It goes without saying that without a correct diagnosis, finding a cure for what ails you becomes a matter of pure chance, and doing nothing may begin to look like the only sensible course.
Thai “democracy” has suffered from chronic sickness from the day of its birth, kept alive by rhetorical transfusions and the occasional moderately effective surgical procedure, only to fail yet again in the near-death experiences otherwise known as “coups”, whether “military” or “judicial”.
The fact that these coups are often touted as medical interventions, intended to revive our febrile patient “democracy”, should not be taken too seriously.
It isn’t so much that a coup could never actually be a positive step on the road to democratic government, it’s just that even a glance at the historical record in Thailand gives the lie to any such claim. In the Thai case, democratically-elected governments tend to be removed forcibly when they threaten to challenge the powers behind the curtain, as they have done repeatedly since Chatichai Choonhavan dared to privilege provincial capital and provincial development over the demands of the Bangkok oligarchs, and even had the temerity to attempt to cut the military budget.
To this day, the Chatichai “buffet cabinet” is remembered more for its massive corruption than for its having had the temerity to challenge the Bangkok elite and its military wing, the Royal Thai Army. And to this day, Thai media and much of Thai academia has continually identified “corruption” as the disease gnawing away at the vitals of Thai democracy.
From an elite perspective, anyone who is willing to abase him or herself in order to win the approval of the Thai electorate, most of whom are dizzyingly low on the Thai social-financial totem pole, must necessarily be low herself. The willingness to enter into constituency level electoral politics is stigma enough in this view, but the real criticism of politicians is aimed at their need to finance themselves and their supporters once they arrive at the trough provided by national budgets.
Indeed, it is the case that winning elections in Thailand, like in all contemporary democracies, requires vast amounts of money. It was expensive in the era of patronage politics, when votes were essentially bought through regional and local intermediaries, and it is vastly more expensive now in the age of massive expenditures on PR and advertising.
It is with this in mind that the Thai military and associated elite factions around the palace, in the bureaucracy, and at the helms of major capitalist enterprise have always insisted on the superiority of “supervised democracy” or “guided democracy”, often euphemistically named “Thai-style democracy”. Left to their own machinations, politicians will simply drain the nation dry through corruption, and so must never be allowed to exercise sovereignty as delegated by the sovereign people of Thailand.
The irony of course is that rarely have civilian governments managed to outdo the “guardians” in their exercise of corruption, either financial or moral.
Field Marshall Sarit is perhaps the paradigm case of the effects of Thai “paternalism” on Thai governance. He, like his South Korean near-contemporary Park Chung-hee, was remarkably successful at promoting economic development, and unashamedly authoritarian in insisting on personal control of every facet of government. Both have left behind a nostalgia in certain quarters of their respective nations for the kind of “good old days” of stability and control not dissimilar to the post-glastnost Russian nostalgia for Uncle Joe Stalin.
Sarit, however, left a trail of outright theft and sexual profligacy behind when he died. Prompted by claims against his estate by his children and the outcries of the over one hundred women who had acted as his mistresses throughout his life, a government inquiry found evidence of massive abuse of government funds to pay for his sex life and construct his personal business empire.
In typical Thai fashion, Sarit actually came out of this looking better than his wife, who was characterized as ‘greedy’ and his image has come down to us in such a manner that a contemporary Thai politician like Thaksin could conceivably attempt to mold himself in the image of Sarit in order to gain the loyalty of the Thai electorate.
Regardless of the lingering respect accorded to such a vicious dictator in certain quarters, the lesson has not been lost on Thai academics and bureaucrats and other mid-level apparatchik who often function as the public face of the elite: if Thailand is ever to successfully transition to a satisfactory and stable democratic system, “corruption” must be eliminated.
(To Be Continued)