Protesters burn an effigy of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte outside the US Embassy in Metro Manila while calling for the immediate pullout of US troops from Mindanao, on September 15, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Romeo Ranoco

From rural Thailand to the slums of Manila to the hollowed-out post-industrial areas of the United Kingdom and the United States, that class of people who have come to be known as “the 99%” have been lashing out against “the elite,” both in the streets and at the polls. But there is little agreement anywhere on who these “elite” are, or how they achieved that status.

In Thailand, the anti-elite movement has taken different forms in different regions of the country, but regardless of origin, the target was usually clear: the Bangkok-based ruling class backed by the Democrat Party and, when necessary, the military. The most famous — then infamous — thorn in the Bangkok elite’s flesh was Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire businessman and former policeman from the northern province of Chiang Mai.

In a less firmly established oligarchy than Thailand, Thaksin’s vast wealth and penchant for corruption might have made him a shoo-in for membership in the elite, but instead he was seen as an outsider. He quickly capitalized on this and became the darling of the rural north and northeast that had been long neglected by the ruling class as it amassed the country’s wealth and development in Bangkok and its vicinity.

Meanwhile, in the nearby Philippines another shady character was carving out a base of support well outside Manila, the national capital — in Davao, the largest city on the southern island of Mindanao. The son of a lawyer and a schoolteacher, Rodrigo Duterte went on to be a prosecutor in Davao, and mayor in 2013. In both positions he gained a reputation as a no-nonsense crime fighter and moralist, as reflected by his ban on swimsuit competitions.

Both leaders are talented manipulators

Though unlike each other in many respects, the two rising Southeast Asian stars were both talented at manipulating events in their favor.

Thaksin got rich by capitalizing on the corrupt oligarchy’s failure to modernize Thailand’s communications infrastructure, especially (of course) outside the capital, and then by advocating and eventually implementing anti-poverty, health-care, agricultural and decentralization programs that were dear to the hearts of voters in the populous north and northeast — and despised by highfalutin Bangkokians, whose beloved Democrat Party never won an election again.

Duterte’s claim to fame was his alleged crime-fighting credentials, which he somehow maintained despite Davao’s notoriety as the Philippines’ crime capital, with sky-high rates of murder and rape, and infamy as a global center for sex tourism and under-age prostitution.

Unlike the Manila elite, which blamed many of the country’s woes on communists and Muslim “insurgents,” Duterte’s favorite scapegoat was the narcotics trade. Despite the lack of evidence that recreational drugs were any more of a scourge in the Philippines than anywhere else, or the fact that the country was (and still is) woefully short of abuse-prevention or treatment programs, Duterte’s message found fallow ground in ordinary Filipinos’ hearts, and he was swept into power as president in 2016.

Similar examples abound, and they have one thing in common: a ruling class that has drifted far out of touch with a neglected and deeply angry populace. In most cases the elite class clings to power through its near-total ownership of the tools of power, such as the media or the military, but once in a while an opportunist like Donald Trump seizes the reins, or a cherished system of upward wealth transfer such as the European Union comes under serious threat.

Democracy evolved as an attempt to correct the unfairness inherent in elite rule, and from time to time it has accomplished that goal to commendable degrees. But as with all “regime change” methodologies, democracy is at its heart a means of replacing one elite with another.

But in almost no cases does the will of the majority actually find a significant place in governance, or are the lofty promises of the opportunists actually fulfilled. There are many reasons for this, but one of the paramount is a failure of the 99% to understand the true nature of elitism — or to be honest about the nature of their own opposition to it.

The English words “elite” and “elect” both derive from the same Latin root, eligere, which means “choose” or “select.” Today, the word “elect” has become a term reserved for democracy, but originally, “the elected ones” were chosen not in polling booths but by something over which the 99% had no control: birth into privilege, or religious command.

On the great parchment of history, democracy is just a few letters on a single page. Through the bulk of that parchment, “chosen people” have made the rules and enforced them, either by “trickling down” benefits to the 99% or through violence, usually a combination of the two. Meanwhile, the 99% alternately admired and envied these elite. When the envy outdid the admiration, the result was protest, and occasionally revolution.

Democracy evolved as an attempt to correct the unfairness inherent in elite rule, and from time to time it has accomplished that goal to commendable degrees. But as with all “regime change” methodologies, democracy is at its heart a means of replacing one elite with another, as one group of people attempts to gain a share of the wealth and power held by another group.

Those of us who cling to this relatively new belief system, that of the majority’s divine right to rule over itself, even as it falters in country after country, either distorted and manipulated by the Trumps and Dutertes or torn down by force as in military-ruled Thailand, need to examine why we still support it.

Do we really want to battle poverty, even if it means higher taxes? Do we really want equal justice, even if it includes people whose skin color or religion isn’t the same as ours? Or is personal envy our main — or sole — motivation for joining the elite?

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David Simmons

David Simmons is a Canadian journalist based in Thailand. He has worked for newspapers and news websites in four countries, three of them in Asia. He holds a bachelor's degree in linguistics from the University of British Columbia and a diploma in journalism from Langara College in Vancouver.

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