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.