Yellow Shirts in Thailand: A Case for the Minority

Yellow Shirts march en masse in Bangkok. Courtesy The iPinions Journal

Yellow Shirts march en masse in Bangkok. Courtesy The iPinions Journal

In my last post, I looked at the roots of class struggle and related them to the current Thai political crisis. In doing so I argued that from the perspective of the lower classes in Thailand – represented by the “red shirt” protesters – former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was a political champion who, for the first time in their history, offered the impoverished and destitute the dignity of political acknowledgment and the real hope of justice.

In that post I took on a very sympathetic tone toward these long-marginalized, poor farmers from the standpoint that great inequality is a grave injustice. In such circumstances, I intimated, government is an appropriate tool to bring to an end the systematic subjugation of one class by another. Given the tone of the essay, it might easily be read that I believed the demands of the “red shirts” (I will henceforth dispense with the quotation marks to keep them from becoming tiresome) for the one man who had ever paid them any political attention to be kept in office, being born of popular sentiment, were well within the bounds of justice.

There is no question that the poor of Thailand, like the poor of developing nations the world over, suffer from an entrenched destitution that benefits not only the privileged in their own nation but in developed nations as well (or did you not know why your chic pants are so cheap?). If this were all that mattered, the case of Thailand’s politics would be a cut-and-dried verdict of “guilty” on the side of the comparatively privileged yellow shirts, and justice would demand the return of Thaksin and his policies to political eminence.

However, the arena of politics has not earned its cloudy and convoluted reputation for nothing. Cut-and-dried conflicts between good and evil do not often come around, and when they do they are often so shrouded in political smoke and mirrors that it is sincerely difficult for even the best-intentioned to tell which is which. Generally, it is only long after the dust and hot air have settled that we are able to fully appraise the situation, and by then our fate has already been chosen.

In Thailand, a number of people who, though they are not a majority, constitute at least a substantial (or at least vocal) minority, believe the regime of Thaksin and later Yingluck Shinawatra is far from just. It is to this group – the group whose protests have brought Thai politics to the attention of the international community, including yours truly – I dedicate this post. I shall do my best to present their case in the strongest and most sympathetic possible terms. Which should not be difficult to do, since there is much with which to sympathize.

Let us harken back to Caesar. Viewed by Cicero as the destroyer of the republic (and therefore freedom), by poor farmers and soldiers as the deliverer of justice, and by history as – among other things – a supremely talented general and statesman of relentless ambition, Julius Caesar was a man of many potential political faces. Common sense suggests some part of all these pictures is probably true. The true character of Julius Caesar, and correspondingly the overall justness of his reign, was probably a mosaic of ruthlessness, idealism and egotism.

This should not be surprising. The same has been true of many populist leaders. Fidel Castro, for example, was probably both a great liberator and an oppressor. These things we so often dichotomize are not always mutually exclusive.

Thaksin Shinawatra is almost certainly the same. There is no doubt that many of his policies genuinely served to reduce the suffering of the rural poor, but, as with Caesar, there also seems little enough doubt that his motives were (and likely still are) selfish. I say so for two reasons. First, history teaches us that assigning benevolent motives to political action is not playing the odds. Second, remember that this is the same Thaksin Shinawatra that sold 1.9 billion dollars worth of capital completely tax free while simultaneously promoting a heavily redistributive economic policy. While this was technically legal, it was also certainly far from high-minded. If he was determined to sell his majority shares in the nation’s largest communications company to a foreign investor, the least a man of such progressive views could do is throw a few bucks into the tax pool to fund his own projects.

Further evidence of his egocentrism lies in the assertiveness with which he used his power. There is every indication that, like Caesar, Thaksin was not afraid to use his mass popularity to unilaterally force through his governmental agenda. This despite the likelihood of significant collateral damage to other sectors of society that did not constitute his agrarian electorate.

Take, for example, the institution of national health care. An ambitious program for any country, but especially one still lingering under the dubious title of “developing nation,” this program was characteristic of many Thaksin programs in that it was (1) highly populist, (2) highly ambitious and, most importantly, (3) bulldozed into place with few to zero seeming inhibitions about the qualms of the opposition. This in turn has caused the political minority to worry on several fronts.

The first is the brusqueness with which the ex-prime minister put his policies into place. While it is true that the margins of his political victories – having gotten 57% more votes than the next-largest party in 2001 and then a whopping 350% more in 2005 in elections – were substantial enough to justify a strong mandate, a willingness to steam forward with one’s own agenda with so little consideration to the opposition is at best bad taste and at worst politically terrifying. To do so indicates a confidence in the justness and practicability of one’s own policies over and above what a duly prudent leader ought to possess. It is, in fact, one of the surest indicators of megalomania: a towering sense of one’s own infallibility and a lack of hesitation in thrusting one’s own agenda on others.

