Thailand 's Silk ‘revolution'

– Satya Sagar

Few who know anything about Thailand 's erstwhile Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra would lament his forced resignation in early April following months of public protests against his government.

And yet the way he went – immediately after winning a general election by majority vote and under pressure from raucous street rallies staged by Bangkok 's middle-classes and the hidden hand of Thailand 's powerful monarch does not bode well for the long-term future of Thailand 's fledgling democracy. This is unless those organizing the protests – a combination of Thaksin's business and political rivals together with some media and civil society groups – also purge their own ranks of the various Thaksin-like clones in their midst.

Thaksin Shinawatra, a former police official turned telecom tycoon turned Prime Minister was of course the epitome of everything that is wrong with Thailand – where political connections, feudal loyalties and big money combine to subvert every democratic institution.

In the eighties, when he was a mere forensic expert with the Thai police, Thaksin used his family's political connections to corner lucrative monopolies for supply of computers to government agencies. Using a similar process he bagged rights to operate Thailand 's first paging and cellular services and even the country's first satellite services. By the early nineties Thaksin, riding a stock market boom, was the richest man in Thailand and by the mid-nineties ready for bigger things in life.

Thaksin's first foray into politics was as protégé of Chamlong Srimuang, the quasi-Gandhian ‘hero' of Thailand's pro-democracy movement in 1992 which humbled the military regime of General Suchinda Krapayoon that had taken power through a coup in 1991. Chamlong's Palang Dharm party, which was a member of the ruling coalition headed by then Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, appointed Thaksin as Thailand's Foreign Minister despite his complete lack of qualification for the post.

Ironically, today both Chamlong and Chuan's Democrat party have emerged as Thaksin's strongest critics and the latter is certainly hoping Thaksin's downfall will help them return to power somehow. Since the general elections of 2001 when Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party created history by winning a clear two thirds majority in the House of Representatives the rival Democrat Party has never managed to regain political initiative on any issue till the recent anti-Thaksin protests happened.

Indeed, one of the primary reasons why many who are otherwise opposed to Thaksin and his government are uneasy with the past several months of public protests against him is that those leading this dissident movement are not known for their democratic credentials or being really representative of the Thai people in general.

Take for example the case of Sondhi Limthongkul, a Thai-Chinese media tycoon who started off the anti-Thaksin protests late last year when his talk show on state-run TV was pulled off the air for attacking the government. Since then Sondhi has single-handedly mobilized the public against Thaksin by staging his former TV show on the streets of Bangkok . All this at a time when the latter seemed politically unassailable and all his usual political rivals (like the Democrat Party) were clueless about how to take him on. Very early on in the campaign Sondhi swore to force Thaksin to resign and he has kept his promise indeed.

But till less than a year ago Sondhi and his media chain were among the staunchest supporters of Thaksin condoning every act of corruption, violation of human rights or suppression of media freedoms that he indulged in.

The reason for the alliance of course had to do with Sondhi's business interests, which had collapsed in a mountain of debt during the 1997 Asian financial crisis forcing him to declare bankruptcy for three years. Sondhi's fortunes revived only with the help of various key functionaries close to him in the new Thaksin administration.

The real reasons for Sondhi turning against Thaksin are not fully known though they have had a history of personal rivalry in the mid-eighties as young and upcoming businessmen trying to grab the lion's share of Thailand 's then emerging telecom business. At that time Thaksin won hands down relegating Sondhi to a bit player in the telecom industry and it now turns out the bitterness of that defeat never really left Sondhi after all.

But going beyond the personal love-hate relations between Thaksin and Sondhi it is also true that the latter's cause was helped amply by the fact that after nearly five years in power there was a powerful anti-Thaksin mood brewing in several parts of the country due to various reasons.

Initially after coming to power Thaksin, through a series of populist policies had revived the national economy and helped lift the pall of gloom that had descended on the country reeling under the impact of the Asian financial crisis.

