Sunday, June 14, 2009

No class system in Thailand -- only status conscious

It is a fallacy to analyse present troubles as based on class system
SEVERAL THAI ACADEMICS and most foreign media have got stuck in the generalisation that the Thai crisis manifests a confrontation between rural and urban voters. This makes it sound as if Thailand is facing a deep-rooted class-system problem. The mantra is that the Bangkok middle-class do not accept the will and aspiration of the rural people, who have cast their votes. "I only have one vote. Why don't the Bangkok people respect my vote? Aren't I a Thai?" cries an Isaan voter. The elite are envious of Thaksin's success with the poor. Thaksin is popular because he introduced populist programmes such as the village fund and healthcare that improve the life of the poor while governments in the past failed to look after their welfare. The elite and the military would like to keep things as they are in order to protect their status and privileges. The elite are afraid of Thaksin's popularity with the majority of Thais.

This mantra has been spread around in blogs and news reports inside and outside the country to try to give the impression that if Thai democracy is flawed Bangkok is the problem. If Bangkok just accepts the majority vote in the provinces, Democracy can move ahead and the country will enjoy prosperity.

My argument is that we may have a rural/urban divide in income distribution but our society is not, as we are led to believe, based on a class system such as they have in India or used to have in France. Rather Thailand is a status-conscious society. Any rural Thais can raise their status and merge into the Bangkok or military elite if they are capable. The Bangkok middle-class, the military and the elite are not exclusive clubs.

With this status-conscious society, Thais traditionally respect the military, civil servants and teachers. They do not trust businessmen or merchants.

In the absence of a class system, any Thais can rise to the top of the society. Children of farmers can become doctors, professors, top civil servants or military brass. Field Marshal Plaek Phibulsongkram, General Sarit Thanarat, General Suchinda Khraprayoon, Dr Praves Wasi, Dr Virabongsa Ramangkura, Dr Puey Ungphakorn and Thaksin Shinawatra all share a humble family background, but they all rose to the top of society without any class obstacle.

Bangkok has never denied the provinces. That's why Thai society has been relatively spared the conflict between the rich and the poor. It is also true that central governments in the past have ignored the interests of the poor., but this has been largely due to self-interest rather than any conscious urban/rural divide as seen in a class system.

Take note that the King's mother was a commoner.

King Yodfa (Rama I), who founded the Chaktri Dynasty in 1782, was also a commoner. King Lertla (Rama II), was also a commoner, because he was born while King Yodfa was serving as a junior civil officer in Ratchaburi.

Before the birth of Bangkok, King Taksin founded Thonburi in 1767 as the new capital after the fall of Ayutthaya. King Taksin was also a commoner, born of a father of Chinese descent and a Thai mother. King Taksin the Great has been recognised as one of the greatest Thai kings, second only to King Naresuan the Great.
The rise of commoners to royalty in Thailand has been accepted because we do not have any class system that inhibits anybody's potential by birth.
Boonchu Rojanasathien, the late and banker, was the first politician who really used money. As deputy prime minister in the Kukrit government in the late 1970s, he introduced ngern phan or money handouts to the poor. Yet he was never recognised by Thais. Thavich Klinpathum was given the nickname Chao Bun Thum or Big Spender. He too was not recognised and was rather held in contempt.
The liberalisation and opening up of the Thai economy in the 1960s has given rise to the business people, bankers and merchants who now control more than 80 per cent of the country's wealth. They too all come from humble family backgrounds, mostly of Chinese descent. They can tell you thousands of rags-to-rich stories. Again, practically anybody can be rich or successful and rise to the cream of Thai society.
The social and political distortion only came about during the Thaksin era of divide. Thaksin too comes from a humble family background which does not compare to those of elite-born Abhisit Vejjajiva and Anand Panyarachun. Thaksin went to a police cadet school and worked for the Police Department as a colonel before retiring to become a computer salesman. He went on to build up his computer business and later on telecom empire. He used his money to enter politics and succeeded in becoming Thailand's prime minister.
If Thailand has had a class system as most people are led to believe, Abhisit would have become prime minister a long time ago.
So in a way in Thailand it is a free-for-all. You have to really earn your success. Look at Chamlong Srimuang and Sondhi Limthongkul: they do not have any distinct family background, but they are now at the top of society - angels or devils depending on your view - by virtue of their own deeds.
The political distortion is now well on the way to dividing Thailand and polarising the capital and the provinces in the style of a class system when in fact Thailand does not inherently suffer from this problem. Its more a problem of social status and income distribution. At the same time, Bangkok and the provinces have all along accepted the votes of the latter.
Who is ex-prime minister Chuan Leekpai? He is an MP from Trang, an underdeveloped province in the South.
Who is ex-prime minister Banharn Silapa-archa? He has his political base in Suphan Buri and Central Thailand.
Who is ex-prime minister General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh? He does not come from a noble family like Abhisit or Anand.
The votes of the provinces brought Chuan, Banharn and Chavalit to the premiership. Bangkok and the provinces accepted their power.
Bangkok also accepted Thaksin's power when he was elected in 2001, although it did not like his messianic message and dubious business tactics. But when Thaksin went astray while he was in office, Bangkok rejected him.
Bangkok's rejection of Thaksin has been politically distorted into a clash between the4 capital and the provinces and an elite-military attempt to guard their status and privileges against encroachment by provincial power. If you read the foreign media and a lot of left-wing academics, you get this silly impression.
Thaksin in fact rose to become the ultimate member of the elite, with money and power and social status. Nobody tried to hurt him; he himself messed up his premiership, camouflaged in the metropolitan/provincial divide.

No comments:

Post a Comment