Divisive politics, dumb perspective

13 01 2011

PPT ‘s attention was caught by a recent East Asia Forum post, written by Chalongphob Sussangkarn, listed as “Distinguished Fellow,” but in fact an economist at the Thailand Development Research Institute. East Asia Forum is a usually pretty conservative blog that claims to be a “platform for the best in East Asian analysis, research and policy comment on the Asia-Pacific region and world affairs.” It is from the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific.

In his post, Chalongphob, a nearly invisible Minister of Finance in Privy Councilor General Surayud Chulanont’s military junta-appointed government in 2007, says:

The Red Shirts’ protracted occupation of a central Bangkok area and the eventual violent and deadly end in May 2010 reiterated the highly divisive situation in Thai politics.

This protest, like the Yellow Shirts’ closure of the Bangkok airport toward the end of 2008, had the potential to have extended negative impacts on the broader economy, particularly on foreigners’ confidence. Luckily, the impacts have so far been short-term, partly because these protests and the associated violence were not directly targeted at foreign interests.

To be fair to his readers, Chalongphob might explain that this was not his (politically-motivated) claim at the time of the protests. Back then, TDRI and Chalongphob warned that the red shirt protest would “cause a cut in economic growth of more than 0.5-1 percentage point…” and “Tourism, retail trade and part of transportation have already been hard hit by the political crisis.” Chalongphob himself said: “persistent conflict could suffocate both exports and foreign direct investment. The government has to get rid of the violence initiated by underground armed forces. If violence drags on, foreign investors will move their target to other countries and orders of goods from abroad could dry up…”.

So, at that critical time,  Chalongphob could be considered to be calling for a crackdown. He was also off target on the economic impacts . Long-time readers of PPT will know that, at the time, PPT questioned the dire economic warnings (here, here and here). Yesterday, we also commented on some of the reasons why foreign investors like Thailand.

In his recent article he also states this:

Many have tried to link the political divisiveness to socio-economic disparities. This is highly misleading. The divisiveness is really only around one person, Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra, the currently fugitive former Prime Minister.

Apart from sounding like he is an op-ed writer for The Nation, Chalongphob is simply wrong on both counts. The view that the red shirts are only about Thaksin is one that was common amongst yellow shirts, the army leadership, and the Democrat Party-led government. It seems they learn nothing from the resilience of the red shirt movement and the huge support it has.

More puzzling is the claim that socio-economic disparities are meaningless for politics. PPT would have thought that the government’s own “populist” policies, handouts, and other actions had debunked this view.The various reconciliation committees,set up by the government, also appear to confirm the political salience of inequality.

We wonder about Chalongphob’s politics and assume that he is an unreconstructed supporter of the regime when he says:

Talks of reconciliation are just red herrings. How can one reconcile black and white?

PPT has never been much encouraged by the Abhisit-directed PR exercise in “reconciliation.” However, Chalongphob seems to think that there can be no political peace. We think that’s a pretty accurate reflection of the establishment’s unwillingness to make the historic compromise demanded of it. The establishment seems to have no conception of compromise for it sees it as a loss of its privilege, power and wealth.

Then there is this odd comment:

Fortunately, there will be a general election in 2011. This should reduce the risk of another major protracted street protest….

Now isn’t that exactly what the opposition called for, time and again, since this government was placed in its present position? Why now and not then? Clearly because Chalongphob and his ilk didn’t think their party had a chance back then.

PPT was provocative in our headline because Chalongphob’s political perspective is not so much dumb as revealing of his ideology and that of so many in his one-tenth of the population who are very privileged.

For a more interesting perspective in the same forum see Nicholas Farrelly’s contribution.