I meant to say something about this earlier but didn’t have the time then. I’m normally a big fan of Pasuk and Baker’s work. But there were a few points in Pasuk’s “Thai Politics Beyond 2006 Coup” published in The Bangkok Post on 31st July which I have to say really irritated me. Because the article was circulated on some email lists as recommended reading I wanted to share my views on it.
Firstly, (i) the statement: “…When he rose to power, Mr Thaksin showed no real interest in the masses. He became a popular leader over the following years because of the demand for such a leader…”
The use of the term “the masses” here is a bit unfortunate – it conveys the image of unthinking country bumpkins / working class manipulated by venal politicians, an image that the academics and the anti-Thaksin movement popularized with devastating effect in the run-up to the September 19 coup – but I will let that go.
The real problem is that Pasuk and most academics just can’t seem to find it in themselves to credit Thaksin and Thai Rak Thai for conceiving of and campaigning on a raft of policies aimed at supporting the rural poor – the 30 baht health scheme, the village development fund, debt relief, etc. – for actually delivering on these policies as promised, and then going before the people in elections to win a mandate. Do they realize the difficulty of what Thai Rak Thai tried to do? If one looks at Thailand’s political history over the last 60 years there has been no leader or party that has ever achieved what they did.
Thai Rak Thai announced and campaigned on these so-called “populist” policies BEFORE the 2001 election. So if, according to Pasuk’s argument, Thaksin had “no real interest in the masses” when he rose to power, then why did he set up Thai Rak Thai? It follows that these policies must have been just a cynical political act, a smokescreen to hide Thaksin’s true goal, presumably (according to the common academic caricature of Thaksin) the satisfaction of his authoritarian, undemocratic “political ambitions”. For Pasuk, Thaksin became a “popular leader” purely because of the “demand for such a leader”. So we should never entertain the idea that Thaksin could actually have cared about the people. After all, he was a “wealthy businessman” and we all know that businessmen have no love for the masses.
Isn’t it just possible that Thaksin and Thai Rak Thai could actually have wanted to do something in government for the people? According to Pasuk’s argument, suddenly, after the huge investment in time and money and work involved in setting up Thai Rak Thai, the months of campaigning, the political battles involved in implementing these policies, etc. etc. Thaksin suddenly realizes, “…hey, maybe the populist path is the way to go. I can pretend to help some poor people so that they will vote for me. Then I will really be able to satisfy my own authoritarian anti-democratic desires, and all this work would have been worthwhile. Why didn’t I think of this before?”
The unstated assumption here is that the academics are the ones who have a “real interest in the masses” and who really understand democracy, whereas the politicians just use the “masses” for their own selfish political ambitions. Here we see the anti-politician bias inherent in the work of so many Thai academics, and which played such an important role in the rhetoric that was mobilized to destroy Thaksin’s legitimacy with the middle class before the coup.
(ii) Later Pasuk mentions how Thaksin alienated the middle class and was demonized. Yes, but we should also note that she was one of the academics involved in demonizing him.
(iii) “…Mr Thaksin hijacked the Constitution…”
To me this is a very irresponsible statement to make, especially in a newspaper column read by hundreds of thousands of people. To take advantage of a Constitution, or to appoint one’s own people as Constitutional judges is one thing. Most political parties around the world do the same thing when they come into government. But what is a “hijack”? An armed, violent takeover of a plane or vehicle by a criminal with the intent to steal. This is the language that
Pasuk uses for Thaksin.
(iv) “…to neutralize his political opponents …”
I’d like to know which politician or political party in other countries does not attempt to neutralize their opponents. In politics if you don’t neutralize your opponents they will defeat you, the electorate you represent and the policies that you seek to implement. Why be a politician if one is not going to fight for one’s cause, whatever it is? And in the case of Thailand, when one knows that one’s “political opponent” is a conservative military-bureaucratic alliance built around an unreconstructed feudal monarchy with virtually unlimited resources to draw upon, then one could argue that there is an added moral imperative to “neutralize” such an opponent in the interests of democracy.
