A Touch of Class

*Originally published January 28. 2014

Just Another Case of History Repeating

When the Coup Group of 1947 introduced the interlocking notions of Nation, Religion, and King as the fundamental elements of the Thai state (which only the Army could defend and uphold), they set the predominant  pattern and tone of Thai politics down to the present day. The constitution they issued returned most of the powers and privileges that had been taken from the monarchy in 1932, and this in turn cemented the relationship between royalists and the military that also continues to this day.

The rationale they offered for their coup has also provided a template that shapes, with modifications due to the passing of the cold war, not just post-coup rationalization statements, but much of what passes for political discourse in contemporary Thailand. They justified their intervention on the twin grounds of eliminating both communism and corruption.

“Communism”, in this case, really meant Pridi Banomyong and his followers and allies, and any remaining influence they might have had in either the government or the military.

“Corruption”, on the other hand, is harder to define at this distance in time, and in that sense is the most salient “ideological” gift that Choonhavan et al passed on to those who intend to seize power by non-democratic means in 21st century Thailand.

When the generals of the Ratchakhru Group settled into power, they also settled into seats on the boards of directors of the major business concerns of the country, seats vacated by the “corrupt” administrators of the previous government of course. In other words, “rooting out corruption” essentially involved cutting the strings connecting the old governing faction to Thai capitalists and establishing new ones that replaced Khana Ratsadon people with Generals from the Group.

Seni Pramoj, one of the early leaders of today’s Democrat Party, was awarded a cabinet post in the junta for his cooperation in the coup. Thus was another precedent set that, outside of a few years when military rule became very unfashionable with Bangkok’s “civilian” middle and upper-middle classes, has remained relevant until today, with the Democrats essentially operating as the “political wing” of the royalist-military anti-democratic faction.

And so it is that when corrupt “former” Democrat party leader Suthep Thaugsuban leads a movement calling for the overthrow of a democratically elected government on the grounds of corruption, and the head of the Thai military suggests that the “door” is neither open nor closed to a coup, and a member of the royal family uses Instagram to post photos of herself adorned in the paraphernalia associated with Kamnan Suthep’s insurrection, no one should be fooled into thinking that we are witnessing something “new” in Thai politics, nor that the consistent refrain of “Thaksin, Thaksin, Thaksin” means that these past 8 years of turmoil has been caused primarily by the man from Dubai.

On the contrary, the current round of protests is simply the latest expression of the network of individuals and groups that have coalesced at times of crisis over the past eight decades to ensure that “democracy” never takes root in Thailand.

Democracy: U and non-U versus the Great Unwashed?

But what about the protestors themselves? Aren’t many of them the same people who agitated against military government in 1992? Have some of them not been involved in pro-democracy movements as far back as 1973?

As has been pointed out time and time again over the past few months, the educated Bangkok middle classes are providing both money and bodies to keep this movement alive, and they themselves deny that they are anti-democratic, insisting instead that their intention is to “restart” the democratic process that has been hijacked by the “parliamentary dictatorship” of the Thaksin “regime”. It is difficult, not to say churlish, to flatly deny that these people believe themselves to be acting out of a desire to uproot corruption and install an improved democratic system in Thailand.

However that may be, “parliamentary dictatorship” is an interesting term to be bandied about by people claiming to support democratic governance, not least because the very notion of dictatorship is a hard one to correlate with the 650 members of the mostly elected Thai houses of parliament. “Tyranny of the majority” might be the more cogent choice, or even “dictatorship of the proletariat”, were it not so firmly associated with an ideology that is even harder to hang on Thaksin than “democrat”.

But like so many elements of the struggle for power that has marked the past 8 years of Thai politics, “parliamentary dictatorship” is a term drawn from tradition.

When the Chatchai government was removed from office by military coup in 1991, one of the charges leveled by the generals as justification for the coup, besides the classic “corruption”, was “parliamentary dictatorship”. It is easy enough to read this particular charge as meaning little more than “insufficiently grateful” to the bureaucrats and generals who permitted the politicians to kin pathet at the buffet; the Chatchai government, like the Thaksin regime, tried to establish civilian control over the military and legislative control over the bureaucracy, but worse than either of those, also like the Thaksin administration, it failed to share the spoils. Thus has “corruption” come to be understood at the highest levels of Thai society.

As was the case in 2006, there was a general sense of relief when the Chatchai government was removed from power, even if there was also unease at the return of military government. By appointing a “good person” like Anand as interim Prime Minister, the coup group managed to allay much of the initial resistance they would otherwise have met, particularly from the media and the international community. Nevertheless, when an election was held roughly one year after the coup and a military-controlled government was elected, the stage was set for the “mobile phone mob”, the Bangkok middle class, to come out and demonstrate for a return to “real” democracy.

