With all sides wrong, there can be no right
published : 19 Jan 2014 at 00:00
newspaper section: News
Looking at the protests against him today, Thaksin Shinawatra is perhaps wondering, "What did I do that was so wrong?"
For those who do not know or pretend not to know, Thaksin was never anti-royal. In fact, he wanted the honour and prestige of royal approvals, which is different from simply being endorsed as prime minister. But a wrong step or two has changed the course of events.
First, for decades the old elites have struggled over the "destiny of Thailand's future". Thaksin happened to invest in a future they do not welcome, to put it mildly. It's a conflict of, not just interests, but survival. We shall leave it there.
Second, in the Thai custom we all have a role that we politely play. Each role fits in to the working scheme of society. There's always a boundary, and expanding one's role beyond it is a gross misconduct and invites conflict.
Allegations against Thaksin include attempting to monopolise political power under his rule, to establish a political/business empire through "policy corruption" and to bring the military under his personal umbrella _ this is a dangerous power game.
Third, as with any developing country steeped in feudalistic tradition, corruption here is an accepted norm. But again there's a boundary one does not cross. Thaksin's crime wasn't that he took a bite out of the mango _ everyone does, even if but a nibble _ but that he's perceived as wanting to swallow the whole tree.
Fourth, there was an effort to build his cult of personality, creating an image as the national paternal figure, the people's saviour. But there can be only one in such a role. It's not Thaksin.
In addition, just as his supporters will never forgive Abhisit Vejjajiva and Suthep Thaugsuban for the events of April and May 2010, the protesters in the streets today will also never forgive Thaksin for it. To the power players, he was establishing himself as the Big Man ruler at their expense, so he made enemies. To the street protesters today, they see him as a pseudo-dictator, a barrier to progress and a usurper of the national identity.
The protesters want more than this. They believe they and Thailand deserve better than this. If one understands Thai history, culture and psyche, one need not wonder what Thaksin did wrong in the eyes of those who stand against him. Nonetheless, this is only half of the story. The fact is more than half of the Central region and almost all of upcountry region support him. Put them all together and any Thaksin puppet, clone or nominee would win any general election in the foreseeable future.
To deny the Pheu Thai government its democratic right to govern is a slap in the face for the more than 15 million people who voted for it, and those upcountry people feel they have been slapped around for far too long.
Thailand today is the historical consequence of our feudalistic past. We may have progressed economically, technologically and in some form of democracy, but our skeletal structure is patronage and our DNA feudalistic. We are a web of tribal networks based on hierarchy, relationships, loyalty, nepotism and benefits.
If a hundred years ago, Thailand was the Bangkok empire ruling over subjugated kingdoms and fiefdoms, a hundred years since this relationship is still very much alive. We have failed to evolve our structure and DNA. Governors are still appointed, budgets and the police force are centralised and development has always been Bangkok-centric, just to name a few examples. In many ways, Bangkok still rules the provinces as an overlord of colonies, rather than as the capital of a democratic country.
Hence, there is a history of uneven development and, over the past decade, a burgeoning resentment of being second-class citizens. There's the decade-long war raging in the Deep South. Meanwhile, upcountry people have awoken to the double standard because Thaksin sounded the alarm, whether by accident or by design.
Add to this the proliferation of information technology through social media and the rapidly changing world around us and it's no longer a matter of accepting one's lot in life with the head bowed meekly. They see Thaksin as the leader who helped them raise their heads and stand with pride.
The growth of upcountry provinces over the past two decades can be owed to overall national development. But we can't deny that Thaksin's policies have also brought much development. Pheu Thai's two-trillion-baht borrowing scheme, most of which will fund a high-speed train network upcountry, will add so much more. Those upcountry people begrudge the Bangkok nucleus for standing in the way of their progress. They feel it's their turn. If the anti-Thaksin people want more and believe they deserve more, then so do the people who support Thaksin.
The leaderships of both sides are highly polarising. For example, the classic case of Thaksin was him saying that those who didn't vote for him should expect nothing from him. Then there's the recent controversy over protest leaders saying that "educated" Bangkok votes should count more than "uneducated" provincial votes. Both are ridiculous.
Their supporters play along, as well. Just take a look on social media, where each side contributes insult and mockery with righteous fervour, fuelling the hatred among countrymen.
Even academics, activists and journalists, those whose pen are supposedly mightier than the sword, join in the foray. Instead of using their knowledge and learned skills to bring sense and reason to the madness, many have latched on to an ideology or tribal faction and offer insult and ridicule not unlike the ignorant and uneducated.
They engage in one-upmanship against each other and applaud their own righteousness. They write easy-to-digest "good guy versus bad guy" narratives and dismiss their chosen opponents with convenient branding.
When even the learned in society succumb to this, it is then no wonder that here we are today, a battleground for two rival feudal tribes vying to control the present and hence shape the future.
It is not what Thaksin did wrong. It is what we all have done wrong and continue to do so. Without first recognising this, there is no solution and there can be no reform.
Contact Voranai Vanijaka via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bangkok Post columnist
Voranai Vanijaka is a columnist, Bangkok Post.