The change you must believe in

Thailand needs change. Everyone says it. But how do we go about it? Change can be implemented from the bottom up, or from the top down. The former is revolution. The latter is reform. We should prefer the latter, as the former is more likely than not to lead to bloodshed and destruction. World history is full of examples, the Arab Spring being the most recent.

In his book The Next Decade, George Friedman argued that the three US presidents who defined American greatness lied, violated the law and betrayed principles to achieve that greatness.

According to Friedman, to preserve the union, Abraham Lincoln initiated a concerted programme of lies and deception, trampled on civil liberties and state rights and suspended the right to habeas corpus. The United States was preserved.

Meanwhile, to assure the survival of democracy, Franklin Roosevelt deceived the public and went against the Congress, as both preferred neutrality prior to America's entrance into World War II.

He strong-armed the country into entering the war and put innocent American citizens of Japanese ancestry into prison camps. The US became a super power.

And to bring down the Soviet Union and create US hegemony, Ronald Reagan lied to the American public, sponsored military dictatorships, supported Muslim jihadists, engaged Israel to sell arms to Iran and used the profits to fund Nicaraguan insurgents. American nationalism in the 1980s was off the hook and the US became the sole superpower.

Friedman believes that master politicians are master illusionists, and these three presidents were able to manage the national psyche to get the people to believe in and go along with their grand schemes.

This is in contrast to George W Bush and Barack Obama. The former was never able to manage the national psyche, while the latter got off to a good start, but somehow lost it along the way. The slogan "Yes, we can," became "No, not really."

Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan were what Friedman called Machiavellian presidents. They had strong moral purposes and were willing to act immorally and illegally to achieve those ends.

The key strategy to their success was to persuade and inspire the nation to follow the paths they set. They deceived and broke laws when necessary and dragged those still unconvinced kicking and screaming towards their goals.

A leader doesn't simply rule, he or she must lead. Today, according to Friedman, US hegemony is owed to these men.

Since the 1932 coup that ended absolute monarchy, Thailand has been managed by a series of master politicians who were also master illusionists. The national psyche was managed by a succession of military dictators. The end goal wasn't to achieve national greatness, however, but to keep the country and hierarchy intact as communism toppled neighbouring regimes.

But since General Prem Tinsulanonda stepped down in 1988, ushering in a new era for Thailand's democracy, the country and its national psyche have been mismanaged by a series of amateurs.

This is not to say the days of military dictators were preferable _ don't foam at the mouth just yet _ it is to say that Thailand for the past 20 years has been in need of a true leader.

From Gen Chartchai Choonhavan to current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and everyone in between, the only premier we have had that came close to embodying true leadership was - you may foam at the mouth now - Thaksin Shinawatra.

In 2001, he came into power by persuading and inspiring - and, yes, also by buying. As a master politician and illusionist, he was able to manage the national psyche. To say deception and illegal moves were also used would be stating the obvious.

Actions such as paying off the debts to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) ahead of deadline or speeding up the completion of Suvarnabhumi airport ahead of schedule may seem unnecessary and an act of showboating to some. But both were part of a sound strategy in managing the national psyche.

Such actions and others showed the people of Thailand that yes, we can. We can achieve. We can advance. We can show the world. We can be proud. We have risen from the ashes. The people were so convinced that many today still believe that Thaksin paid off the IMF out of his own pockets. Truly.

The Thai people were in a dire state brought on by the 1997 financial crisis. We were sick of yahoo feudal lords masquerading as politicians. We were tired of unstable politics that never once saw a government complete its term. The country suffered a crisis of confidence, and Thaksin restored that confidence.

But, as Friedman argued, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan were driven by moral purposes. The end to their means was American greatness. While those three "great" US presidents and Thaksin were accomplished leaders in managing the national psyche, it begs the question: Was Thaksin driven by the moral purpose of wanting to achieve greatness for Thailand, or was it all merely for himself and his clan?

The answer, dear readers, is yours to decide.

Whatever the answer, it is clear that Thaksin wasn't able to maintain his hold on the national psyche. The evidence of this was not tanks rolling in the streets to oust him in 2006; that was just a consequence.

The evidence came with the actions of the people - lo-so, middle-so and hi-so - many of whom voted for him, who later took to the streets against him in the form of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD).

Rightly or wrongly, those people and others who did not participate in the movement came to the conclusion that he was not driven by the moral purpose of wanting to achieve greatness for Thailand, but rather he was driven by personal greed for himself and his clan.

But then, neither the coup council nor the PAD were able to persuade and inspire, to manage Thailand's national psyche. And that's also true of the succession of prime ministers from Surayud Chulanont to Samak Sundaravej to Somchai Wongsawat to Abhisit Vejjajiva and finally to Ms Yingluck.

Machiavellian or otherwise, none of these leaders has proven to be a master politician, a master illusionist who can persuade and inspire and manage Thailand's national psyche.

This is not to say that Thailand needs a Machiavellian leader. One must be very careful with the view that immoral and/or illegal means to achieve an end are justifiable, however moral that end might be. This is true not least because leaders have the tendency to try to sell an immoral end as a moral one, and the people also have a tendency to buy into that.

As well, if the confederate states had won the war, if Nazi Germany had been triumphant, or if the United States had crumbled instead of the Soviet Union, Friedman would surely have a different view of the three presidents.

It's not how you play the game; it's whether or not you win.

It won't matter how great a leader you are if in the end you don't win. A horrible leader on the other hand may be remembered by history as a great leader if in the end he somehow finds a way to win.

I'm sure many readers would argue that Ronald Reagan actually falls into this category.

Change is either from the bottom up or from the top down. The former is revolution. The latter is reform. We should prefer the latter for reasons already stated.

But a top-down reform would require a leader who can persuade and inspire, to manage the national psyche, and to also drag the opposition, the cynics and the naysayers kicking and screaming towards the goal of achieving national greatness.

Who is this man, or woman, for Thailand?

The question brings us back to square one.


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

About the author

columnist
Writer: Voranai Vanijaka
Position: Political and Social Commentator