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Why is Thailand’s middle class so quick to reject democracy?

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Following the Thai political crisis that led to two military coups in 2006 and 2014, overthrowing the elected governments of Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra respectively, it became evident that the Thai middle class and civil society organizations were not performing as agents of change. Instead they became defenders of the old power while protecting their political interests.

Claiming to safeguard democracy, members of the Bangkok-based middle class staged protests against these governments, which were supposedly tainted by self-interested politicians like Thaksin and Yingluck. In reality, the fear of the Shinawatras and their successful populism designed to empower the rural residents answered why the middle class and civil society rejected their kind of democracy.

Prior to the passing of Thailand’s much-revered king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, the looming royal succession and his deteriorating health raised great concern among members of the middle class. They cast their suspicion over elected governments because, without Bhumibol, their political status and economic benefits could be seriously challenged. It is known that in Thailand, the monarchy has provided a kind of security for the middle class.

It is imperative to discuss the nature of the Thai middle class. There are two schools of thought here. One is the well-known modernization school, which sees a connection between the level of the people’s income and the sustainability of democracy. It posits that when a nation reaches a high degree of economic development, leading to a better livelihood among citizens, what follows is the consolidation of democracy, supposedly promoted by the new middle class.

As people become richer, they appear to entertain certain liberal attitudes. These liberal attitudes in turn represent a key ingredient behind the making of a more democratic society. But critics sometime disagree with the modernization school by pointing to certain examples, as seen in Singapore and Malaysia, where high economic growth has not always led to democracy.

Given this shortcoming of the modernization school, it appears that the Thai middle class’s affinity for democracy is mainly contingent. It does not hesitate to cooperate with the military to defend its political interests, thus it can be perceived as an unreliable partner of democracy. It only lends its support to democracy on its own conditional terms, earning the title of the “contingent class.”

Other characteristics of the Thai middle class include the wide array of backgrounds of its members, which prevents them from forming a unified group. There are no consistent ideology or political preferences, ranging from endorsing the military coups, calling for the king to intervene in the political crisis or giving consent to the appointment of unelected prime ministers.

When the Thai middle class is able to firm up its political position through the democratic process, it is willing to discuss political inclusion or even support the lower class under types of alliances. However, when its interests come under threat from the lower rungs of society, the middle class switches to its preference of political exclusion; at the same time as it begins to undermine those posing threats.

Meanwhile, the development of Thai civil society organizations has been slow. Volunteer activism only started to proliferate after student uprisings in the 1970s and was consolidated as part of a more forceful civil society in the 1980s.

Civil society organizations shared much of their political consciousness with the middle class. While some work for a better livelihood for marginalized residents in remote regions, others forge an alliance with the middle class in guarding their political benefits at the expense of their support for democracy. This alliance fortified an attitude of “caretakers” toward the lower class, which suggests their superior position with a responsibility to care for and guide the villagers.

During the Thaksin administration, the middle class strove to fend off his government’s intrusion into its political territory. Thaksin was the first prime minister who sought to deal with civil society systematically. He set out to co-opt those who could be co-opted, and to discredit those who could not, either by dividing them from their supporters or through more devious means, such as directing the Anti-Money Laundering Unit to investigate movement leaders, and using legal maneuvers to minimize movements and the effectiveness of civil society.

Critics interpreted this as Thaksin’s devious way to buy loyalty from his constituencies. This divide-and-rule tactic characterized the relationship between Thaksin and civil society in general. But civil society and the middle class retaliated by working with the military in overthrowing both Thaksin and Yingluck while undermining the electoral process.

Thailand had long been governed by a powerful network, known today as the network monarchy with King Bhumibol sitting at the apex of the political structure. The middle class and urban elite civil society became enthusiastic supporters of the network monarchy, exploiting the revered status of the royal institution to reap benefits from the system. Gradually, the alliance between the network monarchy and the middle class members and civil society began to isolate the rural-popular residents.

The royal intervention during the political crisis is just one aspect of today’s struggles that pitch the traditional military and royal networks, supported by the urban middle class, against Thaksin and his inner circle, whose modern bourgeois interests, backed by decisive popular electoral support, directly challenged the old power arrangements.

As the network monarchy was able to redefine the political landscape by placing the monarchy at the center of political life, the rural population was only allowed to participate in electoral politics on a condition — that their chosen governments must be subservient to the dominant network monarchy, otherwise they would be ousted in coups.

But Bhumibol is now dead. The new king, Vajiralongkorn, is unable to offer the same interests to the middle class and civil society organizations. The political uncertainties, which accompany the new reign, create a sense of anxiety among them. And quite possibly, this situation could drive them further away from democratic principles.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.