It turns out that the “joke is on Thailand”

Paul Bograd

Posted on September 20, 2006

THIS IS A PARTIAL AND UNFINISHED ARTICLE THAT I HAVE BEEN WORKING ON FOR THE PAST FEW DAYS. IN LINE WITH RECENT EVENTS, I THOUGHT IT WOULD BE WORTH POSTING AND UPDATING AS THE DAYS GO ON. MY CONCLUSIONS WERE GOING TO SUGGEST THAT BY HIS BEHAVIOR, THAKSIN HAS GIVEN A PERMISSION STRUCTURE FOR THE MILITARY AND/OR OTHERS TO ACT IN AN EXTRA-CONSTITUTIONAL MANNER. THE CURRENT COUP IS MORE COMPLEX THAN THAT. I WILL TRY TO OFFER MY SPECULATIONS IN THE COMING DAYS. THANKS AND I HOPE YOU ENJOY THIS UNFINISHED PIECE.

Not so long ago there used to be cynical joke that passed through the self defined “pundit” community here in Southeast Asia. The joke went something like this:

“In Thailand where there has been a long and inglorious history of successful military coup de tats, you never hear anyone gossiping about coups. In the Philippines which has never had a successful overtly military coup de tat, coup rumors virtually form the basis of a national culture.”

In Manila, even Brad, Jen and Angelina had to take a back seat to the e-mail, blogs, text messages, telephone, broadcast and print news and even “message in a bottle” forms of communications that made up this rumor orgy.

The joke was particularly telling because it represented the frustration of millions of Filipinos and conversely, the success of Thailand in the past 20 years.

But the joke is over. And that should send a real warning signal to Thailand.

The joke is not over because the Philippines is reversing the trend or even close to catching up to Thailand. The joke is over, because Thailand is in danger of blowing much of what it has achieved over the past 20 years.

Let’s take a quick look at what Thailand has accomplished:

Thailand Engaged The Global Economy On its Own Terms. Unlike some other countries in Southeast Asia, Thailand fights tooth and nail to protect its own economic and social self-interests. It has not blindly surrendered to a flawed neo-liberal absolutist definition of the global market. In many ways Thailand is one of the most protected economies in the world.

Whether by creative use of domestic law and regulatory process, or just out and out “de-facto” protectionist policies, Thailand protects it own, while giving up very little. When I say “protects,” it is not only the big money and historical monopolists that are protected (They are of course, but I will leave this for another story.). Thailand has maneuvered its way through global economic evolution and still maintained more affordable costs for basic needs than its neighboring economies. Of course wine, automobiles, cable television and imported food prices are much higher than they are in Manila, Jakarta or KL, but that doesn’t seem to reduce consumption of those items ( Although the expat whining seems to grow louder as the Thai baht gets stronger.). Even gasoline prices are more or less 10% lower than they are in Manila (Is this because Thailand still has a state controlled oil company competing in the marketplace? You be the judge!).

Thailand Has Been Able To Channel The Historical Corruption Practices Into A More “Constructive Corruption” Than Its Neighbors And Competitors. I can’t claim to know the reason. Maybe it was because the Thai bureaucracy was until recently under the control of the Royal household, and the bureaucratic elite came from the elite Thai families. Or maybe it was the influence of Thai Buddhist culture. For whatever the reason, the historical corruption of government and bureaucracy in Thailand has been much more constructive than in most of its Asian neighbors. Academics who study such things will tell you that the quantity of corruption in Thailand is not significantly less than its neighbors, but the corruption is more productive. Even if the costs were higher then they needed to be because of allegedly corruptive practices, the Thais have competently built infrastructure that works and supports economic development. During the economic boom of the 1990s, the Thais built an extraordinary highway system as well as air and sea transport infrastructure. And while there were certainly corruptive practices in the health care system, the Thais have been able to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic and create a universal healthcare system that is superior to any in SE Asia (Singapore excepted.). I am sure there is plenty of corruption in the Thai educational system but Thai teachers are paid well enough so that you don’t see them fleeing Thailand in search of work abroad.

The sense of Thai national identity, history and culture is undiminished even in a globalized cultural environment. There is even a bit of an admirable type of “Superiority Complex” that manifests itself in a preference for domestically produced products as well as a geo-political self-confidence that leads to more rewarding bi-lateral and multi-lateral international relationships.

So why are these extraordinary accomplishments in jeopardy you ask? Well it seems to me that these things are in jeopardy largely because the Thai political class has misplaced their priorities. Acting Prime Minister Thaksin was elected the first time because he focused on, promised and then delivered a very clear set of relevant, practical, programmatic governmental actions: healthcare, livelihood, access to credit. All clearly promised and subsequently delivered. And that won him reelection twice (So powerful was this “intellectual honesty” that it won him a second reelection even in the face of a scandal that would have drive most from office in disgrace.).

In the past year, he seems to have forgotten all about what brought him to the dance. In the face of political and social opposition he has launched a series of largely personalized responses: libel suits, military intrigues, alleged violations of the election laws, and alleged smear campaigns against his opponents (Even if true, none of these were necessary to win even a third reelection campaign.).

I am not ignoring the impact of the allegations and controversies surrounding the sale of Shin Corporation to Temasek of Singapore, but the hard electoral facts of the matter are that voters have weighed these allegations against the practical results of the Thaksin era and so far, have chosen to support the practical results.

In the unsolicited opinion of this writer, Mr. Thaksin ought to forget the personalization and politicalization of his opposition, accept that support of the voters, and go back to doing what created his support in the first place: promising and delivering relevant, practical results to his constituents.

Now Some Unsolicited Advice to the Opposition: Of course when a scandal of the magnitude of the Temasek – Shin Corporation allegations emerges, it is not reasonable to expect any political opposition to leave it completely alone. But in hard electoral terms, you have gotten all you are likely to get out of it. Voters who are going to oppose Thaksin because of the allegations have already decided to do so. So far, there are not enough voters to unseat him based on these allegations alone.

(To be continued and updated.)

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