Thailand: Half-measures won’t work; get rid of monarchy
by Ramtanu Maitra on 29 May 2010 7 Comments

After months of expected violence, the confrontation between supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted by a ‘coup” in 2006 organised by those who belong to what is known as the Privy Council, and the backers of the King’s keepers, erupted into a major conflict on May 19. Hundreds of Thai Army troops moved in to disperse the protestors from an almost 3 square kilometer area in a busy business area of Bangkok.


The protestors were occupying areas of downtown Bangkok since April 3 and demanding removal of Oxford-educated Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, handpicked earlier by the King’s keepers. It is a bygone conclusion that while this is not the first such violent ending to public protests in Thailand, it will not be the last. As long as the people of Thailand allow continuation of a decrepit monarchy, run by a coterie of King’s keepers who keep political and military power in their hands with help from abroad, more blood will be shed in the coming months and years.


At the same time, it was never explicitly clear what exactly the negotiating points of the pro-Thaksin backers were; what was clear was that they wanted the duly-elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra reinstated. Majority of those demanding reinstatement of Thaksin were from northeast Thailand, of Laotian-Khmer origin. However, many Bangkok urbanites joined the pro-Thaksin demonstrators. There was a clear attempt in the Thai media and among foreign media persons who  sought “decisive” evidence why the poor and less-privileged staked their lives  for a seemingly  “unimportant issue” as getting a deposed prime minister back, to paint the protestors as virtual outsiders and of different stock altogether. The pro-King’s keepers were portrayed as Bangkok urbanites, prosperous, educated and rational.


However, the present political turmoil in Thailand is rooted in resentment over economic disparity that culminated in a power play and power struggle between the rural northeasterners and the well-to-do city-dwellers, whose commitment to maintain their own well-being, however tenuous that could be, overshadows everything else. It started when the wealthy city-dwellers, committed to a feudal agricultural society, felt weakened and threatened when rural poor aspirants of better lives voted to put Thaksin Shinawatra in power from 2001-2006.


Phony democracy


That the present conflict is between rural Thais of different stock and prosperous and urbane Thais is a deliberate distortion by the media, partly because of ignorance and partly due to obstinate denial of truth. The fact remains that such protests and bloody endings on the streets of Bangkok will continue to occur because the Thai people have been led to believe that Thailand is democratic and adoption of democratic means by the mass could lead to resolution of public grievances. It was never the case in Thailand as it was also not the case in Britain, where the Thai monarchy is linked.


In Britain, most, if not all, politicians the media write about are performing puppets. The real strength in Britain lies with the City of London – a somewhat mutated, but nonetheless as venal form of the British East India Company of colonial days, and Buckingham Palace. It really does not matter who the individuals are that inherit these two power blocks over the years, power remains in their hands while the British people go around telling  their former colonies how democratic Britain is.


Thailand is not much different from Britain in the sense that it still harbours a monarch who has strong linkages with the British monarchy; and because of the way the country’s power brokers operate. Behind the curtain, King’s keepers, known as members of the King’s handpicked Privy Council, keep on tugging at the string by one hand to make the puppets look real, while keeping the other hand free for an occasional use of the dagger. The Thai military is an institution itself, but it has no real option but to belong to the King’s keepers. 


This non-democratic set up, which does not allow any conflict to get resolved the way Thai people want, is the core of this conflict, and all previous conflicts. The non-democratic set up itself sometimes, but not always, creates conflicts, but it always aggravates them. To find the cause of these conflicts, one has to look at the monarchy, what the Thai people have sacrificed unwittingly, and why Thaksin became a target of the King’s keepers.


At the center of this phony democracy is Thailand’s Privy Council, a 19-member group handpicked by Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej as advisors. As one academic pointed out, while this group of “advisors” are generally thought of as advisory boards for monarchs, the Thai Privy Council in the reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej is more of a “Royal Interests Section” which not only collects information to provide to the king but also works actively to defend the monarchy’s position and discreetly propagate its message.


Privy Councillors can, under royal command, represent the King at official functions. Other important functions include drafting amendments to the Palace Law regarding royal succession. The President of the Privy Council acts as regent pro tempore in the King's absence. The expansion from a handful of councillors to the current maximum of 19, and the types of people chosen to serve on it, reflect the evolution of the council’s role and the needs and interests of the king at various times.


It is generally agreed upon in Thailand that these privy councillors serve equally their own interest, which is intertwined with the existence of the monarchy itself, as that of the King. The common refrain of those who are virulently anti-Thaksin Shinawatra is that the deposed premier was getting politically too powerful and was beginning to undermine the King’s authority. What was really at stake for these hangers-on is that Thaksin had unleashed a process which would make them irrelevant, as well the monarchy.


Actually, many of the Red Shirt-wearing supporters of Thaksin were not anti-monarchy per se, but were against the Privy Council and its long arm reaching every aspect of Thailand’s social and political process. One of the most-used weapons of these councillors, who act under the shadow and protection of a decrepit monarchy, is that of “lesse-majesty.” Any criticism of the monarch’s act, which is often subsumed under actions carried out by the King’s councillors, is dubbed an “insult to the King,” and therefore, the critic should be subjected to punishment. This is a potent weapon used again and again to silence even the most constructive critics.


On the other hand, many opponents who demonstrated and would continue to demonstrate against the so-called royalists, are often identified as Bhumibolists, which means loosely that they are not against the present monarch. It is likely that Thaksin Shinawatra also belongs to that category.


