Thailand Rejects Etiquette of Disenfranchising the Poor


Published: October 2, 2008

Each country has its own way of ignoring the lower class. In the United States, federal policymakers advocate a $700 billion bailout for leading financially institutions, while for months, American homeowners coerced by sub-prime lending tactics have struggled to pay their debts. China made clear that it puts its ambitions before the welfare of its poorer citizens when, in July, the central government ignored alarming messages coming from its western Gansu Province that infants were suffering from milk formula intentionally poisoned with Melamine. The Chinese government decided it would address this problem following the Olympics, nearly two months after reports were first filed. Since then, 13,000 infants have been hospitalized, and four have died. Thailand takes a more direct approach to its lower class. Thousands of anti-government protestors are outraged that the rural poor have voting rights and the ability to influence elections. In Thailand, the poor are not to be politically manipulated or ineffectively helped; they are to be completely disenfranchised.

Since Aug. 26, several thousand protestors of the People’s Alliance for Democracy have been camping on the grounds outside the prime minister’s office, calling for changes in government and the resignation of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej. The protestors compelled the government to move its everyday business to a temporary location (an airport). In an odd series of events, on Sept. 9 the Constitutional Court forced Samak out of office after ruling that he had violated the Constitution by accepting payment for a “second job”—his appearances as a television chef on a popular Thai cooking show. This bizarre ousting had deeper roots: Samak has been accused of being a puppet of Thailand’s former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was removed from government in a coup in 2006. Thaksin’s six-year tenure was marked by a centralization of power in the hands of the prime minister and restrictions on free press.

Can the events in Thailand be directly compared to the Philippine’s “People’s Power Revolution” of 1986? Not quite. It appears that what the People’s Alliance for Democracy actually wants is a less inclusive democracy. The People’s Alliance complains that Thailand’s Western-style of democracy has given too much power to the rural poor, whom it accuses of being extremely susceptible to vote buying. Instead, the protestors, composed mostly of the middle class and educated elite, are calling to replace the elected Thai Parliament with one that is partially appointed. Thus, Thailand is instead experiencing a counterrevolution by the Thai establishment, which fears the rising electoral power of the country’s easily-bought rural citizens.

It would be naïve to assume that the political uprising in Thailand will create any real change. For the upcoming elections Samak was reported to have accepted renomination by his party, The People’s Power Party, until objections from the party’s coalition partners pressured it to instead nominate Somchai Wongsawat, the brother-in-law of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Somchai was eventually elected by a parliamentary vote of 298 to 163. Although he stresses that his family ties to Thaksin will not compromise his behavior in office, the protestors fear that Somchai will work to invalidate the corruption charges held against Thaksin. The anti-government protestors now pledge that they will ignore the new Prime Minister’s policies and demand that Thaksin, who lives in self-imposed exile in England, return to Thailand to face trial.

Thailand’s political conflict may resemble a people’s revolution on the surface. However, the People’s Alliance for Democracy advocates a political system comprised of a partially appointed parliament.  It seems that the middle and upper classes in Thailand are more fearful of the easily-manipulated voting power of the rural poor than they are of the country’s corrupt leadership. Thus, not only are the protestors targeting their anger at Samak and Thaksin, but they are also misdirecting it at the lower class and actively working to disenfranchise the poor.

The events in Thailand should not surprise anyone; the lower classes in nearly every country are manipulated, ignored or harmed to benefit the richer classes. By opting for a partially appointed parliament, Thailand’s anti-government protestors are now trying to steal one of the few rights that belong to the lower class—the right to vote. The philosophy behind this is that the poor do not deserve to take part in an election since they cannot be trusted to make well-informed decisions. Some may argue that this is true. After all, it happens in our own country, when poor Americans vote against their own economic interests by casting ballots for Republican candidates. Nevertheless, there should be no excuses made for Thailand’s direct approach, despite the pragmatic rationale behind it.

Politically disenfranchising the poor isn’t anything new; but this approach is bold, direct and lacks sophistication. What advice would the American and Chinese governments give to Thailand? They would shake their heads and say, “Every country ignores its lower class, but as a matter of taste, you should at least be more discreet about it.”