Thainess, the economy & the 2011 Thailand general election

Former Thailand prime minister Samak Sundaravej with former US president George W. Bush.
Former Thailand prime minister Samak Sundaravej with former US president George W. Bush. White House photo by Chris Greenberg
Former Thailand prime minister Somchai Wongsawat, victim of changes to the Thailand Constitution following the 2006 coup d'état - Thailand's 18th military putsch since 1932.
Former Thailand prime minister Somchai Wongsawat, victim of changes to the Thailand Constitution following the 2006 coup d’√©tat – Thailand’s 18th military putsch since 1932. Photo: Courtesy Xiengyod

The culmination of more than three years of political unrest which have cost at least 150 lives are due to come to a head next Sunday (July 3) in Thailand when the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva will seek its first mandate from the electorate to rule the Southeast Asa kingdom of some 66 million people with the 2011 Thailand general election.

Abhisit landed the top job after lengthy protests by the royalist, right-wing People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), aka the yellow-shirts, against the trouble-plagued government of Samak Sundaravej and care-taker prime minister Somchai Wongsawat, seizing Government House and closing five Thailand airports, including both Bangkok airports, stranding hundreds of thousands of international tourists attempting to return home in December 2008.

The final blow for Somchai came when a 2008 Constitutional Court ruling ‚Äì based on a Constitution introduced by the military government which ousted fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a 2006 putsch ‚Äì saw the government’s political party, the People’s Power Party (PPP), dissolved and its executives, including Somchai, banned from politics for five years for vote-buying committed by one member of the party, Yongyuth Tiyapairat.

A flurry of political wheeling and dealing, rumoured back-room meetings, interference by Thailand’s mysterious “third-hand”, and accusations of “encouragement” on who to support by senior Royal Thai Army (RTA) officers to smaller political parties saw Abhisit’s Democrat Party eventually gather enough votes to form a coalition government based on a vote of the parliament and he was officially sworn in on December 17, 2008.

From almost the day he took office Abhisit has faced what has been presented as a grass-roots “peasant versus elite” uprising by the United Front for Democracy (UDD), aka the red-shirts, itself a compilation of a variety of single and shared-interest groups across the country with grievances of inequality between rural and city dwellers, an allegiance to fugitive former prime minister Thaksin, and an objection to the way the Abhisit government was formed.

Land of Smiles – Land of Inequality

While the “peasant versus elite” mantle might be somewhat romanticising the situation, the Land of Smiles often promoted by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has become more the Land of Inequality, with the gap between rich and poor claiming to have increased dramatically since the 2006 military putsch which ousted Thaksin, leading to a commonality of support among the red-shirt movement for his return.

What makes this election different to the previous 25 Thailand general elections since 1933 is that an unforeseen consequence of the 2006 coup d’√©tat has been a wide-spread political awakening across the country, with rural residents in particular now infinitely more aware of their rights to challenge Government, to speak-out, to demand their elected representatives listen and act on their demands, and for legislation that is more equally based.

Though the political awakening following the Thai Army’s 2006 coup d’√©tat, the 17th military putsch since the country rid itself of an absolute monarchy in 1932, preceded similar movements overseas which of late has seen several governments toppled and ongoing conflict in others is virtually unprecedented in Southeast Asia and ensures that Thailand politics will never be the same again, it is also having difficulties in resolving itself with the nation’s notions of “Thainess”.

As with any election, promises, in this the first opportunity for Thais to elect their own government since 2007, are thicker than tall tales at a fisherman’s barbecue, with both sides offering virtually identical policies in the 2011 Thailand general election.

Thailand Democrat Party (government) 2011 general election promises

Thailand Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva seeking his first mandate from the people in the 2011 Thailand general election.
Thailand Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva seeking his first mandate from the people in the 2011 Thailand general election. Photo: Courtesy Thailand Government

On the government side heading into the 2011 Thailand general election are juicy promises such as:

Raise minimum daily wages by 25 percent from Bt159 – Bt221 (about $5 – $7) in two years and increase labor skills
Free universal quality medical treatment
High-speed rail links to north, south and eastern seaboard
Extend subsidies on cooking gas and diesel and prices, and some free electricity for low-income/ low usage households
Increase farmer’s incomes by 25 percent with subsidies for fertilizer, and guaranteed prices for farm production
Two-years interest-free mortgages for first-home buyers
Free education up to 18 years, soft education loans for 250,000 university students with $12 billion slotted for education reforms
State refinancing of personal debts owed to black-market money lenders.
A doubling in the production of alternative energy, primarily solar, turbine and bio-gas
Expanding the fledgling 3G broadband network to link all districts in Thailand
A war on drugs campaign

