Just a battle of elites in Thailand?
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Just a battle of elites in Thailand?

Last year, Bertil Lintner had an op-ed in the WSJ and pushed back against the idea that the current political criris was a battle between “the traditional urban elite,” represented by the urban middle class, the military and the bureaucracy, and the “rural poor”. He called this a “very simplistic way of looking at Thailand’s problems”, but then offered his own “nuanced” approach stating that Thaksin “primarily represents Sino-Thai business interests, not poor farmers…[t]he present crisis is thus more correctly understood as a clash between two elites: “old money” in the hands of Thailand’s traditional plutocracy, and “new money” which has risen to prominence since the country’s economy began to surge in the 1960s”.

Bertil has another op-ed on similar lines in the Sydney Morning Herald. Key excerpts:

The clash in Thailand should be described as a clash between two oligarchies. On one side, the traditional elite consisting of the old Sino-Thai plutocracy that for years have enjoyed a symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship with the military, bureaucracy and monarchy — and the new nouveau-riche elite that began to emerge during the Vietnam War era, when the economy took off and culminated in the boom of the 1980s. Lacking the political connections of the old elite, Thaksin and his business associates built up their own power base through a string of populist policies, which won many admirers in certain parts of the country. However, the political confusion among many of the Red Shirt followers is demonstrated in a UDD Chiang Mai cafe: on the wall hang side by side portraits of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Che Guevara — and Thaksin.

Significantly, however, the Red Shirt movement has remained a largely regional phenomenon, mainly in the northeast. UDD influence in the central plains is considerably weaker and virtually non-existent in the south. In those parts of the country — strongholds of Thaksin’s sworn enemies, the Yellow Shirts — there are also many poor and disadvantaged people.

Rather than being the “class war” that the UDD likes to talk about, and the Western media seemed to believe it is, it is a conflict between old and new money, which is also pitting poor as well as rich in different parts of the country against each other. This divide is a serious problem, which any Thai government and serious political force would have to address — and not take advantage of for their own respective political agendas.

BP: Again, his argument is that it is simplistic to say that it is only a battle between the poor and the rich, but then he argues that “[t]he clash in Thailand should be described as a clash between two oligarchies…it is a conflict between old and new money”. Isn’t this simplistic too? Have already posted on the latest UNDP report (PDF), but at page 78 you have this table:


BP: Party 1 is, of course, the Democrats. Party, No 2, would have been the then pro-Thaksin PPP. So rich versus poor has no relationship to the current crisis and it is simply old versus new money? Bertil points out that UDD does badly in the south and central regions. Well, again from the UNDP report (at page 124):


NOTE: Click here for a slightly larger size image (well you can at least read the names of the provinces, from the highest to the lowest, more clearly). Basically, countries in dark green have a higher income followed by lighter green, yellow, orange and then red.

BP: As you can see that generally the provinces in the southern and the central regions have a much higher per capita income than provinces in the north and the northeast. Perhaps, one of the reasons why UDD is more popular in the north and the northeast has to do with those areas having a lower per capita income…

Now, having said all that, Bertil is correct that it is not simply rich versus poor, but he is incorrect to say it is simply a battle of elites. He falls into the same trap of what he accuses others of, namely simplying the issue. A better description is provided by Joshua Kurlantzick for the Council for Foreign Relations:

Instead of a simple class divide, the Thai protests are the result of several major cleavages in society. In one sense, the struggle is a battle between elites. Thaksin, a hard-driving telecommunications billionaire, symbolized new wealth in Thailand, which has developed an antagonistic relationship with the scions of older power, who tended to look down on nouveau riches like Thaksin and his close associates. The struggle also is a regional divide, between Bangkok and central Thailand on one hand and the north and northeast, historically possessing different dialects and cultures, on the other hand. And, in a larger sense, the red shirts represent not just the poor but Thais who feel they’ve been excluded: excluded from the benefits of globalization, which has worsened Thailand’s income inequality; excluded from political decision-making, which is concentrated unhealthily in Bangkok; and excluded from the traditional levers of power–the judiciary, the army, the civil service, and the monarchy, all of which tend to be highly conservative.

BP: Agree with this completely except that the regional divide is more complicated than explained in the excerpt above. BP would have said southern Thailand and central Thailand and not just central Thailand so this goes against the argument that it is the center versus the periphery. However, for the South this mostly can be explained by the Democrats dominance in the South except for the three southern border provinces and higher incomes in the south.

There are cultural/ethno-regional reasons, but as this post is long enough as it is will simply provide some excerpts from two articles. Marwaan in IPS:

Such a sense of cultural marginalisation from the Thai mainstream has added to a making of a regional identity. “The feeling of being the ‘other’ among Isaan people is common,” said Buapun Promphakping, an associate professor in the faculty of humanities at Khon Kaen University. “Although Isaan people recognise that they are Thai citizens, they feel that they are not similar to or hold the same quality of ‘Thai’ as those who are in Bangkok.”

A consciousness of such a regional identity has deep roots, going back to the dawn of the 20th century, when Thailand, then called Siam, witnessed a “peasant” uprising. “At the very beginning of the 20th century, thousands of people living in what is today north-eastern Thailand joined the first major ‘peasant’ uprising in modern Thai history,” stated Charles Keyes, emeritus professor of anthropology and international studies at the University of Washington.

“The revolt (was) a response to a ‘crisis of power’ that came about because of the extension of the authority of a new centralised Thai state in a frontier region,” added Keyes in ‘Northeastern Thai Ethnoregionalism Updated’, a chapter in a soon-to-be published book.

“For the ruling elite in Bangkok (at the time), the (rural people’s) belief in ‘phu mi bun’ (leaders having exceptional powers) was deemed to be rooted in the ‘stupidity’, ‘savagery’, and ‘ignorance’ of the people of the northeast.”

More Charles Keyes in the Bangkok Post:

A second factor that must be taken into account if there is really to be progress along the path to reconciliation, is the deep split in society along a combination of class and ethno-regional lines. Support for the red shirt movement is very strong throughout rural northeastern and northern Thailand in part because villagers and their kinsmen who work in Bangkok and elsewhere are aware of being constantly denigrated by members of the middle class, particularly in Bangkok.

This denigration has deep historical roots. The people of the Northeast and North were seen by Central Thai as “Lao” when they were first integrated into the new nation-state of Thailand. Although the people of these regions have long since come through participation in mass education and consumption of Bangkok-based media to identify as “Thai” who are also Khon Isan (northeastern Thai) and Khon Muang (northern Thai), older negative images persist of these people being somehow less “Thai” than Bangkokians.

Negative images, especially of northeasterners, have been used often in films and TV dramas.