Gwynne Dyer: Thaksin Shinawatra could be the Peron of Thailand

Thaksin Shinawatra is shaping up to be the Juan Peron of Thailand, with the significant difference that he is a rich Peron. The billions he earned in his telecomms business enabled him to rise to the top of Thai politics––and he used his power to shift wealth and power systematically from the rich to the poor. Like a latter-day Peron, he made decisive changes in government spending patterns, and the poor loved him for it.

Thaksin's human-rights record was abominable, but he was three times elected prime minister: in 2001, 2005, and 2006. However, he was overthrown by the army later in 2006 after street protests paid for by the rich and privileged; his party was disbanded; and he and 110 senior members of the party were banned from politics for five years. But the game is far from over, and Thaksin may haunt Thai politics for as long as Peron haunted Argentina.

Thaksin went into exile after the coup, mainly to avoid the corruption charges (perhaps trumped up, perhaps not) that threatened to jail him and his wife Pojaman for years. But when the generals allowed a return to democracy last year the People's Power Party (PPP), a proxy for his disbanded Thai Rak Thai party, won a majority of seats and formed a coalition government led by Thaksin's political ally, PPP leader Samak Sundaravej.

This was awkward for the army, which now had to take orders from the allies of the people whom it had ousted in the 2006 coup, and it got even more awkward when Thaksin returned to Thailand last February.

Within months, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), the group whose anti-Thaksin demonstrations had triggered the 2006 military coup, was out on the streets again demanding Samak's resignation. He was only Thaksin's stooge, they claimed, and PPP had only won the election by fooling or bribing millions of ignorant rural voters. Which brings us to the heart of the matter.

Thaksin was a populist who won the support of the poor by promising them debt relief, cheap loans, improved health care, and other services that were not previously part of the currency of Thai politics. This is hardly against the rules in other democracies, but in Thailand it infuriated the traditional political elite and their mostly urban, middle-class supporters. The peasants, instead of obediently voting for the traditional rural allies of the urban elite, were voting for Thaksin and their own economic interest.

The response of the urban elite was to create the People's Alliance for Democracy ––and in Bangkok, an island of shining prosperity in a country that is still mostly poor peasants, they have lots of supporters. But the PAD has nothing to do with democracy. In fact, it claims that the ballot box gives too much weight to the ill-educated rural poor, whose votes can easily be "bought" (i.e. won) with promises of government largesse.

The movement's leaders are less clear on what they want in place of democracy, but they want Parliament to be "reformed" so that most lawmakers are appointed (by them and their friends) rather than elected. Their arrogance is breathtaking––but they may not win a decisive victory. The king, who backed the coup in 2006, has stayed neutral this time, and the army chief, General Anupong Paojinda, insists that the military will not stage a new coup.

The current crisis began on August 26 when a mob of PAD supporters seized the prime minister's offices, Government House, which they have occupied ever since. Samak Sundaravej refused to resign, saying that, "The PAD is an illegal group who have seized the Government House and declared their victory. How can that be correct?"

Samak declared a state of emergency on Monday, September 2, after one person was killed and several dozen injured in street clashes between PPP and PAD supporters in Bangkok. Yesterday, he promised a national referendum to resolve the crisis. Since rural people are still a large majority in Thailand, Samak will win the referendum easily, but that will not end the crisis because the People's Alliance for Democracy does not recognise the validity of rural votes.

Thaksin, who retreated abroad again last month after his wife was sentenced to three years in jail for income tax evasion, is still enormously popular with the rural poor, and could count on winning any free election in which he is allowed to stand. So he probably won't be allowed to stand. It's a recipe for interminable stalemate, like the political trench warfare that paralysed Argentina for decades after Peron was driven into exile in 1955.

It's too bad that a figure as divisive as Thaksin was the first to try to open Thai politics up to the concerns of the poor, but a less flamboyant and abrasive politician would probably never have tried. What remains to be seen is whether the PAD can shut the door again, and for how long.




Sep 5, 2008 at 8:51pm

As a British expat who's lived in rural northern Thailand for 12 years, I congratulate Gwynne Dyer on an accurate and excellently written article.


