Western pieties, Eastern realities

Did you know that there are good coups d’etat, not just bad ones?

A good coup is one that the US State Department won’t call a coup, despite the fact that it manifestly is a coup. Egypt’s is a recent example: had State dared call a spade a spade in that case, by law that would have triggered a shutoff of the $1.5 billion per annum US aid pipeline—whose honeyed flow keeps Cairo’s elites sweet on America, keeps Israel’s southern border secure, and above all keeps the Suez Canal open for oil tankers.

The ouster of Philippine President Joseph Estrada in 2001 by US-friendly members of his government was another “good coup,” encouraged and swiftly ratified by the US government, and nicely camouflaged as a popular uprising.

The military takeover that happened in Thailand last week is clearly a different story. US Secretary of State Kerry has condemned it bluntly as “a military coup”: thus, a bad coup. US military aid (which was paltry) and cooperative military exercises have been suspended.

Media coverage also has left little doubt about the Western MSM’s sympathies. Here is Thomas Fuller from the NYT:

The coup was seen as a victory for the elites in Thailand who have grown disillusioned with popular democracy and have sought for years to diminish the electoral power of Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister who commands support in the rural north. Unable to win elections, the opposition has instead called for an appointed prime minister, and pleaded with the military for months to step in.

If you knew nothing else about Thailand, and were reading Fuller’s article quickly, you’d almost certainly get the impression that these “elites” are the bad actors. And you’d probably come away thinking that the target of this unpopular opposition, former Thai PM Thaksin Shinawatra, is a nice guy who, despite accusations of “corruption” by his “critics” (and [shrug] what SE Asian politician isn’t at least a little corrupt?) deserves praise for, as Fuller describes them, his “policies such as universal health care and microloans.”

Some younger Americans and other Westerners living in Thailand have been expressing the same pious pro-democracy sentiments (e.g., with candles—the West’s go-to symbol of empathy and lamentation).

And of course, all this hectoring and posturing by Westerners and their media has encouraged Thais opposed to the coup to make demonstrations—often with English-language signs—which foreign news crews have eagerly played up. If all your news about Thailand came from CNN and BBC you’d be tempted to believe (incorrectly) that huge crowds of Thais are protesting this unpopular military takeover in spontaneous uprisings across the country.

I try not to be a kneejerk contrarian about things like this. But having traveled in Thailand a few times, I know enough about the place—and about Western democracies—to know that the West’s reaction to this coup is drenched in hypocrisy, or, at best, self delusion.

For one thing, what reporters such as the NYT’s Fuller call the Thai “elites” are mostly only the educated middle classes of Bangkok and other large cities—the Thais who are most like you and me and Fuller.

These Thai middle classes have watched in dismay over the past decade as the Shinawatras—first Thaksin, lately his sister Yingluck—have run the government not merely in a “corrupt” way but, above all, to buy the votes of poor, relatively uneducated farmers, principally in the northern provinces, and thereby establish an essentially permanent ruling party.

The most egregious example of this vote-buying in recent years was the massive rice-subsidy scheme in which the government promised to pay well above the market rate for Thai rice farmers’ harvests—with unpleasant results for Thailand’s debt situation, not to mention all the silos full of excess rice, now rotting away. Even the tax structure in Thailand has been distorted to favor farmers—e.g., taxes on pickup trucks are much lower than on urban vehicles.

And then there is the delicate matter of the Thai monarchy. King Bhumibol is overwhelmingly popular and revered, and undoubtedly a stabilizing force, but he is also 86 and fading away. His son and presumed successor Prince Maha is not popular. Maha is often described as a “playboy” but that label is politely incomplete. Taking after Caligula, for example, he recently elevated his poodle, Foo Foo, to the rank of Air Chief Marshal in the Royal Thai Air Force (or somehow believed that he had). He also displayed his wife topless at a 2009 dinner attended by Western diplomats. The crown prince now spends much of his time in Europe, in noble pastimes that evidently include gambling—the debts from which the billionaire Thaksin has been all too happy to pay off for him. In a 2005 cable (later Wikileaked) the US Ambassador to Thailand noted archly that “Thaksin long ago invested in Crown Prince futures.”

Thus a great many Thais fear what would happen to the country and its monarchy were Thaksin and his family to get a long-term grip on it.

There is also the fact that the militant wings of the two main political factions—Thaksin’s “red shirts” and the opposition “yellow shirts”—were about to have a go at each other last week in Bangkok. The only institution capable of fixing the situation, the military, declared martial law for that reason, and then the coup two days later after both sides still refused to compromise. Even if the coup was planned well in advance, and the “negotiations” prior to the coup were a sham, as some allege, the prospect of factional violence across the country was a real one.

For all these reasons, Western finger-wagging about the need for “democracy” and “elections,” and encouragement of opposition to the coup, may do more harm than good to the Thai political situation. And it will certainly annoy, if not enrage, the Thai middle classes and the military—perhaps enough to make them question the value of Thailand’s long relationship to the US and other Western countries.

What these middle classes want, of course, is a political system that can’t be gamed as easily as Thaksin and his family have gamed it in recent years.

Westerners apparently have a hard time seeing this today, given their childlike faith in democracy, but their own democratic systems developed within relatively mature social structures—compared to Thailand’s—yet even then the founders of those systems took strong measures to prevent the sort of majoritarian tyranny now threatened by Thaksin and his ilk. Look at the original US Constitution, for example, with its electoral college system that was meant to insulate the presidency from populist demagoguery and vote-buying. Look at how the original thirteen US states—basically for the same reasons—restricted voting largely to propertied white males. Conversely, look at all the countries where “democratic elections,” conducted the way pious Western observers want them, lead to Chavezes and Mugabes and general ruin.

That’s not to say that Western democracies are now immune to being gamed. In America both Republicans and Democrats have long favored profligate subsidies to farmers, for example. The Democrats also have overseen an unprecedented expansion of immigration from Latin American countries, at least in part because Hispanic immigrants disproportionately vote Democratic—and the Republicans, fearing to lose the Hispanic vote completely (and also rather liking the supply of cheap labor that cuts their lawns and cleans their houses) have done little to oppose this policy, notwithstanding that it is arguably to the detriment of the country generally. Meanwhile in Europe, an increasing number of voters, in response to similar policies, are perceiving that traditional party choices are now false choices—representing the same parasitic establishment that pursues its own over the general interests.

All this should remind us that democracy is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end, and an imperfect one at that. It doesn’t work all that well in “developed” countries, and it work even less well in poorer countries, where votes can be bought more cheaply.

In any case, right now in Thailand, they are still trying to improve their system. I don’t mind giving them some slack to do so. Most Thais don’t seem to mind either, and I understand that, for now, life still goes on more or less normally over there—everywhere except the two or three public spaces where a handful of people gather each day to shout and shake their signs for the Western cameras.