Opinion: Democracy Suffers in Thailand

Three years after a royalist coup, nothing is solved

On September 19, 2006, the Thai army toppled the elected government of
Thaksin Shinawatra. Soldiers sported yellow royal ribbons and the
military junta claimed that they were staging the coup to protect
"Democracy with the King as the Head of State."

They certainly
were not protecting democracy. The coup came after massive street
demonstrations against Thaksin by the royalist and conservative
People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), where many PAD members and
leaders of the Democrat Party had called for the King to sack the
elected prime minister and appoint another one. Later, the
yellow-shirted PAD took on a semi-fascist nature, using extreme
nationalism and having its own armed guard. They used violence on the
streets of Bangkok.

It was always an exaggeration to claim that
"all Thais revere the King" or that "the monarchy has held the country
together for decades." Statements like that gloss over the level of
coercion surrounding public attitudes to the monarchy, the deep
tensions in society and the serious lack of power, courage and
character shown by this king throughout his reign. Nevertheless, for 20
years after the mid 1980s the monarchy was very popular. This was more
to do with the weakness of the opposition and the level of promotion
that the institution received, rather than any "ancient or natural"
love for the king among Thais. Yet, it was enough to convince most
Thais that monarchism was deeply embedded in society.

The
present crisis has shattered these illusions. Since the coup, the
royalists have been promoting the king's "Sufficiency Economy"
ideology, which basically argues against redistribution of wealth. At
the same time, Budget Bureau documents show that the public purse spent
more than Bt6 billion (US$278.2 million) on the monarchy in 2008,
mainly for the Royal Household Bureau (more than Bt2 billion), royal
overseas visits (Bt500 million), Royal Thai Aid-De-Camp Department
(over Bt400 million) and the rest for security by the police and army.
This figure did not include the cost of the new royal plane fleet,
which amounted to Bt 3.65 billion.

Some commentators who ought
to know better, however, go to great lengths in supporting illusions
about the monarchy. Benjamin Zawacki, Southeast Asia researcher for
Amnesty International, making a disgraceful comment on an 18 year jail
sentence given to a Red Shirt activist for making a speech against the
Monarchy, said that "you have an institution here ( the monarchy) that
has played an important role in the protection of human rights in
Thailand. We can see why the monarchy needs to be protected" (by lese
majeste laws). There is absolutely no evidence that the king has ever
protected human rights. In fact, the opposite is true. Just look at
what happened on 6th October 1976., when police and the military
cracked down on students protesting the return of Field Marshall Thanom
Kittachakorn to Thailand. They killed at least 46 people and probably
many more. The statement is not surprising, however, since the Amnesty
International office in Thailand is closely associated with the PAD.

Immediately
after the coup in 2006, there was no mass response by the millions of
citizens who had repeatedly voted for Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai (TRT)
government. But a small group of activists who called themselves "the
19th September Network Against the Coup" did stage a protest and
continued to organize repeated protests. I was one of those people who
protested against the coup. But we were not supporters of Thaksin and
were critical of his gross human rights abuses in the South and in the
War on Drugs, in which as many as 2,500 people were gunned down. Since
then, the destruction of democracy by the conservative elites has
continued relentlessly and has stimulated the growth of a grass-roots
pro-democracy movement called the Red Shirts. It has long become
necessary to take sides. That is why I joined the Red Shirts in
November 2008.

After writing a new pro-military Constitution and
using the courts to dissolve The Thai Rak Thai party, the military
junta held fresh elections in 2007. This was won by the Peoples' Power
Party (PPP), a new pro-Thaksin party. Again the election results were
ignored. The conservative courts, violent protests by the PAD,
including the shutting down of the international airports, plus behind
scenes activity by the army, eventually resulted in an undemocratic
government with Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva as the Prime
Minister in December 2009.

