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Thailand: One Small Rebellion at a Time

MsExPat's picture
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So far, this is my favorite piece among the "post-Battle of Bangkok" essays. It's from Southeast Asia scholar Duncan McCargo. The reason I think the essay is worth reading is because McCargo is not emotionally trying to defend one side or another. He actually understands Thai culture and history, and is looking at what happened in the context of both.

Some excerpts:

This has been portrayed as a struggle between poor farmers from the countryside and an undemocratic Bangkok elite. Yet despite the sympathetic coverage for the Redshirts in much of the international media, this is not a classic "pro-democracy" struggle between good guys and bad guys. It is a savage and dispiriting civil conflict, from which nobody emerges with much credit.

At the election in December 2007, the ruling Democrat Party took 39.63 per cent of the party list vote -- almost exactly the same as the 39.6 per cent of the People's Power Party, from which the Redshirts are largely drawn.

Neither side has had a monopoly on popular support; both have some valid arguments and positions; and neither has been playing by the rules.

Here is the most important point McCargo makes:

The central problem is that Thailand is torn between two rival camps, each led and directed by rich and powerful factions. Though ostensibly divided by ideological differences, the anti-government Redshirts and the pro-government Yellowshirts are best characterized as competing patronage networks, bound together primarily by personal loyalties and emotional attachments. Supporters on both sides have been mobilized by intermediaries playing on local and family ties.

This rings absolutely true to me, because it matches the stories my friend Song has told me about the way society functions in Buri Ram (a Thai province that borders Cambodia, and a Red Shirt stronghold).

She describes a strongman, "Godfather" type culture in which there are varying levels of Big Men to whom you owe loyalty, at the village, regional, and provincial level.

Song's regional "Big Man" is the fearsome and slimy Newin Chidchob, who she laughingly refers to as "Newin--Who win?". (Newin was an intimate ally of Thaksin's, then he managed to slither over to become a coalition partner of Ahbisit's.)

Anyway, to understand the Red Shirts organization--and indeed, their concept of "democracy" you have to first understand the lens everyone is seeing this through, which is this all-pervasive patronage system.

It controls EVERYTHING in Thailand. Everyone understands that to get a job, a favor, run a business, get into school, get your son a post in the Army or Police force, you have to pay someone something.

The tyranny of corruption is not just something at the top for Thai people, it's an everyday issue. But if you protest this system at the local level, you are going to be personally ruined. Someone will come in the middle of the night and wreck your property, or beat you up or worse. Song told me that everyone in Buri Ram knows the fields where Newin has buried all the bodies he's had murdered.

So there's an enormous, daily pressure on people--the pressure of injustice--that they cannot and dare not express in daily life. You have to swallow it down, pay the fee, and wait for your chance to maneuver yourself up the ranks.

And when the Red Shirts came down to Bangkok, the anger and the resentment and the smiling through the hurt all let go, in a rush, at once.

Up to now, I haven't seen a single satisfactory explanation of why some of Asia's most well off farmers revolted (as opposed to, say, Lao or Cambodian farmers, who are, indeed, abysmally poor). The standard issue line: "Resentment at being left out of Thailand's prosperity" just didn't cut it for me. My friend Song didn't waste time sitting in her village feeling "resentment"--she hopped on a bus and landed in Bangkok with ten cents in her pocket. Isaan people are strong and smart and resourceful. They are the backbone of Bangkok.

I think the real answer is that the demonstrations were a huge opportunity for catharsis. Thai people, at just about every level, live every day under the oppression of what we would call institutionalized corruption. (And what Thais, at least some of them now, are calling "Double Standards")

This corruption does not come down directly from the elites in Bangkok. It is up and down the line. If you're an Isaan rice farmer, your village head man may be your biggest oppressor.

(Thaksin's political brilliance is that he bypassed the old patronage system, and set up a parallel one of his own. )

The rage, the anger, the emotions of the protests in Bangkok must be read in the context of Thailand and the way it works, not with our abstract ideas of "democracy" "freedom" etc., etc. The protest leaders latched onto these slogans and they play great on CNN. But "freedom" in the Thai context is not so much about electing the PM, it's about the freedom to be able to live and get ahead in society without being bled to death by a thousand cuts.

