Thaksin’s overthrow a loss for the poor and for democracy

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s overthrow last week by his army chief, while cautiously welcomed by many in the capital Bangkok, is a big loss for the rural poor and democracy in Thailand, and has exposed yet again the age-old problem of the voices of the poor being silenced by society’s elite.

Thaksin drew most of his political support from the rural areas in the north and north-east of Thailand, whose residents make up the majority of the country’s 65 million people. This was mainly due to his pro-poor policies which, going by figures from the World Bank, saw the number of Thais living in poverty almost halved from 13 million in 2000 before Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party took power, to 7.08 million in 2004. The agricultural incomes in the poorest sections of the country rose 40 per cent during that period.

According to Giles Ungpakorn, a political science lecturer at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University in an interview with Inter Press Service, there is “no comparison on pro-poor policies between the TRT and the parties in government before 2001”. Ungpakorn pointed out that the opposition Democrat Party had been in government many times before but “their policies lacked sympathy for the poor”.

Rather than outright vote-buying to win elections, as many of his opponents charged, Thaksin’s policies to help the poor were often in response to feedback from the ground. The TRT had sent consultants to the countryside to find out what the people needed and tailored their policies to deliver on the needs of the poor.

Among these pro-poor policies were a low-cost universal healthcare scheme which enabled poor Thais to receive treatment for any ailment by paying 30 baht (S$1.25) per hospital visit; a S$31,000 per village micro-loan fund; forgiveness of land debts for 3 years; and the “one-village-one product” (OTOP) programme, whereby the government helped cottage industries with research and development and marketing of products. More than just a monetary handout, OTOP has helped incomes to be spread to many people in the villages and “has given people producing handicrafts a feel they can be part of the global economy”, according to the chairman of Chiang Mai’s OTOP association.

In return, Thaksin was given overwhelming support from the rural poor during elections. During the 2005 polls, the TRT was re-elected with nearly 70 per cent of the votes, which translated into an absolute majority of 377 seats out of 500 — a first in Thai history. Thaksin also became the first Thai prime minister to complete a term in office without being toppled.

Sadly, this democratic mandate was not enough to satisfy the urban elites in Bangkok. Throughout 2006, tens of thousands of people in Bangkok rallied on the streets chanting, “Thaksin aok bai (Thaksin get out)”. This led to Thaksin calling snap elections in April 2006 to renew his mandate. The opposition parties, aware that they could not win without the rural vote, boycotted the polls, stripping the elections of their legitimacy. The TRT won again with 57 per cent of the vote, although the result was later nullified.

Although Thaksin did have his shortcomings, most notably his brash and arrogant “CEO-style leadership” and his poor handling of the insurgency in the southern Muslim-majority provinces, it is regrettable that his opponents used undemocratic means like street protests and finally a military coup to unseat him.

With the country now under martial law, the rural poor have even fewer outlets to voice their disappointment that their “champion” has been felled. In order to consolidate its grip on the country, the military has shut down over 300 community radio stations in 17 northern provinces and 50 stations in the north-eastern province of Roi Et, the poorest region in Thailand. Radio call-in talkshows have also been banned nationwide.

Thaksin is possibly gone for good this time. The poor will have to wait and see whether the military junta and future governments will be on their side the same way Thaksin was. Judging from recent history, this outcome is unlikely. Once again, the poor have had the short straw drawn for them.

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

9 thoughts on “Thaksin’s overthrow a loss for the poor and for democracy”

  1. Hi Gerald,
    ( I have pasted my response to a comment on my blog here as it is equally relevant)
    “Hi Casper and Gerald(SgPatriot),
    Yes the poor are the apparent losers.
    Today’s (26.9.06)news is esply disturbing as it seems that the junta is here to stay ( albeit in the background).
    I don’t think Thailand can be considered to be democratic even with interim PM as he will definitely be perceived as a Puppet.
    The quicker this 12 month passes and a new PM with people’s mandate get elected and put in place the better. But the future will be fraught with coups and counter-coups as the precedence has been set. When will be ever end? “

    The arguments as to merits of any extra-parliamentary movements ( such as coups) can never be resolved.
    Would the world have been a better place, if the coup against Hitler succeeded? Hitler was elected through the ballot box. So purists will be embarrassed to come to his defence.
    Perhaps, I will desist from being dogmatic and say that so long as most Thais ( including rural poor) come out of this on the plus side of the equation, I will be happy for them. What say you? ( It seems that one gets more pragmatic as one grows older)

  2. Hi Doc,

    Contrary to how I may have come across in my article, I am not a die-hard liberal democrat. I believe democracy is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

    If the poor (or for that matter, the whole of Thailand) is going to be better off as a result of this coup, then good for them. But the ends do not justify the means. Who can conclusively say that they would not have achieved the same result if they had taken the democratic path?

