Thursday, December 18, 2008


(published as "Heed the poor as democracy starts from the ground up" in the Bangkok Post, December 17, 2008)

Thailand has taken a small but significant step on the road to normalcy after a long period of instability and intense factional struggle.

Newly selected Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva certainly has his work cut out for him, but he brings to the job a mannered civility that has been sorely lacking in recent Bangkok dust-ups. As such, his elite overseas education is both asset and liability depending on which Western values he draws from; will it be a cool, condescending noblesse oblige or democracy in the more egalitarian sense of the word, recognizing the equal rights and equal worth of all citizens?

After seeing the country immobilized with invective, wobbling close to the brink, moderate, common sense voices are needed to restore balance and order; if they succeed, things will start looking better than they have for a long time.

Abhisit, like US president-elect Barack Obama, strikes a public pose that is rare in the rough and tumble world of politics. From the personal one might infer potential political strengths; a calm, collected and humble leader is just what a rife-torn country needs to reach out across the political divide and reduce the bitter factionalism that has almost made the country ungovernable.

Abhisit, again like Obama, is youthful, well-spoken and well-educated, but has a modest record in terms of accomplishment outside of academia and remains untried. Yet at this critical juncture in history, when the global economy teeters, when massive unemployment looms and communal tensions flare, new leaders are not granted much of a grace period; they must learn to ride in the saddle.

Both men face challenges that would be daunting to even the most seasoned politico, which might explain why both men find themselves surrounded by seasoned politicos, not all of whom are savory or deserving of emulation.

But as the example of Abraham Lincoln shows, sometimes a leader has no choice but to embrace rivals. Lincoln was one of a kind and very much a product of his era, not unlike his accomplished Thai contemporary King Mongkut. But even a century and a half later, lessons can be drawn from the life of great men whose passion for justice helped end slavery in both America and Siam.

As illustrated in Doris Goodwin's "Team of Rivals," a popular book which has had a marked influence on Obama team-building, Lincoln pulled it off because he was humble when necessary but never lost sight of his humanitarian mission and steadfast political values. The humility with which "Honest Abe" listened to his erstwhile rivals had a great healing effect and the strategy is applicable even to those born of the silver spoon.

An unexpected but so far efficacious example of embracing a rival has already been accomplished in Thailand with the unusual case of Abhisit foe-turned-ally Newin Chidchob. If the energies of rural power broker of mixed repute can be tapped for the common good, if a meaningful partnership can develop that is not about sharing the spoils but sharing the burden, then the differences, not just between urban and rural rivals but between the city and countryside can effectively be bridged.

Everyone's life story has something to teach; the challenge for the urbane Abhisit is to encourage the better impulses of homespun, self-made men such as Newin, without compromising core civic values.

Newin has already offered some sage advice. "If the Democrats can perform in a way that wins over the hearts of the people in Isan," the Buriram politico reportedly told his new allies, "the people there will soon forget Thaksin."

While observing grass-roots campaigning in rural Isan during the run-up to Thaksin's first big electoral victory, I noticed village women folk clamoring for Abhisit's poster, asking for copies at every stop. When I enquired about this they said they liked him because he was "handsome," and considered his local proxy to be a decent man, but would vote instead for Thaksin's local proxy because he was wealthier and more in a position to "influence" things.

This is not a question of voter ignorance in Isan, it's the way democracy, an imperfect but generally worthwhile system, works. Voting for someone based on looks or because of a perceived ability to deliver the goods is not the height of intellectual sophistication, but it can be found everywhere; physical charm was vital to the success of both John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama, and Ronald Reagan and both Bush Sr. and Jr. all racked in votes on promises of handouts in the form of tax cuts.

Thai author Khamsing Srinawk wrote incisively about the cavalier vote-buying techniques of politicians trawling impoverished Isan nearly half a century ago, citing the gift of one rubber slipper, and the promise of a second one to be delivered upon a certain electoral result. In Thailand's chronically impoverished Northeast, the vulnerability of poor and marginalized people hasn't changed much since. People take what they can today because, in their experience, the generosity of those who seek to rule in their name is contingent and doesn't last for long.

Thai politics has never been short of strange alliances, and unexpected twists and turns are the norm, but the polarity has now reversed for the better. Still it will take much forbearance to restore confidence in the country, not just on the part of investors and tourists but among the divided populace itself.

If Abhisit wants to heal the deep-rooted political malaise facing the nation he would do well to devote himself to the needs of the most down-trodden, for true democracy starts at the ground up.