Military, the rich and control

4 10 2014

Banyan at The Economist has another useful account of Thailand’s military dictatorship. PPT reproduces bits of it here, with a few comments.

Thailand’s political future is still up in the air…. Thailand’s new rulers have been candid: they intend to prevent the reinstatement of the winner-takes-it-all system that allowed the party of Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecoms tycoon who became a populist prime minister, to win every election held since 2001.

This is the aim of everything that the military and elite are currently doing. The aim is to “fix” the system for the elite. Part of this is to demobilize politics and restore attention to hierarchy.the-economist-logo

The Thai military and business elites have traditionally scorned the elected politicians as a venal lot, the sort who promote their own personal status with little regard for the welfare of the kingdom. It is typical of Thai elites to cast populist policies as corrupt.

Of course, having recently posted on this, PPT agrees. At the same time, we think that the royalist ideology of venal politicians needs to be considered in the context of the rampant corruption in the military and the grasping corruption that drives Thailand’s big businesses (think of the widespread use of disposal slave-like labor as just one instance of venality).

As is the case throughout much of South-East Asia, the power elite in Thailand does not accept the fundamental nature of democracy. They believe that the rule of an “accomplished” few is preferable to the judgments of the people.

So what might their new rules look like? There is a strong expectation that the junta may put restrictions on voting. The idea is popular among some circles in Bangkok, where people have long grumbled that their votes do not count more than those of poor and uneducated farmers. But junking universal suffrage outright would probably be hard to get away with. A more likely path is a partly appointed parliament. That would leave those with the power to appoint—the monarch, the army and the bureaucracy—to retain control over the balance of power. At the same time, power might be shifted further away from parliament, into the hands of appointed regulatory groups. All such “reforms” would be likely to meet the scorn of Thailand’s silenced majority, as well as that of university professors and intellectuals, and some foreign governments.

PPT generally agrees with this perspective on what the royalist elite’s military is doing. After all, it is a reflection of the decades-long royalist discourse on “Thai-style democracy” that is no democracy at all.

At the same time, we feel that the royalists are unlikely to be concerned about international opinion on their restructuring of the system to suit themselves. Their interest is in control. We do think the current demonstrations in Hong Kong has suggested that functional constituencies, long on the royalist agenda, will be reconsidered. The Economist also comments:

The streets of Bangkok are calm these days.  The only reminder that anyone is resentful about being governed by unelected leaders is the image of the protests in Hong Kong, which has been splashed across the front page of Thai newspapers.

The Economist joins others in advising the military dictatorship on how it should do things:

The only way the army can get away with its dictatorship is if it embarks urgently on the only reliable path to political stability in Thailand: a policy to redistribute wealth in ways that stimulate growth and draw the whole population into the modernisation process. This is the path that will make most Thais happy. It also happens to be the only way in which the junta can justify an extended period of acting as the sole caretaker of a broken system.

We doubt that the military junta has sufficient intellectual capacity or political will required to make such a change. It is not just an economic change, but a vast cultural change amongst Thailand’s ruling class.

The view that the junta’s rule is about succession is made:

The junta’s rule is likely to go on for a while, if for no other reason than that its members cannot bear even the thought of the politicians being in charge when the king dies.

We agree that this is now on the agenda for the military. If succession wasn’t an issue, it is now. The problem for the military and the palace is that the king could linger for many years if he doesn’t pass tomorrow. Military-backed government for several more years is a miserable political thought, although the elite is on board, seeking to bolster its control:

It helps that the bureaucracy and most of the wealthiest Thai families back the military government. These rich Chinese-Thai families, along with the Thai elites, control much of the country’s assets. In the course of the 20th century a small group courtiers and businessmen have played their cards right with the monarchy and managed to join them. The result is that 0.1% of Thais own half the nation’s assets, a concentration of wealth that makes America’s mind-bogglingly unequal wealth distribution (where 0.1% of citizens own 22%) look like a socialist dream come true.

These very wealthy families crave control and stability above all, not the sort of rapid economic growth that raises living standards for all. So it has always been in their rational interest to support conservative governments. Badly burned in the economic collapse of 1996 and 1997, they fear permanent shifts in government policy, competition and a rising price of access to capital, labour and land. Many saw the rise of the Shinawatras as an immediate threat to their own status, if not their wealth.

The current lot of generals must have noticed that as the only guarantors to the moneyed establishment they find themselves in a good bargaining position. They might as well raise their price for having re-established peace and order—and so they are considering a tax on land and inherited wealth….

The filthy rich don’t think they own Thailand, they think they are Thailand.


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