Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Way forward is between yellow & red

Underneath the multi-faceted confrontations that are rocking Thailand - Thai elites versus Thaksin, Thaksin versus Abhisit, Abhisit versus Hun Sen - there is a common strain that runs through them. Unless we find a way to resolve this half-hidden, powerful fault-line, Thailand will find it hard to move forward as a unified polity.

The strain is caused by a clash of two values: conservatism and liberalism.
Admittedly, there are many other factors, ideological as well as vested interests, that contribute to the making of the Thai equivalent of the Gordian Knot. Still, the unsettled clash between these two worldviews is a major undercurrent. It is also one that is likely to carry over even when some of the immediate personality-based conflicts as the one between Thaksin and Sondhi Limthongkul or PM Abhisit and Hun Sen are over.

It's true that a large part of the Yellow and Red movement revolves around the person of Mr Sondhi and Thaksin but that personality-cult following also intersects with a probably equally large part of people who overtly or secretly root for each movement because of the principles it stands for. In other words, there are people who support the Yellow or Red Shirts because of Mr Sondhi or Thaksin as well as the idea or ideal that the two men espouse.

Other splinter groups, internal conflicts or personal interests aside, it is safe to say that the PAD and its affiliates are pushing for a return to conservatism, a maintenance of the status quo - whether that status quo still exists in the present-day Thailand is another story.

For the PAD and its right-wing conservative friends, the rise of Thaksin Shinawatra was a disruption to the imperfect-but-workable traditional order of things. If Thailand is to get "back on track" from this state of near anarchy, then it must return to the traditional hierarchy, the strengthening of traditional institutions, which for the PAD and Co is the only thing that can hold all the competing interests in balance and together.

The problem with the conservative camp's vision is the assumption that there is a strong status quo that Thailand can go back to which will bring the uproar into equilibrium. The current situation - the belligerence and discontent that have expressed themselves in a tangle of stubborn conflicts that is not too different from Bangkok's infamous traffic gridlock - does not suggest so. Thai society and citizens have moved away from the old-time, class-based structure. Even among PAD supporters who do not wish to see another conflict-of-interest, crony capitalist rule by Thaksin, I doubt if they would subscribe to the state of normalcy as a return to the strictly hierarchical, largely ineffective administration with power more or less shared among a limited number of the ruling elite and urban-biased policy prior to the arrival of Thaksin.

A parallel analysis runs for the Red Shirts. Discounting the political spin and complex manoeuvrings for Thaksin only, the red camp have made political and social progressiveness their agenda. While the PAD and its alliance can be described as traditionalists, the Red forges its self-image after the internationalist vision of Thaksin. Its political ideal may be closest to that of social liberalism, if there is such a thing - it is pro-poor and pro-globalisation at the same time.

For the Red, therefore, Thailand can get back on track when it finds a way to return to the "expedient democracy" after the confluence of the 1997 "political reform" Constitution and strongman-style Thaksin administration resulted in the strengthening of the executive branch. Likewise, detractors would argue that not everyone wants to return to the lopsided democracy where the Prime Minister can easily manipulate and overcome parliamentary/electoral politics, check-and-balance mechanisms as well as curtail basic rights for the sake of overall economic progress (whose benefits are similarly entrenched among a limited number of people, another kind of elite, close to the centre of power anyway.)

It is clear Thailand must move on from this long period of protracted conflict and instability, but where to? Is there a physical or conceptual state of normalcy for the country to return to after its traditional political order was either brought down or into question by competing interests and political strife during these past few years?

There is no right track in the recent or distant past to which Thailand can return. We can only try to move forward with an image of a new Thailand which is neither yellow/red nor personality-based, but constituting the reformist values

No comments: