Evaluating Thaksin’s Regime: A Summation

In attempting to assess Thaksin’s regime in Thailand as a whole, a major question is what the standard of evaluation should be. Should we compare Thaksin to prior Thai prime ministers? To the government of neighbouring nations? To a philosophical conception of liberal democracy, or some moral conception of good leadership? To the immediate political alternatives?

It’s a hard question. Moreover, suppose one does try to compare Thaksin to a moral or philosophical standard. Well, philosophical and moral standards differ. One might quickly stipulate four possible standards by which to measure a leader:

1) The utilitarian standard, which generally quickly turns into an economic standard: Did the country as a whole prosper on the leader’s watch? Did the economy grow, did incomes rise, did poverty fall?

2) The social justice standard: did the regime generally act in ways that benefited the least well off and the poor, or did the regime act to widen inequality and increase the power of the rich?

3) The human rights standard: states are granted monopolies on the legitimate use of violence, which is a very serious responsibility, a public trust. Leaders of states thus have special moral responsibilities to see that power is not abused.

4) The democracy standard: did the regime promote an open society allowing a free flourishing of ideas, including criticism of the regime itself? Did the regime make itself accountable for its own actions?

While the brief descriptions of Thaksin’s regime offered on this blog have only skimmed the surface of the main features of his rule and the various arguments pro and con, hopefully it is clear already that what you think about Thaksin may depend a great deal about which of these four standards one prioritizes.

For those of us who care about all four of these values, it’s especially hard: we like it when good things all go together, and find it troubling when some very good things are accompanied by some very bad things.

Based on my reading of the evidence, however, I’d be willing to give Thaksin reasonably high grades on criteria 1 and 2, but failing grades on 3 and 4. And, I’d add that Thaksin’s overreaching and perceived arrogance ultimately undermined the positive things he accomplished; when one announces one’s self as the friend of the rural poor and defender of their interests, you assume a responsibility to those constituents not to take self-aggrandizing actions (legal or illegal) which will needlessly jeopardize your political standing.

Moreover, the overall social vision of Thaksin, that of a society as a corporation, to be governed by CEO managers, with minimal outside participation and limited tolerance for dissent, is in my view inherently problematic.

And yet, the achievement of bringing the material concerns of the rural poor front and centre in national policy, as well as the specific programs initiated, strikes one as a historic accomplishment that may have a permanent positive effect on Thailand, akin to the passage of Social Security in the U.S. or the establishment of the National Health Service in the UK. As this overview from the Asia Sentinel notes, the coup government has retained those popular initiatives (health care, credit, the village loan funds).

Moreover, if we compare Thaksin to the immediate alternative, the military junta, his record appears in a better light, including on criteria 3 and 4. The junta is proposing a constitution which has some reasonable elements—banning future prime ministers from domineering media outlets is probably a good idea–and some patently anti-democratic ideas as well (such as a partially appointed Senate). Voters are being asked this Sunday to vote yes or no, with Thaksin’s old allies campaigning against the constitution; but if this constitution is rejected, the junta can impose one of its choosing. (See this editorial from The Nation discussing the quandary the vote presents for conscientious Thai voters.)

In short, even highly compromised, crony capitalistic, authoritarian-leaning parliamentary democracy is preferable to out-and-out military rule.

And yet, one might argue, to leave it at that probably puts too positive a gloss on Thaksin’s regime. Doesn’t Thaksin share some of the blame for the demise of his own government and the concurrent suspension of parliamentary democracy, through his arrogant efforts to build a permanent regime centred around his person and his family business interests, and through his polarizing approach to leadership?

My conclusion would be yes, he does. That conclusion hardly excuses the military coup, however.

To sum up, I think we can usefully distinguish, for evaluative purposes, between Thaksinomics (the substantive policy agenda of the Thai Rak Thai party); Thaksinization (the effort to build an all-encompassing network of political and economic power controlled by Thaksin); and Thaksin the individual.

Thaksinomics deserves at least qualified praise, in intention if not always result.

Thaksinization represented a long-term threat to democracy, and indeed a betrayal of the hopes of the 1997 constitution.

Thaksin the individual is far too polarizing a figure to lead a would-be emerging democracy like Thailand. It would be far better for the future of democracy in Thailand if he were not personally involved in Thai politics in a direct way—for him to try to come back would be a recipe for instability and violence. Even if Thaksin could win an election tomorrow, too many Thais bear too much animosity towards him for a restoration to be a stable resolution for Thailand’s future.

And, to the extent he actually cares about perpetuating the policy legacies of his time in office, one would hope he’d recognize that at this point he personally is an obstacle to that end. One worries, however, that the sheer size of his family’s business empire will pull him back in, one way or another.

