February 26, 2014 00:00 By Tulsathit Taptim
One side insists it's a campaign against massive corruption and abuse of democratic power. The other claims it's an attempt by the country's elites to wrest back political control from the poor. Both claim to be right, so let's meet in the middle. How
Some claim the mini-run on the Government Savings Bank, countered by depositors’ attempts to stem the bleeding, was symbolic of a “class struggle” going on in Thailand. Seriously? Demonise either side if you will, but romanticising our crisis misses the point by a long shot.
First things first, it’s not a “rich against poor” showdown. It’s a rich against rich fight with the poor caught in the middle. Someone in government is right in saying that some farmers have been victimised while others have been used. He is wrong for claiming that the farmers have been victimised and used exclusively by one side.
Unfortunately, caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra backed the man up in what could have otherwise been one of her most articulate political speeches. To her, the rice pledging scheme is a noble programme turned sour by people who did not want to see farmers getting Bt15,000 per tonne of rice. Truth is, opponents of the programme do not object to the poor having a better life. But they see the rice scheme as a ploy designed with vested interests in mind and susceptible to enormous corruption and financial mishaps.
The current crisis derives from a campaign against Yingluck and her big brother, and they aren’t poor. Thaksin Shinawatra, while visiting a rural village as prime minister, was ridiculed for draping himself in what looked like a luxury-brand Fendi towel. Google their family photos and you can have fun calculating how many tonnes of rice would need to be sold to buy just one of their handbags.
Is Nuttawut Saikuar poor? His family was reportedly involved in a land deal worth millions. Is Chalerm Yoobamrung poor? Check out his car collection. Is Jatuporn Prompan poor? All we need to do is look at his bank accounts. Is Arisman Pongruangrong poor? Or Surapong Tovichakchaikul? Or Noppadon Pattama? The list could go on and on.
The grass-root red-shirts are poor. But are they fighting political persecution as the term “class struggle” seems to suggest? Or are they simply fighting for a political party controlled one way or another by those mentioned above?
Are they being taxed more than the rich? Of course not, although they may find it a lot harder than the rich to avoid taxes if their incomes are high enough to be taxable. Are their children facing discrimination at work? Do surnames really matter in Thailand when it comes to employment or promotion?
One can argue that this is a red-shirt “struggle” to protect a party that gave them better welfare. Health benefits offered by Pheu Thai are good, but are they the reason why middle-class people are up in arms against the ruling party? The answer is no. Yingluck may have said “Yes” last week, but she was attempting to cover up staggering flaws in the rice scheme. Her big brother has been saying “Yes” all along, but he has more than just the rice programme to cover up.
If it’s a class struggle, why is the anti-government network aiming to make shares of the Shinawatra business empire crash? What do stocks of giant corporates have to do with a supposed “anti-poor” sentiment? Why are there protest marches to raise funds for farmers unpaid under the rice pledging scheme?
What is there in the demands of the anti-government movement that suggests Thailand’s middle class do not want their less-fortunate compatriots to be better off. What is there to indicate that the middle class want new laws on marriage, education, employment or healthcare to maintain or increase their “privileges”? At best, the anti-government network is fighting corruption that is threatening to get out of hand. At worst, it is not playing by the rules of the political game. But either way, it is not a class struggle.
The campaign was triggered by an amnesty bill, which was altered from the original version designed exclusively for the grass-roots people involved in the 2010 uprising. It might have been a class struggle if the original bill had caused a middle-class uproar. But people took to Bangkok streets blowing whistles only because the bill was changed to cover Thaksin and his controversial wealth.
What else has been said on the rally stages? Corruption in the rice scheme, of course. Questions have been raised over the wisdom of buying rice from farmers way above the market price, but those are economic questions, not a political attempt to keep farmers at the bottom of the social ladder. Allegations of nepotism? Again, nothing to do with the poor.
What about charter amendments? Superficially, the opposition to a fully elected Senate might be seen as an effort to limit the political power of the poor, but we have two possibilities here. The first is that the senatorial issue is about Thaksin. The second is that the senatorial issue is about the middle class fearing a pro-poor Senate will advocate anti-rich laws. Which scenario is more likely?
Talking about possibilities, again, ultimately we have two to ponder. The first is that what is happening in Thailand is a power play, with the poor sometimes being used as shields and sometimes as ammunition. The other possibility is that this is a genuine class struggle. And that class struggle must be between a selfish middle class wanting to hold onto whatever privileges they enjoy, and the politically oppressed grassroots willing to die for rights to elect senators and yet to allow governments they support to side-step Parliament to sign international treaties.
Which is more likely?
Writer’s note: I can’t possibly say anything that can do justice to innocent souls claimed so cruelly by the political crisis. To some of us, what’s important is who did it, what one’s personal reaction is, and why “peace” is a must right now. The victims’ loved ones couldn’t care less, and heartbreakingly so. Theirs is the only “Why?” being asked with zero political intent.