Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Class, economy, monarchy: Thailand's multidimensional malaise

Class, economy, monarchy: Thailand's multidimensional malaise
Published 15 Jan 2014 

The attempt on Monday 13 January to shut down Bangkok, orchestrated by the People's Democratic Reform Committee led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a former Deputy Prime Minister and member of the opposition Democrat Party, does not seem to have achieved its objective.

Moreover, through the soft policing of the demonstrations, the caretaker government of Yingluck Shinawatra limited the kind of violence that the opposition had hoped would provoke a military coup and thus thwart the early elections planned for 2 February. These elections are being boycotted by a parliamentary opposition which is conscious that it would probably lose, given the popularity of the present government.

Does this mean the Thai crisis has ended? Probably not, for what is occurring in Thailand is not so much a 'crisis' but something far more serious: a profound malaise within Thailand as a whole.

If one were to seek an image, that of Russian dolls comes to mind: inside one manifestation of this malaise are to be found several others.  The longstanding competition for power among elites is eclipsed by social cleavages, economic uncertainty and an almost existential angst linked to a  'fin de règne'.

Particularly since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932, Thailand has experienced constant inter-elite competition for power. With the military stepping into the background (while in reserve to intervene) and the bureaucracy becoming more professionalised, since the 1970s this inter-elite competition became one between politically connected economic elites using the electoral process.

Initially this meant a comfortable alternating of power among members of the Bangkok establishment supported by the military, the public service and with the blessing of the palace. However, from the 1980s the situation evolved, with emergence of politicians/business people such as Barharn Silpa-Archa, with their political and economic power-bases outside Bangkok. The Chiang Mai-based Sino-Thai tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, elder brother of the present PM, is the epitome of this new non-Bangkok business and political elite. [fold]

The 1997 People's Constitution, the only one of the 18 since 1932 to be drafted by an elected Constitutional Drafting Assembly, had as its objectives the elimination of patronage politics, vote buying and other forms of corruption, as well as the creation of stronger political parties based on policy platforms. Alas, in the eyes of the anti-government opposition, it paved the way for the election in 2000 of Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai Party, which for the first time had a majority in its own right in the bicameral parliament.

To his opponents, Thaksin was worse than a populist, he was someone who actually enacted his political program in favour of his electorate, the poor rural and urban population. In doing so, not only did he ensure his reelection in 2005 (and improve the profits of his Berlusconi-style business empire), he gave a sense of empowerment to the neglected population of the north and northeast and the slums of Bangkok. In the process, the urban-rural cleavage took on a political form providing a second, social, dimension to the Thai malaise.

For the middle classes of Bangkok the members of the rural population and their poor urban cousins are 'water buffaloes', decent but unintelligent and 'lacking in an understanding of democracy'. Yet these people have seen the government they elected overthrown by a coup in 2006, then two succeeding governments of a relabeled Thai Rak Thai Party destabilised and overthrown through parliamentary maneuvering and the abusive use of the judiciary. The occupation of central Bangkok in March 2010 by the Red Shirt supporters of Thaksin, one that was violently suppressed with the death of some 90 demonstrators, was a sign of the potential for civil strife haunting Thailand today.

Clearly this social cleavage cannot be resolved by another inter-elite bargain. Rather it requires the creation of a new social contract, something that seems elusive in a still somewhat feudal Thai society.

Such a social contract would require a redistribution of wealth; at present the Greater Bangkok region is eight or nine times wealthier per capita than the poorest regions in the north and northeast. This redistribution is precisely what Thaksin sought to do with his village and tambon (district) subsidies, health care measures and infrastructure projects. The present government has implemented even more direct measures such as subsidising the purchase of rice at 40% above the market price and instituting a minimum wage of 300 baht (about US$10) per day.

In doing so they exacerbated a third, in this case economic, malaise beginning to grip Thailand. From a narrow macro-economic view it is the US$21 billion cost of these rice subsidies (condemned by the IMF), as well as the higher wages that are the problem. But from a broader perspective these measures challenged the Faustian bargain at the heart of the Asian miracle: keeping rural incomes low in order for labour costs in the manufacturing and service sectors to be kept correspondingly competitive.

Yet without a corresponding investment in infrastructure, education and research-and-development to improve productivity, Thailand finds itself threatened by a middle-income trap. Labour-intensive manufacturing and even tourism face increased competition from China, Vietnam, Cambodia and, in the near future, Myanmar.

These three types of malaise are, taken together, difficult to remedy. However, there is a fourth element that makes contemplating a way forward so difficult. Thailand's king, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, is revered by his people, as we are constantly reminded. He has acted as the neutral referee and benevolent father to help resolve inter-elite conflict. But aged 86 and infirm he is no longer in a position to do so. His heir apparent, Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, is unpopular and is widely considered by the very people in Bangkok who support the monarchy as being (for disreputable reasons) an ally of Thaksin and the present PM. He is hardly in a position to perform the role of a dhammaraja, the virtuous benevolent father-king. 

The 'networked monarchy', as Duncan McCargo put it, is a political force in Thailand, as well as an economic force with wealth of some $30 billion, largely through the Crown Property Bureau. That there has not been a coup d’état in the present circumstances is not only because the military has learnt that coups can lead to serious civil strife. It would also seem that, unlike in 2006, the military leadership has not been given even tacit approval from a palace which is itself probably divided or in stasis.

Lest you think it is an exaggeration to question the future of the Thai monarchy,  the keystone of the Thai social order, there is an adage in Thailand that 'there will not be a Rama X'. King Bhumibol is the ninth of the extraordinary Chakri dynasty.

Photo by Flickr user permanently scatterbrained.

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