Taking on Thailand’s myths

Celebrations for King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 80th birthday on Wednesday once again displayed his tremendous popularity among Thais, many of whom wore yellow and pink to express their adoration for a monarch who has ruled Thailand for more than 61 years.

They also served as a reminder that the king has turned one year older, and cannot live forever. Recently the ageing Bhumibol spent nearly a month in the hospital for stroke-like symptoms, adding to longstanding fears about his health and raising questions about the eventual succession, presumably to his son Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn.

Although the massive show of support from the Thai people represents a genuine love for the king among many, behind the grateful tears, fawning songs and gushing news accounts is a palpable uncertainty over what the future holds. The palace has spent decades building up the king into a god-like figure, which has created the prospect of a massive power vacuum that can’t be discussed openly in Thailand due to strict lese majeste laws.

These taboo issues are laid bare in a new collection of academic articles in a special issue of Journal of Contemporary Asia, a well-regarded Asian studies journal. This collection serves as required reading for anyone who wants to read an objective analysis of recent Thai political events that differs substantially from the sycophantic reports found in the country’s two English-language dailies. The journal is primarily geared towards an academic audience, according to editor Kevin Hewison, an Asian Studies professor at the University of North Carolina, but a limited number of copies will be made available in Thailand, particularly at the International Conference of Thai Studies in January.

With Thais heading to the polls on December 23 in the first parliamentary elections since the September 2006 coup, the journal offers a new lens through which to view telecom tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra’s unprecedented election victories and subsequent ouster by royalist factions of the military. While it’s impossible to note all the insights in this collection, the complementary pieces serve to repudiate two key myths that still get repeated constantly in Thailand: 1) The palace somehow sits “above politics” and 2) rural voters don’t know what’s good for them.

Descending from above

In kicking off the volume, historian Thongchai Winichakul minces no words in discussing how the palace adeptly turned what seemed like a defeat during the 1932 revolution into an advantage. After absolute monarchy was overthrown, he argues, the palace sought to assert a political role in the new democracy precisely through staying “above politics,” a position it maintains to this day.

“The monarchy’s political role in Thai democracy is not well understood because of the common misconception that the monarchy is ‘above’ politics,” the University of Wisconsin professor writes, adding: “Because of the misconception and censorship, the monarchy, whose unabated political experience since the 1950s was probably superior to other political actors in Thailand, has been able to escape the attention, let alone scrutiny, by most observers and scholars.”

This position on top of Thai politics has helped the palace to carefully build up its prestige through the revival of royal rituals that celebrated even the most minor achievements, meaning that “Thais who are currently sixty years old or younger grew up under the pervasive aura of an unprecedented royal cult,” Thongchai writes.

In particular, he singles out the move to designate the king’s birthday as “Father’s Day,” at which the monarch gives a televised speech in which he cryptically takes the country’s politicians to task. “The birthday speech becomes a ritual to display the hierarchy of moral authority and to reaffirm the monarchy’s place ‘above’ the normal realm of politics,” Thongchai writes. “At the same time, the ritual draws the public to identify themselves with the moral authority of the king. It is one of the cleverest political rituals, with the impact probably many times that of an electoral campaign.”

At this year’s speech, Bhumibol stressed that the country needs to remain united. “It takes a good coordination of both legs to walk well,” he said, according to the Bangkok Post. “I mean when one puts one’s foot in front, the other foot behind must stand on the ground properly. By doing this alternately, we can move forward and will not fall over. Likewise, without unity, the country would fall. Physically speaking, when we fall, we could break our bones. If we do not take care of our country, it could fall into disaster.”

Although the royal rituals may seem symbolic and innocuous, they pack a tangible political punch. As Ukrist Pathmanand of Chulalongkorn University and Michael Conners of Australia’s La Trobe University point out in separate papers, the notion that Thaksin somehow disrespected Bhumibol through ignoring or downplaying key rituals that supported the royalist ideology gave the generals an opening to forcibly remove a leader who had won an unprecedented 19 million votes just 18 months earlier.

