Suddenly, the political thermometer has shot from tepid to torpid. Massed rallies. Generals rattling sabres. Bombs in front gardens. Talk about coups. A political delirium with scenes from the last half-century of Thailand’s history flashing before our eyes.
There are (at least) two-and-a-half interpretations of what is happening. And they suggest different versions of what Thaksin should do, and how it will play out.
The first interpretation, Democracy and the Last Straw, argues that the Thai people truly care about democracy. They want to know, debate, contribute, and participate. The trend of democratisation, stemming from 14 October 1973, cannot be denied.
Thaksin has been like a bulldozer, flattening everything built since then. He has transformed Thailand’s electronic media into a propaganda machine worthy of Moscow pre-1989; gutted the 1997 constitution; rehabilitated the military; suppressed civil society; and destroyed Thailand’s reputation as a beacon of liberty, democracy, and human rights in Asia.
But the reaction against this bulldozing has been delayed. Thailand’s democratisation trend is not constant. It has ups and downs. The passage of the 1997 constitution was the last up. Since then its been all down. Now the pendulum is swinging again.
Moreover, many of the good guys were fooled into supporting Thaksin when he rose over five years ago. He adopted lots of radical vocabulary, and they hoped he would be a breath of fresh air. This mistake has sown guilt and dissension which have been hard to overcome.
In this interpretation, Sondhi is just the Last Straw. He happened to be there when the anger at Thaksin’s bulldozing passed a critical point.
The build-up began with Grammy’s hostile bid to take over the Matichon group. Matichon is much more than a newspaper. The publishing group was one of the love children born out of the 1973-6 era. It made many innovations in journalism and publishing which have enriched the intellectual life of the nation. The attempted takeover by a mogul who mass-produces bubblegum pop stars highlighted the capitalist philistinism which is one hallmark of the Thaksin era. The avalanche of defamation suits stressed Thailand’s growing approximation to the Singapore model of politics. The appointments to the National Counter Corruption Commission and National Broadcasting Council took cronyism to new depths. The camels back broke, and there was Sondhi.
The second interpretation, Rice and Circuses, charges that the above argument appeals to political activists because it assumes there are lots of people who think like them. But in reality the Thai public does not care much about democracy. They want well-being and entertainment. If the economy is doing well, they dont much care who runs the country, how much he puts in the pockets of his family and friends, and what stupid things he says. They do however want some spectacle, some fun.
On this point, Thaksin delivered. At the beginning he had the magic ingredient of mass entertainment novelty value. He was new and engagingly different, and he told us so over and over again like a detergent ad. Then there was a certain dramatic fascination in watching his development from rich plutocrat into man-of-the-people. When that started to get boring, he turned into a magician, materializing huge sums of money from thin air, making poverty disappear, and performing other feats of illusion. He also did a sideline in stand-up comedy, at which he was a natural. What scriptwriter could write a line like The UN is not may father? And he laid on circuses OTOP fairs, mobile Cabinet shows, APEC extravaganzas, provincial whistle-stop tours shovelling money off the back of a truck.
According to this interpretation, Thaksin is stumbling because the economy is faltering and because entertainment is the worlds cruellest business. He’s not new any more. The audience got bored. This years circus shows have fallen flat. Miss World was tedious. The Suwarnabum airport (non-)opening was so stagey it made Pattaya’s katoey shows seem spontaneous. And somehow commemorating mass death from the tsunami lacks an upbeat tempo.
In this version, Sondhi has emerged because the audience wants something which seems different, but is really the same. Sondhi is another over-ambitious and under-scrupulous businessman. He backed Thaksin for a long time. But he heard the snoring in the back rows and saw his chance.
These two interpretations suggest very different ways Thaksin might respond. If he takes the Democracy and the Last Straw view, then he should stand firm on his populist version of democracy. He still has a huge parliamentary majority and considerable mass support. He has been saying all along that he has a mandate from the people, and will use that to bring about real change. He has to deliver on that promise, and face down the more idealist democracy of his opponents. But this will be difficult because he is running out of money and ideas.
If he takes the Rice and Circuses view, he needs a public makeover. Audiences love a twist in the plot. He could try crying over democracy on live TV. But the dying days of Richard Nixon suggests there are limits to the publics credibility. It may be better to allow the audience to tire of Sondhi. Remember Chuwit?
But there is a third interpretation. The move against Thaksin is a plot by the old guard who think they ought to run Thailand but who have been sidelined by the rise of electoral democracy. They talk a lot about democracy, but have no base of popular support, and are prepared to use un-democratic methods. They have rallied around an amazingly anti-democratic tract.
Undoubtedly this interpretation will appeal to the Thaksinite inner core, because it casts them as the future battling against the past. But it means he is doomed. His only option is to fight back. And as the sad story of the south has shows, his aggressive instincts and his one-dimensional view of capitalist man will deliver the middle ground to his opponents.