The Long View: The Thais and us (1)

The Long View The Thais and us (1) By Manuel L. Quezon III Philippine Daily Inquirer First Posted 03:41:00 04/13/2009

Joe Studwell in “Asian Godfathers” wrote that in Southeast Asia, two countries stand out for the promiscuous attitudes of their politicians when it comes to party affiliation: the Philippines and Thailand. The question is, why? The answer, according to some scholars, lies in a phenomenon known as “bossism.” Whether caciques, godfathers or, as they’re called in Thailand, chao pho: political bosses with their mafia-like rackets that blur distinctions between legal and illegal and “bossism” are at home in our country and in Thailand. John Thayet Sidel in “Capital, coercion and crime,” however, pointed out that “bossism” in Thailand differs from that in the Philippines in two ways. First, unlike the Philippines, where Sidel believes the problem is that democratic institutions were put in place at too early a stage of capitalist development (at the beginning of the 20th century), in Thailand “enormous Bangkok-based financial, agribusiness, and industrial conglomerates and up-country magnates with province- or region-wide empires were already entrenched and equipped with ample resources for electoral competition” when democratic institutions were introduced – in the 1980s.

In our country, Sidel argues, political bosses “have derived their power and wealth not from private landownership but from state resources and commercial capital,” so that, for example, it’s not that the landed came to control politics, but rather, for some politicians, politics was the means to acquire land. Philippine bosses, then, may start as nobodies but then become entrenched as people of consequence depending on how well they play the appointments game locally or nationally, and put a squeeze on the collection of tolls and issuing licenses, to get wealthy, and stay that way. Sidel describes our political system as one in which the state and its institutions are at the service of its officials, instead of the officials serving the state.

On the other hand, Sidel says that in Thailand “prominent Bangkok bankers and industrialists ; themselves assumed political party leadership posts or otherwise engineered alliances with regional clusters of chao pho, and provincial businessmen have in some cases exercised chao pho-like influence over multiple constituencies or even provinces.” And second, according to Sidel, the parliamentary nature of Thailand’s political system “encouraged a highly fluid system of political parties held together largely by patronage networks (regional and national) and personal ties and coalition governments stitched together through multiparty Cabinets.”

In the Philippines, the pecking order among local bosses is known to all and underscored by long experience – from barangay (village) to the municipality, to the province, to the presidency (where each new chief executive essentially creates a super-party, the administration, for the duration of his term), everyone knows their place and the limits of their powers: it is near-absolute within their fiefdoms, but ends where the fiefdom of the next boss begins; with everyone more or less following the custom of subordinating themselves to the president who serves as referee and dispenser of national patronage. In Thailand, on the other hand, “it has been difficult to build a truly nation-wide political party greater than the sum of its – local – parts. Thus chao pho exercising control over several constituencies have found it relatively easy to install themselves or their stooges in the Cabinet and thereby to wield considerable influence over the internal affairs of key central ministries and their local line agencies.”

To my mind this suggests that while Filipino politicians have been conditioned to fall in line behind each new president, Thai politicians see no reason to submit to a prime minister, since no real limits exist to the influence of the Cabinet; therefore, the goal becomes to seize as many portfolios as possible and if possible, keep a PM subordinate to the Cabinet. In a paper updating his book, Sidel described the Thai parliamentary system’s evolution as follows: “While Bangkok-based magnates commanded tremendous financial resources, only province-based businessmen enjoyed links to large blocs of voters in the country’s overwhelmingly rural constituencies, and parliamentary seats promised influence over ; the Thai state. With the vast majority of parliamentary ; constituencies located in rural areas, it is thus no surprise that by 1990, nearly half of all Cabinet members were provincial businessmen.”

Until recently, the opposite seemed to be the case here at home. The growing percentage of Filipinos living in urban, and not rural, areas, meant that more urbanized Luzon, for example, comprised votes that equaled the much less urbanized Visayas and Mindanao combined; the accessibility of mass media, specifically radio and television (and the movies) meant, too, that local bosses became less useful, politically, in terms of the votes they could offer: unless fraud was required. But even then, their usefulness was only potentially there, in the case of a close presidential race, for example. But whether armed with an air of political inevitability, as was the case with Estrada, or a plausible machinery (the case with Arroyo until 2005), both presidents proved that once in office, the overall instinct of the population and the political class is to fall in line behind whichever president is actually in office. And once out of power, Estrada has been less able to chip away at Arroyo’s authority than, say, Thaksin has, in Thailand. Both Estrada and Arroyo fall into Sidel’s mold of Philippine bosses deriving their powers from holding office (Estrada, more classically, as mayor in San Juan; Arroyo, more subtly, gaining experience and allies handling the old Philippine textile quotas after EDSA); Thaksin fits Sidel’s description of Thai bosses being big businessmen, then entering politics. (To be continued)

Manuel L. Quezon III.

14 thoughts on “The Long View: The Thais and us (1)

  1. “The Thais And Us” – An important difference: The Thai Monarchy.

    And while the monarchy has been a stabilizing presence in Thailand’s stormy politics in the past, it appears that the monarchy and the old urban elite have bonded together to oust Thaksin, who is viewed as having become too powerful and too popular, becoming a threat to the monarchy and the elite.

