Abhisit's Filipino Lesson
Image Credit: Uniphoto Press

Abhisit's Filipino Lesson


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.

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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.

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).

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