Tag Archives: Shinawatra

Economic growth is not enough


By Sol Sanders

Events in Thailand give the lie to conventional wisdom that rapid economic development leads inevitably to political progress and stability, were such evidence still required.

Thailand has made remarkable economic progress in the last half century, climbing into the ranks of middle income countries. Hit by the 1967 East Asian Financial Crisis and then later by the 2007-08 worldwide financial debacle, its gross national product nevertheless has more than doubled since 1995. Income disparities – both between the Bangkok capital megatropolis of 5.4 million and the countryside and among individuals – is high but the latter is trending downward. Only 15% of its 70 million people live below the poverty line, mostly in rural areas Access to pure drinking water and sanitation is universal. Maternal and infant mortality have dropped dramatically. Unemployment had been less than 1% until this latest coup. Foreign investors have piled in, notably making Thailand the center for automobile manufacturing and assembly in Southeast Asia.

Nor can the explanation for Thailand’s political troubles be blamed, as it is so often in Africa and Asia, on a colonial past. The British and French were content in the 19th century race for empire to permit the Thais to live in a backwater, a kind of neutral zone between the expanding the British Indian Empire [including Burma and Malaya next door] and French Indochina including Laos, Thailand’s Siamese twin. [An obscure footnote to history: London’s notorious “22 demands” made on a defeated, tacit Japanese ally immediately after World War II, were rejected when local U.S. Office of Strategic Services veterans fabricated Washington support for the Thais.]

Breakdowns in the constitutional monarchy peacefully established in a bloodless revolution in 1932 have repeatedly brought the military to power. [This is the twelfth takeover in 80 years.] These, too, have generally been peaceful, often with the approval of the elite and the King. Some observers even saw these military usurpations as a breakthrough for its largely rural cadre against the growing domination of emigrant Overseas Chinese merchants in Bangkok with their strong familial ties. That contrasted strongly with what cultural anthropologists have characterized as the loose traditional Thai family structure.

But economic development has churned the Thailand mix. The 15 years of civilian rule before the 2006 coup, based more or less on free elections and a growing civil order, created a new base for populist politics. There was a generally adverse reaction to the 2006 coup, and that may explain the repeated announced reluctance of the military to intervene again this time.

The new order was skillfully exploited by Thaksin Shinawatra whose Thai Rak Thai Party captured the prime ministry from 2001 until 2006 when he was overthrown by the military. Shinawatra, who at the same time he exploited his government role to enrich himself, extended extremely popular new services to the rural population, solidifying his popularity. [That appeal was, incidentally, despite the fact that he was a third generation Overseas Chinese which, uncharacteristically from the past, he proudly acknowledged.]

The final straw in corruption allegations against him came in an under-the-table tax evading deal to sell his electronics empire to Singapore’s government investment corporation. It incidentally was run by the Singapore Prime Minister’s wife, daughter-in-law of Singapore’s grey eminence, Lee Kwan Yew, a leading apostle of clean if authoritarian government.

But the military — supported by the old Bangkok vested interests — could not break Shinawatra’s political hold, eventually leading to the installation of his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, as prime minister from 2011 to 2014. As a fugitive on various charges he called the shots for her government from fleshpots in Dubai, London, Hong Kong and elsewhere. A disastrous corruption-ridden government plan for subsidized purchase of rice – as much as 50% above market prices — further tarnished her reputation..

Opposition to her prime ministry brought increasingly violent street demonstrations – and hints of growing paramilitary intervention. So-called yellow shirts, predominately urban, middle-class supporters of the old establishment staged massive protests in the country’s capital for months and boycotted elections in February. The Shinawatras’ backing is the so-called red shirts, with their base in the country’s rural northeast and north

Perhaps the most dangerous new element in the equation is growing speculation about the monarchy. The almost godlike reverenced for ailing 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej has not transferred to his son, the 54-year-old former air force pilot, Prince.Vajiralongkorn. He has a reputation as a womanizer and for corruption. The Thai constitution and practice does not automatically insure primogeniture but theoretically leaves the succession decision to the parliament. So succession on Bhumibol’s death could be another question mark, especially given the popularity of one of his younger daughters.

