The conservative establishment’s nigh decade-long putsch to turn back the progress of Thai democracy and the empowering advances it has made since late in the last century has backfired on them with epic irony. Their illiberal acts have been designed to demolish popular electoral democracy and return the nation to a state of corrupt and ineffective government open to easy exploitation by the traditional elite. But more often than not they have inadvertently succeeded in reinforcing democratic ideals and creating a more politically conscious population sternly united under democratic principles. This article discusses these issues.
Sir James Goldsmith, a British entrepreneur notorious for his ruthlessness, said in defence of his hardball tactics:
“Predators are a necessary stimulant. If you eliminate predators in business and just create comfortable bureaucracies and monopolies with no predators, you will have a dead industry. Prosperity of the country will shrivel away and your people will suffer infinitely more than by being subject to the constant stimulation of threat and competition.”
This is a natural concept. Things only evolve when there is a need to adapt. When single celled organisms first started to consume oxygen, they began to live much more energetic lives. They soon found that the easiest way to get the fuel for this new lifestyle was by stealing it – engulfing other organisms and consuming them. Thus the predator was born, as was the contest between predator and prey that has continued to this day and driven evolution to its limits. The need to equip ourselves for survival is the sole reason earth has developed such diverse and impressive specimens. And when hardship is removed from the environment, degeneracy occurs. Hardship may be unpleasant, but it is the key ingredient to progress and magnificence.
Sir James Goldsmith believed the same principles applied to the economy and he was absolutely correct. It also applies to politics – democracy was birthed by suffering, struggle was her midwife and injustice is her wet-nurse.
The artificial and false image of the Thailand of the last century promoted by conservative establishment propaganda kept society docile and little progress occurred. The rich stole from the poor and the common people were whipped into obedience. But that all changed when Thaksin Shinawatra sought to win power through elections by expanding the political arena and awakening the dormant aspirations of the masses. Try as the establishment might, the genie cannot be stuffed back into the bottle. Their hostile acts toward the democratic aspirations of the common Thai people has replicated the contest of predator vs prey. Their every action only inspires a reaction, strengthening society’s democratic consciousness.
The 2006 coup was staged to defend the interests of the conservative establishment. It was an assault on democratic progress. The Thai elite have typically preferred weak coalition governments of small parties that they can easily manipulate and reshuffle by bribing MPs; the MPs won their seats through patronage, not by offering popular policies to the electorate, and they thus answered to their paymasters. But Thaksin changed all this. He owed his power to popular policies and he led a huge party that answered to no one but the electorate. Thai Rak Thai could not be bought by the privileged. This was real democracy for the first time in Thailand, but it had shut down the corrupt game of the elites.
Thaksin then used his power to reshuffle the police, bureaucracy and military in his favour. This was not illegal. It was the government’s legal right to oversee such things. Indeed, such is the method of keeping the military under civilian control (which might help prevent things like illegal coups; and who else’s control would you prefer the military to be under if not elected civilians accountable to the populace?)
But to the corrupt conservative establishment – who were used to playing by their own rules – having promotions handled by an outsider and the closing down of their political playground was unacceptable. They wanted a government who shared the cake with them, not with the Thai electorate whose votes they were used to treating like trading cards.
But what did the coup achieve? The elite got to write up a new constitution giving themselves all sorts of flashy new powers, and they got to work dismantling Thaksin’s influence, but they still lost the next elections and the will of the poor electorate prevailed. These were the short term consequences we are all aware of, but what of the long term effect?
The 2006 coup was an injustice to democracy and the electorate. But Thaksin had only just awakened the political consciousness of the poor and that consciousness was still in its infancy. This is why there were no mass backlash protests. Over the years, however, we’ve had time to assimilate the injustice of that coup – the democratic ideals of the violated electorate have hardened – and there is only one remaining effect of the 2006 coup: it will never be allowed to happen again (at least not to the extent that the military assumes power for any other reason than handing it straight back to the people).
