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Today’s Political Conflict in Thailand.

24/12/2013

Today’s Political Conflict in Thailand.

Historically, Thailand has always had a wide class divide. The rich Bangkokians versus the rural poor. Powerful Thai-Chinese families owning significant chunks of the nation’s wealth but with workers on a minimum wage of 300 baht a day. The elite with influence alongside the ordinary Thai who traditionally accepts a more subservient position.

This is the backdrop to the current political unease and is not explained too well in the media. Both main political parties are led by and represented by well-heeled politicians. Both have been accused of corruption. Both have had cases determined against them in court. It is not as one-sided as many commentators in the media would have us believe.

It is helpful to consider that corruption is viewed differently here from in the West. Backhanders, under the counter payments, are part of normal business practice. That is no different from other eastern countries. It is also a little hypocritical for the foreign press to denigrate the Thai for a practice that is not completely absent from western life. Take the billion dollar fines given to HSBC in America for money laundering (and with no prosecutions or staff changes!)

With this background, politics cannot be expected to follow our own western democratic model. The system would need to be adapted to fit the Thai cultural style. And this is the essence of the present dilemma. The elite believe they know best. They talk of appointees, “good men,” and consider allowing electors to choose their government to be a bad and unworkable idea. The anti-government protesters’ demands for a people’s (sic) council has no foundation in law. It is rarely pointed out that what they are asking for is against the democratic principles enshrined in the present constitution.

The protesters claim corruption and abuses of power by the present administration and by previous governments headed by Thaksin or members of his family. The government side stresses the need to maintain a democratic approach to elections. One man; one vote.

Without doubt, better controls and reform are needed. Checks and balances need to be more robust. The argument is really whether that can take place with “good men” (appointees) calling the shots, or with a government elected through the ballot box.

I give below a summary commentary that gives a comparison with Malaysia and offers another perspective. Some of the points are from an article by hrk in New Mandela, and I acknowledge his contribution, but this blog post is an extended account, is from a cultural perspective, and tries to explain the reality of today’s tensions in a balanced way.

The recent election in Malaysia indicated two similarities:

1. Both countries have entrenched political elites that try to maintain their dominant position against the party in opposition. In Thailand, I would argue, there are a number of networks operating alongside the government. The Democrat party, which is in opposition to the government, is in the minority but is influential behind the scenes. In Malaysia, the opposition party is also in the minority but is growing in strength. It does not have the same level of power or influence as their Thai counterparts.

2. In both nations, the election is decided in the countryside where the majority of voters reside.

There are, however, important differences. In Malaysia, political power and political decision-making rests with elected politicians. Because the people accept the legitimacy of state institutions, parliament has real and effective power. There is meaningful discussion amongst the electorate but hardly any attempts to challenge the legitimate power of the state. It is accepted that that power is derived through the mandate given it by the people through elections.

In Thailand, in contrast, the political influence of politicians remains rather limited. Groups at national and local level can and do influence and control. The military, big business, and powerful families exercise real political power that facilitates their particular political, cultural, and economic interests. Instead of coalitions between parties in parliament, deals are reached behind closed doors. The current government appears to be working with these networks rather than fighting them — on the grounds that the protesters have no legitimate right to interfere in the administration. They of course have the right to peacefully demonstrate. That is not in dispute.

In Thailand, political discussion is rather limited and instead takes the form of large-scale demonstrations. It is a cultural trait for Thais to act emotionally. They follow their hearts as opposed to thinking critically through an issue. Their position in the hierarchy also influences how they feel they must act. They may have the vote but they do not fully accept that they have the rights to a democratic voice. The western view is different.

Both countries allow criticism of political parties though it is useful to remember that Thailand’s culture of not criticising others to their face and avoiding conflict is a strong deterrent. In Malaysia, the political process allows for reform. The problem in Thailand is that any reform requires far reaching structural and cultural change. Western style democracy is not in the interests of a moneyed elite with influence within the country. The present democrat party is sometimes seen as the political arm of those vested interests.

Today’s arguments in Thailand are mainly emotional. We hate Thaksin but love Thailand. Corruption and the creation of a family dynasty in politics are wrong. Yet strong hierarchical rules and an acceptance of corruption as an eastern way of life are always at the back of a Thai’s mind. Alternative political strategies and ideas are seemingly not worthy of discussion. One could say it is a “what’s in it for me“culture.

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