Thailand’s military regime is intent on erasing the political legacy of the Thaksin era.

At today’s ANU presentation by political scientist Surin Maisrikrod post-coup politics in Thailand was explored in terms of the “anomalies” of the Thaksin regime. To my count, five main anomalies were identified. (By “anomalies” I presume Surin meant things which set Thaksin’s government apart from previous governments.) First, there was the mythologising hype that Thaksin was a knight on a white horse that had saved the nation from the 1997 crisis and enslavement to institutions such as the IMF. Second, Thaksin fundamentally politicised the rural population. He was the first political leader to seriously pay attention to rural people and attempt to incorporate them into the national political and economic system. This incorporation, through schemes such as OTOP and the village fund, was highly politicised. This politicisation was guided by ex-Communist Party of Thailand figures (“Octoberists”) who had thrown in their lot with Thaksin. Third, Thai Rak Thai was not quite a normal political party but more a cult-like political movement based on unconditional belief in the leader. Its operations were based on populist nationalist sentiment and political chauvinism. This movement bought together a wide group of people in an unprecedented political alliance. Fourth, Thaksin did not pretend to be a democrat and openly adopted an autocratic style. He introduced a system of “winner takes all” one party rule. This is why it is legitimate to refer to his government as a “regime.” Only after the coup did Thaksin start to invoke democratic principles. Fifth, Thaksin surrounded himself with progressive anti-traditionalists. The “Octoberists” had come to realise that a revolution was unviable and sought to implement a revolutionary project by peaceful means.

Surin then went on to address some of the implications of these anomalies for the Thaksin era. Thaksin achieved overwhelming electoral victories but his manipulation of democratic institutions made a mockery of the electoral process. A key consequence of his “winner take all” approach was that political life became deeply polarised with people either with Thaksin or regarded as his enemy. Another feature was an unprecedented level of corruption. The 13 major cases being investigated by the Assets Examination Committee amount to over 300 million baht. Finally there was the view that Thaksin was disloyal to the king.

According to Surin, there have been two primary goals in the post-coup period. First, to dismantle the Thaksin structures and, second, to avoid the pitfalls of the Thaksin period in the future development of Thai democracy. These goals have primarily been achieved via the reassertion of the bureaucratic polity. The drafting of the new constitution provides some useful insights into the directions of post-coup politics. Various provisions represent an attempt to constrain state power, to reduce the power of political parties, and to increase the power of bureacrats and the judiciary. The other key initiative is the dissolution of the Thai Rak Thai party by the Constitutional Tribunal. Surin suggested that the dissolution of the party itself was less significant than the fact that it closed off a future legislative path for Thaksin supporters to pass an amnesty that would free him from corruption allegations. These are serious allegations, Surin argued, that could end in prison sentences for Thaksin and some of his colleagues.

Surin concluded his presentation by saying that he intended to make some comments on the role of the monarchy but, unfortunately, time had run out!

Unsurprisingly, questioners took up this issue, inviting him to reflect on the role of the monarch. From my recollection he made two main comments about the monarchy. First, he put the familiar royalist argument that the king has been a stabilising and “self correcting” force in Thai politics. Second, he argued (rather passionately) that foreign scholars were quite wrong (and even neo-colonialist) to argue that Thai scholars did not discuss the role of the monarchy. Surin asserted that this discussion did take place in Thailand though perhaps in rather different terms to the sometimes “arrogant” discussion in the west (typified by Handley’s contribution). Surin suggested that there is a lack of foreign appreciation of the extent to which the king represents a sacred moral force in Thai society.

One audience member took issue with Surin’s depiction of the Thaksin regime’s anomalous position arguing, in particular, that autocratic styles of leadership had predominated in post-1932 Thai politics. This participant also argued that Thaksin was not the first to politicise the rural people, rather this had first been done by the king via his numerous rural development initiatives. What Thaksin had done, according to this participant, was to challenge the king’s rural support base.

During the discussion Surin raised the “what if” prospect of Thaksin having remained in power. He suggested that an extension of the Thaksin regime would have ended in violent confrontation. I asked, as others have on this blog, why the political crisis could not have been resolved by the election scheduled for late 2006. If the prospects for continued Thaksin rule were so bad why wouldn’t the electorate have thrown him out? Somewhat surprisingly, Surin was not willing to answer the question. I also commented that I found the concept of rural politicisation rather patronising. Does anyone ever talk about urban people or academics being politicised?

There were other questions, comments and responses. But I am happy to leave it to other New Mandala readers who were present to add their own comments on the seminar. Apologies if I have misreported or misinterpreted anything that was said!