Robert Horn's picture

ATI Magazine June-July 2014 issue

THE interpretation that Thailand’s political conflict is a tiny Bangkok-based royalist elite and the democracy-loving rural poor is too simplistic – and ultimately a distortion . . .

BANGKOK — For many years, Thailand was known as the thriving democracy of Southeast Asia, a region where authoritarian regimes were common.
But today, after a decade of almost constant street protests, bloody crackdowns and two military coups, Thailand is rapidly gaining a reputation as the region’s political basket case. Considering recent history, it is only fair to ask whether Thailand can handle
Even more troubling, can a military which failed to solve Thailand’s political problems after staging a coup in 2006 succeed in putting the country back on track having staged a coup in 2014?
What is happening in Thailand is not unique, although it has many unique elements. Across the globe, from Egypt to Ukraine and beyond, people have risen up in protest to bring about the downfall of democratically-elected governments.
Winston Churchill once said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. But for people living under elected governments that are corrupt, abusive and repressive, democracy can seem just as bad as all the others.
Thailand’s political conflict is often portrayed in international media as a battle between a tiny Bangkok-based royalist elite which hates democracy versus the masses of democracy-loving rural poor in the Northern and Northeastern sections of the country.
The royalists are represented by the military and the Democrat Party, while the rural poor are championed by Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a 2006 coup, and the various incarnations of his political party.
That interpretation, however, is too simplistic — and ultimately a distortion.
What is taking place in Thailand is essentially a battle over competing interpretations of democracy. Many of the leaders of the “democracy-hating elite” risked their lives protesting against military rule and for democracy in 1992.
Both sides in this conflict are led by wealthy elites, and have millions of poor people among their followers. Both have elements of right on their side. And both are very wrong when it comes to certain aspects of democracy.
The Shinawatra side believes that because its parties can win elections, that it should rein supreme. Its politicians have openly stated that they do not have to follow court decisions or answer to independent agencies, such as the National Anti-Corruption Commission, because these watchdogs were not elected directly by the people.
In fact, Shinawatra politicians have said they intend to eliminate courts that rule against them. They play a winner-takes-all version of the democratic game, and have said flatly those who did not vote for them will get nothing from their government.
The anti-Shinawatra side, which usually garners more than 40 per cent of votes in national elections, views its space in the democratic system as existing in the courts, watchdog commissions and other agencies that serve as checks and balances on the
expanding, corrupt and abusive power of the government.
They see Shinawatra’s rejection of courts and commissions as a hostile takeover of their political space. If the Shinawatra parties won’t respect checks and balances, then their opponents say they won’t respect elections, and they succeeded in disrupting the last election in February.
After more than six months of anti-government street demonstrations that were at times bloody — and wounded the economy — the military stepped in. The generals have said they intend to restore democracy and to hold elections in about 15 months after initiating ‘reforms.’
The problem is that Shinawatra supporters see the military as favouring their opponents. And Thailand’s generals, while they may be well-intentioned, are anything but political scientists or statesmen.
If the military is wise, it will not try to stage-manage the reform process. A smart move would be to appoint a body that is broad-based and contains representatives from both sides, to draw up reforms and to draft a new Constitution that will be accepted by all.
To be accepted, a restored version of democracy must recognise and accept that any party that can win the majority of votes will control the House of Representatives, whether it is a Shinawatra party or not.
But checks and balances must also be strengthened.
The powers of courts, independent commissions and the Senate must be strengthened and guaranteed. These bodies must also be elected, not appointed. The challenge is to find a means to elect them that ensures they are staffed with qualified and truly independent professionals, and not cronies or servants of whichever government is in power.
That won’t be an easy task. But it is absolutely essential.
In Thailand, both sides need to come away believing their rights have been protected, and that they have gained from whatever new system emerges.
Democracy only works when all sectors of society buy into it. If one side feels it can never win and has no space in the system to represent or protect its interests, then it will not subscribe to that system.
It remains to be seen if the military can succeed. Doubts that it can are certainly not uncalled for. The generals would do well to remember that all sides need to come away from reforms feeling that they have won something. If they don’t, then in the end all of Thailand will be the loser.

*Robert Horn is Bangkok Correspondent for ATI Magazine.