Saturday, June 5, 2010

Manit Sriwanichpoom, ‘ Democracy Without History,’

Manit Sriwanichpoom, ‘ Democracy Without History,’ in Silpa Wattanatham column, Siam Rath Weekly News, 4 – 10 January, 2008.

The victory of the Palang Prachachon Party (PPP), the former TRT (Thai Rak Thai) party, gave Thailand the chance to have a prime minister named Samak Soontornwej (if the courts don’t judge him at fault in the case of the fire-engine fraud when he was governor of Bangkok.)

The history of politics and the Thai democratic system may now have to record once again a leader of the nation who supported the use of force and violence against students and against other people calling for democracy – which, in this case, resulted in the 6 October killings of 1976.

When Samak ran for governor of the Bangkok Metropolitan, he got votes in historically high numbers - more than a million . That was a shock. How can the story of Thai democracy explain this phenomenon? Some say the people chose Samak because he has been in politics for a long time and he is very old. His election was a kind of reward, a political bonus, more or less, before his retirement, before he becomes altogether too old to participate.

Some concluded that Samak has qualifications which Thai people admire. He’s a bold speaker and takes the stance of a maverick. He has a loud, belligerent voice and people are afraid to debate with him. But the lower classes – the vendors in the marketplace - like his style.

The younger generation doesn’t remember the 6 October event. They didn’t see the images of violence and barbarism, the executions of students and others. The history textbooks in the schools do not record the story for students to see and read about. Children are not taught the history of Thai democracy. The younger generation doesn’t know how Samak Soontornwej was implicated in those events. Thus, the election of Samak is an election in a democracy with no history.

Police Lieutenant Col. Taksin Shinawatr sees that having beaten the coup group and having won the election, if the PPP takes the government it will be challenged by the PAD. Hence, he now requires someone who is fierce and who cannot be intimidated by anyone, someone who is deaf to protests, whether they are inside or outside the country. To conclude, such a person must dare to do what others would not dare. This is the kind of person who can lead the PPP to their ultimate goal.

The choice of Samak Soontorwej for Prime Minister was no accident or for lack of alternatives, but because of the history of 6 Oct.1976 in which former October student leaders in the old TRT party such as Dr. Surapong Seubwongli MD and Promintr Lertsuriyadech MD were witnesses and assurers of quality that Samak was the best choice. Samak himself didn’t make any bones about it, admitting proudly that he is a ‘nominee,’ a puppet for Taksin Shinawatr. And so what?

This election is different from the Bangkok Metropolitan gubernatorial election in which Samak was the winner because this time, the people – especially those in the Northeast and North – chose Samak because they wanted Taksin back. When they look at Samak, they see Taksin.

What happened with the people who voted for PPP? Do these people believe that all politicians are crooks and no one is clean? So they are not interested in the corruption of Taksin and his government? Such people don’t care about the history of democracy or that Samak had a role in the massacres of 6 Oct.1976, because they get 30 baht medical care program for all their ills; they get a village fund; they get the various populist projects without asking where the money comes from.

The success of the PPP is the failure of the Sept.19 coup by General Sonti Boonyaratkalin, the coup group, and of General Suriyudt Chulanont and the ‘old ginger’ government. They failed to educate, inform and enlighten the people, especially those who admire the old TRT party. They did not show the people how Taksin and his cronies have damaged the country. So the coup year has been a loss, a waste of time, exhausting. Why did they even have a coup?

I don’t agree with coups, whether by soldiers or bureaucrats. But a coup which is unable to take Thai society out of the grasp of the whirlpool of power plays for personal advantage and for the gain of the cronies is a coup which should truly be condemned.

How can we explain the lack of interest among the people of the North and Northeast in the tremendous corruption of the Taksin government? They made off with 100,000 million baht (according to the committee investigating the corruption of the Taksin regime). Are they pretending to be stupid? Or do they innocently believe that it is a ‘political game’ which is all just a play for power anyway?

