Monday, January 6, 2014

Buying Votes - Democracy to the Test in Thailand and Cambodia

Thailand is in turmoil again and the divisions, once again, seem irreconcilable. At least not in any way consistent with democracy. This time it’s the yellow shirts who are on the warpath with the aim of shutting down the capital, Bangkok, until they achieve the ouster of the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, brother of the despised Taksin Shinawatra. The yellow shirts have the backing of the Bangkok elite and voters in the south. The principal political party they back – the Democrat Party – hasn’t won an election in more than 20 years. They consider any government affiliated with Taksin to be controlled by him from his self-imposed exile. At this point, they are as opposed to democracy as they are to Taksin. Their plan, once they bring down the government, is to install an appointed people’s council and, I surmise, change the electoral rules to prevent the majority from office.
Yingluck’s backing, the red shirts, is in the more populous north and northeast. Starting with Taksin’s win in 2001, he or parties affiliated with him have won every election and by wide margins. His first win was the first time any single party had won a parliamentary majority and their hold of the majority of Thailand’s people is rock solid. The snap election called by Yingluck for early February to try to ease tensions is certain, absent a military coup before then, to return her to power.
The yellows complain most about his corruption. On that score they’re correct, he’s an unmitigated sleazeball. This is best exemplified by they way he had the tax laws changed to exempt the $2 billion sale of his telecom empire from taxes just before the sale.
I consider him reprehensible on another account; that is, being responsible for mass murder. He promised in his first campaign to eradicate drugs within three months. Once elected he directed the police to kill lots of drug dealers. Within a few weeks about 2500 ‘drug dealers’ were summarily executed. In quotes because without access to fair trials and the ability to defend themselves, it’s absolutely certain that hundreds of innocent people were murdered. Maybe they were small-timers who sold only to supply their own needs. Others just happened to be on some police captain’s hit list. His mass murder campaign was supported by the vast majority of Thais, so you won’t hear the opposition complaining about that.
But they hate him most for the way he ‘bought’ poor people’s votes, you know, free health care, easy credit for the peasantry, development money for villages. That is rich coming from them since political parties in Thailand have a long history of actually using cash to buy votes on election day.
Step back for a minute. If an American politician proposed increasing Social Security, instituting true universal health care, making higher education more affordable, would you call that buying my vote? Yes, it would benefit me personally, but I also think those changes would be good for the country. Would I vote for a party that proposed to increase taxes on the poor so they could lower taxes on the wealthy? Hell no, that’s a vote for the greedy elite.
Whatever you think of Taksin, he’s the first Thai politician to ever consider the needs of the lower classes. Maybe you think he actually hates the peasantry and only bought their votes to gain power. Regardless, he’s the first to actually put money into Thailand’s majority. I spent a lot of time in the country in the early 1990s, including living and working there for most of 1993, and what I came away with was that the needs of the poor were totally neglected. It was always a government for the elite. For instance, When Bangkok’s skytrain, its first mass transit line, was completed in the late 90s a ride was priced at about $1. That was at a time when the minimum wage was about $90, so impossible for the poor to afford. The middle classes sped through town in air-con comfort while the poor spent hours in slow-as-molasses traffic sweltering in non-air-con discomfort. 
After Taksin was deposed, his party was still in power, so they chose another prime minister. He was ousted because of a conflict of interest: He earned $50 hosting a cooking show on TV. His replacement was kicked out by the Supreme Court on another technicality in the midst of the yellows shutting down the international airport and generally causing chaos. At that point a member of the opposition, Abbisit Vejijjiwa (forgive my spelling and minor discrepancies in my timeline) was put into power which in turn brought out the red shirt Taksin supporters. Their turn to shut down the city was broken up by the murder of 90 of their demonstrators. Meanwhile it was a forgone conclusion that the red shirts in the leadership of Yingluck would win the next election.
The country remained relatively calm for a few years until Yingluck proposed a blanket amnesty that would have included her brother as well as Abbisit and other elitists who are currently under indictment for the deaths of those 90 demonstrators. That sent the yellows into a state of apoplexy. Regardless of what it might have meant for their side, the idea that Taksin might be able to return set them into an artery-busting rage. Yingluck quickly removed the amnesty law from consideration, but the elitists were already fired up beyond reconciliation. So that’s where it stands now. They want to change the electoral laws to prevent the lower classes from gaining democratic power, thus abrogating the fundamental tenet of democracy; that of one person, one vote.  
Many countries have electoral systems that favor one group or the other. In Japan, Malaysia, the US, for instance, rural voters have disproportionate power. In Malaysia the smallest population district has 9 times the voting power per person of the most populous one and the ruling party remained in power after the last election even though they lost the popular vote. But can you imagine what will happen to the country if new laws created at the behest of the minority attempt to permanently prevent the majority from power?
The yellows have lost touch with reality. The red shirt majority will never abide by being stripped from power without a fierce struggle. Personally, I can’t help feeling that the elite hate Taksin more because he gave the poor hope for the future than for his corruption. This is similar to the Repug party in America which can’t stand the thought that the government  actually should put public resources into helping people. Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, Medicare, whatever it is, if it’s designed to help anyone but the moneyed elite, they’re against it, since in their minds anyone who isn’t rich isn’t deserving of government largesse.
Cambodia, right next door is also in turmoil with the first mortalities from demonstrations happening at the beginning of the year. Sam Rainsy, leader of the opposition CNRP – Cambodian National Rescue Party – has kept his elected legislators out of parliament in protest of voting irregularities. Latest studies have shown that the areas with the greatest problems were where Hun Sen of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party did best. Still, as mentioned in a previous post, the manner in which the seats are allocated strongly favors the CPP and even if the CNRP had won the popular vote they still could’ve lost the election. The major problem for them now is the reform of election laws. There’s no sense in having new elections until the voting laws are reformed and I see no way for that to happen if they’re not in parliament.