Pheu Thai Party promises in the 2011 Thailand general election

Yingluck Shinawatra, youngest sister of fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra campaigning in Ubon Ratchathani. photo:
Yingluck Shinawatra, youngest sister of fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra campaigning in Ubon Ratchathani. photo: Courtesy Pheu Thai Party

In comparison, the opposition Pheu Thai Party (PPP), who is fielding Yingluck Shinawatra, the youngest sister of deposed prime minister Thaksin, have opened their gift bag for the 2011 Thailand general election with offering such as:

A national minimum daily wage of Bt300 ($10) nationally
Universal medical care with patients making a co-payment of Bt30 ($1) per consultation
Credit cards for farmers and a guaranteed price of Bt15,000 – Bt20,000 ($488 – $651) per ton for unmilled rice
A moratorium for household debt up to Bt500,000 ($16,285) per household, with emphasis on debt reduction for teachers, farmers and civil servants
A minimum monthly salary of Bt15,000 ($500) for university graduates and a “One Tablet-PC per Child” project for school children
A 23.3 per cent reduction in corporate tax rates in the first year (from 30 to 20 percent) with a further 13 percent reduction in its second year to a flat 20 percent.
Reduced taxes for first home and first car buyers
A standard Bt20 (65 cent) fare for all Bangkok’s mass transit rail lines (MRT)
High-speed rail lines linking major provincial cities in the north, northeast, east and upper south regions
Rural village development funds of between Bt300,000 and Bt1 million ($9,770 – $32,573) per year
A welfare allowance of Bt600 ($19.55) per month for citizens over 60, increasing by Bt100 ($3.20) at 70, and 80, and rising by a further Bt200 ($6.40) at 90.
Free Wi-Fi and Internet access in public places
30km (18.8 mile) of levees to protect Bangkok and satellite towns from Gulf of Thailand tidal surges.
Special administrative status for Muslim provinces in the violence-plagued southern provinces
A war on drugs
Amnesty for political offensives committed since 2006

Though PTP seem to have the more comprehensive basket of policies ‚Äì targeting civil servants, the poor and internet-savvy Bangkok wage and salary earners, it’s hardly surprising. De facto party-head Thaksin has had ample time since his ouster to assess segments of the population that would be receptive to specific policies and has come up with a range for the 2011 Thailand general election that are sure to have the widest appeal amongst city and rural dwellers.

Thailand 2011 general election as exciting as watching paint dry

Thailand's royalist, right-wing "yellow-shirts" are calling for people not to vote in the Thailand 2011 general election with campaign signs such as this.
Thailand’s royalist, right-wing “yellow-shirts” are calling for people not to vote in the Thailand 2011 general election with campaign signs such as this. Photo: Tracy Vanity

Unlike elections in western democracies where politicians and candidates are expected to provide details of how their policies will be funded, there is no such expectation in Thailand for the 2011 Thailand general election and the Thai media is living up to its reputation and traditions of merely publishing what they are handed.

Neither is there the usual challenges, accusations, counter accusations and denials found in western politics, with neither side addressing the country’s most dangerous weapon issue, Article 112 of the 2007 Constitution of Thailand – the so-called “l√®se-majest√© laws”.

Despite being a law that the King of Thailand has said he doesn’t need and which he said brings embarrassment on the monarchy, neither of the two political parties will state a commitment to reviewing or amending the often used (misused) legislation, perhaps conscious of how useful it might be in future years to control public discussion when the king eventually dies.

Likewise, afraid of causing division or alienating voters who have been fed a constant stream of propaganda relating to the deaths of protesters on both sides of the red/ yellow spectrum, there has been very little reference to those killed in 2008, 2009, or 2010 on the streets of Bangkok during the 2011 Thailand general election campaign.

There has also been barely a mention of the country’s current economic climate by either of the two main political parties in the lead up to the 2011 Thailand general election, despite a nation’s economic figures being a ready method of highlighting successful or failed policies of the past.

Thailand GDP and Inflation rates 200 - 2009. Irrelevant factors in the the 2011 Thailand general election
Thailand economy: Thailand GDP and Inflation rates 200 – 2009. Irrelevant factors in the the 2011 Thailand general election
Thailand's Inflation rate for the first half of 2011 is running almost a full percentage point more than for the same period in 2010.
Thailand economy: Thailand’s Inflation rate for the first half of 2011 is running almost a full percentage point more than for the same period in 2010.
From an account surplus in 2006, Thailand's Current Account Balance is now higher than in 2004 - not an issue in the 2011 Thailand general election
Thailand economy: From an account deficit in 2006, Thailand’s Current Account Balance is now higher than in 2004 – not an issue in the 2011 Thailand general election

Of particular irritation to red-shirt supporters are the events of April and May 2010 when 92 people ‚Äì rural farmers, Bangkokians, police and RTA ‚Äì were shot dead on the streets of Bangkok remains unaddressed more than a year after the event (See: Red-shirts return to Ratchaprasong for anniversary of deadly 2010 crackdown, while the truth as to who was really responsible for the burning of part of the world’s third largest shopping complex, Bangkok CentralWorld, is something most Bangkokians, if not Thais generally, want answered and supported by unequivocal proof.