In any case, future hopes for an improved democracy in Thailand rest not in continued junta rule, or in a new coalition centered around the monarchy and its “sufficiency economy” principles, or in a revival of Thaksinization. A coalition involving the rural poor and urban constituencies, NGOs, intellectuals, and others committed to openness and democratic procedure would be the ideal, but that may be an unworkable ideal unless business interests can be persuaded to join in.

Go that route and you have a rough reconfiguration, perhaps, of the coalition that brought Thaksin to power. The difficult question is whether such a coalition could be held together on a more secure basis than personal charisma and the glorification of an individual leader. I can’t pretend to know the answer to that question, but prospects for genuine liberal democracy in Thailand do not appear particularly bright at the moment. If Thaksin’s future political role is limited (as he claims it will be) to “advising,” however, perhaps at least there will be one less obstacle for democracy in Thailand to overcome.

So where does all this leave us on the question of whether Thaksin’s arrival at Manchester City is a good, bad, or indifferent development? We circle back to that question in the next post, by way of a fable.

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One Comment on “Evaluating Thaksin’s Regime: A Summation”

  1. Bangkokblue Says:

    Thank you very much Thad for your clear and detailed assessment of the Thaksin regime. I am very grateful for your blog as it has helped me to rationalize my often emotional and instinctive objections to Thaksin and his legacy.

    Amongst my Thai friends and associates the general opinion is that the Thai economy prospered under Thai Rak Thai in spite of the regime rather than because of it, but perhaps this is just sour grapes, an unwillingness to believe that anything Thaksin was involved in was beneficial to the nation in any way, I’m unsure.

    Certainly with regard to the “social justice” standard” I have real reservations about many of the populist schemes introduced by TRT. I read recently that the 1 million cow scheme (not as I had originally thought a cloning project to replicate Khunying Potjamarn) has delivered only 22,000 cattle to farmers to date and has now been abandoned. I have also observed that several people that I know, who are on low incomes, are very anxious to avoid the 30b/ health-care scheme, and much prefer to pay for the health-care if they possibly can. I’m sure it is better than no health care scheme at all but is perhaps less substantial than the TRTs would have us believe. Also many of the TRT schemes seem to be based on loans rather than good old fashioned re-distribution. Loans are surely more likely to create a short to medium term feel good factor than any long term solution to the plight of the poor. Personally, as an overworked and slightly nervous, lower middle class small business proprietor here in Bangkok I have no objection to paying a little more income tax for genuine improvements in education, health-care, and other social programs, as long as my competitors are paying equally. But maybe I’m in a minority on this one.

    Recently, on a Man City message board I read a post from someone ridiculing the “anti-Thaksin brigade’s” comparison of Shinawatra to Stalin. I’m no political scientist (as you’ve probably guessed) and I hadn’t read the post where this comparison was allegedly made, but it did set me thinking. Thaksin was quite obviously not responsible for killing or rights abuse of even a small percentage of that of Stalin. But he did preside over a regime than refused to condemn the killing, disappearance, or torture of those he considered to be out of step with his ideals. What I’m trying to say is that, from my perspective, this man stinks of naked power-lust, and that his personality profile has much in common with that of Stalin and others like him with regard to his complete disregard for human life. Children were shot dead in “the war on drugs” for f***’s sake and he didn’t even pause for breath.

    I feel very aggrieved, that as you illustrated, the course of liberal democracy in Thailand has been significantly delayed by the machinations during and the fallout after the Thaksin regime.

    My view of the future of Liberal democracy in Thailand is probably a little more optimistic than yours (but then what do I know, I believed in Stuart Pearce right till the end). My greatest fear is that Thaksin will make a serious attempt to regain the seat of power, either by proxy, or by inspiring some kind of rural uprising. I think he would fail to regain power in any event but he could still bring the nation to the brink of civil war, and I doubt that he would be morally concerned by doing so.

    The CNS don’t really scare me much to be honest. No-one wants the army in power, they’re the army for god’s sake not politicians, they’re incompetant, and I would suggest that they know it. The lessons of Black May have not been forgotten here by the military, or by the chattering classes. My brother-in-law dodged bullets at the democracy monument on that day, ordinary Bangkok people remember, and any attempt to cling to power for too long by the military will not be forgiven easily.

    The middle class and business community, I would suggest, are largely in favour of a healthy liberal democracy. They are not, on the whole, opposed to greater prosperity and living standards for rural people. Most of the twenty-something and thirty-something Bangkokians I know had no particular objection too, or even voted for Thai Rak Thai the 1st time round. These are patriotic people they want the nation to stand proud along side Japan and European nations. Thaksin’s pledges to drive out corruption, and raise the status of the nation as a whole (including reducing poverty) were very appealing to younger educated Thais. This sense of betrayal is at the heart of the vehemence of the opposition to Thaksin.

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