Thai Baht Banknotes As Baht Pares Gains For The Week

Death of a Monarch or an Oligarch?

At the end of a king’s long reign, it won’t just be a game of thrones that plays out in Thailand – it will be a game of gold.

The Associated Press recently published an article on the “Thai monarchy’s billions.” This makes for an important, if brief, reminder that there is more than just the power of quasi-governmental position or the power of ideology to the elite role that the late monarch held within the Thai polity.

Because the King could also readily command a power of mobilisation and could have, at least theoretically, commanded a certain power of coercion if the Thai nation were to ever actually slip into a prolonged, violent emergency, he also commanded a remarkable degree of power in terms of raw material wealth.

An extreme concentration of material wealth has political consequences. Thailand, in this regard, is no different than any other polity across the globe. What is unique about Thailand is that its wealthiest citizen also happened be the focal point of so many other bases of elite power. The late monarch was both an elite and an oligarch. And as he was arguably the top elite amidst a network of various elites, he was also the top oligarch.

Thus, as objectively and level-headed as one can be about such things, we should do well to review the state of Thailand’s oligarchy at this juncture of the late monarch’s—the late top oligarch’s—death.

As a side note on motivation for this piece, it should also be plainly stated that one does not mull over economic inequality simply for the sake of getting a pat on the back by our overly-represented, Left-leaning colleagues in academia. Nor does one do this in order to conjure up even rarer arguments for the late monarch’s well-recorded and, at times, patently undemocratic tendencies. Rather, one ought to review the late King’s material wealth as social power simply because in Thailand it is an empirical fact that money matters quite a great deal on the political stage, both locally and nationally.

With the King’s passing, what has changed about oligarchy in Thailand? What has stayed the same? Beginning with the latter, the overall structure of oligarchy has not changed within Thailand since Thursday, 13 October 2016.

There are still incredibly… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in New Mandala by T. F. Rhoden; any original credit for image/photo at the top of this post via Bloomberg. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Unequal Thailand

Book review published in New Mandala by T. F. Rhoden on Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker’s Unequal Thailand: Aspects of Income, Wealth and Power (Singapore: NUS Press, 2015.

Does Thailand have an oligarchy? If so, how do we define it? And most importantly for this collection of essays, what is the proof of its existence in contemporary Thailand?

These are some of the main questions that pervade Unequal Thailand: Aspects of Income, Wealth and Power, edited by Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker. Translated and reworked from a Thai-language edition, Su sangkom thai samoe na [Towards a More Equitable Thailand] published in 2014 by Matichon, this volume is a timely and useful review of some of the political economy issues facing Thailand today.

With nine chapters by Thai scholars and technocrats, the aim of the book is to provide up-to-date data and analysis on those material foundations that have fostered a growth in inequality and a strengthening of oligarchy in recent years. Some chapters do this better than others, but all provide insight into these issues.

In terms of raw empirical analysis, all of the research essays are a success, particularly the second chapter on… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in New Mandala by T. F. Rhoden; photo credit for re-post from Matthijs van Oostrum via Atlantis. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Oligarchy in Thailand?

Abstract

A modern conception of oligarchy, which can be housed under an authoritarian regime as easily as it can under a liberal democratic one, can affect our understanding of the potential national political repercussions of extreme inequalities of wealth. This article has two goals: (1) to conceptually analyse the meaning of oligarchy; and (2) to make a
descriptive case for its use in the Thai context. The test case of contemporary Thailand shows what exactly an oligarch or oligarchy means under a military regime and the potential effects for national politics of an oligarchy based on material wealth. Utilizing Jeffrey A. Winters’ Aristotelian-grounded conception of oligarchy for the contemporary world, this article argues that some political outcomes in Thailand are inexplicable without recourse to a modern variant of oligarchic theory and analysis.

Keywords: Thailand, oligarchy, monarchy, military regime, Thai oligarchy.

