Thailand’s Constitutional Court has ruled that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra must step down, making her the second member of the Shinawatra family to be dismissed from a prime minister post after protests by the People’s Alliance for Democracy. Her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, was ousted in a 2006 military coup, the subject of Giles Ji Ungpakorn’s book A Coup for the Rich (available for download at Wikileaks).
Giles’s book is a quick take (144 pages) on the 2006 coup, published shortly after it happened, from a left-wing perspective. Giles described in detail not only the events surrounding the coup but also the background of Thai politics and history that builds the context for the P.A.D. movement and the coup. The book was banned for “insulting the monarchy”, and Giles fled Thailand to avoid Lese Majesty charges.
Giles, who published the book while working as an associate professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University, is listed as a founding member of the socialist group Turn Left Thailand in an international communist journal. His left-wing political lean is palpable throughout the book.
Still, anyone with a grasp of politics can read through his opinions and apply their own ideology. When he portrays the anti-government protesters as being concerned about government “‘over-spend[ing]’ on welfare” to those whom they (Giles asserts) view as “‘ignorant rural and urban poor’”, a left-winger might consider the P.A.D. activists to be greedy and uncompassionate, while a free-market supporter (right-winger, conservative, neoliberal… pick your descriptor) might consider the P.A.D. to be hard-working people who support pro-growth economic policies. For Giles, it is a fight between “the poor who understand and are committed to democracy” versus “the so-called middle classes who are determined to hang on to their privileges by any means possible.”
Indeed, the picture Ji paints is not so different from that happening in the United States (to a lesser degree), illustrated by Mitt Romney’s infamous 2012 presidential campaign comments that, “There are 47 percent who are with [Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”
Just as American Republicans are arguing that the Democratic Party’s expansion of health insurance through Obamacare is an entitlement meant to purchase the votes of the poor, the People’s Alliance for Democracy in Thailand has been arguing that Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party, and it’s later recreations, were buying the votes of the poor with their welfare policies (including a universal healthcare policy).
The argument that Thai Rak Thai economic policies are bad for growth or unfair to the middle and upper class, while it may be a compelling argument for someone to vote against them in a political election, is not a particularly compelling argument on which to base a court-ordered or military-backed ouster. So the P.A.D. tried to demonstrate the Shinawatra family’s corruption.
Thaksin’s wife purchased government property. (She was convicted in 2008 of tax evasion.) Thaksin earned $1.9 billion in the tax-free sale of his share of Thailand’s biggest telecommunications group. In 2008, Thaksin was convicted of corruption and left the country.
Thaksin’s allies were also being thrown out of office by the courts. In September 2008, Samak Sundaravej, who was elected prime minister in December 2007, was made to step down because a court found him to be guilty of conflict of interest. Thaksin’s brother-in-law took over.
Now Yingluck gets the boot for having appointed a family member to the top national security position in place of the incumbent national security chief. After her ouster at the hands of the court, she was also indicted by the National Anti-Corruption Committee over a rice subsidy program. If convicted, she could be banned from holding office for five years.
There must be another Shinawatra relative lurking around somewhere to take the job? Another major complaint of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (the body behind the 2013 anti-government protests) is the concentration of power within the family’s hands. The 2013 protests arose when Yingluck tried to pass an amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin and other convicted politicians to return to politics. The Thai Rak Thai Party was forced to disband by the Constitutional Tribunal in 2007, and 118 of their executives had their voting rights stripped for five years, for violations of electoral laws, but those members who emerged untouched reformed as the People’s Power Party, and that party was disolved in 2008, before reforming once again as the Pheu Thai Party, Yingluck’s party.
What emerges is that both sides fail to respect democracy. Thaksin and his clan are certainly looking to gain power and profit, but Giles, no supporter of Thaksin, argues that corruption is widespread in Thai politics and isn’t justification for the military, courts, and protesters to constantly shut down the government because they disagree with its politics.
Ukrist Pathmanand, in a paper published in the Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies in 1998, argues that Thaksin became interested in politics when his lack of connections hurt him in business:
When the government, in line with its privatisation policy, started to list public enterprises on the stock market, Thaksin bought a considerable amount of the shares available to the public. … But Thaksin met with stiff competition from other large capital groups and it is no secret that Shinawatra’s strongest competitors in the telecommunications industry enjoyed close connections with many important political players in Thailand. … The Shinawatra group thus missed a historic concession because it lacked the right political affiliations.
“The Thai Rak Thai government was corrupt,” Giles wrote on page 18, “but this was little different from previous elected governments and little different from every single military government.”
