Talk about double standards

8 February 2010

The term "double standards" sounds innocent enough. But in a society where inequalities are so steep and stark, a simple call for equitable enforcement of the law can become political dynamite.

The phrase was introduced into Thailand's modern political history in 2001. Then it was used in English, and it attracted immediate attention in part because the use of a non-Thai phrase was unusual and eye-catching.

The Thai version, song matrathan, started to become popular in 2008. Supporters of Thaksin were being persecuted by legal process, while the yellow shirts seemed to be able to break any number of laws with total impunity. After the judicial overthrow of the Samak and Somchai governments in late 2008, the phrase became central to the publicity of the red-shirt movement. It no longer refers to the rather narrow area of judicial bias, but focuses criticism against the wider and deeper inequality in society. Recently at Khao Yao Thiang and at the Soi Dao Golf Club, speakers asked the crowd why certain kinds of people seem to get away with almost anything. The phrase has spun out of control.

In Thailand, there is a close connection between power and illegality, between social status and defiance of the law. Often, laws seem to exist precisely to allow certain people the very special privilege of being able to flout them. If you have a big enough car, you need not worry too much about traffic regulations. If you have the right background and position, you can carry as much excess luggage as you like. With good political connections, even if you are accused of corruption in an overseas country, nobody investigates, lays charges or takes steps to prevent you doing a bunk.

In any society, real power is having the ability to write these sorts of privileges into the law and constitution. In old Siam, the aristocracy once enjoyed many such immunities and privileges, but over the past century almost all of them have been swept away. Then, through a half-century of political dominance, the military high command established a new structure of legalised inequalities. Soldiers are protected from the normal operation of the judicial system. When generals openly flout the law, we are told they are immune to anything more serious than a reprimand. In case after case when massive land encroachment has come to light, the issue has faded once it emerged that senior officials were involved.

When the foundations of a society shift in a big way, these arrangements need to be adjusted to match the new social realities. Over the last half-century in Thailand, a new corporate elite and much expanded upper middle class have become wealthier and more powerful. Although every now and then these new forces have challenged the privileges and immunities of the old powers, generally they have taken the smoother route of buying their way into the system.

The key institution for this process has been Parliament or the political system as a whole. This has been the arena where new money meets with old power, and where the two parties sit down and make a deal. The Thai political system has been a failure in many ways, but in this respect it has functioned brilliantly. The systems of political recruitment have been fine-tuned to ensure that money is practically the sole qualifying factor. Although sometimes analysts try to detect political conflicts between "new money" and "old money", in reality money has no age. In current Thai politics, money is money. Many political leaders are ready to admit that money is now the "blood" that keeps Thai politics alive and kicking. The source of the money is of no interest, only the amount. Under Thaksin, several Cabinet posts were reserved for "party financiers", people who often appeared from out of nowhere with no track record. The system only came slightly unstuck when a particularly flagrant share ramper was given a Cabinet post. Recent vacancies in the Cabinet have incited fierce competition. Corporate interests that are prepared to pay their political dues have very rapidly acquired influence in the background.

But the political system as it currently operates only helps to adjust the realities of wealth and power within a very narrow range. The big story of the past generation has been the overall tripling of incomes, the accompanying rise in ambition and aspiration among the masses of the population, and growing calls for a more inclusive equity. It began with NGOs, the path-breaking campaigns of the Assembly of the Poor, and a demand for rights that applied equally to everyone. It changed Thaksin from being a businessman to a populist.

The growing political significance of the judiciary over the last few years has given this trend a new twist. While the judicial system may not in fact perform in the service of equity, the justification for the importance of the judiciary is that there really is a rule of law that applies to all. Leading judges repeat this idea in defending themselves against bias. The claim was written into the landmark judgement against Pojaman.

The idea of equity under the law is now very prominent in public debate, yet the political structure still in place is designed precisely to preserve privileges by the evasion or manipulation of the law. This creates a situation so fragile that new challenges can come from anywhere. The red shirts decide to pinpoint Khao Yai Thiang. The Thai Airways union raises the excess baggage scandal. Community NGOs trip up Map Ta Phut. Nothing seems sacred any more. Illustrious institutions. The power of a big surname and an exalted position. The importance of economic growth over the health and well-being of ordinary people.

"Double standards" is a rather clumsy expression. It doesn't have the poetic ring of "liberty, equality, fraternity" or "workers of the world unite." But it is the catchphrase of the moment.