Thailand took further steps
backward with the introduction of draconian censorship, the use of lese
majeste laws against pro-democracy activists and the creation by the
government of the armed paramilitary gang called the Blue Shirts, who
are thought to be soldiers out of uniform. They are controlled by
government politicians such as Newin Chidchob and Sutep Teuksuban. The
reason for the creation of the Blue Shirts is that PAD is beyond the
control of the government and hence there are attempts to limit its
power. Nevertheless, the Foreign Minister is a PAD supporter and he
took part in the illegal airport occupation.
{mospagebreak}

The Red Shirts have
continued to evolve. Mass meetings of ordinary people, numbering
hundreds of thousands, were held in sports stadiums in Bangkok. The
movement was initially built by former Thai Rak Thai politicians, but
it quickly evolved into a grass-roots movement with branches in most
communities throughout the country and even abroad. There are local
educational groups, community radio stations and websites.

In
April 2009, for the fourth time in 40 years, troops opened fire on
pro-democracy demonstrators in Bangkok, firing live rounds and training
rounds to clear protesters from the intersection near the Victory
Monument in Bangkok, injuring at least 70 people and killing two.
Although the Army later claimed that live rounds were only fired into
the air, Human Rights Watch argued that live ammunition was fired
directly at protesters.

Some months later, a tape recording of
a cabinet meeting was leaked to the public in which Abhistit was caught
urging the military to create a situation in which they could shoot the
Red Shirt protesters. Each time the army has shot unarmed protesters in
Thailand, the aim has been the same: to protect the interests of the
conservative elites who have run the country for the past 70 years.
This time, the protesters were Red Shirts. Since then, Abhisit's
military-backed government has repeatedly used "internal security" as
an excuse to prevent legitimate street protest. They have declared what
amounts to martial law under the Internal Security Act in Bangkok over
the next few days.

Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai Party was modernizing
and this is why the conservatives hated it. For the first time in
decades, a party gained mass support from the poor because it believed
that the poor were not a burden. They argued that the poor should be
"stakeholders" rather than serfs. These populist policies were
developed after the 1997 Asian economic crisis and were a result of
widespread consultations in society. This was no socialist party, but a
party of big business committed to free-market policies at a macro and
global level, and Keynesian policies at the village or grass-roots
level. When the party came to power in 2001, the banks had stopped
lending and there was an urgent need to stimulate the economy. It
represented the modernizing interests of an important faction of the
capitalist class.

The major forces behind the September 19 coup
were anti-democratic groups in the military and civilian elite,
disgruntled business leaders, middle class reactionaries and
neo-liberal intellectuals and politicians. The coup was also supported
by the monarchy and the majority of the NGO movement. What all these
groups had in common was contempt for the poor. For the neo-liberals,
"too much democracy" gave "too much" power to the poor electorate and
encouraged governments to "over-spend" on welfare. The intellectuals
and NGO activists believed that Thailand was divided between the
"enlightened middle-classes who understood democracy" and the "ignorant
rural and urban poor" who were trapped in a "patron-client system."

There
was a belief that Thaksin cheated in elections, mainly by tricking
people or buying the rural poor vote. This was a convenient
justification for ignoring the wishes of 16 million people. There was
no evidence for any serious electoral fraud which would have changed
the clear majority that the Thai Rak Thai gained in many elections.

Thaksin
has often been wrongly accused of being against the monarchy. In fact
he is a royalist. He opposes people like myself who are republicans.
His government promoted the King's 60th anniversary celebrations and
started the North Korean-style Yellow Shirt Mania that invoked the
color of the king. But Thaksin lost out to the conservatives in his
attempt to use the monarchy.

Thaksin is also accused of
corruption. His sale of his family-held Shin Corp shares, without
paying tax, was certainly moral corruption, but quite legal. The
military and the courts have had three years to come up with evidence
of his corruption, but have only managed to convict him on a
technicality in one instance. Perhaps a thorough-going anti-corruption
campaign might unearth widespread corruption among all the elites,
especially the military and the conservatives and even those involved
in the King's vaunted Sufficiency Economy program?

Much damage
has been done to Thai society by the conservative elites and the coup.
They may manage to cling to their power and wealth for some time, but
millions of pro-democracy Thais are no longer willing to compromise and
accept anything less than real democracy. Many like myself would now
like to see a republic and a wholesale dismissal of the top generals
and judges. The king will die soon and his son is largely despised. But
the elites, whose real power lies in the hands of the army, will still
try desperately to promote and use the monarchy for their own ends. We
can only hope that their dreams will crumble.

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