and the Palace was believed to be sympathetic to the mobs.

Now Thaksin loyalists — the red shirts — are doing much the same, demanding change through mob behavior. They believe that they, too, are entitled to act with impunity. The red shirts are not blind to Thaksin’s excessive corruption. But they see him as a rare Thai politician who actually bothered to connect with them. Moreover, as prime minister, Thaksin made a point of delivering much-needed services to the underclasses: subsidized medical care and micro-loans to name just two.

But the unspoken issue behind Thailand’s unrest is that, with the country’s 82-year-old king ailing, the Palace’s moral force has come into question. Indeed, Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Pirmoya, breaking taboos that have governed the country for years, recently spoke about the need to re-examine the country’s lese majeste laws so that public discourse could intelligently address the role of the Palace in Thailand’s future.

What Thaksin did for the poor required only political self-interest. Yet even that elementary wisdom has never occurred to traditional ruling elites too set in their myopic and arrogant ways. Until it does, Thailand’s otherwise promising future will be increasingly remote.

Sin-ming Shaw, a former fellow at Oxford University, is an investor based in Thailand and Argentina. © 2010 Project Syndicate