Gabriel Claudio said there’s not only a difference in the forms of government, but also in the levels of outrage in Thailand and the Philippines. Furthermore, while there was gloom, outrage and pessimism in Thailand before Thaksin Shinawatra decided to resign as Thai prime minister, there is “far greater optimism on the part of Filipinos”.
That’s not as outlandish a claim as it sounds on the surface. Many Filipinos–some 33 percent of the population–are indeed “optimistic” in that they’re hopeful that they can leave the country, and hopeful as well that once they do that they’ll find a job that pays better than the one they have in the Philippines. The same people and millions of others also hope they’ll get lucky and win either the sweepstakes or the lotto, or some other passport to better lives.
But if Claudio meant that Filipinos are optimistic about the future in their homeland, or hopeful that hard work can make a difference in their fortunes, he should probably get out more. Maybe then he’ll discover that the “optimism” he sees–the hopes for jobs abroad, or for a stroke of good luck– actually masks the desperation that attends Filipino lives. At its core is despair, and the overwhelming conviction that the country of their birth is beyond hope and past redemption. Filipino “optimism” is an irony based on the very opposite of that sentiment.
This same “optimism” has prevented the explosion of the outrage that (despite the majority’s belief that Gloria Macapagal Arroyo cheated in 2004, and should leave her office) is notably absent in the Philippines. The sense that there’s no hope for meaningful change, that the political elite is hopelessly corrupt and incorrigible, and that democracy has failed them are what have kept people off the streets, and away from the protest demonstrations and rallies that could have morphed into another exercise of People Power.
The Arroyo government’s assault on free expression and freedom of assembly has been crucial in validating this perception, and as a consequence helped keep it in power. Political activism makes little sense if one believes it won’t achieve anything anyway, and could even lead to one’s arrest, or worse.
But the regime’s own record of corruption and plain bad governance has been even more decisive in developing mass cynicism. Rampant among many sectors of Philippine society especially among the middle class is the belief that replacing Arroyo would be an exercise in futility in that the country would get someone as bad or even worse. Arroyo’s putrid performance has been her regime’s best defense.
Although the role of the Thai king in Thaksin’s decision to resign has been widely noted, what makes the Thai situation tellingly different from the Philippine one is continuing middle-class faith in democracy. That faith, however, has been helped along by faith in the constitutional monarchy’s capacity to intervene in political issues for the sake of peace and stability as well as the rule of law.
It is fairly safe to say, for example, that one of the reasons Thaksin did not use the police and the military to remain in power, as Arroyo has, was to a large extent determined by his fear that it would have led to his being publicly lectured to and humiliated by the Thai king–who, in 1992, did just that to the then Thai prime minister for ordering a military crackdown on Thai protests.
Other differences exist: despite the decline in public support for his Thai Rak Thai (Thai Love Thai) party, Thaksin remains a popular figure in Thailand. The snap election last Sunday won him over 16 million votes, or some 44 percent of the total. In contrast, Mrs. Arroyo is extremely and unprecedentedly unpopular, with some 65 percent of Filipinos wanting her to leave office.
Thaksin’s popularity led him to call the snap election, in the belief that at least 50 percent of the electorate would support TRT. That he did not get the mandate he hoped for, an opposition boycott of the election, and fears of violence led to Thaksin’s resignation. The resignation now makes a resolution of the Thai crisis possible.
On the other hand, given her approval ratings and vast unpopularity, Mrs. Arroyo is far from likely to risk a snap election. The result is the persistence and non-resolution of the political crisis, and continuing instability.
What is ironic is that Thaksin’s own relative success led to his resignation, while Mrs. Arroyo’s spectacular failures have kept her in power. Thaksin and Arroyo came to power almost at the same time in 2001. Both were almost immediately engulfed in various scandals, Thaksin’s problems going back to 1997 when he was deputy prime minister.
But Thaksin and his party remained in power, and Thai Rak Thai won so overwhelmingly in the parliamentary elections of February 2005 that it had almost absolute control of the Thai parliament. That compares favorably with Mrs. Arroyo’s hold on the House of Representatives, as was demonstrated last September by the House’s killing of the impeachment complaint against her.
Thaksin’s staying power, however, made much more sense than Arroyo’s. Thaksin promised recovery from the financial crisis of 1997, and did deliver on that promise in terms of boosting foreign investments and the recovery of the Thai currency, the baht. Thaksin’s record thus worked against him, since it was his confidence in his popularity that led him to call the snap election last Sunday.
On the other hand, Mrs. Arroyo has managed to remain in power not only through intimidation but also through the skilful manipulation of middle-class indifference and mass despair. Despite accusations of electoral fraud in 2004, continuing economic decline, and the corruption that has metastasized in the government during her watch, she has simply refused to step down, to call a snap election, or to do anything to resolve the political crisis. It is now clear that, in one more irony among other ironies, mass disaffection with the political system has kept her in power, thus giving her the distinction of being the ultimate symbol and expression of public cynicism.