This leads to the another complaint with the Thaksin government: his hardcore populism. He extended large-scale welfare schemes and government spending to the poor. Giles writes that the party was “unique in recent Thai political history in that it actually spent considerable time developing policies” and that the policies were “pro-poor” and involved “village level Keynesian economic stimuli.”
Those policies are considered “a form of indirect vote-buying” by some Thais and a threat to Thailand’s fiscal health. Michael Yon published a letter from Thai activists that argued, “The sole purpose of these irresponsible polices is to gain votes.” Giles quotes various anti-Thaksin activists throughout his book echoing that point.
It is certainly true that most people vote for their self-interest, and a party that gives a lot of handouts will naturally win the votes of many of the people who benefit from those handouts. It is also true that government programs cost money and that money is a finite resource. Those points are really truisms. A healthcare plan costs money just like a new highway costs money and a fuel subsidy costs money. One person’s wasteful handout is another person’s rational policy. There is no clear line, and it is largely up to the voters to demark that line through their voting (absent any constitutional restrictions).
Moreover, as Ukrist Pathmanand’s paper notes, the rich also benefit from government spending and corruption. When a tycoon gets a cozy deal from the government in exchange for their support, is that no more an incident of vote buying?
It is clear that the P.A.D. and their allies are angry about constantly being defeated in elections, but part of democracy is learning how to accept defeat–even if the other side enacts terrible policies.
Giles on “Vote Buying”
For most of the book, Giles attacks the view of the P.A.D. that Thaksin’s policies constituted vote buying. In his view, the poor had always been ignored in Thai politics, and Thaksin finally developed policies to appeal to them. But Giles is much farther to the left than Thaksin and called Thai Rak Thai a “party of rich capitalists for rich capitalists” that were using the policies to get elected. On page 115, he even used the comparison to vote buying, saying that “any reasonable social policies it might have had were designed to buy social peace at the cheapest possible price.”
That came after a section on members of the “October People”, left-wing socialist and communist activists from the 1970’s, who went on to join the Thai Rak Thai Party. Giles bemoaned that “Autonomism, Post-Modernmism and ‘Third Way’ Reformism failed to equip activists with the tools needed to compete politically with Thai Rak Thai in the interests of the poor.”
His choice of the word “buy” to argue that the social peace was bought indicates the same thinking of the P.A.D. on the results of Thaksin’s policies. The policies caused the poor to support Thaksin, and, in having their needs met (fully or partially), they didn’t upset the stability of the capitalist system. That would be a problem for Giles, because he wants the socialist movements to have more support.
Giles on Terrorism
Another topic covered heavily in the book is the resistance movements and military actions in southern Thailand. Southern Thailand is more Muslim than the rest of the country, though not a majority. (30.4% of the population in Southern Thailand is Muslim, according to a paper (pdf) by Pibool Waijittragum, a lecturer at Suan Sunandha Rajabhat University.) Giles wrote about the movements for more local autonomy there, including some that involve violence and terrorism, and criticized the government for being too heavy handed. There have been many incidents of civilians and protesters getting killed, including 85 at Tak Bai in 2004, under Thaksin, when a protest outside a police station escalated.
Giles is rightly critical of the overexertion of force–at Tak Bai, protesters were forced to crawl into overcrowded trucks for a five hour ride that resulted in 78 deaths (others were shot)–but he also downplays the brutality of the violence exerted by terrorists and insurgents.
On page 129-130, Giles wrote,
The anti-war writer Arundhati Roy stated that any government’s condemnation of “terrorism” is only justified if the government can prove that it is responsive to non-violent dissent. The Thai government has ignored the feelings of local people in the South for decades. … What choice do people have other than turning to violent resistance?
Giles presented the cause not only of the non-violent protesters but also the violent protesters as a just cause. The local people can’t have their language taught in schools. Their customs and culture are disrespected. On page 123, Giles asked, “But why would local youths just allow themselves to be brain-washed if there wasn’t just cause?”
Yet, this came in the very same paragraph that Giles accused George Bush and Tony Blair of having caused the “encouragement of Islamophobia to support their invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, stirred-up such views and allowed human rights abuses against Muslims world-wide.”
Here, the question can be turned around on Giles. Why would Bush and Blair and other foreign leaders support military action in Afghanistan and against al Qaeda elsewhere if there was not a just cause?
After al Qaeda terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center, killing 3,000… After terrorists killed 52 on the London Underground… After the Madrid train bombing, after Mumbai, after all the bombings of mosques in Afghanistan and Iraq and all around the world…
The forces that are fighting terrorism have a justified mission in defending themselves and defending the rights of people to live. That includes the Muslims fighting for their right not to get blown up at the market.