The old gang gets a crowd II

28 10 2012

The Nation and the Bangkok Post estimate 20,000 attended the the military-royalist Pitak Siam rally at Royal Turf Club. Police claimed 6,000, but photos suggest it was larger than this.

The report says that this is a “surprisingly successful first rally…”. Not really. As PPT pointed out earlier, Boonlert said his “organisers hope to draw about 25,000 people to fill up the Royal Turf Club stadium…”. We don’t believe seasoned coupsters and ultra-royalist organizers like Chamlong Srimuang and Prasong Soonsiri were about to allow a small rally. In addition, the links to former classmate and privy councilor General Surayud Chulanont and with links to his boss General Prem Tinsulanonda were always sure to mobilize ultra-royalists.

Now the challenge for the Yingluck Shinawatra government is the Pitak Siam plan “for a bigger demonstration at Government House…”. The challenge for the old soldiers and yellow-shirted coupsters is to find reasons for people to rally with them. One strategy is the claim that the “government had done nothing to stop several people from attacking and violating the royal family…”. This is fabricated nonsense, but ultra-royalists have always been sure that “red shirts are republicans.” So the search will be on for acts of “disloyalty.”

In our original post, we noted that we expected yellow-shirted intellectuals to increase their sniping; it seems that has begun as the aged anti-Thaksin economist Ammar Siamwalla has rejoined the political fray. The Post report refers to “Surachai Sirikrai, a political scientist from Thammasat University” damning the government and making bizarre claims that Pitak Siam could grow to be a “Thai Spring.”

Meanwhile, the Democrat Party has coordinated with the Pitak Siam events by launching a campaign to “save democracy.” Again plagiarizing red shirts, the idea-less DemoPADs have begun “opening political schools and calling on their supporters to fight against Thaksinomics.” The conservative elite’s pin-up boy Abhisit Vejjajiva made an opening speech entitled “Major institutions in a democratic system in Thailand’s constitutional monarchy.” As we noted above, the monarchy will again be front and center in the renewed attempts to overthrow an elected government.

Abhisit apparently “said the reason the party decided to launch the political schools was that the country’s political fighting had intensified and the objectives of opponents were different from the past. Democracy was being used as a tool for self gain.” None of this is new and, in fact, Yingluck’s politics have been so timid that there is simply no intensification. This is a beat-up by Abhisit and his military-royalist allies.

Old and failed former Democrat Party leader Chuan Leekpai expresed his support for the military and designated the main threat to the country as not the murdering royalist military but “… a new political disease since Thaksin has joined politics and bought political parties with majority votes…”. In other words, the majority vote amounts to nothing for the anti-Democrat Party. And, as expected, Chuan declared: “… there is a move to topple the monarchy with the committing of lese majeste offences…”. As we said, nonsense, but the plan is to destabilize, again with palace and royalist support.

The picture is pretty clear. This is a coordinated and planned move against the elected government.

As a footnote, PPT thinks it worth observing that yet another royalist overthrow of an elected government is likely to mean the end of the monarchy as republicanism will be the only alternative for those who want elections as expressions of political will to be respected.

Inequality, welfare and the politics of maintaining political control and not mentioning the obscenely wealthy royals

14 09 2009

PPT knows this is a long post. However, because it is an important issue, we are editing, updating and re-posting. This post deals with the first indication of a royalist strategy for addressing the deep issues confronting Thai society and politics that is not absolutely reactionary. That is, it is not a call for “unity” based on mythical ideas about Thainess and the monarchy and nor is it a call for the use of repression and blunt force.

Our updates are at the end of the post.

Also available as: ความไม่เท่าเทียมกัน สวัสดิการ และการเมือง แต่อย่าพูดเรื่องความร่ำรวยเหลือล้นของราชวงศ์

For all the conflict in recent years, it is notable that Thailand’s public debate on the role of the state and welfare has developed and polarized. It has the potential to become more extreme. Recall that many of the PAD’s middle-class support was drawn by Sondhi Limthongkul’s view that a middle-class revolution against Thaksin and his regime who he identified as milking the middle class to buy support from those he identified as uneducated rural voters. When Thaksin introduced his 30 baht scheme there was a tiny group of doctors that opposed the scheme as “socialism” and medical practitioners have been in the PAD vanguard.

