Thaksin's government passed a universal health-care program that, according to World Health Organization studies, has saved at least 80,000 Thai families from bankruptcy. He enacted a program to provide loans to every village to start microenterprises, and he increased spending on primary education. Income inequality began to shrink under Thaksin's tenure, and domestic consumption grew as well.
For all his flaws, Thaksin's policies did resonate with the poor, and he succeeded in fundamentally transforming Thailand's political culture: After Thaksin, the country's poor majority was no longer willing to simply let a small group of elites run the country. In rural Thailand, village radio stations sprung up to capitalize on growing voter empowerment, while rural Thai farmers increasingly used the Internet and social media to become engaged in politics during Thaksin's time. Many reclaimed the word phrai -- meaning peasant or serf -- and proudly began calling themselves that. They began referring to Bangkokians as amart, or elite. When I visited one northern town this year, vendors lined the streets selling pictures, T-shirts, and bumper stickers of the populist billionaire's face, but nearly all residents told me that their cause was not about Thaksin alone, that he was just a symbol of the new force of the phrai.
As Thaksin increased his power, many middle-class Thai men and women -- who had traditionally been the focus of reform efforts -- came to doubt the value of democracy. Some genuinely feared that Thaksin was running roughshod over the foundations of the institution, subverting a free press and denying rights for criminal defendants -- freedoms that they had fought hard for under years of military dictatorships. Others clearly worried that Thailand's poor simply were not educated or smart enough to make informed choices in elections.
Thaksin did little to assuage these fears, as some other, smoother populists like Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva might have. (Lula maintained his enormous popularity by combining programs to fight poverty and hunger with solid macroeconomic policies and personal assurances to the wealthy that he would not attack their holdings.) Thaksin failed to assure Bangkok's middle class and wealthy that he would uphold the rule of law or that he would refrain from attacking their economic holdings -- whether to actually redistribute money to the poor or (more likely) to line his own pockets and bolster his family's powerful telecommunications company. But Thaksin never did this, and as a brash outsider to the country's traditional elite, he was an intensely threatening figure.
This middle-class fear of the poor played on old stereotypes in one of the world's most stratified countries. Crude cartoons in Bangkok newspapers showed the rural poor as water buffaloes (a major insult in Thailand) pulled by the nose by Thaksin. Some middle class and elite protest leaders called for a "new politics" in which the number of elected members of parliament would be sharply reduced, essentially a return to the elite, oligarchic control of the Cold War era. Or as one prominent Thai diplomat, who had gained fame for advocating for political reform in neighboring countries like Cambodia and Myanmar, told me, "Perhaps we can have democracy some time far in the future, but not now. We need good people, good voters, to have democracy." He left unsaid who the "good people" who could handle the vote were.
Unfortunately, instead of trying to defeat Thaksin from within the democratic process, the middle class and elites opted out, striking a blow that may ultimately have killed Thai democracy. In 2006, middle-class and wealthy groups launched anti-Thaksin street protests that paralyzed parts of Bangkok; several years later, the same group of protesters, led by the same men, would take over the main international airport and the prime minister's house, seriously wounding Thailand's international image and again paralyzing the government. By the middle of 2006, many of the demonstrators were openly calling for the military, once thought to have returned to the barracks for good, to intervene to "save democracy."
The middle class's conservatism was not unique. Far from being the force for change envisioned by Samuel Huntington and other advocates of modernization theory, the middle class in many young democracies is now actually acting as a brake on change. In the Philippines, middle-class men and women throughout the 2000s rallied in Manila to try to evict an elected government. In Pakistan, the middle class has increasingly called for a return of army rule after years of inept civilian government. In Bangladesh in the late 2000s, middle-class citizens supported a return of army rule, angry about the corruption of civilian politicians and fearful of the power of these elected populists. And now, one year after the Arab uprisings began, many middle-class and elite Egyptians, who a year ago joined protests to end Hosni Mubarak's regime, are publicly calling for the military to retain a sizable role in politics in order to dilute the power of democratically elected Islamist parties that enjoy widespread support among the poor. In Syria, meanwhile, the middle- and upper-class citizens of Damascus have continued staunchly backing Bashar al-Assad's regime, even though its security forces have massacred thousands of civilians.
But in Thailand, the anti-democratic wave seemed to happen the fastest and become severest. In September 2006, the armed forces launched a coup, and Thaksin fled into exile. Thailand's meltdown was gathering pace.