Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Abhisit’s Filipino Lesson

Will the visiting Thai leader be inspired by Benigno Aquino’s smooth accession to the presidency in the Philippines?

Mong Palatino

Four heads of state are set to attend the inauguration ceremony today of Benigno Aquino and Jejomar Binay as the Philippines’ new president and vice president. But it’s the expected presence of Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva that is most interesting, not least because of what the strife in Thailand can teach the Philippines—and what Abhisit can learn from his hosts.

Thailand’s much bigger economy means it is rarely compared with the Philippines these days. But two decades ago, both were developing nations with almost the same population, poverty rates and economic potential. Thailand may be richer now, but its social history, political conditions and even much of its economy bear striking similarities with the Philippines.

There are, of course, some fundamental differences between the two. Thailand didn’t experience colonial rule, it has a monarchy and the military has governed the country for significant stretches. The Philippines, meanwhile, was invaded by three foreign powers, its population is predominantly Catholic and it has faithfully adhered to Western-style democracy since it gained formal independence in 1946.

Despite these differences though, there’s much that’s similar—political instability has plagued both countries, military adventurism couldn’t be fully contained and separatist movements in the southern parts of the two nations remain a significant problem.

In addition, in the past decade the two countries have produced spectacular citizen uprisings that led to the ouster of Philippine President Joseph Estrada in 2001 and Thailand Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006. Estrada was accused of being involved in illegal gambling, and massive street rallies in 2001 forced the military leadership to withdraw its support for him. In Thailand, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in 2006 to protest the corrupt practices of Thaksin. The military supported the protests then by staging a coup.

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Estrada, a former actor, is well-loved by the poor and accused the noisy Manila elite of being at the forefront of the protests against him. Thaksin is also popular among the rural poor of Thailand thanks to his populist economic policies, and he has insisted it was only the middle class of ‘tiny’ Bangkok that supported his ouster. Both were later found guilty of corruption, with Estrada serving time in prison before being granted a pardon, while Thaksin fled the country.

Estrada was replaced by his vice president, Gloria Arroyo, and Thaksin by his allies (before more protests eventually paved the way for Abhisit, the leader of the anti-Thaksin party, to assume the country’s top post in December 2008).

And Arroyo and Abhisit also have much in common personally: both are scions of powerful families, both are Western-educated economists (Arroyo studied at Georgetown University while Abhisit was educated at Oxford), they entered parliament in 1992 (Abhisit as a Bangkok MP and Arroyo as senator), and their rise to power was backed by peaceful street action. But because of their questionable election victories, both were also described by their rivals as undemocratic and illegitimate leaders and have been accused of abetting human rights violations by using the violent arm of the state to quell protests.

Arroyo’s shaky nine-year rule mirrored the unstable Abhisit government. Arroyo’s greatest accomplishment is the fact that she survived and finished her term despite the efforts of the opposition to undermine her presidency. She succeeded in appeasing the restive military and was able to neutralize the powerful Catholic Church. Meanwhile, Abhisit stood his ground even after Red Shirt protesters paralyzed Bangkok’s commercial and tourist centers for two months. The military remained loyal to Abhisit, while he also benefited from the fact that the influential King didn’t intervene to bring an end to the chaos in the streets.

But recent events have also highlighted a significant difference between the two, one that suggests that the Philippines has something to show its more prominent neighbor—the relatively peaceful resolution of political conflict between the country’s top rival parties.

Despite the flaws in their political system, Filipinos have turned to the ballot box to express their dissatisfaction, not to threats of violence. Abhisit today will witness the smooth transition of power in the Philippines, but the question now is whether it will inspire him to work out a similar transition in Thailand or identify with the outgoing Arroyo, who just shrugged off her unpopularity to stay in office as long as she could.

The right choice is clear. But is the Thai leadership ready to move past the destructive power of divisive politics and ensure it works to truly enhance democracy in society? The same, of course, goes for Aquino.