As a follow-up to his earlier post, H. Numan provides more details on the history of the monarchy and democracy in Thailand.
Democracy? A little bit, perhaps.
by H. Numan
In my last article about Thailand someone asked a good question: is Thaksin a communist? To put your mind at ease: no, he isn’t. Far from it. More the exact opposite. Not only that, but communism is strictly forbidden in Thailand. So why then do his adherents wear red? There is a simple reason for it: the monarchists wear yellow, and red nicely contrasts with that. Now, that’s too short for an essay. So I’ll explain how it works in Thailand. It’s a very young democracy, after all. I’ve been here for the last 25 years and not all is what you think it is.
We have to go back a little bit, to 1932 when the absolute monarchy was abolished and ‘democracy’ installed. Who were those revolutionaries then? Mid-rank royals and military officers who felt they had to wait too long for their share of the pie. Until 1932 all important appointees were members of the royal family, or mostly nobles closely related to it. Promotions based on merit were extremely rare in those days. The level below the top felt left out and wanted to do something about it. So they proclaimed a ‘democratic’ revolution.
The king at that time was King Prajadhipok or Rama VII. All Thai kings of the Chakri dynasty take the title Rama with a number. King Bhumibol was Rama IX, the current king is Maha Vajiralongkorn or Rama X. Rama VII was already setting up a more democratic government, but very slowly. Too slow for the revolutionaries. After the revolution the king went to England for medical treatment and once there he told them what they could do with the monarchy. Specifically, to stick it into something I won’t mention here.
Once the Pandora’s box was opened, coups became quite regular. It’s a bit like the old Roman Empire in the year of the four emperors, 68 AD. When people realized emperor was just a job, anyone with enough ambition tried to become one. There have been many coups and coup attempts in Thailand. So many that Wikipedia has a whole section dedicated to it. Almost all of those coups were committed by people who wanted as much of the pie as possible. And most if not all claim to do it for the good of the land and the people, as usual.
Once a coup has been committed one of the first things the (usually) generals did was rewrite the constitution. We’ve had bicameral parliaments, unicameral parliaments, parliaments with limited power, almost unlimited power — anything you can think of, and a lot more. The current constitution is the 24th. Every constitution is a bit like the soap powder commercials: New! Improved! Now with more anti-corruptors! With extra democracy added!
I moved to Thailand in 1994, when democracy seemed to take hold. There had been a coup in 1991; the military installed a hugely unpopular civilian government which was thrown over by a civilian uprising. That’s the famous moment king Bhumibol ordered the military, government and revolutionaries to the palace and told them to stop it. The king had so much authority that the government resigned immediately and a democratic government was installed. Well, it wasn’t democracy finally taking hold, but more a quiet period in between.
What you have to remember so far is that Thailand is a very young democracy with a very powerful, almost feudal government. Real wealth and power are measured in how much land you own. Thailand has an established nobility that controls just about everything. That is something no revolution ever touched or even mentioned. Titles are very real here. We don’t have barons and dukes; those titles are Western. What we have are the Thai equivalents. If you follow the Thai news, you’ll notice that some family names pop up far more often than you would expect. It’s an All in the Family game here. Not unlike families such as the Bushes and the Clintons somewhere else.
Now we focus on Thaksin Sinawatra. He began his career in the police. He became Lt. Col. — a position that you cannot get unless you are very well connected. Computers were new in the early ’80s, and Thaksin was able to secure a monopoly to supply the Royal Thai Police with all IT equipment. Again, that’s something you can only get with the right connections.
He left the police and focused on his business. That business boomed. He introduced mobile phone networks, launched the first Thai satellite and owned all of them. He’s a very good businessman, but anyone can be that with a monopoly. Then he went into politics. Something required if you want to remain very rich here. He became a member of the Palang Dharma party, and as such, minister for telecommunication. His first act was to solemnly promise to solve the Bangkok traffic problem and do that within three months. Utterly impossible, of course. His meddling in the party as vice prime minister in the Banharn Silpa-archa cabinet (also known as the buffet cabinet for rampant corruption) led to the collapse of that party. After losing 22 of their 23 parliamentary seats, he was ousted from the party.
