By: Pithaya Pookaman

Democracy seems to have made a certain amount of headway in Southeast Asia which, despite its dismal performance from the 1950s through the 1980s, has managed to shake off deep-rooted authoritarianism to embark upon an uncertain path towards genuine democracy. 

Leading the pack is Malaysia, whose institutions benefitted from its British legacy and which underwent a democratic revolution on May 9 when its citizens became thoroughly disgusted with the regime that had ruled the country for 70 years.  Malaysia is followed, in order of the strength of democratic institutions, by Indonesia, the Philippines, albeit with a popularly elected autocrat at the helm of government, and Singapore, which shepherds its freedoms stingily.

Bringing up the rear are Cambodia and Myanmar, which got off to a good start that was aborted by racism and protection of the military’s prerogatives despite reforms.  Vietnam and Laos still retain their hierarchical Communist structure but get along well with other democratic ASEAN member countries.

But it is the performance of Thailand, the most unique of all ASEAN member states, that has been checkered, baffling both Thais and foreign observers. Democracy was introduced to Thailand in the early 1930s by idealistic European-educated Thai scholars.  Prominent among them were Phraya Pahol Polpayuhasena, who went to a military school in Germany and Pridi Panomyong, who was educated in France.

On returning to Thailand, they formed a political movement which later became the People’s Party with Phraya Pahol as their leader. They transformed the country from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in a bloodless uprising in 1932.

Phraya Pahol (the writer is the grandson of Phraya Pahol) was a visionary and a selfless democrat who truly believed that sovereign power should reside with the people, and not with oligarchs or any group of people, be they military or civilians.  However, the 1932 uprising by the military-led clique headed by Phraya Pahol unwittingly institutionalized the military establishment as the vanguard for future coups d’etat, with the acquiescence of the bureaucrats and the oligarch, and often with the backing of the urban middle-class and big businesses. 

Contrary to Phraya Pahol’s lofty ideals, his comrades-in-arms and political successors had a raw Machiavellian appetite for perpetuating their own power rather than in promoting democracy.  The post-Phraya Pahol era has been characterized by a tug of war between the oligarchy composed of the military, the privileged elite and the bureaucracy on the one side and the democrats with the backing of the intellectuals and rural mass on the other side. 

This ideological divide has persisted up to the present day. Although the former camp has a closer ideological affinity with fascism, some of its supporters go so far as to propose a ‘China Model’ which is completely incompatible with Thai political and social structures.

International bureaucrats including UN personnel stationed in Thailand do not always show a serious commitment in advancing the principle of democracy, freedom, and human rights in Thailand as they seem to abandon the spirit of the UN Charter, the very core principle on which the UN is built.

Parliamentary democracy has only had intermittent successes in Thailand, not because of its unsuitability as some quarters have claimed, but because it hasn‘t been allowed to succeed by the military and the elite establishment who want to maintain their stranglehold on power at the expense of the people and elected politicians. 

At times, democracy had been abandoned altogether by some political parties and political groups which couldn’t shake off the habit of losing at the polls. Instead of relying on constitutional means, they took to the streets to incite political turmoil which provided a pretext for the military to stage a coup. 

Military coups, 17 in all, have been staged with the sole purpose of usurping people’s power that could not be obtained by democratic means.  Corruption, instability, insurgency, and mismanagement have often been cited as the pretexts for the coups.  The new Thai army chief, who just assumed office on October 1 this year, was unequivocal when he said that he would stage a military coup for the reasons mentioned above.

Although military coups are never out of fashion in Thailand, the pressure exerted by the Thai people and the international community has forced the military to engage the paralegals, or ‘neti borikorn’ in Thai language, to craft a constitution and enabling laws that would minimize electoral gains by the democratic camp in the general elections and ensure the victory of the junta-nominated parties and, hence, the continuity of semi-authoritarianism. 

As Thailand is gearing up for a general election scheduled for February, the junta, which came to power through 2014 military coup that toppled the legally-elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, has made a head start by allowing junta-nominated political parties to be formed to contest in the election with the aim of supporting the ambitions of the junta leader, currently the prime minister, to serve another tenure as an elected prime minister. 

If the junta can pull off a victory at the polls or successfully manipulate post-election parliamentary process, Thailand will have a constitutionally acquired authoritarianism not too different from Hugo Chavez’s victory in Venezuela in 1998.  The junta can also find comfort in the fact that there are many more countries where the democratic process has been subverted to usher in semi-dictatorships such as Ukraine, Turkey, Nicaragua, Georgia, Hungary, and Peru.

A Thai authoritarian government that hijacks democracy through elections will be imperceptible to most people and could earn hard-sought recognition from the international community.  However, the application of a political ‘litmus test’ can peel through the layers of deceptions and help reveal a true nature of authoritarianism.  Some of the useful criteria for identifying authoritarianism under the cloak of democracy are as follows:

  • Giving lip service to democratic principles while applying undemocratic measures such as restricting civil and political rights and violating individual liberty and freedom and human rights.
  • Harassing opposition parties and groups by criminalizing them as subversives, criminals, national security threats.
  • Eliminating rival political parties with baseless claim of violation of the law, disqualifying them from full participation in the political arena, and even dissolving them for frivolous reasons.
  • Sponsoring mob attacks on political opponents.
  • Shutting down media and civil societies for being critical of the government.

While some Southeast Asian countries have left their authoritarian vestiges behind them to enjoy the fruits of democracy, Thailand is walking backward into the future by its attempt at legitimizing authoritarianism.  Democracy in Thailand is fragile as the Thai people have not been inoculated with a democratic political culture to resist the spread of genetically modified authoritarianism.  A land contaminated by the fruits of a poison tree is no fertile ground for democracy.

Pithaya Pookaman is a retired Thai ambassador living in Bangkok. He is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.