Sep 6, 2008 at 5:41am

What seems to have come as a complete surprise to news commentators and analysts in the midst of the American election has been the sudden emergence of a very confusing political uprising in Thailand. One can see the palpable reluctance at news desks to take time out from Georgia, Gustav and the American elections and cobble together a hurried analysis from handy internet sources. News commentators look listless and puzzled as they try to explain away ambiguities like the blossoming of new and larger public gatherings and protests since the announcement of a state of emergency in Bangkok or that “right wing” agitators are somehow able to mobilise the support of public sector unions and NGOs across the country.
The quick and superficial explanation that has gained some easy traction internationally is that Thailand’s democracy is unraveling. A cadre of reactionaries leading a motley group of royalists, businessmen and Bangkok elites is seeking to overthrow a democratically elected government. This extremist faction wants to roll back democracy and institute a largely appointed parliament because they resent ex-prime minister Thaksin’s hugely successful policies to help the rural poor. The strong subliminal message in this story however seems to be that powerful military and royalist elites in the country are promoting what looks from the outside disconcertingly like an anti-capitalist agenda.
Why should it be so obvious then that commentators, clearly briefed with this background, suddenly become limp and confused as they report on the recent events unfolding in Thailand?
Firstly the history here is not well understood. To many foreign observers, Thailand’s evolution towards constitutional democracy since 1932 may seem to have taken far too long. However the change from an absolute monarchy to a lively, participatory democracy which so far has taken only 76 years in Thailand, dwarfs by comparison the seven hundred years it took for Britain to go from Magna Carta in 1215 to universal suffrage in 1928.
Thailand was never colonized. In a country that was previously bereft of any strong traditions of common law, democracy or constitutionalism, progress towards democracy here was always going to be time consuming and difficult. In this context it seems a little astonishing that so much has been achieved in such a short time with so little bloodshed along the way.
Secondly, while there is a great deal said about the currently elected government enjoying a substantial majority in parliament, we do not hear enough in news reports about vote buying and patronage in Thai elections. Vote buying is such standard procedure in elections here that it would confound many in the countryside if an outsider were to challenge it as ”˜undemocratic’. In every country town and village it is common practice for all voters to be given money and told to vote for a certain candidate. In many villages in the poorest parts of Thailand voters who are paid sign their names in a candidate's book so that the candidate knows who to reward when finally elected.
Is this really a democracy when vote buying is so ubiquitous? Is it still fair to say that the government was truly elected by a majority? How can vote buying be stopped if the very people tasked with stopping it see it as critical to winning the advantage during elections? These are all questions that commentators need to ask.
Many of Thaksin’s 'benefits' to the poor in Thailand were simply cash handouts and easy loans and while the initial $1 a visit health plan was instigated by his health minister, Sudarat Keyurapan, few report that under the coup government in 2006 this fee was eliminated and all public health facilities in the country are now free.
Thirdly, few understand that "rule of law" as we know it in the west is not an innate part of Thai culture and tradition. Until now the rich and powerful have almost invariably been able to nudge, wink and bribe their way past any legal consequences. It is simply a game in which the enforcers are often as corrupt as the criminals. The King rounded on the courts in early 2006, saying that without the rule of law, the country would fail. The current political upheaval has principally been the result of a recent and sustained effort by the courts to bring to book those politicians who see acquiring a role in government as a business proposition in which they invest, by buying votes, and then reap rewards in the form of commissions on megaprojects once they are in office.
In the recent Thaksin administration, an electoral majority, bought largely out of his own huge personal wealth, gave the administration a mandate for corruption on an unprecedented scale in Thailand. This was not simply taking commissions on large infrastructure projects, it included policy corruption in which personal business interests were expanded and increased with government help. Classic conflicts of interest were exploited by the government in a way that had never been seen before in Thailand and were beyond the sophistication of the Thai justice system to either investigate or prosecute.
It is significant that instability should have arisen just now, when Thaksin, his friends and nominees in the current government are facing indictments and convictions in the courts for vote buying, policy corruption, tax evasion and bribery. We have just begun to see the first of many court verdicts to come during July and with them the government’s anxiety about the future has risen to a fever pitch. The prime minister and his party have become more and more isolated and shrill as they claim that their electoral majority entitles them to stay in government in spite of the damage that this is doing to the country’s economy and reputation.
The present nation wide public backlash has been consistent in its condemnation of a government whose main focus since the election has been to change the constitution and knobble the courts in order to wriggle free from any impending court verdicts against its partisans and members.
Fourthly, if one takes time to walk around and look at the main protest site at Government House it’s easy to see that the protesters there are not at all ideologues from middle class elites. They are for the most part normal Thais from all walks of life: women, children, families, students, the elderly, office workers, farmers, tradesmen, state enterprise workers, NGOs and small business owners who are taking time out of their difficult lives to camp out for days in hot weather with no easy access to toilets, food, beds and clean clothes. Many others around the country who cannot be there are sending in donations, food, water, tents and medical supplies to support them.
Last year during the referendum on the constitution, millions of copies of the new constitution were printed and delivered to each home in Thailand. Rising standards of living over the past 20 years, television and better education have raised people’s awareness of the law, as well as the rights and freedoms of those who live in other democracies. People across the country have begun to wake up and see the way their present government works and compare it to how things should work in a healthy and functional democracy.
True, there is still some regional disaffection, particularly in the north and the north east: areas that provide the largest number of seats to parliament and are therefore a strategic target for any party hoping to win a majority in government. However the most strident complaints are coming not from the poorest in those regions, but from powerful village chiefs, officials, police, army bosses and business interests who benefited directly from Thaksin era cash handouts and rewards to cronies. In general many of the poorest people in that region are less than enthusiastic about politics. They just have their heads down trying to survive and are fearful of local warlords and tycoons and their rich and powerful patrons in parliament.
Finally, there are still a lot of shibboleths that need to be challenged about the practicality of the traditional western democratic institutional forms in developing countries like Thailand. In the western view, democracy is often conflated with republicanism, capitalism, legislative party politics and an inevitable debate between left and right. None of this however is absolutely vital to ensuring people’s rights to freely participate in national government.
During the year of military appointed government Thais enjoyed a hiatus of stability. The coup itself was accepted without protest or bloodshed and people were largely resigned to the move. This is in stark contrast to the recent periods of electoral democracy preceding the coup and since. Both of these democratic periods have been utterly chaotic.
Besides this recent experience, Thais, especially Chinese Thais are very much impressed by their neighbour China's enormous economic progress. China, while not yet a democracy, has managed to improve the quality of life for a great many of its people in a very short time. It is relatively stable and there is a "can do" attitude to almost every kind of challenge there which has been noted by many in this region. It’s hard for some not to conclude that maybe democracy might be looking a little like it isn’t worth the candle.
In short, while the strategies being advocated by the protest leaders may seem retrogressive to many, they arise from an understandable sense that many of the forms copied from mature democratic systems that we take for granted in the west seem awkward and unhelpful and a more practical, Thai way must be found to bring economic self-reliance, justice and freedom for all in the country.
Perhaps too all of us need to try to evolve beyond the slogans and platitudes about democracy and begin to propose wider variations and more progressive ideas of governance in this 21st Century.
Jonathan Peter, Bangkok


