The Critique of Thaksin, Pt. I: The Critique of “Populism”

In the next series of posts, we will be taking an all-too-brief look at several strands of criticism of Thaksin Shinawatra’s time as Prime Minister of Thailand from 2001 to 2006. At the end of each post I’ll be listing key sources consulted in researching these posts, which can serve as a guide to further reading for those interested.

 The first line of criticism is what we will term “anti-populism” objections to Thaksin’s project for changing Thai society. At the basis of this objection is a distrust of Thaksin’s policies intended to benefit the rural poor, as well as his attempts to build a new power “network” of governance in Thailand that could rival the traditional power network affiliated with the Thai monarchy.

 Criticisms along these lines argue that the rural poor who enthusiastically supported Thaksin and his various policies to extend health care and credit to rural residents were dupes of Thaksin, blindly misled into supporting a would-be despot by promises of quick material benefits. Such criticism falls into a long tradition in Thai politics of viewing the rural poor as inherently passive and in need of paternalist protection from the monarchy. (Other critics have raised more pragmatic concerns, questioning the financial sustainability of Thaksin’s initiatives and overall economic programs.)

Some Thai academics who have written about the September 2006 coup against Thaksin argue that Thaksin’s political alliance with the rural poor represented a threat to the traditional power structure that needed to be defused; hence, the “royalist coup.”

Critics of the coup d’etat both inside and outside Thailand have vigorously reject this sort of criticism of Thaksin’s tenure, on the grounds that it amounts to, quite simply, a rejection of the concept of mass democracy itself and the rights of a democratic populace to choose their own leaders, as well as the rational capacity of the rural poor to identify and advance their own interests through the electoral process. (See a summary of this essay by Andrew Walker of Australian National University for eloquent statement of this argument; critique of the class bias of the Bangkok-based Thai media against the rural poor is also a signature theme of the notable blog Bangkok Pundit.)

From the standpoint of the takeover at Manchester City, criticisms of Thaksin’s populist alliance with the rural poor will properly be regarded as irrelevant to the question of whether Thaksin is a “fit and proper” person to own an English top flight club. Indeed, the alliance of Thaksin with the rural poor (even if it was one of political convenience) has struck many City supporters as a major point in Thaksin’s favor, a point we will elaborate upon later in the week.

From this standpoint, the removal of Thaksin from office, whatever his alleged and real sins, was above all else a repudiation of mass democracy and a backward step for democratic development in Thailand, as argued by prominent scholar Duncan McCargo of Leeds University.

So while the “anti-populism” critique of Thaksin may be largely irrelevant to the ethical question of his owning a football club in retirement, it is very relevant in trying to understanding the politics of the coup and its aftermath, as well as some of the zealousness of Thaksin’s more vociferous critics in Thailand.

Welcome to the complexities of Thai politics.

Sources (in addition to those linked above): Pasuk and Baker, A History of Thailand (2005); Pasuk and Baker, Thaksin: The Business of Politics in Thailand  (2005) ; McCargo and Pathmanand; The Thaksinization of Thailand (2004); McCargo, “Network Monarchy and Legitimacy Crises in Thailand”, Pacific Review (2005); “A 14-Year Step Backward in Thai Political History,” (Interview with Duncan McCargo) Chronicle of Higher Education, October 6, 2006.

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