In a report in The Nation (13 September 2009: “Think-tank calls for welfare state”) it is said that the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) has proposed “transforming the country into a welfare state.” This is remarkable for TDRI has generally been broadly neo-classical/neo-liberal in its approach to social and economic issues. Its former director was a minister in the military-royalist government led by Privy Councilor General Surayud Chulanont and its current director has worked closely with the World Bank.

Calls for a welfare state have been made in the recent past – from Jon Ungpakorn and from TDRI-associated Ammar Siamwalla. They didn’t get a great deal of support or attention. So why is TDRI proposing a welfare state now? According to the report, the “think-tank” is proposing a “survival strategy” that offers a way out of “the current economic and political distress by that would help bridge opportunity and income disparity.” TDRI chairman Dr Nipon Poapongsakorn, speaking at a seminar organised by the Thai Journalist Association and the King Prachadhipok Institute (KPI), said the institute “believed this would address the root causes of the current political conflicts that have pushed the country to the brink.”

TDRI researchers had found that disparities in income and wealth were “the main cause of the ongoing political conflicts…”. Hence, a welfare state would be “the way out of the political crisis” by closing the “gap between the rich and the poor…”.

Research has long shown large income disparities and inequality in Thailand. TDRI says that the “current market economic system fails to bridge economic inequality and the state also adds salt to injuries for failing to provide equal opportunity for everyone to access financial credit, knowledge, natural resources because the state represents a large business conglomerate that monopolises businesses.” It says that “only a handful group of politicians and businessmen access to business privileges and benefit from the monopoly. The current tax structure does not help reduce assets and wealth concentration.”

It is said that “wealth concentration has a significant correlation to political power…” in the country. It is suggested that tycoons seek political power to “protect business interests and concessions.” Politicians in power “distort the market economy. This is the case especially in a country that lacks political stability.” Nipon argues that the “more assets they have the more the motivation for the businessmen to come to power…”.

Nipon also cited research attributed to “Somkiat Tangkitvanich, which found that in 2004, companies run by Shinawatra family provide 141 per cent better return than other companies. The research also found that companies having connections with ministers enjoy 18.5 per cent higher profit than other companies.”

In fact, these figures are not universally accepted and recent works suggest lesser figures (e.g. Pasuk and Baker’s new edition of Thaksin), although the trend is still seen.

Nipon argued that “a welfare state was the answer because the system could bring sustainable democracy.” Recognizing the potential for a backlash, he also pointed out that “extreme populist policies may trigger a coup or revolt by the rich because they would be hardest hit.” As would be expected from a KPI event, “populist policies bring about great public debt and a lack of fiscal transparency.”

PPT agrees that economic inequalities are a major problem in Thailand. While moves towards a well-organized welfare state would make a lot os sense, PPT has problems with the way the TDRI call is framed.

For a start, TDRI has been aware of these economic disparities for decades, but has done precious little until now to propose alternative ways of dealing with them. It has stuck with market-based ideas for a long time. TDRI also stresses politicians and business people-cum-politicians as being the problem. We can’t disagree that these people have regularly promoted their own interests. At the same time, it has to be acknowledged that the political system has been constructed in conservative ways that have encouraged corruption of various kinds. Indeed, the 2007 Constitution requires corruption (if there is ever to be an election).

We would be more likely to agree with TDRI if it didn’t ignore the wealthiest institution in the country. The monarchy sucks wealth and power into itself, with the Crown Property Bureau being so hugely wealthy that Forbes ranks it as world’s richest. Then there is the huge drain on public resources that we noted recently, which is continuing to rise. Just the Royal Household Bureau’s draw on public funds has almost doubled from 1,136,536,600 baht in 2002 to 2,086,310,000 baht in 2008.