So he set up his own party. That was the Thai Rak Thai party, or the Thais love Thailand party. He won the elections by a landslide, with an absolute majority. Now, to be fair, he did some pretty good things that endeared him to the lower classes of Thailand, notably the poor farmers. Remember that most people are poor in Thailand. That’s a lot of people who have a real interest in voting for his party. First of all we had the economic crisis of 1997 which bankrupted Thailand. When he became prime minister he solved that very quickly without much hardship. Also, he set up a basic health insurance program for the poor. At a price, mind you. He didn’t do it for free. As PM he could change the value of the currency and benefit from it. And create tax exemptions for himself. What broke the elephant’s back was the selling of the Shinawatra corporation to Singapore.
Telecommunication networks are a vital national asset. Selling them to your greatest economic rival, Singapore, and exempting yourself from paying tax on that sale is a bit much. He became somewhat of an autocrat and used the lèse-majesté laws to get rid of his opponents. His trousers were yanked down in public when king Bhumibol himself announced that he didn’t mind criticism. When people were to be convicted of lèse-majesté he would immediately pardon them. That, sort of, hurts. Very much.
In 2006 he was ousted in a bloodless coup. Thaksin was in New York and got a phone call to say he’d better stay there. This was the first military coup in many years that was supported by the general population. The military outlawed the Thai Rak Thai party and called for elections the next year.
By then the Thai Rai Thai party had recovered and continued under the new name People’s Power Party. The next prime minister wasn’t Thaksin himself, he lived in exile. It was his brother-in-law: Somchai Wongsawat. He was removed from office due to being in the family of Tha… — sorry — corruption.
The new prime minister was Samak Sundaravej. His demise was quite unusual, it’s difficult to remove a PM from power. However, he liked cooking very much. He participated in a cooking show on TV for which he got paid. Hey, said a parliamentarian. He isn’t allowed to do jobs on the side! Within days he was removed from office.
The next prime minster was Abhisit Vejjajiva from the Democrat party. Democrat is just a name. Doesn’t have anything to do with democracy or the US Democrat party. Under his rule the economy wasn’t doing very well. Not really his fault, but if you’re poor you don’t care. Thaksin can fix anything!
By 2010 the red shirt movement was pretty big and pretty vocal. They wanted Abhisit out, and staged a demonstration that turned into a full-blown six-week siege of the business district of Bangkok. The siege was finally ended by the army and the police with LOTS of violence; 91 lives were lost. I happen to live in that area, and stayed home during the siege. To do my daily shopping I had to walk far away, most shops nearby were closed. Every time I did I had to cross the barricades set up by the red shirts. I reported extensively on what was going on here at the Gates.
To give you an idea how dangerous it was: in the next street the Red Shirts set up a camp, one of many. At the intersection they parked a gas truck under guard. Their orders were to explode the truck if anything happened. All over their encampments they installed those sorts of defenses. I — probably — live far enough away not to be hurt, with a large building in between, but an exploding liquid gas truck… I don’t even want to think about it. Fortunately, none of the trucks were exploded.
Abhisit couldn’t remain prime minister for long after that bloodbath. During the next elections the Democrat Party lost to … you probably guessed it: the People’s Power Party. It was the outlawed Thai Rak Thai party now renamed People’s Power Party. Same faces in it. The new premier was Yingluck Shinawatra, the younger sister of Thaksin and the first female prime minister of Thailand. I don’t want to say she was the puppet of her big brother, but her nickname was Madame Gucci. Her main interests were fashion and shopping.
She had almost as many problems as Abhisit had, but now from the yellow shirts. The red shirts were the fans of Thaksin, mainly lower-class and poorer people from the provinces. The yellow shirts were mainly middle class citizens of Bangkok and staunch monarchists. That doesn’t mean to say that the red shirts aren’t monarchists. In Thailand everybody is monarchist (if only in name) but some are more monarchist than others. We have a saying that cabinets are elected upcountry but are sent home in Bangkok. Which is what happened. The situation in Bangkok remained volatile, and martial law had to be declared again.