    The present King is already old and may not live very long. Thailand has long buzzed about the decadence and ineffectiveness of the King’s male heir, the twice-divorced Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. Thaksin, who is extremely popular in the Thai countryside because he is regarded as being responsible for having raised the incomes and the standard of living of rural Thais, has been looked upon by the King and his supporters as a threat to the monarchy. It is no wonder that, among the crimes that Thaksin is accused of is treason for lèse-majesté.

    The problem with Thaksin’s ouster was that it was initiated from the top, despite some trappings of mass action (mostly in Bangkok). Thaksin’s ouster reflected the will of the elite entrenched with the monarchy (including military officials) and the Bangkok-based middle class, not the will of the vast rural masses. The King has been shielded by Thailand’s repressively harsh laws regarding defaming the monarchy. While it may not be discussed openly, it is common knowledge that the monarchy itself instigated the coup that ousted Thaksin. And Thaksin, aware that the present monarch still enjoys the respect of the people, has wisely avoided confrontation and exiled himself.

    Unfortunately for the royalty and the elite, the coup has resulted in an almost comically incompetent military regime, which had to give way to a civilian one that is now swamped with the problems of the global financial crisis. These turn of events has given Thaksin even more of a mystique with the people, who long for the better days under his regime.

    “Tis a problem. For the King, that is. His failure to produce a suitable heir may result in his enjoying the dubious distinction of being the last of the Thai monarchy.

    Thaksin’s followers accomplished no mean feat by causing the recent Asean Summit to be cancelled. It shows how popular he still is and how determined and how large his following is.

    What is interesting is Thaksin’s recent call for the people to mount a “revolution”. I wonder what he means by that? Is Thaksin now openly confronting the monarchy?

  2. Thaksin is just being sensible, that’s the best thing that he can do for himself now, there is no other option for him if he preferred to enjoy life inside his home country.

    Anything can happen now in Thailand. What bears watching is if the present dispensation there do a “Gloria” during the ‘Edsa Tres’ fiasco, it would be interesting to know whether the multitudes there are made of the same stuff as ours, or more sterner. Also, interesting to see if the military there is as pliable as ours. What could be the effect of a new coup and a subsequent military rule to the whole Asean region? Or of a whole scale Thai revolution?

    In any case, the Thai Monarchy, from now on, will be in for a rough sailing.

  3. Just don’t know why in this “advanced” civilization of human race, people are still beholden to monarchy rule. Kings,queens, sultans, datus, etc. are obsolete, why not follow the rule of meritocracy? Why Obama has to bow before the Saudi Arabian? At least in the Philippines, people “bow” to artists, actors, their idols, heheheh. These people at least at some point in their lives worked hard to achieve their popularity. Marami rin ang nagsimulang isang kahig isang tuka, eh yung mga kings na yan? Nagpursigi ba sila sa buhay?

  4. Boss Danding? matagal na! it’s done. tulog lang ang mga Filipino,karamihan tameme, panay cartilage, walang buto.

  5. I’m not too sure we have meritocracy in the Philippines. Our elite not only have cornered most of the power and wealth, they have cornered most opportunities as well.

  6. The Joe Studwell piece makes one wonder about the wisdom of the USA system which allows DISPROPROPORTIONATE REPRESENTATION of small states. An Idaho-citizen’s vote weighs “heavier” than the vote of a Californian or a New Yorker.

  7. Meritocracy:

    If the heir apparent to the Thai throne really has no track record or no “merit”,when he takes over he may be ousted.
    Will the Thai monarchy end?we would not know, baka may pinsan pa yan. The present monarch too over from his brother. baka may lumitaw na anak sa labas bigla.

    Why does monarch still exist even in advanced countries like the UK?
    gusto ko din malaman,siguro malakas ang kapit ng tradition, o may mga grupo na gusto mapanatili ang ganitong set-up.

    ang pag bow ng leader to the king of somewhere ay diplomatic protocol na lang, di naman ibig sabihin na hahalikan nya ang paa ng hari na ito.

    pero teka, kamag anak ng saudi king ang sumalba sa citi a few years back nung bumagsak ito.
    at ang pangalawa sa china , saudi na ang may pinaka madaming reserves.

    so ayun siguro,may datung ang mga ito.
    ang Thai king ay isa sa pinakamayaman sa mundo.

  8. Thai authorities issued warrant of arrests to protest leaders…, is this the end of it?

  9. Ah, ganoon pala, kapag minana ang yaman gaya ng king o queen, may bow at “no touch”. Kapag katas ng pawis at dugo, gaya ni Bill Gates, Buffet at Bloomberg, hug at handshake pwede,bow di pwede. Iba rin naman ano? Mas sikat ‘yong mga “great free loaders” na monarchs.

  10. It was reported that former Thai Prime Minster Thaksin is financing the mass protests by the rural folks in Thailand.

    Dito, natuto na ang masa. Gagamitin lang sila ng mga elite-oppositionists at hindi pa babayaran.

    Rent a rally? Money down. 🙂

  11. Incredibly, I heard Thaksin quoting Martin Luther King in an interview on BBC World Service over the weekend. However, when Martin Luther King said “violence begets violence” he meant it as an appeal for peace, when Thaksin said it he meant the opposite. We just have to think of the brutal suppression of Muslims in the south during Thaksin’s period in power to realize that he has no qualms about spilling a little blood.

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