Elite still calls the shots

straitimes

Dec 28, 2008

Ruling class sees rise of rural masses as threat to its dominance

By Nirmal Ghosh, Thailand Correspondent In Bangkok

DISCREETLY tucked away on a high floor of a building in Bangkok’s Sukhumvit Road is the elegant, dark wood panelled Pacific City Club.

The club, where membership is by invitation only, was founded in 1995 by a group of prominent businessmen to offer ‘Bangkok’s corporate and diplomatic elite a proper setting to meet in a comfortable and relaxed environment’, according to its official website.

The board of governors reads like a Who’s Who of Thailand’s ‘hi-so’ or high society. The club’s chairman for many years since its inception – though he resigned about a year ago and has not been replaced yet – was Mr Arsa Sarasin, the principal private secretary to King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The club offers a small insight into just who is regarded as ‘elite’ in Thailand.

From self-exile in England, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra – a fugitive from the law in Thailand – complained in October that the ruling by the Supreme Court, which found him guilty of corruption, had been driven by politically motivated ‘privileged elites’.

Chulalongkorn University political science lecturer Giles Ji Ungpakorn has described the political situation as a ‘struggle between the elites (in which) it is democracy and the poor majority who will suffer’.

Author Pasuk Phongpaichit, in an interview with the magazine Fa Deaw Kan held just before the 2006 coup that led to Thaksin’s ouster, said the Thai ruling class has always had a purely elitist tradition, as opposed to one that emphasises equality in society.

Academic Michael Connors, in his 2007 book Democracy And National Identity In Thailand, refers to ‘elite-defined democracy’.

Professor Connors quotes former premier Anand Panyara- chun – a member of the elite and also a liberal – as having argued that the cycle in which rural people elect vote-buying MPs and ‘middle-class’ Bangkokians bring down governments with cries against corruption and incompetence, will end when the status of the rural population is lifted.

Currently, the people are ‘not interested in whether the government is good or not’. Rather, they are just interested in a government that ‘digs wells and makes roads’.

Prof Connors wrote: ‘The ‘democracy’ expressed (by Anand) is an urban one – dependent on an educated middle class and their presumed rationality.’

On the night of Sept 19, 2006, immediately following the operational part of the coup that unseated Thaksin, then army chief General Sonthi Boonyarataglin was granted an audience with King Bhumibol.

Conspicuously present was the King’s top adviser, Privy Council president General Prem Tinsulanonda, a former appointed premier as well as a former armed forces chief.

Former general Surayud Chulanont, who was on the Privy Council then, had to resign to serve as prime minister.

There is clearly a near-seamless connectivity between the top echelons of the armed forces and the inner circles of the palace. Also, an army officer’s first oath of allegiance is to the King, not the government.

General Prem, in a speech in early 2006, famously likened the army to a racehorse and the government to a jockey. Jockeys come and go, but the owner of the racehorse was the King, he said.

The post-coup appointed government was stacked with conservatives from the Bangkok establishment. One example was finance minister Pridiyathorn Devakula, who bears the royal title Mom Ratchawong (MR). General Sonthi himself became a deputy prime minister. Many other Cabinet members were, like MR Pridiyathorn, former senior bureaucrats.

Current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, an Eton and Oxford man, is from the same clubby Bangkok elite. His father, Dr Athasit Vejjajiva, was once an appointed Cabinet minister, and also served as president of The Royal Institute, a venerable think-tank for select academics.

Like the military, big business also protects its interests through alliances with those in power. Thaksin said in an interview in 1992: ‘Politics and business are inseparable. We have to accept this reality. Politics is like the sun, and business like the earth.’

Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party had its share of big business interests: At one time, the Cabinet was thought to account for well over 10 per cent of the market capitalisation of the Thai stock exchange.

But Thaksin also made many enemies in the world of big business. Tycoon Prachai Leophairatna, thought to have funded the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) in 2006, was a prime example. He fought Thaksin to exact revenge after he lost control of his debt-ridden Thai Petrochemical Industry empire.

The pro-democracy, pro-Thaksin ‘red shirts’ have a list of nearly 100 companies that they claim funded the PAD’s months-long protests this year, which among other things led to the devastating shutdown of Suvarnabhumi airport last month. Some of them have stalwarts of the Bangkok establishment on their boards.

Prof Pasuk and co-author Chris Baker wrote in their 2004 book, Thaksin: The Business Of Politics In Thailand, of how, during the era of military dictatorships, ‘businessmen shared some of their profits with the generals, who in return constructed a friendly environment for business, and rewarded their particular friends with contracts, favours and other profit-generating advantages’.

With the army receding from politics after 1992, the nexus became more tenuous – only to return in 2006.

Chulalongkorn University political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak, in a recent paper in the Journal of Democracy, wrote: ‘Thaksin…sought to usher Thailand into a new era, up-ending its anachronistic, neofeudal hierarchy, even as his opponents tagged him for corrupt cronyism, graft and abuses of power.

‘Chief among these opponents were the bureaucrats, the military and the monarchy – a troika that has called the shots in Thailand for decades.”

On their side is much of Bangkok’s upper middle class, who share a distaste for corruption in politics and see the rise of the rural masses through the vote as a threat to their dominance of Thailand.

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