By Ava Patricia C Avila and Simon Roughneen
SINGAPORE – Chaos caused by red and yellow clad protestors in Thailand over the past few years must have evoked bittersweet memories for Philippine activists, who donned the same team colors when red pro- and yellow anti-regime protesters took to the streets and brought down Ferdinand Marcos’ authoritarian government in 1986.
The Philippines and Thailand have often been cited for their close political parallels, with both home to thriving civil societies but with political power dominated by traditional political elites. Both are fragile democracies, with a history of political instability, that are trying to leave their martial law baggage behind.
In the past decade, citizen uprisings in each country led to the ouster of democratically elected populist leaders accused of corruption: Philippine president Joseph Estrada in 2001 and Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006. Still, scholars often overlook comparisons between these two countries given that, as with any bilateral comparison, there are differences that can occlude the obvious similarities.
Thailand escaped colonialism under savvy, modernizing monarchs and has since evolved towards a military-influenced constitutional monarchy. In contrast the Philippines has been occupied by three foreign powers, and has tried, often in vain, to adhere to Western-style democracy since its independence in 1946.
The Philippines may have a presidential system and Thailand a parliamentary one; however both have similar powerful traditional elites who have established political institutions that are seen as protecting their interests over those of the broader electorate. The political class is unwilling to accommodate popular desire for change and hence feels its privileged position is under threat.
Both the Thai monarchy and the Catholic Church in the Philippines act as moral arbiters in their respective domestic polities, while appearing above the partisan political fray.
Historically much influence has been vested in personalities. These are either established as de jure apolitical leaders, as in the case of the Thai king. Alternatively, in the case of Jaime Cardinal Sin in the Philippines, where church and state are legally separate, such a leadership role was attained by exerting moral and organizational leadership in the face of the massively corrupt and authoritarian Marcos regime.
Whether both institutions can maintain their historical influence going forward remains unclear. Concerns about King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s health and succession questions could lead to a vacuum. The Philippine church, or perhaps the country writ large, has not produced a leader of similar standing to the late Cardinal Sin. Senior church figures now often speak at odds with one another when discussing social or political issues.
This opens the possibility that the military in both countries may move to take a far more active role in an effort to either support or change the status quo, as the tensions between the status quo and the popular desire for change is perhaps now the key to understanding politics in both countries.
These tensions are especially evident in Thailand. After only six months in office, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjavjiva has faced similar street protests to those that helped catapult him to power, with Thaksin exhorting his red-clad supporters to launch a popular revolt. While there are personality issues at play, the unresolved issues that have divided the country between the yellow shirts of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and the red shirts of Thaksin’s followers under the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) are also important to understand.
Even while in exile, former Thai prime minister Thaksin continues to hold the fealty of his supporters through video messages and rallies, reminding them of the perceived benefits his premiership and policies brought to his rural supporters. The promise the poor see in “people power” movements in the Philippines and Thailand has often been ridiculed as the attempt of an unruly mob to impose the arrogant demands of the minority over the will of the majority.
Even supporters have questioned democratization by mob as having the opposite effect. Predictably, perhaps, the outcome has often been military intervention in the name of political stability. The middle class, who at times support and other times spurn the movement, can be swayed to see people power as acting against their interests by creating disorder, as was the case in April after the UDD riots in Bangkok.
Order has for now been restored in Bangkok through force of arms, but the loyalists of Thaksin melted away vowing that those who run away live to fight another day – and the seriously disquieting specter of an underground and potentially violent resistance to the government has begun to rise.
In both countries real power is concentrated in political elites. Thailand draws from the monarchy, military and urban middle class, who use sectoral political parties to protect their positions. They were already entrenched and equipped with ample resources ready for electoral competition when democratic institutions were first introduced. In the Philippines, political power is in the hands of family dynasties, created from the wealth gained through access to political power.
Political parties in both countries are merely tools for advancing those interests and political competition is less about ideology than it is various dynasties attempting to regain or retain access to political power. A tool to measure the differences between the two countries is not important; the outcome is the same in both. The vast majority of the population is either totally frozen out of the system or has little opportunity to influence politics or policy.
That disenfranchisement eventually leads to mass movements. The people power movement and Thaksin’s various political parties temporarily changed this dynamic. However neither has to date offered substantive long-term change. The entrenched elites retain legal tools embedded in years of organizational experience. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s current attempt to retain power by amending the Philippine constitution is a prime example of undermining or reversing the demands of popular protest.
Conversely, economic growth and development in Thailand has added momentum to those seeking to challenge the old-school elites and some of the political changes sought are perhaps the outcome of rising living standards. The Philippines may lag in this regard, and any effective challenge to the existing order may require a broader, more nationwide middle class, and the emergence of a somewhat disenfranchised nouveau riche.
Perhaps key for both countries is whether the moral authority held by the king and church can hold their nations together during these challenging times. Conservative institutions may end up as a bulwark for stability in both countries, given that anti-democratic forces can hijack mass movements for exclusive ends.
The monarchy in Thailand is by law non-partisan, but long-term political survival is difficult without the broad institution’s tacit backing – as Thaksin found out. The palace has been perceived by some as supportive of the PAD, which has mobilized royal symbolism in its street campaigns. But that analysis assumes a monolithic or static royal institution, which history shows clearly is seldom the case.
Meanwhile, the church in the Philippines is divided when it comes to political issues, with the usually vocal Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, which was highly-critical of presidents Fidel Ramos and Joseph Estrada, failing to make any official statement about the Arroyo government’s corruption.
Individual priests and bishops have spoken out, but have not generated sufficient critical mass to sway either the rest of the hierarchy, some of whom are confirmed Arroyo allies, or to get enough feet on the street to generate a third people’s power movement in response to Arroyo’s attempt to potentially subvert the Philippine constitution and perpetuate her elite rule.
Ava Patricia C Avila is a Research Analyst at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.Show