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Threat To Thai Democracy

  • Anti-government protesters plant rice inside the compound of Government House. (Photo courtesy: The Straits Times)
  • Not too old to get involved. (Photo courtesy: The Straits Times)

Are civilians squandering Thailand’s chances of sustainable democracy?

Back in 2001 when Thaksin Shinawatra won a landslide victory in national elections, I remember thinking Thailand had finally completed a journey begun 28 years earlier with the bloody student-led overthrow of the Thanom Kittikachorn military regime.

How wrong I was. But the real tragedy is that after two decades of subsequent military machinations, it is the civilians who are now squandering Thailand’s chances of sustainable democracy and creating a dangerous schism between rural and urban voters.

As difficult as it may be for some people to accept, the Thai army was an unwilling participant in the December 2006 coup which ousted Thaksin—as justified as it may have seemed given his perceived autocratic ambitions.

Now, with Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej declaring a limited state of emergency to deal with People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) demonstrators, new army commander General Anupong Paochinda has wisely made it clear he will not go that route again.

That is a far cry from the days when the military either intervened directly in political affairs—as it did in 1971, 1976 and 1991—or engaged in the class factionalism that spawned the abortive coups of 1981 and 1985.

"If constituents benefit, as surely they did, then it becomes a win-win situation for everyone."

But what it means is that the civilian politicians must now resolve their own problems, instead of falling back on ailing 80-year-old King Bhumibol Abdulyadej to act as the final arbiter—a job he has had to perform over and over again. His successor is unlikely to possess immediately the moral authority that Rama IX has amassed in his 62 years on the throne.

In earlier years, it wasn’t easy for a journalist to explain the King’s role in resolving the country’s many crises. As a constitutional monarch, he was meant to float above the political fray.

The first time the king commented on his role as the mediator of last resort was in 1979. But in 2006, he called on the judiciary to play its part as well. As he said then: “You can’t think in haste and pass the buck to the King.”

It should not have been this way. The succession of power plays through the 1970s and 1980s may have been unavoidable steps on the path to democracy. But three decades is surely enough time for Thailand to get to grips with its own destiny.

Indonesia, by comparison, has made remarkable strides in the last 10 years, even if its own people—and an excessively critical media—still do not seem to appreciate what has been achieved. In Indonesia, there is no final arbiter.

The military is out of national politics and, little by little, the Indonesians are working out how they want to be governed and what to do about the endemic corruption that has robbed the country of much of its promise.

I had similar hopes for Thailand during the 16 years I lived there. But for all the progress it has made on the economic front, sustainable democratic government has proven to be just out of its reach.

Thaksin made a truly impressive start when he swept into power in 2001. Businessmen loved him and his populist policies, including debt relief and free medical care, won him a huge following among poorer voters in the north and north-east.

Critics among the Bangkok urban elite saw it as a form of vote-buying. But that is what politicians are meant to do—provide services to their constituents to consolidate their popularity. If constituents benefit, as surely they did, then it becomes a win-win situation for everyone.

Still, Thaksin’s populism caused serious disquiet, particularly among the 19 members of the King’s Privy Council, who tended to see Thaksin as competing for popularity with the monarchy.

As time wore on, he seemed to play into the hands of his opponents by inexplicably trying to undermine the very democratic institutions that had brought him to power.

But with Thaksin’s demise, Samak’s surprise rise to the premiership following last year’s elections only appears to have polarised Thai society even more. Though he initially declared himself to be a Thaksin nominee, he has stopped calling for constitutional amendments and has done nothing to impede the judiciary from issuing corruption indictments against the exiled former prime minister and his family.

Indeed, the latest crisis has left Samak looking like a champion of democracy. By contrast, PAD—a patchwork alliance of businessmen, unionists and other political activists—seems to be advocating anything but the democratic ideals that had heralded its birth two years ago.

After failing to unseat Samak’s People’s Power Party at the ballot box, PAD’s urban leaders now want to realign the political system away from one-man, one-vote. That would mean removing Samak and introducing a new format under which 30 per cent of parliament would be chosen by election and the rest by appointment. It remains unclear who would actually make the appointments.

The self-serving argument for such a radical political transformation is that rural voters are too easily manipulated by corrupt politicians and therefore should not have a role in determining who runs the nation.

Samak, a career politician whose right-wing rhetoric has often put him at odds with Thailand’s progressive community, has proven to be a lot more resilient than anyone expected.

His refusal to resign came after an audience with King Bhumibol on August 30—an indication, according to some analysts, that he received a signal of support from the very figure whose name the demonstrators invoke. (By JOHN McBETH In Singapore/ The Straits Times/ AsiaNews)

MySinchew 2008.09.14


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