What that constituency meant by “democracy” may be best understood by looking at the oft-lamented 1997 Constitution, the “People’s Constitution” as it is sometimes known.

Just as Suthep and the PDRC of today demand a “time-out” for a group of “good people” to formulate a constitution that will ensure a “genuinely” democratic Thailand free of corruption, the framers of the ’97 Constitution, “good people” all, aimed the bulk of their effort at the same goal.

Most strikingly perhaps, the People’s Constitution eliminated the opportunity for roughly 90% of Thai adults (95% in rural areas) to run for election in the national government by requiring a candidate to have at least a BA or equivalent. This was done apparently in the belief that having a university education would somehow prevent a candidate from indulging in vote-buying during elections and other forms of corruption once installed in parliament. The suggestion is clear: “educated” equals “good”, or at least more likely to be so.

There was also a provision insisting that the government provide education to “instil right awareness with regard to politics and a democratic regime of government with the King as Head of the State”, presumably in order to correct the tendency of less-educated people to misunderstand what the middle-class framers understood by “democracy”.

In order to avoid politicians actually chosen by voters gaining too much power or access to graft, constituency candidates could not sit in cabinet unless they resigned their seats and funded the resulting by-election. The purpose of this was obviously to keep people involved in electoral politics out of the cabinet, hardly an endorsement of democratic procedure to say the least. By restricting cabinet membership to party-list MPs, it was hoped that only “good people” would have access to the juiciest spoils in the trough.

The document also created the much-celebrated “independent bodies” that were to provide the “checks and balances” necessary for the operation of an honest and fair democracy. In practice, however, these bodies, made up as they are of “good people” and “experts”,  have simply meant, for example, that the 5 members of the Election Commission could overturn the decision of thousands of voters by disqualifying a member of parliament, or indeed negate the votes of millions by the simple expedient of disbanding a political party. Hardly a ringing endorsement of the “one man, one vote” principle that many would argue is fundamental to democratic structures, even if not sufficient to their maintenance.

While it would be foolish to deny that there were at least some good intentions behind the various provisions of the ’97 Constitution, it would be delusional to ignore the emphasis on “good people” and the equating of “educated” with “good” that established an essentially anti-democratic tilt to the People’s Constitution. The “people” in that formulation are essentially the Bangkok middle class and its outliers in the provinces, and definitely not the vast majority of the Thai electorate.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly Truth

So there is a certain truth to the Suthep mob’s insistence that they are not “anti-democratic”; it’s just that the “democracy” they long for is one that requires a great deal of at least partial disenfranchisement of the Thai electorate, most of whom do not belong to the Bangkok middle class. And that, to be blunt, is really not democracy at all.

For anyone with a sense of Thai political history, it should not really be all that surprising to find the old “mobile phone mob” and its contemporary descendants out shouting for the very things that the military juntas of past Thai political crises have claimed to represent.

In 1973, the middle class supported the students in their demand for democracy. In 1976, that same middle class supported the return to military dictatorship because they were shocked to find that democracy actually involved the active participation of trade unions and farmers and coalitions of poor people, none of whom fell under the self-regarding definition of “good people” as “people like us”.

When it came time for the military government to start killing protestors in 1992, the educated middle classes were essentially nowhere to be found. Not one of those killed in Black May had a university degree. It would seem that “dying for democracy” is something the servants can do for the Thai middle class.

When the Thaksin government was removed from power in 2006, the Bangkok middle class repeated its performance of 1991, relieved that the corrupt regime was ended, if a little uncomfortable with the way it was done, and eager to see a return to “real” democracy.

By “real” democracy of course was meant one that would not be overly influenced by “the people”, who had somehow managed to circumvent the restrictions on their participation enshrined in the People’s Constitution.

This typically middle-class equivocation led to the adoption of the long-since-discredited song mai ao position that in one form or another still characterizes much of middle-class discourse in both the mainstream and social media; “good” Thais are all for democracy but against Thaksin and against the return of military government. What this means in reality is that they reject the options the real world offers and prefer to “talk” as if something else were possible, thereby retaining their self-concept as “good people”. But it hardly matters in any democratic sense because the Thai electorate has evolved its own understanding of what democracy means and has voted its understanding and its preference consistently now for over a decade and through four national elections.

And that, not Thaksin, and not the “anti-democratic” tilt of the middle class protestors, is the “new thing” in the present repeat of all the old patterns in Thai politics.

It remains to be seen whether the majority of Thai voters will finally be integrated into the democratic system or whether the pretense of “democracy” is to be abandoned altogether, in favor of some system that will reinforce the sense of Bangkok’s middle class as part of the “good people” without their having to kill too many of those who will undoubtedly lack the understanding of “democracy” that would see them yet again disenfranchised and oppressed by their betters in the City of Angels.



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