For many the fact that those responsible for closing the sixth busiest airport in Asia in 2008, Bangkok Suvarnabhumi International Airport, mostly remain free, while red-shirt leaders were sent straight to prison is a significant issue, while others are still asking how it is that the world’s largest exporter of palm oil and fourth largest exporter of sugar globally has seen shortages of both commodities in the domestic market this year for one and for the last two years for the other.

While in western democracies rival candidates would be having a field day with accusations and counter accusations, highlighting inabilities in the budget to cope with the opposing camp’s election promises, the 2011 Thailand general election has seen none of this and apart from the occasional canvasser, candidate or supporter being shot, it’s remarkably calm and polite, at least on a national level, to the point of being about as exciting as watching paint dry.

Though red-shirt protesters in the north and northeast of the country heckle Abhisit and dog his and other Democrat Party candidate rallies their presence to date has been limited to reasonably polite protests aimed at capturing the vote of those undecided and lacking in any aggression. That the PTP campaign is being very carefully orchestrated, scripted and managed by a professional international image management team is beyond dispute.

The one fly in the ointment being its policy of amnesty for those who have committed or been convicted of political offences since 2006.

Widely seen as a platform aimed at paving the way for the return of former prime minister Thaksin, such a policy would also see the end to any investigations into those responsible for the killing of red- and yellow-shirt protesters in the intervening years provoking the ire of the friends and relatives of those killed, as well as human rights organisations.

For its part the pro-royalist, right-wing yellow-shirt movement that just a few years ago was able to summons hundreds of thousands of protesters onto the streets, seize government buildings and close airports is limiting its efforts to a “don’t vote” campaign, having long ago pulled its support from the Government for not being as right-wing as it wanted.

Rumours in Thailand politics are about as numerous as ladyboy (katoey) prostitutes along Pattaya Beach road, and about as changeable as the weather in Melbourne, Australia.

One though doesn’t need to be particularly astute to see that the yellow-shirt movement appears to have lost its prime financier, its last rallying-call attracting an embarrassingly small number of people compared to those in 2008, and has outlived its usefulness to those who patronised it so strongly in the past.

At the same time a parallel rumour, that the opposition red-shirt movement is being funded to keep a lid on protests in the lead-up to polling day, especially its more radical elements, would seem to have some merit.

Thainess

Thailand's main trading partners are the European Union, United States, Japan and China with exports accounting for more than two thirds of GDP.
Thailand economy:Thailand’s main trading partners are the European Union, United States, Japan and China with exports accounting for more than two thirds of GDP.
Thailand government military expenditure reached a record high of $5.70 billion in 2009 under Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. A matter not raised during the 2011 Thailand general election campaigning
Thailand economy: Thailand government military expenditure reached a record high of $5.70 billion in 2009 under Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. A matter not raised during the 2011 Thailand general election campaigning

Whether or not either is the case will never be proved, likewise rumours that a deal was done between the government and the UDD earlier this year that saw its leaders released from jail on bail, provided protests in the lead-up to the elections were controlled and short.

Hierarchy, indirectness, and non-confrontation are three of the ingrained pillars of traditional Thai society and form part of what is known locally as Thainess, other elements of which include the Thai language, Buddhism, the monarchy, social harmony, a patriarchal society based on social hierarchy and social reputation, or more accurately, its loss.

While these are the qualities that Thais like to state when describing the national psyche, foreigners who live or do business in the kingdom would add other characteristics that are perhaps not so flattering.

Coupled with a local media that doesn’t want to upset anyone lest they pick the wrong side or person and find themselves having to deal with a minister with a long memory at some time in the future, the factors westerners are used to seeing in an election campaign are all but absent in the run-up to the 2011 Thailand general election.

The same unwillingness to confront, in addition to an incompetent police force (See: Leaked cable shows USA influencing Thai law & justice system for 60 years) neither motivated or trained in crowd dispersal work and comprising members largely sympathetic to the red-shirt movement are what saw the red-shirt 2010 Bangkok protest in the heart of the business district run for 45 days, with confrontation when it did occur leading to deaths on both sides.

