Thaksin's Enduring Appeal

It would be hard to imagine another country anywhere that would see thousands of well-educated and seemingly middle-class people march to the streets demanding not more but less democracy. But the current protests in Thailand have that curious upside-down feel to them, as if the natural constituents of democracy in most countries  -- the educated middle class -- have given up on the ballot box. Instead they long for a paternalistic hand to rid them of the man who has become their enemy, Thaksin Shinawatra.

In other countries throughout the region, it has long been the opposite. Various democratic uprisings in the Philippines over the last 30 years or so have invariably been led by the wealthy elite and their middle class backers. Indonesia's reformasi uprising against Suharto in 1998 was driven by university students and intellectuals. Malaysia's ruling Barisan Nasional is slowly losing out to rising urban sentiment as the middle class cities largely vote against the country's traditional rulers.

Suthep Thaugsuban, the former Democrat Party leader who is now leading the protesters, is no small “d” democrat. He is under indictment for ordering the May 2010 crackdown against Red Shirt protesters that resulted in the deaths of 92 people when the army attacked their encampment in central Bangkok to drive them from the city. He is now proposing an unelected “people’s council” to run the country because, he says, all politicians are crooks.

Thaksin was elected prime minister is 2001 and then driven from power in 2006 in a royalist coup; he went into self-imposed exile in 2008 in advance of a two-year jail term for abuse of power and corruption.

Throughout the ensuing years, he has continued to dominate the country’s politics. Three successive surrogate governments were driven from power through suspect court rulings. His sister Yingluck Shinwatra took the premiership with a new party, Pheu Thai, in 2011, still riding on the votes of Thaksin fans drawn to the social welfare policies that began during his first term.

Thaksin redrew the electoral arithmetic of Thailand with his appeal to the rural masses. He exposed the deep divide separating wealthier urban Thais, with their lighter skin and long tradition of accepting nominal democracy backed by the royal house, from their upcountry fellow citizens.

The result was a level of resentment that was little understood even within the country. That resentment as much as absolute poverty probably helps to explain Thaksin's enduring popularity with his rural base. Relatively prosperous compared with small farmers in Indonesia, the Philippines or Cambodia, the northeasterners of Thailand had simply been ignored and taken for granted for generations.

Their politicians were notoriously corrupt, switching parties and cutting deals with the prevailing powers of the day. They sent their daughters to Bangkok, many of them into factories or the sex trade; their sons drove taxis or worked as security guards. The northeastern Isaan people, their accents and country bumpkin ways, have long been the punchline in joke after joke on Thai TV.

Thaksin's brilliance was to see them not as servants and fodder but as a coherent constituency. This enraged the middle class, who accuse northeasterners of "selling out" because they appreciate cheap health care, grants to villages, easy credit and subsidized rice prices.

Thaksin's payoffs to the poorer districts may not have made good economic sense but they were brilliant politically. He enfranchised a permanent base of voters that thoughtful, liberal Bangkok voters could not match.

Previously, the main force paying attention to the northeast had been the king, with royal projects through what he called a “sufficiency economy” that purported to care for the poor as if they were small children with agricultural assistance projects and various forms of charity. By usurping the king’s traditional role among the poor, Thaksin did indeed challenge the monarchy.

The fears of royalists that Thaksin and his machine posed a direct threat to the monarchy were well placed. There is desperation in the direct appeals of the current protest leaders for a strong force  presumably with royal backing  to reverse democracy in favor of some junta or council.

Previous uprisings in Thailand demanding democracy  the student movements of 1973 and 1976 and the uprising of 1992  were fed by Bangkok's middle-class students and intellectuals and were steadfastly opposed by a military establishment leery of democracy.

In recent years that equation has changed. The "liberal" Democrat Party, many of whose stalwarts are veterans of past student movements, now make common cause with elements of the military and the privy council who see Thaksin as a threat to the king.

Thaksin is hardly a liberal. His tactics are harsh and suspect and his human rights record from his time in power dismal. His repressive tactics in the Muslim south are believed to have helped to drive what is now a full-blown insurgency. His administration and subsequent ones he runs by autopilot from Dubai have been accused of corruption.

Nonetheless, his political mind is brilliant and his ability to understand his society put others to shame.

The unspoken player in the end game for the protests would appear to be the looming royal succession. Absent the ailing king, who turns 86 on Dec. 5, a weak successor, presumably the unpopular crown prince, will have trouble asserting legitimacy and could leave Thaksin and his machine in a stronger position than ever.

It has been reported that Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, heir to the throne, recently conveyed a message through a Thaksin proxy, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Pol Lt-Gen Kamronvit Thoopkracharng, urging all sides to talk to each other. This has given rise to additional unease that Vajiralongkorn and Thaksin may have renewed an earlier close relationship.

That fact, rather than the ill-timed and ham-handed amnesty bill that supposedly sparked the protests, would seem at least a more plausible explanation for the current upheaval.