After the military coup failed to return power to the conservative establishment, they launched a judicial coup using their sweeping new powers provided by the 2007 Constitution. This was backed by a heavier use of the lèse majesté law to stifle dissent. The judiciary is now massively unpopular – being seen as incredibly biased and corrupt – and any “successful” judicial coup will likely be met by civil war, just as a military coup would. The lèse majesté law is even worse off. It is supposedly designed to protect the monarchy; however, due to the harshness and breadth of the law, it has stirred up major discontent that touches the prestige of the institution. Soaking the 2006 coup in royal symbolism did not help, either. Far from the lèse majesté law protecting the conservative establishment by stifling undesirable debate, it has instead become a major rallying point for their opponents, unifying their opposition.
So for every step the predators make, the democratic electorate responds by hardening, fortifying its resolution and binding itself together. In under a decade, the bulk of the electorate has gone from one which barely paid attention to politics to one with an unshakable faith in universal suffrage and their right to political participation. Following this trend, the current stage of the conflict has some amusing facets.
Now the conservative establishment is trying to undermine the elected government through an anti-corruption campaign. They are pushing this through obscene amounts of propaganda. Though you do not have to look very hard to see that this is a pure façade – being led by the notoriously corrupt Suthep Thaugsuban makes it clear the only form of corruption they are interested in tackling is that carried out by their political opponents. They have made no moves to purge the corrupt politicians from their own circle. This makes it clear the true goal is the ulterior motive of overthrowing the elected government and corruption is but a rallying point to rile up the protesters.
The joke’s going to be on them as the propaganda sinks into their supporters and people begin to become genuinely disgusted with corruption and they eventually find themselves disowned by their own voter base at the behest of their own propaganda. Though that may take years to eventuate, as their current putsch smashes against the hardened carapace of the new Thai democratic scenario and their propositions are dropping like flies (such as voting in profession-based blocs or returning to an absolute monarchy – both dead as quick as they were suggested/rejected), it is beautifully ironic that the one concession that is likely to pass is a strengthening of anti-corruption laws. This was not their goal, only their propaganda – it is a positive thing and one that will hurt them more than it will hurt their opponents.
Today, all we see is conflict, fighting and disunity. This is natural. Though fascism is not healthy and there is a serious danger that democracy will fail, we are technically still playing by democratic rules. The result is the strengthening of Thai democracy as it evolves to fend off the fascist predator. The government of Yingluck Shinawatra is far from perfect, but we also realize it is far better than what we’ve had before.
For the first time, the army fears the people and will not launch a coup even though the situation fits the typical pretexts that led to previous coups. For the first time, we have a pacifist prime minister who refuses to use violence against civilians to avoid compromising her legitimacy. For the first time, corrupt officials are looking over their shoulders and wondering if they’d be safer keeping their hands clean. For the first time, the masses are scrutinizing their laws and judiciary, judging the judges.
These are hard won victories. We must still keep our vigil as the battle is not over nor the outcome certain, but I find comfort in the knowledge that out of all this hardship and conflict we are becoming a better people with a better government and stronger democracy. Nature’s survival of the fittest is taking its course and progress is being made. And in us, the predator has met its match. Yet the irony is we owe so much of this positive democratic progress to the very people trying to destroy it.
I am not saying the ultra-nationalist fascist elements of society are a boon, but just pointing out that the kick in the head the conservative establishment dealt to the common Thai people has awoken a sleeping giant.
The correct application of propaganda is not the ability to use cheap shots to smear your rival’s image or conjure up façades of divinity; it is the ability to anticipate and manipulate the repercussions of the image and actions you engage in. In this, they have failed, and they cannot go on failing indefinitely – their days are numbered.
As Suthep walks through the PDRC protest site stuffing 1,000 baht notes into a garbage bag, making it disgustingly obvious that the money is but a fraction of the donor’s purse, he might want to note the income of his southern supporters working the rubber trees has fallen by 30% since his protest began, and shows no sign of stopping its plummet into southern poverty. 1,000 baht is now fair pay per week for a south Thai rubber tapper, leaving many farmers surviving on an income the below minimum wage.
As the economy crashes around us and the common people bear the brunt of this burden, I cannot help but wonder which idiot’s idea it was to put Suthep on TV stuffing garbage bags full of money, probably to give the impression their putsch is funded by the people. But a public display of rolling about in beds of money while the common people suffer is exactly the arrogance that bought them to this mess in the first place. Before long, their own support base will demand economic stability and a government that can restore their incomes through market controls; let’s see them push their neoliberal ideals then.