Generals have the power to end money politics
I felt l was stepping into times past when I returned to Bangkok in early September. All my Thai friends and associates, taxi drivers, wait staff, members of the ammart elite, vendors in MBK shops, were more relaxed, happier, than at any time during my occasional visits over the last 30 years.
I think their new attitude was a reaction to the change of government. From a common Thai cultural point of view, at last something was going right.
Experiencing this change in attitude, and especially reading news stories of the "army" doing this and that to enforce laws long ignored by politicians, immediately brought back memories of the Sarit Thanarat military government of the early 1960s, which ruled Thailand when I first arrived as a teenager.
Sarit was then, and still today is for many older Thais, respected and appreciated for getting things done without seemingly endless wrangling and pointless interpersonal entanglements. This current military government seems to be delivering something of similar value to many Thais.
What could that be precisely?
First, whatever it is, it lies beyond the cultural framework of most farang sensibilities.
Second, it is the value Thais have long placed on proper order.
Thai Theravada political order rested on four key cultural assumptions: First, the job of government is to do its duty of service. Second, popular involvement with government doing its duty should be minimal. Third, to retain legitimacy government must advance the public good, not personal interest. Fourth, ordinary people should follow the instructions of those with power.
These four propositions lie at the centre of Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha's administration today. The traditional "Thainess" of his government, therefore, is incontrovertible.
In seeking to provide borihan/pok krong, which is the Thai vision of government as administration of the common good, Gen Prayut and his military colleagues (just as Sarit had done in his time) recruited experienced, respected civilian technocrats to assist in making decisions.
Second, the style of Gen Prayut's administration is not to invite much open-ended participation in decision making. Political parties and their squabbles are not welcome at this time. Nor are academics, intellectuals and others who would impose themselves on the decision-making process.
Third, in making a systematic attack on corruption as the cornerstone of his administration, Gen Prayut committed to advancing the public good, not private privilege.
Fourth, and this grates the most with farang and independent-minded Thais, the government expects the people to be more docile and obedient under the supervision of those in positions of public authority.
Anecdotal evidence supported by polls of public opinion indicate widespread public support for the new government's approach.
But even in the face of this success, the question arises: Are these achievements only temporary? Will political conflict and dysfunction come again once elections are put back in place and money politics will not be under supervision and control?
To me, Thai politics started to get off track with the rise of money politics in the 1990s.
That was when I detected that something was culturally amiss. There were growing tensions and dissensions — overt and covert, grabs for power, and crony economic advantages.
With the benefit of hindsight supported by cultural analysis of "Thaksinism", I now think that what was then driving the destabilising trends in Thai politics was a cultural mismatch between the new money, politics and traditional sensibilities. This mismatch culminated in the polarisation of Thai politics into the recent pro- and anti-Thaksin factions.
Money politics as a politico-cultural phenomenon can be associated with south Chinese value patterns coming into Thai politics through the very successful assimilation of Chinese immigrants.
To over-generalise to make the point quickly, south Chinese religious practices focus on a heavenly system of rewards and punishments whereby believers can easily use money to obtain protection and intercession from powerful spirits.
Money politics in Thailand used money to buy power and opportunity in line with these traditional practices, perverting government away from public duty into an instrument of private advantage. Money politics parties in Thailand grew more and more influential through the expansion of hierarchies of retainers loyal to the "big boss" of each party, who, in return, provided his followers with economic advantages.
Parliamentary faction leaders in Bangkok grew their patronage networks out to villages and into the police and government agencies.
The goal of these leaders was to capture government power and use it to promote the well-being of their clients.
The second mismatch of new political beliefs and practices come from the assimilation of Western norms of individualism with expectations of bottom-up, outside-in, contributions to decision-making.
From this point of view, elections were the principal test of legitimacy, not providing a harmonious order for society. And, human rights were the grounds for protest and mobilisation of non-elite opinion.
Thaksin's genius was to unite under his sway both money politics and Westernised preferences for elections and mass participation.
On the one hand, he collected under his wing most of the money politics parties and factions and rewarded their fealty with access to government privileges.
On the other hand, with populist public subsidies, he staked out a claim to enjoyment of mass support.
Gen Prayut and his colleagues have stepped in with the mission of attenuating the underlying cultural dynamics bringing about that polarisation. The previous 2006-2007 effort by the military to accomplish this had failed.
For the current government to be successful in its effort to restore a more Thai system of governance, the generals must do more than enact a new constitution.
The generals must first and foremost disestablish the current police force and create a new culture of policing. Money politics and bad policing sustain one another handsomely.
Second, the generals must get to the nerves and ligaments of corruption across the board and in every ministry and local administration.
Both steps — if successful — will cut the heart out of money politics and save Thailand.
Prof Stephen B Young is global executive director of Caux Round Table.