Sep 6, 2008 at 8:54am


"Democracy must be more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what's for dinner."


Sep 8, 2008 at 2:02am

I am not sure where you are getting all your facts from but having lived and worked here for 16 years, I am afraid I see things some what differently.

Taskins populist policies were designed to do 1 thing get him into power, when there he set about systematically taking massive amounts of money from everyone, including the "BKK Elite".

In reality he gave little to the poor, the 30 Baht health scheme was never funded properly so there ended up with so many exclusions what you could get treated for, that if you had any thing more serious than a cut or cough then forget it, you were not covered.

His give always, were a very cleaver form of vote buying. Normally vote buying requires the politician to up from millions of Baht to get elected, generally they will 500 to 1,000 ($29) Baht for a vote they need to bribe at least a 25% to 30% of the voters or perhaps 10,000 to 20,000 people, so it ends up a lot of money. But Taskins way was that the state paid to bribe voters to elect him.

Once elected he then set about taking as much as 25% of the whole project price for all the mega projects that he initiated. What upset the rich was that normally this money gets handed around so everyone who was in with that party/politician, would get there bit. Taskin took it all.

That's why the coup, that's why the PAD, that's why his proxy Samak is so unpopular as he is there to undo what the coup did and that was try to put things back on an even footing.

Make no mistake about it Taskin was not taking from the rich to give to the poor, he is no Robin Hood. He was taking from everyone and giving only to him self.



Jan 8, 2009 at 11:22pm

Dont pretend to understand whats going on with thai democracy .You have not a clue printing a story like that.Thaksin is a fugitive who ran from justice when he couldnt sway the court .His ridiculous reign started off on Day 1 with falsely declaring his assests which are plenty and ended with him fleeing the country when he was asked to take responsibility for his actions .England demied him unfit to own a soccer club and canceled his visa .If he did he one one of the many things he got away with in Thailand in Canada he would out on his ass .Dont make a champion of the poor out of such a bastard .He is not .Why do u think his own party left him for the democrats ?Think before you write and do some homework