Opposition to the Shinawatras tends to take on a royalist coloration in a country which has a lesse majeste law with stiff penalties comparable to those in European countries before constitutional monarchies were established. This censorship of any discussion much less public criticism of the monarchy has led to obfuscation of the role of the Crown Property Bureau. The CPB not only owns much of Bangkok’s prime real estate but has vast holdings in other crown corporations, some of them originally begun in the early industrialization period with the Danish East Asiatic Company. Although the CPB falls under the province of the finance ministry, its relationship with the monarchy’s income is murky to say the least. But it is certain that the King is a billionaire in his own right.

.Rumors and speculation abound in this atmosphere including reports that the Prince and the Shinawatras have a deal. After an initial period of announcing it would preside over negotiations to find a compromise between the contestants, but after short-lived discussions the junta has taken over the government directly. And it seems likely that without a rapid return to some form of civilian government, the junta will find itself in deepening trouble.

Adding to the complications is the growing suspicion of differences within the army between the coup leader, Army chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha,, a supporter of the old Bangkok establishment, and the overwhelming majority of the ranks recruited in rural areas. Unlike earlier coup takeovers, martial law has not stopped protests against the coup. and Shinawatra has promised to set up a government-in-exile

The bad publicity has already cut into Thailand’s tourism, amounting to more than 16% of gross national product in 2013. The government’s tourist bureau forecast visitors dropping by 5% in the first quarter of 2014, with the total number of arrivals down by 260,000 from the original projection of 29.86 million. Foreign investors may not be deterred with their longer perspective — but that, too, depends on a political settlement to what is increasingly not just another Thai coup.

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A world ablaze – but different fuels


 

A bane of modern military studies [let’s eschew “science”] is the concept of counter-insurgency – the idea that indigenous revolts around the world can be analyzed with “the scientific method” and a set of general principles if implemented could cure the problem. Common sense tells us that the essence of any dissidence/armed insurrection is its particularity, its basis in specific local conditions. They differ not only in geography but in the characteristics of individual societies. So, yes, the army should not steal the peasants’ chickens is a good maxim – but such bromides do not go far to tell you how to prevent civil war.

At the moment, we have one bitter internecine war in Syria, and three incipient revolts between two or more elements in Ukraine, Venezuela and Thailand. Other conflicts, even messier to define, are growing in the Central African Republic and Nigeria.

The question, of course, is whether there anything that connects all these conflicts? And, if so, what if anything can be done to lessen tension and conflict?

Ukraine

The ambivalence between Ukraine and Russia is as old as the two peoples. In fact, it was from centers in what is now Ukraine that Christianity spread to the Great Russians and where they even got their name.  More recently, Ukrainians have suffered disproportionately in the Soviet Union – a bitter irony, often at the hands of ethnic Ukrainian members of the Communist hierarchy. Stalin’s man-made famine of the 1930s followed on to the horrors of those of World War I when the engineer Herbert Hoover first emerged on the world scene. But a flame of Ukrainian identity survived, expressing itself at the height of Soviet repression in such small protests as citizens of Ukraine’s western metropolis, the old Hapsburg city of Lviv [Lvov, Lemberg] unofficially using “our time” [Central European] rather than Moscow’s time zone to express their identification with the West..

So it is no wonder that [Ras] Putin, the new Russian dictator seeking to restore Soviet glory has intrigued in a state once called in the two World Wars “a figment of the imagination of the German general staff”. Whatever the outcome of fast-moving events, Putin has the most to gain or lose – aside from the Ukrainians themselves. Ras – who has said publicly that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of the bloody 20th century — is gambling. By his direct intervention, he either hopes to bring Ukraine again under Moscow hegemony, or failing that, to destroy its unity as a cautionary tale for other former Soviet “republics” holding on to their fragile independence.

But for the moment, the anti-Soviet forces have gained the upper hand in Kiev and he faces a choice of backing the ultra-corrupt Russophile Viktor Yanukovych as he attempts to cling to power, apparently setting up shop in Russian-speaking and industrial eastern Ukraine. Or Ras could wait to see if Pres. Barack Obama and the European Union will do the necessary to back their friends in Kiev. Or, unlikely, Putin retreats, taking his licks and admitting a disastrous defeat. That result could escalate Moscow’s growing economic difficulties with its almost total dependence on fossil fuel exports, undercut by the growing impact of America’s shale revolution on world prices.