Thailand economy ignored in the 2011 Thailand general election

From a peak in 2004, Thailand's manufacturing sector is approaching record lows with a sharp downturn following the 2006 military coup.
Thailand economy: From a peak in 2004, Thailand’s manufacturing sector is approaching record lows with a sharp downturn following the 2006 military coup.
From a low in 2005, Thailand's external debt has been climbing since
Thailand economy: From a low in 2005, Thailand’s external debt has been climbing since
Thailand economy: Imports keeping track with exports
Thailand economy: Imports keeping track with exports

That the economy of a country that was once regarded as an “Asian tiger”, along with the incidents of the past three years should be so largely ignored during the 2011 Thailand general election is something many western observers have difficulty comprehending, with the explanation offered by Thais eventually falling back to the term “Thainess” – something that only a Thai can understand and accept.

When Prime Minister Abhisit took to a stage at Ratchaprasong last week promising to reveal the truth of what happened on the streets of Bangkok last year some people were expecting he might be going to unveil some of the secret photos and videos taken by Thailand RTA Special Forces who masqueraded as food vendors and journalists during the red-shirt protest last year (See: Who killed Seh Daeng (ใครฆ่า เสธ.แดง)?).

In a true demonstration of Thainess the “truth” eventuated to nothing more than a claim that he cried the night RTA troops shot unarmed protesters on the streets of Bangkok at the Si Yak Kok Woe intersection on April 10 last year when 25 people, including five soldiers and 20 civilians died.

That caretaker deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban continues to blame the deaths of protesters and military on a group of “men in black” – essentially claiming a group of heavily armed terrorists/ freedom fighters roam the streets of the capital and which the Government has been unable to locate might seem odd to westerners, but Thainess dictates there is nothing odd to the claim at all.

While there has never been any doubts that the a result favourable to the PTP in the 2011 Thai general election will see the return of fugitive former prime minister Thaksin to the country, one could be excused for thinking that the government would attempt to stand on its economic achievements since taking office to rationally put its case for deserving an elected term in office.

However, this was not the case when Abhisit took to the stage in Bangkok and in true Thainess all but ignored the last two-and-a-half years, instead focusing on the Democrat Party campaign promises before resorting to a final warning that a vote for the PTP was a vote for terrorists, stating that the 2011 Thailand general election is “an opportunity to detoxify Thaksin Shinawatra poison from the nation”.

The fact that Thailand enjoyed levels of prosperity and growth under the disgraced former prime minister that his government, or the military appointed Council for National Security Declaration installed following the 2006 coup have been unable to match may be why in the final stages of the 2011 Thailand general election campaign the caretaker Prime Minister resorted to such a personal attack.

That Thainess prevents the PTP from standing up and making the very accusations its grass roots supporters want answers to is the very reason why the results of the 2011 Thailand general elections will bring with it no prospect of ongoing stability in a country that today, has well and truly lost its “Asian tiger” tag of the past, with the only certainty being that future will remain as uncertain, rumour filled and speculative as the past several years.

Ends:
© 2011, John Le Fevre

For an excellent guide to the 2011 Thailand general election see The Bangkok Post’s Video: The Thai election explained

Related: Red-shirts return to Ratchaprasong for anniversary of deadly 2010 crackdown

Related: Leaked cable shows USA influencing Thai law & justice system for 60 years

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Constitution of Thailand ‚Ä¢ 2011 Thailand general election ‚Ä¢ Samak Sundaravej ‚Ä¢ Somchai Wongsawat ‚Ä¢ People’s Power Party ‚Ä¢ Abhisit Vejjajiva ‚Ä¢ Thailand politics ‚Ä¢ Thailand economy ‚Ä¢ Yongyuth Tiyapairat ‚Ä¢ Thailand’s third-hand ‚Ä¢ Thai Army ‚Ä¢ Democrat Party ‚Ä¢ People’s Alliance for Democracy ‚Ä¢ PAD ‚Ä¢ yellow-shirts ‚Ä¢ United Front for Democracy ‚Ä¢ UDD ‚Ä¢ red-shirts ‚Ä¢ Land of Smiles ‚Ä¢ coup d’√©tat ‚Ä¢ Southeast Asia politics ‚Ä¢ Pheu Thai Party ‚Ä¢ PPP ‚Ä¢ Yingluck Shinawatra ‚Ä¢ Article 112 ‚Ä¢ l√®se-majest√© ‚Ä¢ King of Thailand ‚Ä¢ Thaksin Shinawatra ‚Ä¢ Thainess ‚Ä¢
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John Le Fevre

Deputy editor, Thailand & GMS editor at The Establishment Post

John Le Fevre is an Australian national with more than 35 years experience as a journalist, photographer, videographer and copy editor.

He is currently deputy editor and Thailand / GMS region editor for The Establishment Post

Opinions and views expressed on this site are those of the author’s only. Read more at About me

One Response to "Thainess, the economy & the 2011 Thailand general election"

  1. Tony K   June 29, 2011 at 4:35 pm

    John, you visited my linkedin profile recently. Please send me your email, thank you.

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