Since late 2006, a group of Thais has conducted protests against the current national government, calling for the Prime Minister resign and his government to be dissolved. Their protests have been assertive, and their confrontations with police become increasingly violent; hundreds have been injured and two protestors have died. The protest group, which calls itself the Peoples’ Alliance for Democracy (PAD), is understandably very unhappy with the current government, a successor to the widely despised regime of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin, who lives abroad and faces criminal charges in Thailand, and his party Thai Rak Thai (TRT) had won power in two successive elections, the second (in 2005) a landslide giving TRT a mandate to rule without coalition partners. He achieved this by deploying populist policies—subsidized health care, loan forgiveness and the like—that won him the support of the large majority of Thais that are rural and relatively poor. A third general election in April 2006 was declared invalid after many other parties refused to participate; shortly thereafter the military seized power in a coup and TRT was ordered to dissolve. Civilian government returned in December 2007 with a general election in which the People Power Party (PPP), the successor to TRT, once again won an outright majority. Frustrated by the electoral lock that that TRT/PPP has thus achieved, PAD now seeks to change the government by non-electoral means. Moreover, they seek also to change the constitution in a way that they hope will permanently break the electoral dominance of rural Thailand, arguing that rural Thais are not sufficiently well educated to be trusted with such power. They originally demanded a parliamentary system within Thailand’s constitutional monarchy in which 70% of parliamentary seats are filled by appointment from “the professional classes”, with the remaining 30% by popular vote. This demand has since undergone modifications in response to loud protests, but its elitist spirit persists in more recent proposals.
The PAD vision for Thai politics is strikingly reminiscent of ideas advanced two hundred years ago by the Swiss-French philosopher Benjamin Constant and labeled by him the ‘Liberty of the Moderns’. Constant’s concept of ‘liberalism’ was articulated in the interval between the bloody excesses of the French revolution (1789) and Napoleon’s self-coronation as Emperor of France (1804). (Interesting trivia: that period coincides with the reign in Thailand of the first monarch of the Chakri Dynasty, which was founded upon the overthrow of another Taksin, killed in 1782.) In his terrific new book After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire Since 1405 (Bloomsbury, 2008), the historian John Darwin states that Constant’s writings
“were a fierce rejection of revolutionary violence and Napoleonic tyranny. Constant argued that ordinary people were bound to resist interference in their private and social lives and that arbitrary acts by the state destroyed the mutual trust between individuals on which all social and commercial relations depended. … Modern societies, he suggested, were too complex to be ruled politically after the fashion of an ancient city state [the ‘Liberty of the Ancients’]… the legislators, to whom the executive should answer, should be drawn from those least likely to favour the extension of arbitrary power or to be seduced by a demagogue. Politics should be the preserve of the propertied classes, who would exert a wholesome (and educated) influence on the ‘labouring poor’. The propertied were the true guardians of the public interest. Thirdly, it was necessary for property rights and other civil freedoms to be protected by well-established rules — an ideal that implied the codification of the law and its machinery” (pp. 229-230).
Intriguingly, Constant admired the concept of the constitutional monarchy, in which the King retains extraordinary powers to make key appointments, call elections and dissolve governments, while responsibility for governance, policy and administration rests with the legislative branch. That notion, together with his idea that government should be by the ‘propertied classes’ on behalf of the entire polity, is a vision remarkably consonant with the views now espoused by the PAD. Thailand’s ‘propertied classes’, now encamped outside Government House and in a state of near-constant conflict with police and security forces, see themselves assuming power in a system in which their representatives, occupying reserved parliamentary seats, make wise policy decisions on behalf of what they see as uneducated and misguided poor (and rural) Thais, under the benevolent gaze of a monarch who (in Constant’s words) “reigns but does not rule”. It is, in other words, a concept of “liberalism” which, while strikingly modern in the late 18th century, is by today’s standards atavistic, patronizing, undemocratic, and fundamentally illiberal.
If the upper-class and middle-class, wealthy, educated, Bangkok-based members of the PAD really cared to make a long-run change to Thai politics, they might consider pushing instead for policies that address the large and widening gap in Thai incomes. From 1975 to the present, the share of income earned by the top 20% of the Thai population has risen (it is now about 55%), while that of every other quintile has declined. Poverty is almost overwhelmingly a rural phenomenon. These were the divisions exploited by Thaksin and TRT to such great effect in earlier elections; Thaksin threw a few crumbs to the rural poor, but even those crumbs were more (and perhaps more graciously given) than they’d ever before seen from Bangkok. His vote-winning gambits weren’t great as a development strategy, but they pointed very clearly to the policy direction in which any democratically elected Thai administration must henceforth move.
Addressing anti-rural bias need not be merely populist. Education policy would be a great place to start, as made clear in an analysis by Thai economist Sirilaksana Khoman.(1) All those uneducated rural Thais came through a public school system in which the lion’s share of fiscal resources, the best teachers, buildings and equipment were all devoted to the relatively small urban population. In Thailand, all public kindergarten schools are in urban areas, and enrollment in municipal schools in Bangkok is about equal to that for the entire rest of the country (the distribution of private schools is even more skewed toward urban areas). Fees for university education, as a percentage of costs, are much lower than for secondary and vocational schools– an imbalance that subsidizes education more for the urban middle class than for others. Overall education costs in Thailand, as a percentage of per capita income, are quite a bit higher than in comparable developing countries. Sure, rural Thailand’s lower school enrollment rates, higher and earlier drop-out rates, and lower overall attainment must in part reflect different labor demand conditions in the countryside, but it’s equally clear that the supply of rural educational opportunities is also much less adequate. Taking a leaf from Thaksin’s book, addressing access and equity issues in the Thai educational system would surely be a great way to win electoral popularity in the countryside– quite apart from its obvious impact on economic well-being — and would embody a true, and truly modern, liberalism.
As The Economist says of PAD (28 August 2008): “Some of its supporters are genuine liberals, angry at the Thaksin government’s abuses and at the signs that [current Prime Minister] Samak and his cabinet are turning out to be little better. But its leaders are deeply reactionary: the “new politics” they preach is in fact a return to old, pre-democracy politics with a mostly unelected parliament and powers for the army to intervene when it feels like it”. That unnatural alliance and its ideas are what makes up the Liberty of the Moderns, Thai-style. True liberals should shun it.
(1) “Education: The key to long-term recovery?” in P. Warr, ed: Thailand Beyond the Crisis (Routledge/ Curzon 2005).