Introduction

This article argues that Winters’ concept of oligarchy can be extended to politics at the national level in Thailand. The coup d’état on 22 May 2014 by military forces led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, Commander of the Thai Royal Army, may offer evidence against the argument that Thailand has an oligarchy. A year earlier, the representative democracy in Thailand – despite it being “low” on liberalism – may have also opposed such a classification. Thailand with its unique form of constitutional monarchy, sometimes termed a “network monarchy”, also appears to argue against oligarchy. Additionally, a review of Riggs’ now-classic concept of “bureaucratic polity” or Chai-anan’s concept of “three-dimensional Thai state” also seems to chal-lenge any notion of national-level oligarchy.

The present paper argues that while Thailand is not an oligarchy, it does very much
have an oligarchy. This is not a play on words. To understand why the above claim is empirically true, one must revisit the concept of oligarchy and allow for misconceptions to change. Three specific elements need to change. Firstly, the theory of oligarchy, as originally understood by Aristotle, is not a regime, but a very powerful, hard-to-eradicate, and not always coherent element of almost every state and society since Aristotle posited his mixed regime, including contemporary Thailand. Secondly, the theory of oligarchy is a materialist theory of power. Thirdly, the theory of oligarchy can be applied to Thailand and, by doing so, researchers of social science gain a new perspective of recent turmoil in Thai national politics.

Every theory, method or approach provides insight. For some students of Thai politics and society, recognising that Thailand has an oligarchy may induce something of a modest epiphany. For others, this recognition will be more like an intellectual homecoming. There are many ways to describe Thailand’s national politics, including the concept of oligarchy, regardless if one likes or dislikes the word. This article is about theory and classification and how it applies to one national state in Southeast Asia. I agree that a causal argument may be more powerful than a descriptive  argument in the social sciences. However, because there is still so much confusion over the term oligarchy and its applicability outside of Hellenistic Greece, I make a simpler argument of reviewed classification and exampled application. Oligarchy as diction can be more than a facile epithet. Oligarchy is, in fact, a vital force in Thailand’s political society… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs by T. F. Rhoden; photo credit goes to Reuters via International Business Times. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Thailand’s Oligarchs Are Fighting

I want to believe that those who have taken to the street recently in Bangkok really do wish at heart to simply have a political system that is free from the influence of money. Or maybe we should say extreme amounts of wealth, like an ultra-extreme amount of wealth available only to the—not the top 1 percent—but the top .01 percent, top .001 percent, and, empirically speaking, really the top .0001 percent of Thailand’s 67 million people.

The influence of extreme inequalities of material wealth on national politics is a very good reason for those who work in salaried, white-collar professions in Bangkok to protest en masse. Honestly, the influence of extreme wealth on politics is a good reason for anyone to protest. And so, we should acknowledge that those on the street right now are acting of their own volition, correct? All of us have friends and colleagues who, whether we agree with them or not, are part of this protest, people whom we respect. We can acknowledge their passion. If this is a passion stirred by the direct consequences of extreme material wealth—the most salient example of this in Thai national politics being former PM Thaksin Shinawatra—then it is a legitimate passion, and more importantly, a legitimate reason to protest.

When political equality is hampered by economic inequality, can Thailand still have a liberal democracy? I wonder if this is at the heart of the problem. Does Thailand have something like a national oligarchy that is affecting, whether negatively or positively, some political outcomes? Does it make sense to ask if, casually speaking, the presence of a robust Thai oligarchy after Thaksin’s emergence on the national stage has conditioned, constrained, shaped, or some other way constituted the various events leading up to the 2006 coup, the crackdown of red-shirted protesters in 2010, the national elections in 2011, and the current round of protests in a way that if there were no Thai oligarchy would quite simply have not have occurred? Does Jeffery A. Winters’ thesis in his 2011 book Oligarchy apply to national case of Thailand as well?

PM Yingluck has made a public statement saying that… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in New Mandala by T. F. Rhoden; all other written and photo credits appear on New Mandala. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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