Ukrist writes, “Given their limited political power base and their apparent lack of political ideas and ambition, it was certainly daunting for this group of royalist military to confront Thaksin, who at that time had strong control of parliament, the media, the bureaucracy, provincial governors, police, significant sections of the military, and the solid support of the masses, especially in rural areas. Yet the emergence of the royalist military was possible with the support of a royalist ideology that maintained a stronghold throughout the anti-Thaksin campaigns from the end of 2005.”

The constant royal ceremonies, nightly royal newscasts and publicity about the king’s good works have all built up the belief that Thais could ask the monarch for anything, including Thaksin’s removal. The coup and its widespread acceptance may have demonstrated the palace’s strength, but it also “greatly affected its standing, especially among supporters of Thaksin’s social and economic policies,” writes Conners.

Interestingly, while the book spends a great deal of time discussing Bhumibol, it doesn’t mention Vajiralongkorn by name. Ukrist makes a passing comment about how “many well-informed Bangkokians talked of Thaksin having taken on many of the profligate crown prince’s larger expenditures,” thus suggesting the two are allies. He also dismisses the junta’s thinking that a royalist army commander would ensure that the succession period will be peaceful: “This transition period will depend more on the personality of the present king because, in fact, the monarchy in Thailand is not institutionalized; it has been built up around the personal charisma that has been created for the incumbent king.”

Hewison builds upon this in his article, which opens as a review of journalist Paul Handley’s banned book The King Never Smiles. The 2006 coup, he argues, has blatantly exposed the palace’s political role, and has blurred the lines between appropriate criticism and lese majeste. This could put the palace in a precarious role if the next king is not as popular as Bhumibol.

“The problem for the king and his advisers is that they have now placed the monarchy at the center of ongoing political struggles,” Hewison writes. “This is a risky strategy and means that everything royal now has a political meaning. As such, nationalist strategies with the king at their center have become de rigueur. Symbols of the monarchy – yellow shirts and the sufficiency economy – are also symbols of loyalty to the military-backed government and any criticism is a dangerous – if not unpatriotic – act.”

Thaksin’s challenge

As authors Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker note, Thaksin was an “unlikely candidate” to become Thailand’s first populist leader. The telecom billionaire originally formed his party in 1998 to rescue Thai businesses from the financial crisis and restore economic growth. His populism came after he recruited leftist 1970s student leaders to help form his policies, and they came up with debt relief, universal health care and village loan funds — policies that have been at the center of Thailand’s political troubles ever since.

The success of Thaksin’s policies, combined with gobs of money that allowed him to essentially buy a huge coalition among lawmakers of the poor, heavily populated northeast region, led him to stunning election victories in 2001 and 2005. He was certain to win by a hefty margin yet again in November 2006, prompting the generals to oust him before that was possible.

Hewison notes that Thaksin’s wide support among the rural poor put him in direct competition with the palace for “the hearts and minds of the masses.”

“Far from urging a return to the farm and being content with rural ‘sufficiency,’ Thaksin’s policies emphasized ‘getting ahead,’ producing for the market and promoted entrepreneurialism,” he writes.

While most every author acknowledges that Thaksin’s welfare policies proved successful, they also say that his use of the increased popularity from those policies to neuter independent agencies — as well as impose seemingly conflicting policies on privatization and free trade — combined to bring about his eventual downfall.

“Thaksin pursued a lot of policies that were basic tenets of neo-liberalism with considerable vigor, and contradicted the ‘social contract’ he offered to the poor,” write Oliver Pye and Wolfram Schaffar of Bonn University. “These contradictions gradually unfolded in the course of his premiership. Not, as often criticized by neo-liberal ideologues, between ‘unsustainable’ state-funded projects and fiscal prudence, but between Thaksin’s ambitious capitalist restructuring of economic and social relations in the interest of big business, and the interests of his popular base.”

Throughout the course of the move to oust Thaksin, Bangkok academics and anti-Thaksin leaders routinely labeled rural poor voters as ignorant. After the coup, junta leader Sonthi Boonyaratglin said that “many Thais still lack a proper understanding of democracy” and “some have yet to learn about discipline.”