Syria

As ghastly as is Basher al Assad and his Iranian backers’ war on Syrian civilians – matching the ugly trial run Nazi and Fascist aircraft waged on Spanish Republicans in that prelude to World War II – geopolitically its importance lies elsewhere. Every day that al Assad’s regime survives, U.S. interests and those of its allies suffer: there is an intensification of the influence and control of radical jihadists in the opposition to Assad, and the growing influence of the Tehran mullahs not only in Damascus but in neighboring Lebanon and even among formerly rabidly Sunni Hamas jihadists in Gaza.

Continued Syrian fighting risks the stability of both Israel and Jordan, the major two outright allies along with Saudi Arabia. The growing perception of Iranian strength is posing an increasing dilemma for the Gulf Arab sheikdoms and even the military in Egypt: whether they knuckle under to Iranian Mideast hegemony or go nuclear themselves. For long ago it became apparent that despite public pronouncements, the Obama Administration is prepared to settle for a supposedly nuanced arrangement whereby Tehran has the capability of weapons of mass destruction but does not “weaponize”. That for a country which for 17 years was able to disguise its uranium enrichment from UN regulators of the non-proliferation treaty it had signed.

Venezuela

With its long history of repressive regimes since independence from Spain almost 200 years ago, Caracas again is saddled with new oppression. But this time its incompetence matches any effort to tyrannize a divided opposition. With one of the world’s largest petroleum reserves, Pres. Nicolás Maduro has taken the country further toward bankruptcy, in no small part because of the largesse he has continued from his predecessor, Hugo Chavez. Chavez’ populist policies built a constituency among the nation’s poor until his death in 2013 and among leftist regimes around the continent.

Now Maduro, with his constant malapropisms, almost a caricature of Chavez, relies increasingly on Raul Castro’s Cuba and its secret police tactics, including Cuban “advisors”, against rising opposition. The cost in oil for the Castro dictatorship some observers reckon as much as $13 billion a year. Other discounts go to the leftist, and above all anti-American regimes, notably the Sandinista retreads in Nicaragua.

Thailand

The old contest between Bangkok’s Sino-Thai elite and the more ethnic Thai rurals, especially those in the poorer northeast, has come unhinged in the rapid economic and international integration of the once isolated nation that never became a European colony.. Ironically, the rural areas – which once got some taste of social and economic upward mobility through the frequent encroachment of the military on the political process – have now been seduced with long-awaited social services. Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist handing out new entitlements while he used his connections for building an enormous personal fortune, is a fugitive from corruption charges. Nevertheless, from Dubai or wherever he has been running the country through his political machine with his sister as prime minister to the consternation of the old elite. [It is another irony that Shinawatra is, himself, only first generation Sino-Thai which he has never tried to hide.]

The elite, increasingly supported by students and Bangkok’s middle class, are now turning to the possibility of some sort of indirect rule rather than Shinawatra’s popular mandate. The crisis is deepening, beginning to affect Thailand’s tourism — $26.7 billion in 1013, up 20% over the year before. Street rioting has already canceled out an estimated 900,000 visitors in the next six months and their $1.6 billion. Violence would eventually cut into the steady low of foreign investment – Thailand’s auto industry dominates Southeast Asia, ninth largest in the world.

Solutions for half a century to periodic blowups have come from the intervention of the military, now more reluctant than ever before to jeopardize its $5.3 billion budget by bloodying its hands. Thailand’s sainted 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyade, despite his close associations with the elite, has spent much of the last year in hospital. The final arbiter in past political crises, he is coming to the end of a 68-year reign with the succession somewhat clouded by a scandal-prone crown prince.

Needless to say, the U.S. did not create any of these crises. But whatever the failings of the Obama Administration and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s endless peregrinations and John Kerry’s pledges of endurance, there is a growing worldwide perception that American power is retreating in the face of a poorly functioning domestic economy, a curtailment of military expenditures, and an Obama policy that attempts to “lead from behind”.Syria” has become the arch symbol of Obama’s indecisiveness. That carries over to a growing belief in a general withdrawal from the U.S.’ preeminent post-World War II leadership of free societies. With Obama’s threats and “red lines” increasingly ignored, an ominous vacuum in virtually all regions of the world invites chaos if not worse.

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