There are times when such uncompromising action is called for. In cases of egregious, long-standing injustice in which a political imperative depends on the strong arm of justice – such as the Emancipation Proclamation – such unflinching determination can be necessary. In such cases, the remonstrations of the minority, however active (and in the case of slavery, the southern states were very active), really should be bulldozed that opposes it .

However, such ought not to be the rule, and to make it so borders on tyranny. Those of us who live in modern democracies understand very well how frustrating the plodding, contentious grind of governmental gears can be. This is especially true of deliberative bodies such as congress or parliament. However, deliberation and discourse remain our best protections against the human flaws that have so often brought us injustice – flaws like poor foresight, unforeseeable dilemmas, unthinking emotional momentum, and others – and to which overconfident, proactive administrations are particularly susceptible. Haste and pride are the surest guarantors of poor foolishness and abuse. And in government, foolishness and abuse produce injustice.

While the red shirts, in viewing Thaksin as their champion, exulted in the rapid, uncompromising implementation of policies like national health care and farm subsidies, it is entirely possible that their enthusiasm, affected both by Thaksin’s appreciable charisma and their own close stake in the benefits of those programs, was shortsighted. After all, as the examples of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China have shown, good intentions and high ideals are no sure means to justice. Both of these nations were characterized by nothing so much as regimes convinced of the strength of their mandate and unhesitant to employ their own policies without any consideration of the opposition (in the few cases it was allowed to exist). Such assertiveness is a regular feature of oppressive governments.

Of course, Thaksin Shinawatra did not ride a violent revolution into power. He had large vote margins to back up his programs. I would even go one step farther and argue that he also had the moral high ground that comes from representing an underprivileged section of society. Most of his programs, such as national health care, had the redeeming quality of being socially benevolent.

Nevertheless, even this characterization of being “moral” is only one man’s opinion. As for the virtuousness bestowed by a public mandate, tyrannies may be acted out just as well by majorities as minorities (something often forgotten in the liberal Western world). Slavery was certainly supported by heavy majorities of the southern public for long stretches of time, but this did not prevent it from being unjust.

Having a strong mandate does not absolve one from the obligations of responsible leadership. One is still obliged to follow due process; give due consideration to the interests of all people – not just one’s constituents – and attempt to be prudent and thoughtful in all decisions. These requirements are innate to the nature of leadership, and their weight cannot be measured in ballot counts.

While the red shirts view the yellow shirts’ opposition to Thaksin as privileged-party obstructionism, then, it is probable that yellow shirts view it as nothing less than the defiance of tyranny. Alarmed by the charismatic momentum with which the Thai Rak Thai party swept into power and the subsequent heavy-handedness with which it imposed its agenda, the red shirts fear – perhaps rightly, and certainly prudently – the development of an unstoppable political machine. The historical tendency for populist regimes, once having gained a critical mass of power, to transform into oppressive juggernaughts should make us all wary.

The dangers created by populist parties that come to be perceived as the “saviors” of the common citizen extend far beyond the reign of the Thaksin Shinawatras that spawn them. When a democracy is young and a large number of its voters are uneducated and isolated – indeed, even when its voters are highly educated and worldly wise – politics becomes as much a game of identities as of policy.

Examples proliferate, and the valor of their leaders could scarcely be more pristine. In India, Gandhi’s INC has ridden its charismatic leader’s fame to nearly seventy consecutive years of political dominance, and for the majority of that time has been subjected to the dubious model of nearly-hereditary government. The Nehru and Gandhi families seem to take alternating turns at the helm. In South Africa, perennial ineptitude and chronic corruption have not stopped the late Nelson Mandela’s ANC from retaining its stranglehold on politics for two decades. There is every indication it will continue to do so for at least two more.

The tale is the same everywhere. Chavez’s United Socialists in Venezuela. The communist parties of Cuba, China and the Soviet Union. The Caesars of Rome. Repeat ad infinitum throughout history. All of these movements rose on the back of charismatic populist leaders, then parlayed their popularity into a monopoly on political power. The pattern is obvious and, apparently, inevitable.

In citing these examples I am not equating them. India’s INC is not the same as the Communist Party of Russia. One is the leader of a liberal democracy and one was the leader of an oppressive dictatorship. But regardless of their specific manifestations, there are severe problems with all movements that sustain their popularity through their connection with charismatic prime movers.