    I think in 99% of the cases, there is no justification for a military coup. I would say the only time a coup would be acceptable is if the govt is committing massive human rights abuses (as in the case of Rwanda).

    Having said all that, I know there’s no scientific formula to determine if govt = bad then coup = ok. My main point in my article was Thailand’s coup was wrong because it was against a PM with a strong electoral mandate AND he wasn’t THAT bad.

  3. Hi Patriot,

    If the similar coup happened in Singapore against LKY and PAP (also have a strong electoral mandate), is this bad or is this ok?

    If it is bad, what other option do the singaporean have? Through election? I think it is more likely the sun will rise from the west than this happening in Singapore for the next 30 years.

  4. That sounds like a loaded question but I’ll answer it on the assumption that it isn’t one.

    A “strong electoral mandate” means that a clear majority of people have voted for a candidate or his party in free and fair elections. Although due to our lack of press freedom and the absence of an independent electoral commission, one can argue that it isn’t entirely free and fair here, from a voter’s standpoint (and I voted in the last election), I was never under any pressure or compulsion to vote for any one party. I don’t believe it was any different for any other voters in Singapore.

    With that in mind, I would consider it to be very wrong for the military (or anyone else for that matter) to overthrow the PAP government (in the shape and form that it is in now) by force.

    What other options do we have to unseat the PAP? In my opinion, we haven’t even started exhausting the current option, which is through the polls. Look at the state of the Opposition parties. Our strongest opposition party has less than 100 active members. If no S’poreans are willing to join opposition parties, how can we expect these 100 volunteers to take on the PAP machinery with the Civil Service, the grassroots and their excellent track record to back them up. The fact that the Opposition managed to capture 35% or so of the votes speaks volumes for what a larger, more coordinated opposition movement can do.

  5. Hi Gerald,

    I agree that there is much more that can be done even within the current political framework.

    I know this is contentious but I feel that we must get more people to openly identify with these alternative views.

    Anonymous views ( evenly ifbeautifully stated) counts for little.

    The authorities will not be swayed by these anonymous views as they know that if these people dare not put their life and reputation for a cause ( eg afraid of losing job/promotion etc), then these same people will unlikely be the ones to lead the charge for real change.

    What do you think?


  6. Hi Doc,

    I’m in full agreement that serious commentators should openly identify themselves, just like reporters’ names are always tagged to the articles that they write. However I don’t think that every single person who wants to comment on politics or public policy must, in the words of MICA’s spokesperson, get out from behind their pseudonym. If they feel more comfortable behind their pseudonym, that should be their choice, but they have to accept the fact that their views won’t be taken as seriously by their readers. (Everything else being equal, of course.)

    However, they should have no illusions that their pseudonym offers any protection for them if Big Brother really wants to nail them. It’s really easy for the authorities to trace you by your IP address. (Unless we have bumbling CID officers like the one in the NEA officer case!) I’m sure the 3 racist bloggers (plus 1 more not charged) did not use their real names on their posts.

    As for the authorities not being swayed by anonymous views, I think if someone like Mr Wang is able to rally large segments of the population to see his point of view, it is bound to have an effect on the government. Ultimately, any government, democratic or otherwise, cannot afford to totally ignore popular sentiment. The Graduate Mother policy and now primary school streaming are prime examples in Singapore.

  7. In the game of politics, the poor Thai farmers are but Thaksin’s pawns. For everything he had done in their favour (village devpt fund, cheap healthcare etc), there are just as many complaints from the poor (rising costs, corrupt civil servants etc). I think Thaksin knew that his PM position would be seen by the educated middle-class as letting the bear into the honey-farm, and that was why Thaksin courted the poors’ votes. I think the corruption-committee will find him guilty of something and bar him from the next election. The rich, and the poor, in Thailand will have to wait for the next hand to be dealt.

  8. I don’t think the corruption problem in Thailand was any less severe before Thaksin. Yes, the poor were possibly Thaksin’s pawns, but they largely benefited from his chess game. Let’s hope the next hand Thailand gets (whether for rich or poor) is better than what they’ve had for the past few decades.

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