Right from day one, for example, Thaksin's somewhat nationalist and left-of-centre advisors (many oft hem former leftwing student guerillas) took a strident line against the humiliating terms and conditions imposed by the IMF soon after the 1997 crisis. They repudiated the neo-liberal ideas of curbing government expenditure and instead poured billions of baht into schemes meant to revive the rural economy and small and medium scale industries. All these policies, (that have actually managed to pull Thailand out of the economic mess it was in even five years ago) together with his occasional tirades against ‘Western values' were part of a conscious effort by Thaksin to cultivate an international image similar to that of Mahatir Mohammed of Malaysia.

On the social front the Thaksin regime came up with an instant hit when it launched a universal health insurance scheme that allowed Thai citizens to avail of any medical service for just 30 baht per visit to the hospital. Various scholarship schemes aimed at rural youth and incentives for Bangkok 's taxi drivers further boosted his popularity as a ‘champion of the poor'.

Of course, it was not long before the true character of the new government started showing up for all to see. For example given the fact that Thaksin had made all his money all his life through cosy monopoly deals his own ascent to power meant corruption was inevitable and it happened in good measure too. His family owned Shin Corporation, already one of the country's largest business houses, became bigger still using new policies tailored to protect its financial interests.

One of the issues which aroused a lot of public anger against Thaksin was his US$1.85 billion sale in January this year of Shin Corp to Temasek, a Singapore government-owned investment fund without paying over US$450 million in tax on the capital gains made.

The Thaksin regime also earned the ire of human rights groups the world over by carrying out a massacre of over 2000 suspected ‘drug dealers' in 2002 and 2003 as part of a so called ‘War on Drugs'. Activists alleged that many of those killed, often in cold blood, were either very small fry in the drug business or completely innocent people framed by a police force desperate to comply with government orders to ‘show results'.

Again on the foreign policy front, for all his protestations against the West, Thaksin made sure he was on the right side of the US by sending a token number of Thai troops to Iraq as part of the dubious ‘Coalition of the Willing'. The Thaksin administration also became one of the most ardent champions of the despicable military regime in neighbouring Burma .

But the current undoing of Thaksin had nothing to do with its corruption, contempt for human rights or any of the evil policies it pursued. All of these and more are what successive regimes in Thailand have always stood for and a staple part of the arsenal of sins in the possession of the Thai elite.

The real reasons for Thaksin's downfall are as follows: his success in both business and politics ultimately went to his head and he started having grandiose notions of his own ‘historic mission' to change Thailand . His air of being the most powerful person in the land ruffled too many feathers within the country's traditional elite, especially Thai royal circles, who saw him as a potential threat to the institution of monarchy itself. In other words, he got too big for his boots in a country where the biggest feet are reserved exclusively for the Thai King, who while on paper just a constitutional monarch, wields an influence greater than most heads of state anywhere. And despite all the ballyhoo about ‘people's power' it was the Thai monarch who finally forced Thaksin to resign just two days after his re-election in early April. This despite his refusing to step down for months together saying he had a mandate from the people to continue being Prime Minister. (which, strictly speaking in electoral democratic terms was true)

While Thaksin's departure has been greeted with great enthusiasm in Bangkok there is a great deal of resentment against the way he was forced to step down in Thailand's north and northeast provinces from where he got a bulk of the 16 million votes in the snap elections of April 1 which the opposition Democrat Party boycotted. Whatever else it may or may not have done the Thaksin regime with its populism surely managed to woo the country's rural poor into believing it really cared for them, which was more than what any previous Thai regime had even bothered to do.

The Thaksin regime was also the first to be elected under a new Thai constitution adopted in 1997 that was fought for and even framed by the country's various civil society groups. By joining the Thai opposition's boycott of the surprise April 1 election called by Thaksin they have now essentially said ‘Yes, you play by our rules but we don't agree with our own rules anymore'.

The danger of this flip flop by civil society in a country like Thailand is that it will only weaken whatever little respect for formal and electoral democracy that existed among both elites and masses alike.

If the masses decide to take this line of thinking further and strive for a deeper and more genuine democratic order the current events may have indeed sown the seeds of a proper social and economic revolution. If the traditional elites of Thailand like the monarchy, the military and bureaucracy gain the upper hand however the country is in for a dark period of dictatorship not very far into the future.