I can only echo Somsak Jeamthirasakul’s fundamentally important criticism in this debate that he has been making for over a year now, but which seems to fall on deaf ears: when the academics talk about the democratically-elected Thaksin, who was given the mandate to govern by overwhelming majorities on three separate occasions because of the popularity of the policies that he delivered to the rural populace, he is the embodiment of evil: corrupt, a violator of human rights, a “populist”, ambitious, a “hijacker”, who “overrides democratic principles” (?!), “judicial process” and the “rule of law”, “authoritarian”, “enriching his cronies”, “Hitler”, etc. etc., (the Thai terms of abuse hurled at Thaksin by many Thai academics were much coarser) but when it comes to discussing the other side of politics that he is up against, ie. the monarchy and its network that has been around for the last 50 years (“old elites” in Pasuk’s code), SILENCE. Why the hypocrisy?
(v) Speaking of “…the old elite…”, “…longstanding institutions…”, “…the ruling elites…”, when, when, when, when, when, when, when are academics going to call a spade a spade and name the monarchy? Every country has “ruling elites”, “old elites” and “longstanding institutions” that attempt to dominate the political process. Only Thailand has a feudal monarchy that continually intervenes in Thai politics to undermine democratic processes using the military, bureaucracy and now increasingly the judiciary. When will you say it? Isn’t it your job? The academics are the ones who should take primary responsibility for this massive failure to properly explain to the public the true political role of the monarchy in Thailand, and their demonization of the one force that can neutralize it, the politicians.
Somsak is again the lone voice who has identified the problem: the “р╕кр╕нр╕Зр╣Др╕бр╣Ир╣Ар╕нр╕▓” position, of which Pasuk’s article is a good example. This is the illogical, ridiculous and undemocratic position taken by most academics who believed that during the confrontation between Thaksin and the “network monarchy” they could reject royalist dictatorship while at the same time not accepting Thai Rak Thai and Thaksin. Rejection of Thaksin in effect meant rejecting the democratic choice of the majority of the Thai electorate. What this demonstrates is the essentially undemocratic stance of the academics. And they have the gall to call Thaksin undemocratic!
(vi) “…The middle class gave support in public space. Even though the middle class is a minority, it shapes and dominates the public space in which politics is debated. In this space, Mr Thaksin was condemned as a demon, and the coup was given a warm welcome…”
Well, this is an ambiguously worded sentence, but what I strongly object to is the LIE that “the coup was given a warm welcome” (Chaiwat was one of the main figures responsible for popularizing this idea in his Bangkok Post article published a few days after the coup, which was taken up by the international media and which played a major role in mollifying the international response to the coup). If it was so “warmly welcomed” then why the hell stage a coup; why not wait for the scheduled elections in October? Because everyone knew that Thai Rak Thai would have won. So what was this illusion of the “warm welcome” then? NOTHING OTHER THAN THE RESULT OF HAVING A MACHINE GUN WITH A YELLOW
RIBBON TIED AROUND IT POINTED IN THE FACE OF THE ELECTORATE. To my mind, claiming that the coup was “warmly welcomed” is equivalent to spitting in the space of the Thai Rak Thai voters.
(vii) “…Mr Thaksin’s populism, the coup and ”managed democracy” are all strategies to exclude opponents from the democratic process…”
To me this is an appalling statement to make, especially in a newspaper column written, as I said above, with the intention of reaching a readership of hundreds of thousands. Essentially, Pasuk is putting Thaksin’s democratically-elected government on a par with a royalist-military dictatorship that came to power through tanks and guns and the yellow flag (=
р╕кр╕нр╕Зр╣Др╕бр╣Ир╣Ар╕нр╕▓). Apart from the offensiveness of this comparison the logic is ludicrous. Because Thai Rak Thai won government through an election based on policies designed to appeal to the electorate it “excluded” its opponents from the democratic process? How? By denying the middle class and “the old elite” the right to vote?! What “democratic process” were they excluded from?
After all this, the article finishes off by giving us a lecture on democracy…
I started out irritated by this article, but finished off quite angry.