Rise of the planet of the merchants

When the merchant elites buy up the provincial lords, what do the traditional elites have left in their hands? The answer requires a bit of background.

When General Prem Tinsulanonda stepped down in favour of a democratic general election in 1988, the decade that follows, the 1990s, could be dubbed "Rise of the Planet of the Apes". With the power vacuum, provincial lords, mafia godfathers and gangsters in uniform ran amok in parliament and in the capital. It was a period when governments came and went, brought down by corruption scandals. The newly rich borrowed frivolously and invested unwisely, while the banks were only too happy to join the party.

This was the time when the so-called "kingmakers" rivalled the actual leaders of the country in fame and power. Sanoh Thientong, Newin Chidchob and Suwat Liptapanlop were provincial lords who shaped the nation. The 1990s was also a time when there were very few rules in Bangkok. Law-trumping and power-flaunting individuals got away with anything you can imagine. There was no legal order, social order or any kind of order. It was a time when anything went, a time of cowboys and yahoos. When the 1997 economic crisis hit, everyone knew it was time for a change.

The traditional elites had high hopes that the Democrats would be able to wrest the torch from the military strongmen. They weren't cowboys and yahoos, but learned gentlemen who never could win a general election or sustain a government because they never could bring the provincial lords to heel.

The merchant elites traditionally stayed out of politics (not counting behind-the-scenes manoeuvres), but with cowboys and yahoos running amok and the future uncertain, they kept a close watch. Finally they felt that the traditional elites' time was up and the yahoos and cowboys needed to be put on a leash in the new globalised, capitalistic world - in short, the "real world".

So with the backing of the merchant elites, Thaksin Shinawatra in 2001 brought with him political stability, social order and populism. Extrajudicial killings, human rights abuses and infringement on freedoms became systematic government policies. Yes, he even brought order to these things.

He fought corruption by rewriting the laws to make his investments legal. Whereas the traditional elites are above the rules and the provincial lords break the rules, the merchant elites change the rules.

Thaksin did what no other post-Prem government could: he got things done.

During the Democrat-led coalition government (2009-2011), a major obstacle for Abhisit Vejjajiva was that the squabbling and power-grabbing of the provincial lords undermined the effectiveness of his government. Thaksin did what Mr Abhisit couldn't - he brought the provincial lords to heel. These relics of the 1990s are still relevant, mind you, and have some teeth left, but they are not prominent. Here we must take an aside and salute Chalerm Yubamrung as the one relic still standing tall. The man is good at what he does.

Returning to history, the downfall of Thaksin was twofold.

First, the traditional elites were alarmed by his haughty arrogance, moves to reel the military into the fold and a threatening cult of personality. Second, dissension rose among the ranks of the merchant elites due to broken promises and deals reneged on. (Corruption wasn't to blame, merely a convenient excuse to rally the anti-Thaksin opposition.)

With the 2006 military coup, the traditional elites employed the military, an old strategy in a new game, and it worked at the time. But time also proved that the old strategy was no match for a savvy and sustained marketing campaign, and so the Thaksin political machine came roaring back.

To the question posed at the top of this column - when the merchant elites buy up the provincial lords, what do the traditional elites have left in their hands? - the answer is the military.

However, as Bangkok Post military analyst Wassana Nanuam wrote on Oct 18, Thaksin is employing "the right tactics" through his sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who uses her female charms when dealing with the armed forces.

Adding to that, with key positions in the Royal Thai Police and the Defence Ministry staffed by Thaksin loyalists, it is merely a matter of time before big brother himself is back.

If a hardline right-wing royalist like the late Khattiya "Seh Daeng" Sawatdiphol can be turned into at Thaksinista and martyr of the red shirt movement, and if 2006 coup leader Sonthi Boonyaratglin now works for the Pheu Thai government and sponsored a reconciliation bill critics have said is a vehicle to grant amnesty to Thaksin, then really, what chance do the others have? For the time being, however, the strategy is to simply keep the soldiers in the barracks. Thus, the instrument of Thaksin's downfall is being addressed with "the right tactics".

As for the ranks of the merchant elites, of course not everyone was or will be Thaksin's ally. But for most of the merchant elites, business is business, it's nothing personal. In Thailand's political divide, they are the most unbiased group.

Some liquidated when the wind was sweeping against Thaksin, simply because one doesn't invest in a falling stock. Some stuck by him through thick and thin due to personal loyalty or simply because they were hedging their bets or speculating on a future market.

To identify who the latter are, simply look at the names of companies blacklisted by the Abhisit government after the political chaos in 2010 for funding the uprising. But they are perhaps only a fraction of Thaksin's backers.

If we want to look into the future and predict who will win this battle for Thailand, it is best to look at who the merchant elites are betting on, and perhaps it's a bit early to tell. Perhaps they are still surveying the market and conducting focus groups. But if a picture is worth 1,000 words, then dig up the front page of last Wednesday's Bangkok Post, and look at the photo of members of Forbes magazine's first and second richest families in Thailand posing with Thaksin (his family is number 24) at an event in Dubai.

In a feudal world, kings and lords are in charge. In a warring world, military strongmen are in charge. In a capitalistic world, where the world order is measured by GDP indexes and where nations form alliances based on economic cooperation - as in Asean Economic Community (AEC) - guess who the people in charge are.

Someone once told me that even the president of the United States - whether Democrat or Republican - takes his cue from the Wall Street bankers, the oil merchants and the arms dealers. They decide the course of the nation, while the president and the people are kept busy wrestling over domestic issues such as abortion, gay rights and immigration.

Winston Churchill once said that "that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried". Half a century later, democracy and capitalism go together like Batman and Robin.

Think of the plot of those Hollywood sci-fi movies where nations and the world are run by corporations, while the mass are but labourers/consumers content to survive through populist handouts, occupied by games and pacified by over-the-counter drugs.

The rise of the merchants is simply the next stage in the saga of man; a stage dictated less by the might of arms and more by economic supply and demand.

There's little money left to be made in the US and Europe, but still plenty to be made in Asia. What of the AEC? Who's busy making deals in Myanmar and Cambodia? Who's consolidating power domestically and striking deals internationally? Who's ready for this brave new world?

The merchant elites understand how the modern world works and are buying it up, while the rest of us are kept busy arguing over the rice pledging scheme and arguing over who loves the King more.

If one group of people prays to the past and gets bogged down by the petty squabbles of the present, while another group buys up the future, who's going to win?

Look for a hostile takeover in two to five years.

The question for the future then is: Will Thailand's merchant elites make up the the worst government ever, except for all the ones that have been tried before in this Kingdom?

Contact Voranai Vanijaka via email at voranaiv@bangkokpost.co.th.

About the author

Writer: Voranai Vanijaka
Position: Political and Social Commentator