May 10, 2014


Political turmoil continues in Thailand. There is a lot of media interest in the fate of ousted prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the future of the Shinawatra dynasty (her brother Thaksin – who was ousted in 2006 – is now living in exile in the Middle East).

But I think this obsession with personalities is missing the larger context. Banning the Shinawatra dynasty from being prime minister will not solve Thailand’s problems. Thailand is in a democratic transition – and history shows us that democratic transitions tend to be messy.  Many Thais have yet to learn the game of politics.

The country’s system of absolute monarchy ended in 1932 and then there were decades of military rule. The monarch remains a revered figure in Thai society but he is more a figurehead than a chief executive officer. There have been 18 military coups since 1932 and so the king is a symbol of stability and continuity in a period of great unrest. The current king has ruled since 1946 and he is getting frail.

The Move to a Democracy

Thailand’s route to democracy has continued via its 1997 constitution which has provided a greater opportunity for poor people to have a say in running the country. That is the purpose, after all, of having a democracy.
Billionaire politician Thaksin Shinawaatra realized that this represented a new era and so he created policies to appeal to the rural masses and not just the urban Bangkok elite.

He – and then later his sister – have done very well at winning elections. Government expenditure on the rural sector has moved from about 10 per cent of the total expenditure to 25 per cent. Their supporters wear the Red Shirts.
The peasants have caught on that this idea of democracy has a lot going for it. That is why the brother and sister have done so well at elections. They are creating policies that appeal to the masses.

Yellow Shirts

Many of the urban elite have been appalled at the way in which the rural peasants now have a say in running the country.

The Yellow Shirt protesters want to scrap the current democracy. Their protests are not a re-run of protests in other countries where the elections have been rigged. The Yellow Shirts are not so much contesting the results (which always favour the Shinawatra dynasty) as wanting to scrap the entire process. They want a return to the old order of a small elite running the country, who would then focus on the priorities of the urban population.

The Yellow Shirts have also complained that the Shinawatra dynasty are corrupt. Corruption is alas widespread throughout the country and I have no way of assessing that particular complaint.

But, again, it is worth remembering the lessons of democracy – people often go into politics to make money for themselves. We have enough evidence of that in Australia, without having to go to Thailand. That, too, is part of the game of politics.

Will the Military Intervene?

One way of resolving the current deadlock could be for the military – again – to intervene.

But, here again, there is another lesson from the history of democracy.

A military can run a poor peasant society. The primary tasks are to maintain order and try to ensure that there is enough food in circulation to avoid starvation (some military in other countries have not been able to even achieve that).

But Thailand is now a modern developed society. It is a nation of 70 million people which attracts about 22 million tourists each year. This is a sophisticated service economy. The military cannot run hotels and travel agencies.

Thailand is also a major car manufacturer, especially for Japanese car producers. The motor car sector represents about 10 per cent of Thailand’s economy. Again, the military cannot be relied upon to ensure car production.

The bottom line, then, is that the military can provide immediate stability but it cannot guarantee the freedom necessary for a modern economy to flourish. That is why so many fascist dictatorships (such as in Taiwan, South Korea and Indonesia) have made way for democracies.

My Advice to the Yellow Shirts: Learn from Bismarck

First, the Yellow Shirts should acknowledge that the tide of history is flowing towards democracy. As a society develops, modernizes and becomes wealthier, so people want a say in how the country is governed.

Second, therefore the Yellow Shirts should get involved in the game of politics – rather than boycott it. They cannot put the clock back to small elite running the country. Times have changed.

Third, the Yellow Shirts should learn from some of the figures of history who were also caught up (perhaps against their will and personal preference) in the flowing tide of history.

For instance, German conservative chancellor (prime minister) Otto von Bismarck invented the idea of a government-financed welfare state in the 1880s. In 1889, for example, he created the first old age pension for people aged 70 and over. Bismarck stole the ideas of left-wing thinkers to remain in power by creating policies to appeal to the voters.

The Yellow Shirts should learn from Bismarck: get involved in the game of politics and learn how to win it.

Written By: Keith Suter, Managing Director