The first potential problem is what happened in Rome with Julius Caesar. During his life and the life of Augustus after him, Rome prospered and flourished. This is because, couched however it was in a shroud of egotism, both Julius and Augustus were blessed with exceptional administrative talent and a certain level of humanity.

However, when they died, their institution of imperial rule did not die with them. As a direct result, Rome found itself in the hands of Caligulas and Neros whose barbarism was equal to Hitler’s and Stalin’s. The only thing that prevented them from meting out the same level of horror as the Soviet Union and the Third Reich was a lack of technological advancement.

This is the primary and most dangerous problem with popular movements that cement political power in a single party (or, in this case, family). Single-party power is, essentially, unchecked power. Unchecked power begs abuse and atrocity. In fact, over a long enough time scale I would argue it makes them inevitable. Even if this generation of leaders proves benevolent, when they die they will leave behind them a door wide open for sadists and despots. Sooner or later one will step through.

Should such despots by some stroke of luck fail to surface, there remain still more problems. The first of these is that lack of political competition breeds complacency, as is well evidenced in the liberal democracy of South Africa.

Having risen to power on the back of the meteoric figure of Nelson Mandela and embraced the label of “emancipators” from the apartheid regime, the African National Congress has essentially zero worries about losing the upcoming election or any in the foreseeable future. Is it any surprise that a party in such a transparently comfortable position would feel little compulsion to root out corruption or risk its political capital on the implementation of seriously progressive programs? It should not be. Nor should we expect them to take any such risks until their political monopoly is seriously threatened by some external force.

This is the perfectly intuitive result of a popular movement championed by a charismatic leader aligned with a particular party. The leader becomes the symbol for all the nation’s hopes and – vitally – continues to embody them long after he or she is gone. The party, blessed with the Midas hand of being the “party of the Liberator,” proceeds to milk it for all it’s worth. And, as with the original hand of Midas, the results are usually horrific.

In South Africa, it is no stretch to say the ANC’s success is not dependent on its political platform or its efficacy, nor even on the charisma of its candidates (though that doesn’t hurt). It is dependent in its entirety upon a great figure whose passing the world so recently mourned, and its consequent identity as the party of liberation. These things will continue to be true – and the ANC will continue to win elections – unless and until it makes a series of catastrophic mistakes it cannot blame on somebody else; or until the education and political awareness of the South African public dramatically increases; or until enough generations pass that the ache of ongoing injustice surpasses that brought forth by the deep wound of apartheid.

It is an ugly truth but a truth nonetheless that in our unenlightened state we humans operate better, sharper and more faithfully when spurred by the pressure of competition. I sincerely believe that a certain number of people are perfectly able to motivate themselves entirely by ideals, but a scholar would have to be blind not to notice the tendency for necessity to breed excellence. Exceptions undoubtedly exist, but they are just that: exceptions. Most people, at most times, will produce more when placed in some kind of competitive environment.

This is why people are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars in university fees. It is not that universities somehow magically hold knowledge we cannot access anywhere else. Any schmuck with a library card and an Internet connection has access to the entire repository of knowledge collected in all of human history. No, the chief difference between university and a library with wi-fi is that in a university you are pressed to be productive by your own financial investment, the demands of your professors and the example of your peers. At the library you are only pressed by your desperation to escape the proletarian dungeon of capitalism.

The sharpening touch of competition also applies to political parties. In the presence of competing parties, each party is forced to innovate, campaign, formulate new ideas, and present them palatably and implement them effectively in order to maintain their relevance in the political race. However, in the absence of competition politicians are impelled only by the extent to which they are actually convicted by their ideals. Any honest surveyor of the political spectrum will know that this is a precarious force indeed. Idealism there may be in politics, but the threat of a lost election is a good insurance policy in times of shortage.

This erosion of political efficacy, then, is the second danger of quick-rising movements spearheaded by a charismatic leader. In coming to be seen as liberators, they attain a monopoly on political power. This monopoly leads inevitably to stagnation.

It also leads to corruption. The connection between government and money has never been any secret, but the reciprocal relationships that develop between business and government become more likely to develop the longer a given party holds power. This is because the party can be depended on to carry out long-term programs to the benefit of certain parts of the private sector, and because the stability of figures within politics allows relationships to blossom. Not surprisingly, stagnation and corruption are two of the most chronic problems with South Africa’s ANC.