She was removed from office by the constitutional court due to irregularities. Later she was prosecuted for a massive corruption scandal: the rice scandal. As PM she subsidized rice prices far above market value, in essence buying the votes of the poor farmers. Those farmers couldn’t believe their luck and raised bumper crops that couldn’t be sold and lay rotting in warehouses. Later the rice was sold for pennies on the dollar as animal fodder.
During the Ahbisit cabinet Thaksin was convicted of corruption and lost all his possessions in Thailand, which was a lot. Many billions in dollars in assets were seized and confiscated. Don’t worry, he lives in very great comfort elsewhere. Mainly in Dubai and Hong Kong. His sister fled the country just before the court was to condemn her, and joined him in exile.
A few days after Yinluck was dismissed, the army staged their latest coup. That’s the current government. They announced military rule would be temporary, until the situation calmed down enough to hold new elections. Well, nothing is a permanent as something temporary: they are still here. And will be, after the elections. Only somewhat indirect behind the scenes.
Lots of progressive people make the mistake of thinking that since Thaksin sports red as his color and woos the poor he must be a communist. He isn’t. Communism as a political stream doesn’t exist anymore in Thailand after the Vietnam war. Julius Caesar also wooed the poor, for the same reasons. Everyone has one vote, so gather as many votes as you can as cheaply as possible. A vote is worth Bt. 500 ($16) here. Why buy a senator (with one vote) for millions if you can buy millions of votes for the same price?
Tell me, why would a poor man vote for, say, the Democrat party? All he gets is Bt 500. They don’t deliver on their promises, they never did. If he votes for Thaksin he’ll get Bt 500 and probably the road promised in the elections. Sure, that road may not be a six-lane highway, and the construction, will be done by Thaksin supporters. But they at least deliver something. A new smaller road is better than nothing, right?
That’s the reason why the Pheu Thai party can confidently look forward to any kind of election and why the generals are very hesitant to call for one. The coming election already has a winner. The next premier of Thailand will be the current one, Prayuth. I cannot imagine any other outcome.
Right now we have a little tiff going on: the Pheu Thai party promised to cut the defense budget by 10% and abolish the draft (which is hugely unpopular). I’ve been in the army myself and you trust me on this one: you do not want to be a Thai conscript. The commander of the army went apes***, struck back by calling the Pheu Thai unpatriotic and ordering the extreme patriotic song Nak Panding to be played on the Army radio station. By ‘extreme’ you can think something like the Horst Wessel Lied — but more patriotic. It was written by an army colonel in the mid ’70s and sings the praise of the soldiers who massacred the student uprising in 1973. (That was the bloodiest coup in Thai history.) That order was later revoked, so you can understand that this song is really somewhat sensitive.
Now with regard to colors: it’s different in Thailand. Every day of the week has its own color. Every member of the royal family has their own color, usually the color of the day they were born. The king always has yellow. In Thai the word for color is see and for royal is luang. See luang is yellow and very roughly translates to ‘royal color’. Sunday has red, so if Thaksin was born on a Sunday, his color would be red anyway — regardless of his political leanings.
Thai politics are focused on persons, not on ideology. A party is formed around an important politician. They merge within other parties when that is convenient for that particular politician. Or they split from existing parties to form new ones. That’s one of the reasons why the Thai Rak Thai party became the first party with an absolute majority in Thai parliament. Thaksin simply absorbed smaller parties. Their most important members got jobs within the now enlarged party.
The more I write about it, the more I see a strong resemblance to Roman politics during the Republic. If you think Washington is a snake pit, Thais will laugh and say: our snakes are much bigger and far more dangerous.
What the current government tries to do is to keep Thaksin out of the country. I think they will succeed with that during this election, but what the future holds nobody knows. Sulla tried to do the same when he was dictator: make it impossible to stage coups or remove the power from the Senate. He didn’t succeed. He could only postpone the inevitable. As long as Thai politicians keep promising the moon and keeping everything in their own pockets, all Pheu Thai has to do is give the people a little bit and win every election.
— H. Numan