Voranai: The Dust Under Their Feet

An undated file photo of deputy junta chairman Prawit Wongsuwan. Photo: Matichon

Voranai VanijakaWhether in a democracy or a dictatorship, it is money politics that define this country as a land of exploitation, where the people are but dust under the elites’ well-pedicured feet.

Over the past few years, looking at the dismal landscape of Thai politics, many in the Bangkok middle- and upper-class had placed their hopes on former ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan becoming prime minister – at least until he died late last month.

When such hopes were articulated to political insiders, the answer across the board was a resounding “no.” Why? He simply didn’t have the financial backing, which of course, one needs a lot of to become a Thai prime minister.

In another recent news, Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan was photographed wearing a Richard Mille watch, reportedly priced anywhere between 4 and 10 million baht. It’s a watch popular among the most elite stars of Hollywood and sports. The luxury watch must have been recently acquired, since it was never declared to the National Anti-Corruption Commission. It’s procedural for individuals to declare their assets before taking political office, coup-leaders included.

The 2014 asset declaration found General Prawit to be worth nearly 90 million baht, all on a soldier’s humble salary. After three-plus years of playing the second most powerful man in the Thai government, no doubt the wealth has stayed the same, except for that one watch, assuming he’s been an honest deputy prime minister who simply enjoys work trips abroad. But let’s not make a habit of silly assumptions.

There’s a formulaic path into Thai politics, as any political insider would tell you. Many skills and talents may be required, but the most important thing for a seat in parliament is money. Money to contribute to the political party of my choosing. Money to invest in the kam-naans and village heads who will bring me the votes. Money to spread to the right people who can help me win elections. In short, money buys political power.

But there’s also a shortcut, which is riding in on a tank and straight into premiership. Or if I don’t have the money, I can instead put on some muscle by leading political protests, then I may be rewarded with money and a seat in parliament.

Put all this in one basket, and what does it mean? No matter who one votes for – or doesn’t vote for under junta rule – the people in charge of this country are always the elites, as defined by wealth and power. Thai politics is a millionaire (billionaire) club, whether one wears a business suit or general’s uniform. The masses are but the dust under their feet. Sure, there may be two or more tribal factions of elites squabbling for power, but still they are the elites, all of them.

The primary interest of the elites is to increase wealth and expand power. Therein lies the problem. Whether Thailand is a democracy or a dictatorship, money politics is the system that rules.

If I’m a wealthy capitalist who’s invested millions to become a member of parliament or a minister, of course I would want to see a return on that investment. If I’m a political leader, once I get into office, obviously I would have to feed my tribal network that expands all the way from parliament to business connections and to the kam-naans and village heads in rural provinces. All these people – and there’s a lot of them – helped me get into office. It would be ill-mannered, very un-Thai and downright traitorous (the term is nae-ra-koon), if I don’t return favors. Worst, my entire network may fall apart. So the wealth and power must trickle down.

Hence, in any elected government, a cabinet shake-up is the norm. Perhaps once a year. Perhaps even every three months. There’s a lot of people waiting to make returns on their investments, and as a good tribal leader (or feudal lord), I gotta slice that cake fairly.

If I rode in on a tank, then of course I might reward myself with a luxury watch. I would also spread the love to my tribal network with a Chinese submarine or three, among other fun toys. I don’t have to pass as many cake slices around, which is why a junta government can’t last too long. Other people want to eat the cake too.

If, however, I can’t be a part of money politics, then I would have to find other options in life, like writing weekly commentary hoping for Facebook likes and shares.

Thai politics is a web of competing feudal networks in pursuit of wealth and power. The masses are simply pawns manipulated for votes. Votes that will get me into office, in order for me to increase wealth and expand power. If we understand money politics, we would understand that what is deemed corruption in the modern sense is but a cultural tradition of favor and gratitude (boon-koon). Corruption isn’t a few individuals breaking the rules, but simply the way things are done as they have always been done since feudal times. As such, when tradition meets capitalism, good governance gets tossed into the dumpster.

Money politics won’t be changed by the people who are making a lot of money from it. That would be silly. But the future of Thailand needs not lie in the government buildings and luxury malls of Bangkok. The future can be found in rural villages where education is needed. Not just education in terms of reading books and taking exams, but also an analytical education where elite-rule-in-poor-disguise is called into question.

For the people, the political struggle is about which color shirt we wear. For the elites, the struggle is over the only color that truly matters in this capitalist world; that is the color of money. The people of Thailand need to understand this distinction and realize that we are in competition with the elites, not against each other.

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Voranai Vanijaka is the former editor-in-chief of GQ Magazine Thailand. He teaches Global Media Studies at Thammasat University. From 2008 to May 2014, he wrote the Sunday Column on politics and society for the Bangkok Post.