Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Cynicism in Thai politics

The end result is a zero-sum game

Dr Pavin Chachavalpongpun

CYNICISM has long reigned in Thai politics.

The crisis, which culminated in violent clashes between Thai security forces and red-shirt protesters spiritually commanded by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, reaffirmed the existing absurdity and hypocrisy in the nation’s political domain.

First, on the surface, the current political wrangling between the Bangkok elite and the masses in rural areas seems to have stemmed from a widening gap between the rich and the poor. Analysts describe this conflict as a “class war”.

Representing the rich are those in the circle of the old establishment. They include big businesses, the military and the royalists, led by the People’s Alliance for Democracy. The Democrat Government, under the leadership of Premier Abhisit Vejjajiva, identifies itself with this powerful network.

Mr Thaksin, on the other hand, has led the rural poor. He carefully nurtured his image as an authentic friend of the have-nots through his populist programmes designed to empower the grassroots. Effectively, this image and his reputation as a leader of action for the poor, had sustained him through a series of crises, including the bloodless military coup that overthrew him in September 2006.

But the ex-PM is a billionaire has lived a lavish life. When he was accused of having siphoned off US$2 billion ($3 billion) through the sale of his Shin Corp to Singapore, Mr Thaksin found himself battling to shore up his pro-poor image. Now in exile, he is still concealing his status of a tycoon-turned-politician, but continues to volunteer to fight for the poor. Ridiculous as it seems, Mr Thaksin has emerged as a hero of the have-nots. He is Thailand’s version of Argentina’s Juan Domingo Peron. Second, the buzzword in Thai politics today is democracy — such as equality, justice and respect for human rights.

Mr Thaksin, in a five-minute interview with US cable network CNN on the night of the violence in Bangkok, referred to “true democracy” 10 times. He considered his actions, such as calling for a nationwide uprising against the government, a battle for democracy and justice. He believes democracy was robbed by the military and its political proxy — the Democrat government.

A long-running theme in Thai politics, according to Mr Thaksin, is that the country, when not facing military rule or praetorian bureaucracy, is confined to one brand or other of elite democracy.

To contest this, he crafted his own brand of democracy supposedly based on the people’s campaign. He once made clear his willingness to hold a national referendum on the question pertaining to constitutional changes to make the political system more receptive to the people’s voices and needs.

But while in power from 2001 to 2006, Mr Thaksin was too willing to transform Thai democracy into a government of his singular political self. On top of this, he denied responsibility for gross human rights abuse in the drug war that saw more than 2,500 Thais executed and his government’s maltreatment of Thai Muslims in the deep south.

The fact that he blatantly accused Mr Abhisit’s government of killing unarmed protesters and hiding their bodies inside military barracks, which has until now proved groundless, shows he remains a prisoner of his own artificial brand of democracy.

Finally, both Mr Thaksin and Mr Abhisit are now talking about national reconciliation. Mr Abhisit, in particular, wants to exhibit his leadership and regain legitimacy. The recent Pattaya incident and the ferocious riots in Bangkok, however, reconfirm a deep polarisation between the two political factions. This polarisation seems increasingly untreatable. Thus, national reconciliation may not be the right remedy.

Thai politics, in its present form, is best described in terms of political networks. The two networks, one represented by the old establishment and the other by Mr Thaksin, have sought to eliminate one another. A zero-sum game is the likely end scenario. Yet, the leaders pretend to aspire for a false reconciliation.

But cynicism is a useful political tool. It obscures the scary reality of Thai politics and makes its leaders look normal and legitimate in the imperfect world of Thai democracy.

It would, therefore, be cynical to conclude that the end of violent demonstrations in Thailand and the ability of the government to take control of the situation are enduring. This is because that scary reality in Thai politics has yet to be seen.

The writer is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

From TODAY, World – Thursday, 23-April-2009


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