Totalitarian regimes are no strangers to Thailand as 86 years of ebb and flow of authoritarian rule since the 1932 democratic transformation have embedded in the mindset of the Thai people a spirit of tolerance towards the military’s arbitrary rule and its disdain for the rule of law.
Barely a year after the institution of the democratic system in 1932, Thailand went astray from the democratic path and a coup led by its very founder, Phraya Phahol Pholpayuhasena, was necessary to bring the country back on course. It was indeed “‘a coup to end all coups.” But it was not to be. The militarists saw it expedient to weaponize the coup d’état to impose its stranglehold of power for an indefinite period.
At present, this unique tolerance towards authoritarian rule is manifested in urban middle-class Thais, who seem to have wholeheartedly embraced the 2014 military coup which toppled a democratically elected government, and who endure (or pretend to endure) military dictatorship without too much ill effects. Their sad devotion to an outdated medieval political system has made them the apologists for a dictatorial regime but antagonists to the internationally accepted norms of governance.
The middle class’s tolerance for dictatorship has paradoxically made them intolerant towards freedom of expression and democratic process. It has made them insensitive and even impervious to injustice and blatant violation of fundamental rights of the Thai people who often defy the regime to air their grievances. Their moral core is so malleable that it can be forged into a tool for demagoguery and tyranny that is an antithesis of morality as it exhibits indifference towards injustice, contempt towards the marginalized countrymen, disdain towards democratic process, suspicions of liberty and freedom of expression, and unabashed rejoicing in the suppression of dissidents who are merely exercising their inalienable rights.
Why then does the urban middle class, though not entirely monolithic, have an unusual infatuation towards authoritarianism? The most obvious and understandable explanation is the vested interest in the authoritarian system of the professionals, including the bureaucrats and businessmen. However, the bulk of the middle class is either apathetic or has little intellectual capacity to understand the nuances of Thai politics and, worse still, to comprehension democracy, globalization, and universal norms.
Moreover, misplaced patriotism has made the Thai middle class suspicious of elections and representative government which it views as a foreign import and has the propensity to favor authoritarianism or military dictatorship which it mistakenly sees as an embodiment of traditional Thai values. No less important is the timidity of the Thai mainstream media which leaves much to be desired in its presentation of the whole truth.
The urban Thai middle class blames the past democratic government and lauds the dictatorial regime for bringing back calm and stability to the country after a long period of political chaos which crippled the country’s capitol. It adheres to the narrative of “the coup to stop corruption” although, paradoxically, corruption under the unaccountable dictatorial regime has never been so rampant. Moreover, it ignores the fact that democracy has always been sabotaged by the military and has never been allowed to succeed. It turns a blind eye to the fact that the 2013-2014 political unrest was manufactured by the military in collusion with its political ally to create a pretext for a military coup and subsequently claimed credit for the stability in the post-coup period.
However, stability imposed upon the people through deception, double standard, censorships of the media, suppression of free speech, arbitrary arrests, harassing political activities and peaceful assembly, and detention of civilians in secret military facilities is not sustainable.
Phony stability is no substitute for progress. Those who value stability above all else tend to lose sight of the wider political and economic perspectives necessary to propel the country forward. Shouldn’t their priority be placed instead on the economy and its effects on the livelihood of the people which has deteriorated since the coup?
Wouldn’t a democratically elected government rather than an authoritarian regime be better suited to bring back the country’s honor and prestige on the international stage and be more in tune with globalization? Shouldn’t the regime keep its repeated promises made at the United Nations and with other world leaders to restore democratic rule?
Couldn’t the Thai middle class see the contradictions in the dictatorial regime regarding its so-called “Road Map” of the general elections which has become a never-ending journey; the pretentious pronouncement of “National Human Rights Agenda” while the regime steps up its suppression of human rights, liberty and freedom of expression; its claim of the preponderance of democracy (99 percent) in Thailand while it sets out to stifle democratic process and oversees the drafting and eventual passage of an undemocratic 2017 constitution to ensure continuance of military power and weaken traditional politicians, while instituting unelected Senate to provide foundations for prolonged or perhaps indefinite military control; its audacity in claiming credit for initiating reconciliation process while its heavy-handedness only aggravates polarization?
The talk of reconciliation is meaningless when the regime is still wielding absolute power without oversight or accountability; criminalizing criticism and mischaracterizing politicians, students, academia and media who do not fall in line; detaining civilians without any safeguards against mistreatment; and employing a double standard to destroy the opposite side.
Such s bemused and paradoxical dichotomy has made this regime unique compared to the brute form of dictatorship of the 1960s and 1970s but this uniqueness has not served the country or its people well for the past four years. It will take much more than the likes of this academic exercise to nudge the middle class out of its delusion.
Pithaya Pookaman is a retired Thai ambassador to Bangladesh, Bhutan, Chile and Ecuador. He currently lives in Bangkok.