Thailand's Manipulated Democracy

Differences in political ideologies continue to have a devastating effect on Thailand's stability. The United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, known better as the Red Shirt movement, claims it has been fighting for a "real democracy" and that the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva should step down since he only came to power through a backroom deal shaped by the powerful military rather than a popular mandate.

In return, Abhisit argues that he wants to save democracy from the irrational demonstrators. Abhisit accuses the Red Shirts of being a mere proxy of former prime minister-turned-fugitive Thaksin Shinawatra. At the core of this crisis lies the deep-seated conundrum in Thai politics: that is, the widening gap in the understanding of "democracy" between the Thai poor in the remote regions represented by the Red Shirts and the Bangkok elites whose power position has been guarded by the current royalist government.

The Red Shirts have kept Bangkok in a state of constant turmoil since the protests began in earnest on March 11 and they show no signs of abating.

What does the Thai protracted political crisis tell the world about the confusing notion of democracy?

First, democracy in Thailand, as seen elsewhere in this part of the world, remains a manipulated concept. It has become a victim of elite interests. For almost half a century, Thailand has experienced various kinds of despotic rule. The holy trinity of the established forces consisting of the monarchy, the military and the bureaucracy, has long called the shots. Even under a civilian regime, the elite in Bangkok oversee every move in political life.

As this has continued, the Thai poor have been left neglected. A famous slogan in Thailand, "the rural residents elect their leaders but they are overthrown by the Bangkok elite," depicts the precise picture of how the Thai view of democracy has become so polarised. Worse, the elitist class has chosen not to acknowledge the existence of such polarization.

Arriving in power in 2001, Thaksin opened the tightly-closed political space to a fairer contest. He exploited the existing gap in Thai society, using his political skills to seek support from the poor in challenging the dominance of power by the established forces. His successful populist policies, such as cheap universal healthcare and ample village development funds, for the first time genuinely uplifted the quality of life of the poor. Almost overnight, Thaksin became a darling of the have-nots, a Juan Peron à la Thailand, and at the same time, a threat in the eyes of the Bangkok rich.

In the meantime, his tilt toward authoritarianism while serving in office and even becoming a despot before he was overthrown allow the Bangkok elite to claim some kind of justification for the 2006 coup and its continuing aftermath. The struggle in readjusting the political equation has led to the present-day conflict between Thailand's two opposing camps.

The Thai case is highly analogous to those witnessed in several countries in Latin America, Central Europe, and most parts of Asia where democratization has strictly been a state-led process. Political leaders work indefatigably toward strengthening their regimes and safeguarding their own wealth, while claiming to promote democracy. In reality, democratization at the national level has practically paid no heed to the people's real needs. What the Red Shirts have aspired to achieve is to reverse democratization so that it becomes a bottom-up process.

Second, the political elites have actively sought foreign allies for the endorsement of their legitimacy and certain policies at home, even when some of their behavior appears to be undemocratic. Such endorsement is employed to disqualify any views that are different from those of the state. In Thailand's case, the Abhisit regime appears to continue to enjoy political backing from the US government. Following the recent deadly clashes in Bangkok, the US condemned the "unacceptable violence by the red-shirted protesters." Immediately, the Abhisit government exploited the US position to justify its action against the Red Shirts.

The US government has sometimes formulated a foreign policy that is not necessarily politically correct but serves its own power interests. Washington once supported Chile's military strongman Augusto Pinochet in his supposed battle against communism among other odious figures. It has been reported that US intelligence helped Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party seize power for the first time in 1963. In the 1980s, the US and Britain even backed Saddam in the war against Iran, providing Iraq both weapons and money.

It is evident that the US has long been a close ally of Thailand's old establishment. At the peak of the communist threat in Southeast Asia, the US government took advantage of its intimate ties with the palace while co-operating with successive military regimes in the making of Thailand's pro-American, anti-communist, and even anti-democracy policy. Since the end of the Cold War, the US has maintained its amicable relations with the Bangkok elite.

The role of the US as an influential external factor has put a heavy toll on the so-called bottom-up democratisation process, especially in the Thai case. The Bangkok elite may represent the US's long-term interest in this country. But the US must realise that the Thai domestic conditions have changed over the years. The rising pluralism and increase in political maturity, perceived as the prerequisites for a "grown-up" democracy, are gradually but steadily becoming the country's new political identity.

Third, political leaders, in defending their power position, have schemed to narrow the borders of democracy as a way to cope with the rapid advancement of communications technology and its attempt to expand the domain of democracy to be more accessible. And the government, while controlling the meaning of democracy and setting its interpretation limits, explains away its intention as part of preserving Thai-style democracy. But exactly what Thai-style democracy is has not been clearly defined.

The strategies of manipulating the meaning of democracy on the part of the government are getting more ruthless. For example, Abhisit closed the Red Shirt-owned television channel and banned its anti-government campaign, citing the need to safeguard national security. The government has blocked a number of websites which criticised the Thai monarchy and adopted harsh lèse-majesté measures against critics of the royal institution. But such measures are regarded as the government's political weapon and a breach of the public's free speech. The Red Shirts reproached the government for curtailing the democratization process.

Thailand's political landscape, as brutal as it is apparent today, has been remoulded by various factors, internal or external. This could either solidify or further weaken the country's democracy. All parties concerned need to find a new consensus on the acceptable definition of democracy. And they must respect it once it is found.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a Fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.