Andrew Walker, an anthropologist with The Australian National University, writes that “there is little the rural electorate can do to shake off this persistent [negative] image.” He argues, however, that rural Thais vote for leaders according to a set of localized values. Vote-buying, which certainly takes place, should be put into the “broader context of the array of material assistance that is expected of political representatives and other well-resourced people seeking to demonstrate their social standing,” he writes.

Far from being a uniform group of mindless drones, rural voters engage with various competing local figures in a range of political contests, and choose the leaders that most reflect their values. Among other things, Walker writes, these values include choosing leaders that are considered local; that bring home financial gains to local communities; and prove competent at running an administration.

Moreover, rural voters often think on a level that is different from the love-hate, all-or-nothing relationship Bangkok had with Thaksin, according to Somchai Phatharathananunth from Mahasarakham University in northeastern Thailand. He cites the reluctance of farmers to join anti-Thaksin movements led by NGOs even though they had worked together for years.

“From the NGO perspective, farmers refused to join the anti-Thaksin protest because they were unable to look beyond the short-term material benefits of the populist policies,” Somchai wrote, adding that the aid workers then tried to supply the farmers with “correct information” so they could understand “the long-term damage of Thaksin’s policies.”

“Such a view implied that there could only be one political line taken towards Thaksin, and to be politically correct farmers had to adopt that line,” Somchai writes. “Such a thing was not going to happen because it ran counter to many farmers’ way of thinking. Farmers do not adopt totalistic views towards things or persons; they deal with them in a pragmatic way. They judged Thaksin on an issue-by-issue basis. As a result, whether Thaksin was good or bad depended on the issue at hand.”

And indeed, though opposing Thaksin on certain issues, many rural voters still saw him deliver them real benefits, much more so than any Thai government had done in the past. Thaksin quickly turned his campaign promises into reality, cementing and expanding the political support he formed when he convinced regional “old-school” northeastern politicians to join his Thai Rak Thai party.

“While the policies were severely criticized as a new form of vote-buying by many NGO leaders and academics in Bangkok, farmers viewed the policies as the distribution of resources to the countryside that helped farmers to address their needs,” Somchai writes. “They insisted that the rural poor were as entitled to access the government budget as were the urban rich.”

Election to what end?

All of this provides telling insights into the upcoming December 23 election. Although the coup-makers have had more than a year in power to “educate” the population about the evils of populism and unify the country, they appear to have failed on both counts.

Every party has adopted populist measures that are similar, if not identical, to the ones implemented by Thai Rak Thai. Even key anti-Thaksin financier Prachai Leophairatana — who this week announced he was resigning as leader of the Matchimathippitai party after being sentenced to three years in prison for share manipulation four years ago — had unveiled a populist platform that went well beyond anything Thaksin proposed.

This reveals that either all parties are now pandering to a group of ill-informed voters, or the claims that Thaksin’s policies would lead the country to financial ruin were greatly exaggerated. Indeed, as the king mentioned in his speech on Tuesday, there is no need to be “stingy” when the government’s finances are in order. Whether the money should be spent on more tanks or more health care will be for the elected leaders to decide.

Two more key facts about this election are that it’s being held under a new junta-drafted constitution that limits the political space and that it doesn’t involve Thaksin or his party, which a military-appointed court dissolved early this year in a legally dubious decision. These facts are interesting primarily because coup apologists argued correctly that elections were not the only essential part to a democracy; other democratic institutions needed to be functioning properly to ensure a free and fair result and administration. Unfortunately, Thailand is about to have another election in which the institutions that provide checks and balances have been corrupted. Nearly half of the next Senate will be appointed, royalist judges are in control of key independent bodies and many northeastern provinces that formed Thaksin’s old base are still under martial law. This time, it’s not Thaksin who is to blame, but the military junta and royalists who assumed power after the coup.

Whether or not rural voters will elect PPP, a proxy party for Thaksin loyalists, remains to be seen. Certainly a PPP victory will signal a repudiation of the coup group and lead to rumors about yet another putsch. What’s more crucial, perhaps, is to see if after the election politicians of all stripes can formulate a set of democratic rules and institutions that can unify the country and withstand an assault from any competing group of power-hungry elites.