Friday, March 23, 2007

Asia Times: Was Thaksin's Rural Support Nothing But An Illusion?


Sounding out Thaksin's rural legacy

By Shawn W Crispin

CHIANG MAI, Thailand - Ousted Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra hails from the northern province of Chiang Mai, part of the rural heartland where his grassroots political support is supposed to run deepest. Yet six months after the populist leader was toppled in a bloodless military coup, all is calm on the former premier's home front.

Much has been made of Thaksin's strong rural support base, which catapulted him to resounding electoral victories in 2001 and 2005. After seizing power last September, the Thai military
initially fretted that Thaksin loyalists, which they then vaguely referred to as "undercurrents", would try to stir unrest in protest against his removal. The junta has harassed a handful of top Thaksin aides, but to date it has maintained a loose security policy toward the country's northern provinces.

There is perhaps no better gauge of rural Thai sentiment than the news and views expressed on independently run community radio stations. Asia Times Online recently took the pulse of nearly 20 different community and commercial radio stations across northern Thailand, several of which previously broadcast news that favored Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai political party.

Since the coup, stations have almost unanimously changed their tune, shifting from pro-Thaksin to pro-junta commentary. To be sure, part of that shift can be attributed to the ruling junta's initial order to broadcast news that promotes national unity. But after an initial meeting with all station managers at regional army headquarters last September, enforcement of the military's vague guidelines has been slack - if not non-existent.

There is no visible military presence in Chiang Mai city and in provincial areas barring the provincial airport. And few if any of the northern region's more than 1,000 community radio stations, which generally cater to about 20-25 different villages each, have opted to close down in protest. Moreover, anonymous call-in radio programs, which were banned for a few days directly after the coup, are on-air again.

Nearly all of the station managers who spoke with Asia Times Online said callers seldom if ever spoke critically of the interim military government's performance, nor did they yearn for Thaksin's return to power. The lack of grassroots complaints about the coup through community radio's anonymous interactive channel sends a complicated signal about Thaksin's rural legacy - as, too, does the rural grassroots' apparent easy acquiescence and acceptance of the abrupt transition from democratic to military rule.

To be sure, Thaksin's well-marketed populist policies, including a cheap-health-care program, a revolving development fund for most of the country's 77,000 villages, and other populist handouts, were well received by many rural voters. Liberal academics have argued that those well-targeted policies sparked a new political consciousness in Thailand's countryside, where rural voters are now more demanding of both their local and national representatives. Those populist policies, however, represented only one small part of Thaksin's larger political strategy toward the grassroots.


I think this is an interesting article. I don't know if I agree with it. Crispin is arguing that the rural population's support of Thaksin was based on a traditional patron-client relationship.

Put simply, Thaksin provided the goodies; in return, he got political backing. And now that the big patron is gone, the rural folks are going back to their traditional masters, the royalists and the military.

From my own experience talking with the Thaksin supporters, some of whom I got in nasty arguments with, they supported Thaksin not because he gave them something, but because he made the effort to reach out to the rural poor and actually initiated policies for them. They also liked that he was a strong leader and a go-getter who made things happen.

I never liked Thaksin. But I always wanted to know why people did. I don't think his support was always about money and goodies. Many admired him for his leadership and his can do attitude, which is a sorely missing trait in most Thai politicians.

Nevertheless, I understand Crispin's article. When it comes to politics, Thais are fickle. If Thaksin is out of sight, he is out of mind. If there is a political void, it will be filled by some other politician(s) who can take on the patron role.


Anonymous said...

When people ask me about Thai corruption or politics I always refer them to "The Untouchables" All the answers are there.
i.e. Everyone knows where and who the criminals are, the real question is: "Do you really want to do something about it?
Also the idea of picking "good cops" from the tree, not from the barrel.
Also without education, people here admire the "Al Capones" who better themselves and are perceived to be "local boy, made good-dispensing wisdom, assistance and largesse to the needy."
Afraid for as long as the cute & quaint rural population remains uneducated (Which pretty much everyone wants here) It aint going to change much. Most of them see they're being ripped off daily but don't have the courage, motivation, education or wherewithall to change it.

anon said...

Maybe the lack of anti-junta/pro-Thaksin perspectives among existing community radio stations is due to the fact that hundreds of pro-Thaksin community radio stations were shut down immediately after the coup. Those that remained were friendly to the junta.