What I'm saying here is that I think the Bangkok demonstrations provided an enormous pressure valve for the Thais who participated. On the streets of a far away city they could express what they dare not in their home towns. They could transfer their anger from their local goons to Ahbisit (who was the main "devil" character of the demonstrations).

The anger and rage is real. But the target? Well (for both sides) it's been a "Look, over there! Thaksin! Ahbisit!"

Dumping Ahbisit and replacing him with some UDD figure (picked from a not very promising circle of politicians, if their behavior during the protests is any indication) is not going to touch the enormous, structural problem that's at the core of the rage.

I'm going to do what I hate to do and make a "Westernized" analogy. Think of the Red Shirts as the American public who swallowed "Hope and Change" at a moment when what we really needed was guts and sound policy.

The last conversation I had with my friend Song in Bangkok was about her business. She runs a little massage shop on a side lane in the old part of Bangkok. We were sitting in front of her shop at a folding table, eating rice and soup, when I noticed that her shop sign had been stored away around the side of her building.

"Why did you move the sign?" I asked.

"Oh," she said. "It's because the policeman on the block asked me to pay him 300 baht a month (about $10 USD) to keep the sign in the street."

I was taken aback. Song's husband IS a policeman. Surely that would exempt her from having to cough up the typical token Bangkok bribe.

"No," she said, "My husband works in a different district, and I don't want to make problem for him. So I just moved the sign," she sighed.

"But then," she continued, "The police he asked me to pay him 500 baht a month 'rent'. I laughed and told him no. What do you think, I'm making big money here, I said to him?"

The policeman kept haggling, trying to bargain with Song for his bribe. He said, well, then, buy me a bottle of whiskey every month. She refused.

"Look," Song told me. "I know this man. I am happy if he comes by in the evening, he can sit down, eat rice with us, drink our beer. Everybody happy. This is fine, this is respect and I have no problem with it. But I'm not going to pay him for doing his job."

Song, the working class immigrant to Bangkok from northeast Thailand, has put down her foot and drawn the line. This is enormous. Twenty or even ten years ago, her refusal to kowtow to the policeman would have been unthinkable.

The corrupt system in Thailand will not be changed by dumping Ahbisit, restoring Thaksin. A new election will help, but only if it brings into power a team that understands these problems need to be addressed at a policy and structural level, not by simply doling out patronage like the Big Men.

Thailand will, in the end, be transformed slowly, in increments. With the courage and guts of Thais like my friend Song, who in fits and starts, at this micro level, are changing Thailand, one small rebellion at a time.

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Ian Welsh's picture
Submitted by Ian Welsh on

people with hope (aka. prosperous farmers) who revolt. The truly hopeless, don't.

Such corruption exists in many countries.

MsExPat's picture
Submitted by MsExPat on

But I can't think of another example--besides Thailand--where you have a modernized society coexisting with systematic, institutionalized, socially integrated machinery of corruption. What I mean by "socially integrated" is that who pays whom is linked to your social status (and in fact defines your social status.)

The word "corruption" isn't the ideal word to describe the complicated system of bribes and favors that go on in everyday Thai life. Maybe "personal rent" comes closer?

Submitted by lambert on

(Here.)

And I agree with MsExPat's characterization of "personal rent" -- what a system of exploitation would look like "on the ground" in a Buddhist society. Great beauty combined with great filth. (Note also, and interestingly, that Song draws the line exactly at monetization.)

Say what you will about this country, "personal rent" is something that (so far...) we do not have. For rentiers, we have ATM machines, usury, DRM, information asymmetry, and so forth -- all far less intimate.

So, it's the nature and scale of the corruption that's at issue here: Yes, "you can find corruption everywhere," but it's one thing to give a cop twenty bucks on a speeding ticket; it's another thing to give the cop their cut in every transaction every single day of your life.

First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win. -- Mahatma Gandhi

Card-carrying_Buddhist's picture
Submitted by Card-carrying_B... on

It's a society where lots of people are, nominally, Buddhist.

In Nepal, things are Mafia-feudal in a similar way: there is a local "Thulo Mannche," literally "Big Man," a guy one pays, and who in turn has the responsibility to provide protection and distribute favors.

Reporter to Mahatma Gandhi: What do you think of Western Civilization?
Gandhi to reporter: I think it would be a good idea.