(Here I might point out that two parties are scarcely better than one. “Gridlock” is a more guttural word for “stagnation,” and if you think the long-standing affair between Washington and Wall Street isn’t properly called corruption, you need to develop a more nuanced view of the world).

This leads naturally into the final and, in the case of Thailand, perhaps most crucial point. This is the radically different way in which the opposing groups view the character of Thaksin Shinawatra.

Unlike the red shirts, the yellow shirts do not see Thaksin as a philanthrope of celestial ideals. They see, instead, a cynical and opportunistic businessman manipulating a naive and gullible public. And while his policies may take the form of populism, his aim is (and I use the present tense here because despite his exile Thaksin is assumed to still be active in Thai politics through his sister) the consolidation of political force. In their view, the red shirts supporting Thaksin are a mass of easily-manipulated rubes being used as pawns in the game they do not understand.

Here it is critical to remind ourselves the country we are talking about is Thailand, a country where terms like “poverty” and “isolation” may obtain to an extent to which we of affluent countries have difficulty imagining. It is easy enough for politicians to manipulate voters in nations where information access is plentiful, education is widespread and the public is well acquainted with the processes of democracy. How much easier must it be in a nation where people’s awareness of the doings of their own nation, let alone the world, is minimal, and so is their education?

The red shirts of Thaksin Shinawatra have been traditionally marginalized, so it is easy to take their side from a standpoint of justice. However, the implications of their poverty go both ways. On the one hand, the improvement of their lives is a clear moral imperative and gives weight to their case. On the other, their historical impoverishment cannot have taught them to navigate the complexities of modern politics and their lack of education must surely limit their ability to form or assess models of government.

It is difficult to write such things without appearing elitist and, having more than a drop of populist blood in my veins, I have no wish to be labeled so. Though it oughtn’t be necessary, let me clarify that a lack of education and an isolated upbringing do not in any way make a person unable to decipher justice. Every person has within them that capability, for it arises from reason, and although reason may be sharpened by a good education it is certainly not created by it.

It is not a disparaging view of their logical faculties that makes me say rural Thais are probably in a worse position to assess the state of Thai politics than the urban middle class. It is simple common sense. A person who has had Internet access, exposure to cosmopolitan life, and a view of the modern world and the modern political arena for most of their life is bound to have an advantage over someone who has lived in isolated, toiling, undereducated obscurity and comes from generations of the same. This prevalent disparity is tragic and appalling, but that does not make its results any less real.

Unfortunately, the comparative naïveté – which is to say, the lack of knowledge; not the lack of intelligence – of the undereducated and impoverished also makes them prime targets for manipulation. Indeed, naïveté is the food on which manipulation feasts. The rural Thai poor are less likely to have the savvy of hardened political followers accustomed to silver-tongued leaders. Their lack of educational training also makes them less likely to be aware of the long-term and far-reaching consequences of public programs.

Combined with the very real fact of their oppression, this is the perfect recipe from which a Machiavellian might concoct a campaign: a suffering majority with a desire for redress, the fervor of those who know justice is on their side, and lacking the seasoning to know they are being played.

This seems to be the dominant belief of yellow shirts, and it is what allows them to endorse liberal rights while simultaneously impeding the democratic process. They believe that democracy in a country like Thailand, where the majority are unacquainted with its processes and undereducated in political theory, is not suitable.

Much like many ancient Greeks and Romans, the yellow shirts’ lack of faith in the wisdom of the public has led them to oppose democracy. The rise of Thaksin Shinawatra, whom the yellow shirts argue is nothing more than an amoral opportunist, proves their point. If democracy is flawed, a billionaire playing on the naïveté of a susceptible populace to gain political power is exactly what we would expect to see. The crux of the yellow shirts’ case, then, is the fear of tyranny. And the single-party rule with virtually unchecked power to which the Thai Rak Thai party appeared to be headed is a recipe for tyranny if ever there was one.

Thus ends my presentation of the case of the yellow shirts, and I hope I have done them justice in presenting their arguments. By no means has my analysis been exhaustive (though by word count you might be inclined to think so), but I have tried to include at least some of the most important arguments and perspectives of both sides.

My next post will be my last on the Thai crisis, barring any new and compelling developments. In it, I will offer my own personal analysis of all the different factors that seem most relevant and vital to the conflict. I will state where I think there are clear conclusions to be made and where there are more questions to be asked. In the end, I hope to illuminate some of the pressing issues of justice embodied in the crisis and to offer some insight on how we ought, as citizens, to participate with the proper combination of idealism and wariness in affairs both domestic and global. I hope you’ll join me then.


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