If we explain in terms of values, ethics and morals, what can we say?

‘Corruption’ is a word which describes the swindling behavior of politicians, government officials and the private sector. Seeing corruption as wrong and as evil, we regard it as a value of capitalists, of the middle class – not a value of the lower classes, the poor, or the grass roots, i.e. the country people. Because corruption concerns the use of power, and when one is powerless, one cannot be corrupt. Hence, the poor, the grass roots, are politically powerless (except when they vote). Plus, being far from the centers of power makes the dangers and evils more difficult for them to see. The danger of the big picture of unseen corruption, the loss to the country, is hard for them to see.

In an agricultural society, a rural society with people living together in villages, their world view of politics is simply relations among people at the village level, in small local communities. The villagers depend on one another and on the leader of their community, and they depend on influential rural people when necessary. The wider world, for example, the national level, is far from them, too difficult for them to imagine. Their local solidarity is stronger than reason or logic. If a child, father, or friend is accused of falling short, the first reaction will be to step in and protect that relation. The other details of the matter come up only later.

The value of ‘loyalty to the group’ is still stronger and deeper among rural people, with deep roots, more profoundly a part of their values, morals and ethics, than their sense of right and wrong (including their commitment to Buddhist teaching.) Buying their vote was easy, entirely at the discretion of the village leader.

When the ‘Village Funds’ arrived, gratis, along with the “30 Baht Medical Program; the holiday for farmers’ debt repayments to banks, the group consensus was won over absolutely. Taksin and his TRT party became angels, the beloved bosses. Right or wrong was not the question; such questions do not rule the lives of ordinary people.

The taste for the theoretical doesn’t make the upper and middle classes extraordinary or brilliant, somehow far above the poor. The wealthier classes do not always care for what is right or wrong over their group loyalties. But members of these classes tend to be more individualist (more selfish). They want to protect their position and status, unlike the lower classes who don’t worry about such things. The middle and upper classes are more careful because they must assess the impact which will follow if anything ‘unpleasant’ were to happen.

To conclude, the problem of corruption is a middle-class problem, a capitalist class problem, of people who believe in hard work and honesty. It’s not a problem of the poor, of the grass roots, or the lower classes. If that is the case, why do some poor people, the lower classes, the grass roots, of the South, Central Plain and North of Thailand not follow the PPP?

If some of the Northeastern (Isarn) and Northern people choose the capitalist system of Taksin’s and the PPP’s patronage, which arrives in the form of populism, why didn’t people in other regions take it up? (Would someone please explain this to me?)

The results of the 23rd December election give still more food for thought. People in yellow garb went to vote and chose the PPP. What does that reflect about the thought processes of many of these voters?

We mustn’t forget that one reason for the 19 Sept. coup was liberties of speech taken in regard to the ‘higher ups’. Although former Prime Minister Taksin was not taken to court, what did the yellow shirted people who respect the throne think of the coup group’s charges? How do they see the relations between Taksin and the throne? Or do they not see any connection?

Is it possible that they can honor the institution and accept Taksin’s system at the same time? Or do they regard the patronage system as compartmentalized -- the old feudal patronage system with deep roots in the history of this country, and the new capitalist patronage system. The old feudal patronage system with its ancient roots in Thai history came hand in hand with the building of the country; the new capitalist system acts like an ATM machine, handing out free money. The old system was never like that – consuming in all sorts of ways and taking all.

In short, the real content of this election is that Taksin wants to return to cover his interests, his tens of thousands of millions, while the poor, the grass roots, chose Samak in order to keep the populist system.

Everyone is looking out for himself without political principals. No one is interested in the sustainable development of the nation, in solving economic problems, in the environment, in abuses of human rights, in the problems in the South. In the end, no one is interested in how this wretched country will end up.

People seem to operate on the dictum that it’s not my country; loot and sack it as you please.

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