Keeping Thailand agrarian


Perhaps, the most important objective of these councillors is to make sure that ‘conditions’ in Thailand prevail which would ensure existence of monarchy. Through their actions over the decades, these councillors have made clear that monarchy, however destructive it could be to future generations of Thai people, could be sustained only if Thailand remains a low-productivity agrarian nation. Wittingly, or unwittingly, Thaksin treaded that banned territory. It was not really true that Thaksin would be more powerful than the King because of his growing popularity, but he was ushering in a process which would lead to the demise of this decaying institution, known as Thai monarchy.


Beginning in 2001, after he became premier, Thaksin Shinawatra, an ambitious businessman who had a first-hand understanding of economic developments in China and India, set in motion a policy which created an existential threat to the monarchy, King’s keepers and other hanger-on. Thaksin is not anti-monarchy but unwittingly he unleashed policy which, if allowed to be pursued for any length of time, would have undermined the King and brought the vast majority of Thais to the economic mainstream and would provide them and future generations a hope of being a productive member of a prosperous nation. But the forces that control Thailand saw in Thaksin’s policies the recipe for their ultimate demise.


In 1956, when both South Korea and Thailand had about 26 million people and were considered Third World countries wholly dependent on agricultural produce, the World Bank carried out a study which suggested, with the help of volumes of data and straight extrapolation, that both nations will do well pursuing their future as agrarian nations, using farmland and traditional farmers as their principal resource. Thailand’s monarchy with a bevy of Oxford-Cambridge- London School of Economics-trained elite, found this study not only appropriate but one that would ensure longevity of the King and his hangers-on in control of the country. Thailand’s low rice productivity was not a concern a Thailand was, and still is, a food surplus nation.  But low rice productivity and cheap food ensured permanent poverty for farmers and their future generations. The urban Thais added tourism of various kinds, including varieties that tread the fringes of downright debauchery, to attract foreigners and their money. Bangkok also became a financial center where phony money could beget more phony money.


The South Korean experience


Compare that to what South Korea opted for. South Korea, with only 22 per cent of its land arable, rejected to become an agrarian nation and quickly moved toward building up its rural areas with infrastructure to become an agro-industrial nation. Mechanization of agricultural sector began in earnest in the early 1960s and it coupled with industrial development. As a result, domestic agricultural machinery manufacturers grew qualitatively and quantitatively. Being stabilized in domestic agricultural machinery market, agricultural machinery manufacturers turned their vision abroad and established an export stratagem. With KAMICO (Korea Agricultural Machinery Industry Cooperative) as the central figure, 700% export growth was achieved by Seoul within a period of 10 years. Importation of machinery increased 800% within the same 10 year period.


The export of power tillers started with the export to Vietnam in 1965. In the 1970s, the types of machinery exported and the countries those were exported to were diversified. The KAMICO helped its members expand exports by distributing advertising materials to Korean embassies abroad and by sending market survey teams to foreign countries. As a result of those efforts, South Korea’s value of exports first exceeded 10 million US dollars in 1979, reaching 12 million dollars.


From 1977 to 1979, small-size machines were Seoul’s majority export items: small equipment, power tillers, and pesticide applicators generated 27%, 18%, and 5% of sales, respectively. Major agricultural machinery such as binders, combines, and farm tractors were not exported during this period. Exports to Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Malaysia made up 50% of the total value of exports. Most importing countries were in Asia. American and European markets were not exploited in this period; that came later.


Despite these successes, South Korea has not reached a stage of food security. Its rice productivity is one of the highest in the world (about 6 tons/hectare), but it will have to make a genuine technological breakthrough in coming days in order to become food secure in the future. On the other hand, South Korea is an industrial power to reckon with. What was a poor “agrarian nation” according to World Bank “experts” in the 1950s, is now in the process of setting up state-of-the-art nuclear power reactors across the world. All this happened because South Korean authorities did not allow a feudal system to take firm roots, keeping the vast majority of people poor and pulling strings to stay in power.


Discouraging productivity growth in Thailand


By contrast, Thailand has remained virtually at the same agro-industrial level as it was in the mid-twentieth century. Thaksin Shinawatra did introduce some changes, which, if allowed to take root, would have caused the emergence of a newer Thailand. But the power that the Thai people have allowed to dictate terms to them always wanted Thailand to remain an agrarian nation, with tourism and financial markets filling the pockets of a few.


Rice is Thailand’s major crop and it is grown by about two-thirds of all farm households. Two main types were cultivated: dry, or upland, rice, grown predominantly in the North and Northeast; and wet rice, grown in irrigated fields throughout the central plain and in the South. About half the rice production comes from the central plain and major valleys in the North; and most of the rest is produced in the Northeast; and about 6 percent is from the South, which is a rice deficient area. Roughly 8.5 million hectares were devoted to rice production in the early 1980s, about 40 percent more than in the early 1960s. The rice yield was highest in the Center, averaging about 1.9 tons per hectare, which was about a third of the yield per hectare in Taiwan and South Korea.


Low productivity has also been attributed in part to longstanding government policies aimed at keeping consumer rice prices low. The so-called rice premium (in fact an export tax) and occasional quantitative export controls were claimed by opponents to have discouraged production expansion by reducing profitability. But the process, which the Thai monarchy knows better than any one else, also perpetuates poverty and ensures the monarchical system.


The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review News Services Inc.

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