The End of Thai "Democracy"

The seizures by the People’s Alliance for Democracy of Thailand’s two major international airports from November 25 to December 3 have brought events to a head after months of turmoil. Suddenly the world has begun to experience a taste of the differences of opinion that have been plaguing Thailand virtually since an Army-directed coup ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s masterpiece of misdesign in 2006.

Some observers, however, would use the word ‘changing’ rather than ‘plaguing’ to reflect what they see as the beginning of a grassroots democratic foothold taking place in the country’s social institutions, from its political base to its religious leaders. The generally described divisiveness, indeed, more often rings as legitimate difference of opinion than it does some kind of malignant un-Thainess that traditionalists are attempting to describe events as.

From the outside, certainly from a western viewpoint, democracy in Thailand is declared to have been given the boot and an unspoken coalition of royalists, the monarchy itself and the military, an evil coalition being egged on by the PAD, has taken over government with what is repeatedly called a silent coup.

There is little corresponding cry about Thaksin’s own silent coup, his takeover of the country’s electorate with populist and impossible-to-fill promises on the one hand, and usurpation of media freedom on the other. Occasionally a foreign press report appears that cites Thaksin’s many wrongs, but it is a small brush stroke on a very large canvass and carries little weight.

What most anti-PAD commentators see these days, it seems, is that a purportedly democratically elected government has been thrown out, followed by a second and a third – in order, the Thai Rak Thai, the People’s Power Party, and the last government led by Thaksin’s brother-in-law.

But those who have followed Thai elections on a local level outside of Bangkok will have witnessed sheer lopsided support given to political favorites by local officials. In local community meetings, municipal officials often tell voters who to vote for by placing signs up on walls that clearly suggest which party to vote for. It is no secret. Nor is the fact that vote buying is still rampant. Yet, for some reason western and Thai democracy advocates - as they call themselves - cite ‘silent coups’ and declare legitimate governments to be illegitimate.

In a recent interview with Thailand’s new prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, CNN’s Dan Rivers attempted to pry out of the premier an admission that his government was less legitimate than that of Thaksin Shinawatra, billionaire leader of the now-dissolved Thai Rak Thai party. But Thailand’s newest premier would have none of it, instead replying along the lines that the people wanted stability and a departure from the old politics, and were getting it with the new Democrat-led coalition.

A question for observers to ask, then, is whether the old politics is so corrupt that any facade of democracy is only a facade, or whether any kind of democracy, no matter how corrupt it is, is better than what Thailand now has. To answer this question, we need only look at the paragon of democracy, the United States, to see how its own democracy has taken the world to economic and military disaster. Surely society’s welfare is more important than pretensions of something that was never there to begin with.

Another disturbing example of how the democratic process is not necessarily good for the people occurred in Algeria in 1992 when the country’s military annulled parliamentary elections won by hardline Islamic factions. Immediately after the elections the Islamists began a series of social reforms that immediately began to uncover a plot to undo much of the country’s historical secular rights progress. Complaints from women’s groups and others, and alarm at impending dangers gave the military a green light to undo the elections.

In Thailand’s case so-called democratic parliamentary elections were undermined when rampant vote-buying and mindless allegiance to Thaksin’s political monolith forced the country’s minority parties to boycott the election. Thaksin went ahead anyhow, claiming a landslide. It was King Bhumibol Adulyadej who finally saved the day by calling the elections non-democratic – which they were since they were won by a single party and artificial spin-offs. But the boycott was not the reason cited by Thai courts for declaring the elections null and void – rather it was placement of voting booths which gave pro-Thaksin officials an easy view of how voters cast their votes. That is, they were being monitored to ensure that they voted for Thaksin as they were either paid to do or had indicated they would do.

The continued election instability, louder and louder talk of Thai Rak Thai corruption, abolishment of human rights, state-sponsored terrorism in the form of open murders and secret kidnappings led to the military taking over by ousting Thaksin on 19 September 2006. A resulting new national charter, which this writer witnessed being drafted and commented on at a local level led to what is being denounced as a military-created constitution, strenuously suggesting that such a document would have to be bad in comparison to the 1997 Constitution which Thaksin and cronies had abused time and time again for their own ends.

The strength of the Thai Rak Thai party was not so much a strength of democracy being exercised on a local level as it was weakness of lesser political wheeler dealers who saw the light and literally cashed in their own parties to merge with the Thai Rak Thai. Of course then everyone is loyal – they are getting what they want and know that they won’t if they remain separate and in opposition.

The former Chart Pattana Party of Nakhonratchasima, northeast Thailand’s Gateway Province, is a case in point. It went ahead despite local electorate opposition and merged with the TRT. Today, as a result of being a TRT party executive found guilty of election fraud, the party’s last leader, Suwat Liptapanlop, is banned from politics for five years.

Thailand is a country full of promises and potential, but much more full of illusion and deception, and nearly devoid of transparency. International election observers can stand by and witness something they think resembles democracy, but miss all the local nuances that undermine independent thought and create greed and disparity. These are some of the faults in the Thai political system. They are not faults of the country having experienced a silent coups so much as they are the faults of a society that has not been given the tools that will allow it to create a genuine democratic electoral process.

The irony in all of this, as it was in Algeria, is that it took a military takeover to expose the illusion. Or, the illusion should have been exposed.

Frank G. Anderson, American Citizens Abroad Representative, Thailand, also writes a weekly column for UPIAsiaOnline titled Thai Traditions. He founded northeast Thailand’s first local English language newspaper the Korat Post – He served as a Peace Corps Thailand volunteer from 1966-67.