Opposing viewsThis illusion held until 1997, when the Asian financial crisis put an end to Thailand’s developmental journey. A new political class was brought in and it re-wrote the rulebook. Recognising that the Thai village was a transient place, deeply connected to the city and largely uninterested in protecting its own tradition, the government of Thaksin Shinawatra built its political base upon giving villagers what they wanted – access to the global market.
These were populist polices that conflicted with the existing system and were incomprehensible for many opposed to Thaksin. Moreover, the inclusion of electoral fraud into the critique of Thaksinism in the 2006 protests allowed for many protesters to maintain their idealised view of the countryside. As in the 1970s, the vast regions of north and north-eastern Thailand remained depicted as home to communities who needed to be taught about democracy but who also needed to recognise the value of their own way of life. They sought to maintain a two-tiered version of modernity. Why did rural populations need motorbikes when they had a buffalo?
But over the time, and after two election victories for pro-Thaksin parties, it has become clear that this view is no longer tenable. Now the majority of the Thai people are being portrayed by anti-government protesters as an impediment to Thailand’s economic development and arguments are being made to deny them the right to vote – all to remove Thaksin’s influence.
In truth however, Thailand’s economic development is dependent on continued evolution. Rather than being fixed under an imagined view of stability built around the image of village life, it needs to reconcile itself with a post-Cold War world, with the rise of China and with Southeast Asian economic integration. It needs to recognise that compared to its neighbours to the east and west it is no longer a developing nation, but a mature functioning economy that is in desperate need of new ideas and strategies.
To be clear, the current government is far from being free of elite self-interest or from the maintenance of unequal class relations. There is no clear way to define rights or develop the economy and ultimately the Thai people must recognise that development is an uneven process. They must also, however, understand that the reason why democracy works is because governments can and are shaped by those who vote.
In a country of massive wealth inequality it is inevitable that a true Thai democracy would seek to alleviate economic differences, widen the tax base and support the aspirations of the majority. The sooner the current protest movement seeks not only to oppose Thaksin, but learn to really listen to what the majority of the population wants, and then to accept it, the sooner Thailand can once again look to the future.