Wednesday, January 31, 2007

International Herald Tribune article about Thailand

Thailand's Lesson in Populism

BANGKOK: Four months after welcoming the bloodless coup here — the 18th military takeover in seven decades and blessed by King Bhumibol Adulyadej — Thais are showing signs of buyer's remorse.

Frustrated with the junta's delays in drafting a new constitution and bumbling of economic policy, the Bangkok intelligentsia and urban middle class that backed the September coup now fear they may have destroyed Thailand's fragile democracy in the name of saving it from the autocratic yet elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

But if the elite and middle class are looking for someone to share the blame for their predicament, they need only look in the mirror.

Rarely acknowledged here is that Thaksin was as much a symptom, as a cause, of deep divisions in Thai society. Yes, the billionaire-turned-politician was a classic populist who shamelessly exploited social, economic and class inequalities to win three elections and tighten his iron-fisted rule. But these fissures existed long before Thaksin and, if ignored, guarantee that Thailand, like other polarized societies, will remain easy prey for populist authoritarians.

"There has always been tension between Bangkok, the center, and the regions," says Surin Pitsuwan, a former foreign minister and opposition Democrat Party member of Parliament. "Rebellions have come and gone with Bangkok steadily gaining the upper hand." Indeed, even as they opposed military dictatorships, the urban middle class often applauded their rulers for stamping out peasant movements and ignoring protesting farmers.

Not even the Thai economic miracle of recent decades could spare the country from one of the world's highest income inequalities — the wealthiest 20 percent of Thais earn an estimated 60 percent of the nation's income and the poorest 20 percent earn less than 5 percent.

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