Of course, institutions like TDRI and KPI are dominated by royalists. It is almost impossible to take KPI seriously – it has a history of King Prajadhipok, portraying his as the “father” of Thai democracy but has nothing on Thai democracy’s checkered path.

TDRI has become a bastion of royalists. A brief look at its board see the following royalists and “Prem-ists” listed: Kosit Panpiemras (served the royalis-military government), Chirayu Isarangkun Na Ayuthaya (Director-General, Crown Property Bureau), Juree Vichit-Vadakan (sufficiency economy proponent), Mechai Viravaidya (Chairman, Population and Community Development Association and married to a senior palace aide), Snoh Unakul (former Prem government economic guru and chair of the royal-controlled Siam Cement Foundation and on the board of a number of royal companies), Sumet Tantivejkul (Secretary-General, the main royal foundation, the Chaipattana Foundation), and so on. Actually, if one wanted to study wealth and power networks in Thailand, the board of TDRI might be one place to begin.

Finally, what is missing in this proposal is any account of how political power might be changed. In fact, the proposal rings hollow as an elite-based attempt to maintain their own political power. Don’t get us wrong; reforming economic policies and addressing welfare is worthy. However, when it is done to avoid thorough-going political reform it hardly ranks as a liberal proposal for reform.

Hopefully the debate doesn’t deteriorate as in the U.S. and that the issue of economic inequality can remain on the agenda in Thailand but linked firmly with political fairness, human rights and democratic development.

Update 1: The Bangkok Post (13 September 2009: “Welfare state key to future”) has a similar report to that in The Nation, reported above. However, there are a couple of additional points worthy of note.

TDRI research director Somkiat Tangkitvanich said “unfair income distribution among Thais had led to major political disruptions such as the Sept 19, 2006, coup which occurred because the government had tried to improve income distribution via extreme [sic] populist policies.” This is an interesting perspective and worthy of consideration. Somkiat is acknowledging that Thaksin’s approach to politics involved a basic change to policy. What is now being proposed is that the anti-Thaksin groups accept that they need to do something similar in political and policy terms. It acknowledges that royalists, conservatives and “the elite” need to compromise on economic issues if they are to maintain their political power.

KPI secretary-general Borwornsak Uwanno, who earlier broached this topic, but in a context of political illiberalism, said KPI “would help push forward the academics’ idea, by proposing it to the government and the parliament.” He added that he believed that “Thailand will go through a major change. If we’re not prepared, the situation could go the same way as it did in the May 1992 or the October 1973 uprisings…”. Maybe, except that he fears that his elite will lose their political control.

This “welfarist” position will allow for the political continuation of “Thai-style democracy” that royalists promote. When pressured politically, Thailand’s “royal liberals” seem to lose their liberalism in favour of royalism. But here they offer a way out that moves the focus to economic well-being but maintains political control. Singapore and China come to mind, and it is the long-term goal of Burmese generals.

But can the “royal liberals” win out? Recall that the king himself opposes welfare. Sufficiency economy is fundamentally anti-welfare and he has said before that he opposes social welfare because it makes people lazy.

Update 2: The Nation has an editorial (14 September 2009: “Idea of a welfare state is worth exploring”) has a different take on TDRI’s interest in the welfare state idea: “The TDRI is quite concerned about the growing tendency towards economic populism. The Thaksin government began this trend by offering handouts to the poor. Subsequent governments, including the current Abhisit government, have followed suit.”

And, beginning the nonsense that usually goes along with debates about welfare, states: “We support the concept of a welfare state. But further discussion is needed over how we can finance the welfare state. Most developed countries, with strong welfare protection, are facing unsustainable public debt.” Of course, this statement is not supported by the facts. What the editorialist means is that tax revenues need to increase. However, as noted in the editorial, at present, Thailand allocates just “2.8 per cent … of the gross domestic product … to welfare.”

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