Only the young can change Thailand
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Only the young can change Thailand


Young supporters of the Move Forward Party gather before its leader and prime ministerial candidate Pita Limjaroenrat heads a victory parade with fellow party members on May 15. (Photo: AFP)
Young supporters of the Move Forward Party gather before its leader and prime ministerial candidate Pita Limjaroenrat heads a victory parade with fellow party members on May 15. (Photo: AFP)

If the past two decades of Thai politics has been about populism and colour-coded conflicts between the yellow-shirted pro-establishment forces against the red shirts aligned with ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the foreseeable future will likely be about structural reforms and a generational clash between the age-old established centres of power against young Thais who are rising up to determine their country's future directions. It is unsurprising that only younger Thais can change Thailand because their old compatriots have too much at stake and too many vested interests in the entrenched and deeply embedded status quo.

One of the biggest ironies in Thai politics is that the red shirts and the Thaksin camp, more broadly, were not really against the establishment. They just wanted the established power holders in Thailand's deep state to pay more attention to them and to share more of the pie with them. During Thaksin's first administration in 2001-2005, institutional reforms took place but did not impinge at all on the prerogatives and interests of the traditional institutions anchored around the military and the monarchy.

For example, the outdated bureaucracy in 2002 was restructured, whereby the hitherto 14 ministries were segmented into 20 for more focused divisions of labour. The new bureaucratic structure more or less has continued to this day. The bureaucracy also was made more connected and accountable to the people, including a "one-stop" scheme to cut red tape and tea money. Ambassadors were turned into team leaders for Thailand's economic interests abroad.

These changes naturally upset bureaucrats but did not threaten the establishment makeup of the monarchy and the military. Yet for its efforts, the Thaksin government was accused of being disloyal to the crown, partly laying the ground for the military coup in September 2006.

The change agents of today are starkly different. Most of them are aged below 45, as opposed to over 65 for the men of the old order. Almost invariably, these younger Thais see eye to eye on their country's need to change. Unlike the Thaksin era, they don't think reform and change are just about income redistribution and bridging the rich-poor, urban-rural divide. They believe that this divide is merely a function of how Thailand's core inner workings are operated and perpetuated by the establishment, as well as the accompanying judiciary and seniormost sections of the bureaucracy.

For them, until these institutions are modernised and brought in line with new demands and expectations within a new constitutional order, Thailand can never truly solve and settle all of the other issues from economic inequality, social injustice, shoddy governance, abuse of power, corruption with impunity, and a military-stacked constitution.

The paramount and formidable agency of younger Thais is indisputably the Move Forward Party which has just won the most recent election, with most of its 151 MPs aged in their 30s who have never been elected before. Move Forward's printed "300 Policies to Change Thailand," spearheaded by a slogan emphasising "good politics and good economy lead to a better future", reads like a textbook of Thailand's governance through reform and change. In fact, the myriad policies are grouped in nine chapters covering the most salient issues, from democratisation and welfare to decentralisation and education, including climate change and health.

The thrust of MFP's reform policies must be seen as a direct threat to the established centres of power. It is already widely known that the party leading the government in waiting, headed by Pita Limjaroenrat, proposes a parliamentary amendment of Section 112, or the lese majeste law. No political party has gone this far. The Thaksin-aligned parties certainly never broached this kind of far-reaching reform. It is the main reason why Mr Pita is facing an uphill struggle to gain enough support from military-appointed senators whose average age is 69.

On military reform, the MFP's pledge must be the butt of jokes and a cause for chuckles among big-shot generals. For example, the winning party wants to impose civilian control over the armed forces, eliminate military courts, reduce manpower by a third, slash the number of generals by more than half to 400, overhaul military education, return military-owned land and businesses respectively to the people and government, and abolish military conscription. These are a straightforward "security sector reform" agenda that is basic elsewhere but sounds radical in Thailand.

Most of MFP's reform pledges unsurprisingly face stiff resistance from the old order and its ageing loyalists. Thailand can never change if old people are in charge because they derive their status in society and their interests and perquisites from the established political order.

Anybody who wants to be somebody in Thailand will want to climb the mobility ladder up to the gates of the Thai elite. The most prominent entrance is "vor por or", Thai alphabetical initials which stand for the National Defence College. Operated by the military since 1955 as a training ground and bulwark against communism during the Cold War, the NDC has become the most coveted channel for "making it" in Thai society.

Eligibility is reserved for up-and-coming senior military officers and bureaucrats aged 48-55 (before retirement at 60). Anyone who is someone in Thailand's top corridors of power and privilege would likely have been in an NDC cohort, each year comprising about 250. It is the most prestigious and powerful network in the country. But there are other upward channels to join the ranks of the Thai elite, including Capital Market Academy ("vor dhor tor") and the King Prachadipok Institute's various mid-career executive programmes for both the private and public sectors. Again, the eligibility age is older than 35 and above 40 in many cases. In addition, other public sector agencies have set up similar networking opportunities dressed up as training programmes in recent years. With cross connections and contacts, these networked bodies together underpin how Thailand's socio-political hierarchy operates and how it is maintained and sustained.

Because they have not been co-opted and enticed to join these elite ranks, younger Thais see this elitist system as part of the problem and the reason for holding back the country. These elites heavily bought into the old order and thus have become the mandarins of the traditional institutions, holding sway and resisting the change and reform that are being demanded by vote results behind the MFP and the Pheu Thai Party to a lesser degree. For reform and change to take place in Thailand, only younger Thais can make it happen.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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