Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Thais are just not made for revolutions

JUST as the Japanese swept over Southeast Asia in 1941, the rather similarly oriented Thai militaristic government made a deal with the new imperial power. They joined up.

The government sent a declaration of war to the United States. Well, the minister counsellor in Washington, M.R. Seni Promoj, decided to take some long lunches rather than deliver the "declaration".

Whence the superb treatment America gave to Thailand after the war. The British wanted to punish the kingdom for snatching a bit of Malaya. The Americans held the day.

As long as this elite remembered how to wax when friendly powers permitted and wane when powerful neighbours (British and French) wanted to colonise, Thailand was a famous success. No country grew faster economically than the kingdom between 1985-95. The king rebuilt the throne to legendary proportions.

But note something important here. It was "M.R." (Mom Rajawong, great-grandson of a king) Seni who made that smart and prophetic decision. He knew how to read gross national product figures and who would ultimately win the war. The royals are now taking a back seat.

I have written widely that states survive only if they have powers of adaptation. For at least two centuries, the Thais have adapted, almost better than any other Third World example.

In 1997, once the economic crisis hit, I had to abandon a book I had been writing on Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia. I had concluded that Thailand was the only one that had achieved a zeitgeist or "spirit and genius of the age".

It seemed to regain its momentum soon enough. But now, at least for a generation, I think that the zeitgeist is gone.

If Thaksin Shinawatra had been wise as well as smart, he would have moved silently to limit royal power and prerogatives but instead he baited the king. He was overthrown. Thaksin just needed to curb his own appetite for total power. His ability to win elections -- like Mussolini and Hitler -- "legitimised" him.

Now, "the kingdom is crying", the Bangkok Post said over the weekend. Of course, the key question is whether it can remain a kingdom. All analysts are in agreement that the status quo ante is not an option. The eggs have been broken but there is no omelette.

The most extraordinary thing is the silence of the palace. True, the great king has been hospitalised for months. But what does silence mean? Does someone want all the accomplishments of the post-war world dumped onto the debris of the Red Shirts? It's odd. After all, if the Crown Prince is muzzled as he prepares to ascend the throne, his beloved sister, the Princess Royal, could speak out.

It seems like this artful and long successful alliance of the throne and the business-governmental elite has lost its nerve, after generations of splendid adaptation to new realities.

The military that did the 2006 coup dithered, played golf, and ignored the palace's urgent messages to get busy. "There are things to be done," a senior adviser told me, manifestly elaborating on palace urgings.

Is civil war possible? I don't think the still poor northeast can sustain one. Forty years ago the Bangkok elite laughed at them, but did begin to take seriously the possibility of rebellion there when communists began threatening... but that was largely a Chinese effort, sponsored by Beijing. Deng Xiaoping threw away the Communist Party of Thailand in 1979 for more lucrative connections.

But the Red Shirts are not, for the most part, communists or their equivalents. They are more like French revolutionaries 220 years ago. Look at the faces of their leaders: these are outraged protesters. One of my intelligence sources in Bangkok reports, ominously, that a leader of the Reds is in fact a toughened some-time communist. That conjures up some worse scenarios.

Can Abhisit Vejjajiva and his government put it back together? No way. Not able to understand where the other side is coming from, both have added to their grievances the actions of the past few weeks. Will there be civil war? Not really. The army may be splintered but it's not useless. The Red Shirts are now better armed and skilled. At great cost to the economy, the army can put them down and put a lid on civil unrest for a time.

If the Red Shirts are as radicalised as reports suggest, they will manoeuvre artfully to get another election. Of course, Thaksin or his allies will win -- and then the army, if it hadn't already, will definitively seize power. That might be the development of an armed rising throughout the north, northeast and south.

But the city has been quiet for a few days. The damage to property has been staggering. But given the intensity of the conflict it's something of a miracle that deaths can be measured by the dozen rather than the thousands. Thank heaven for small favours.

W. SCOTT THOMSON professor emeritus at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, Tufts University

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