The opposition has been holding daily demonstrations since December 15, blocking major thoroughfares and causing massive disruptions. The government had been showing tremendous restraint until military police were brought in who started bludgeoning at random, which in turn brought out the worst in the demonstrators who started throwing rocks and burning tires. In addition to being a flaming racist bigot, Sam Rainsy has been piggy-backing on the dissatisfaction of garment workers who’ve been demanding a doubling of their wages. The workers were not much of a force for that change until the opposition took up their cause.
As opposed to Taksin who could promise government largesse for the poor and deliver, since the Thai government clearly had the resources, Sam Rainsy is blowing wind. It’d be great for the workers to earn a minimum wage of $160 month, but that is not something a government can take lightly. Not only might it put the current 20% annual growth of the industry in jeopardy, but it would also likely distort the job market. A large percentage of garment workers, most of whom are women, send money home to their families even at the current $80 month. While that pittance provides only a very hardscrabble life, nearly all of them will say they are much better off earning the current minimum than they would be living in their villages where jobs are practically non-existent. They certainly can be and have been an unruly bunch in their fight for better conditions but having the backing of Sam Rainsy has emboldened them and brought them to join the opposition’s demonstrations. At the present time almost the entire industry has been shut down.
Hun Sen clearly has been shaken, he even rhetorically asked, ‘What have I done wrong’. His major problem is that he’s been in power too long, almost 30 years. No matter how good you are as a leader you are going to offend and anger a lot of people in that time. Moreover, you lose sight of your human fallibility and make things happen without a lot of consideration of their impact on ordinary people. His strong focus on development has propelled the               country to multiple years of high growth - 7.5% this year - but this has involved over the last decade the forcible relocation of hundreds of thousands of people in both urban shanty towns and rural villages.
All of the capital’s former shanty towns have been leveled and nearly all of its lakes and wetlands filled for development. In the filling of one large lake close to the center of town 4000 families were displaced. Some of those families are still demanding fair compensation three years after they were removed and have taken up demonstrating and blocking roads at the same time the other demos are happening, adding to the capital’s traffic woes. (The desire to concrete over park space is not unique to Cambodia; massive demonstrations took place in Turkey when the government announced plans to build on the last green space in central Istanbul.) When added to demonstrations by the opposition and garment workers and lately teachers demanding $250 per month, the PM is getting it from all sides.
Nearly 10% of the country’s land area has been granted to agro-industrial businesses. While this is an excellent development model in the World Bank view of things (but not mine; I think it’d be far better to divide the land up amongst many small holders then single large agribusinesses) it has involved large scale removal of villagers. And not just ordinary public land is being sold off – actually 99 year leases – but large parts of forested national parks and protected areas are also being leveled for sugar, rubber, acacia, oil palm and more. This all adds up to a disgruntled population and an easy target for Sam Rainsy who mostly focuses on Vietnamese concessions to further stoke racial tensions, even though they make up only a small part of the land sold off.
Hun Sen is often been portrayed in the international media as a dictator. That’s over the top in my opinion since true dictators only stay in power through intimidation and force, torture and incarceration of political opponents. He has no feared secret police. His party has consistently won elections. Though they aren’t perfect, it’s nothing like dictators who win with 99% of the vote. The fact that he only narrowly won the last election is proof enough that they are largely free and fair: not totally, but neither are elections in America.
Strongman, however does fit. In the past he has closed down whole businesses on a whim: Several years ago sports betting parlors employing thousands were closed down literally overnight when he gave the word. About three years ago he warned functionaries in the police and army that official license plates were not allowed for private vehicles – they get some free fuel and other perks. When the practice was not ended a year later, he gave them two months and threatened to impound any vehicle that still had official plates. They disappeared by the deadline, though they are now creeping back into use.
Until this latest election he talked about staying in power for another 20 years and back at the height of the Arab Spring, he smugly and confidently assured the people that it could never happen in Cambodia. I don’t think he’ll be ousted by street demonstrations, but he may be forced into new elections before his mandate ends.
The most unfortunate part of the whole mess is the total inadequacy of the opposition, especially the racism. Already Vietnamese businesses have been torched and destroyed. The way Sam Rainsy has played to the people’s prejudices, there can be no surprise if innocent Vietnamese citizens of Cambodia are attacked and even killed. He’s got many Cambodians thinking the biggest threat to their country is Vietnamese taking over even though they make up at best about 8% of the country’s population. According to him, illegal Vietnamese immigrants are a vanguard force that will eventually help the Viet government take over all of Cambodia. It’s total crap, but the people believe it. The greatest irony is that many of the young demonstrators screaming anti-Vietnamese epithets at police and CPP supporters and demanding Hun Sen’s ouster would not be alive today had Vietnam not intervened to stop the Khmer Rouge genocide which was taking tens of thousands of lives every month.
His attempt to buy garment workers’ votes by promising a doubling of the minimum wage would either unattainable if he was elected or if instituted could cause havoc in the economy with college grads earning less than garment workers. Much as I sympathize with their plight, those changes need to be more gradual, a condition which now seems impossible for the workers to accept after being stoked up by Sam Rainsy.
In latest news the government, using some violence, has cleared demonstrators from Freedom Park, a centrally located square capable of holding about 5000 people, and has temporarily prohibited further demos. The government had seemed to be showing a lot of tolerance towards the demos, but it’s not surprising they would crack down after violence resulting in casualties.
Finally, no matter how good a leader is, after 30 years in power it’s time for a change, except in this case the alternative would be worse.