by Kasit Piromya
28 December 2013 (TSR) – To the consternation and bewilderment of the international community, during the past decade, Thailand has experienced increasingly divisive politics, a military coup d’état and continuous street protests in one form or another, including violent ones and uproars and walk-outs in the parliament. One could say that Thailand seems to be unable to find its way to stabilize its political life. But let us pause for a while and try to be a bit considerate and more understanding that, in reality, Thailand has been struggling in its democratization process to become a full fledged democratic polity, a process which began with the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.
Competing ideologies had made inroads into Thailand; the Cold War brought a priority to security considerations, military alliances with the West, and military governments. But the aim of the Thai people has never deviated from a desire for democracy and a good and genuine one.
The mid 1990s seems to give reality to that hope. The people’s constitution was promulgated in 1997 with broader public participation, independent bodies such as counter corruption and elections commissions, audit agency, and a human rights commission, and a strong executive to ensure stability of the parliamentary system.
Then came tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra. Then there were abuses of power, mixing business with politics, and super-scale practices of money politics, and nepotism. Populist policy measures simply to gain votes were introduced. But in 2006 street protests erupted against corruption and lack of good governance, transparency and accountability. The trigger for this outburst of indignation was Thaksin’s sale of his family corporation, which had profited handsomely from a government monopoly and preferential treatment. In response,Thaksin’s political machine organized and supported a counter protest movement, the so-called Red Shirts. In September 2006, the military intervened and wrote a new constitution which was adopted by the people in a referendum. Thaksin was convicted of corruption and sentenced to two years in prison. He fled the country and still remains in exile. New elections were held in 2008 and Thaksin’s party won outright but his proxy governments under Samak and Somchai were faced with protests and did not last. Seeing the drift of public opinion, a coalition partner of Thaksin’s turned against him and aligned with the opposition Democrat Party in Parliament, a normal feature of parliamentary democracy.
Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva became Prime Minister. Thaksin’s Red Shirt followers staged street protests and used violent means in the course of 2009 and especially in 2010. Parliamentary life was disruptive and obstructive by Thaksin’s men and women who spent more time on procedural matters rather than on substance.
Abhisit tried to negotiate and compromise to no avail. Thaksin flatly refused, wanting to topple Abhisit by violent means. Eventually, Abhisit dissolved the parliament and held new elections and lost on 3 July 2011. Thaksin appointed his younger sister, Yingluck, as his puppet Prime Minister. Her government, like Samak’s and Somchai’s, spent most of the time searching for ways and means to bring back Thaksin, a criminal fugitive to Thailand, scotch free and whitewashed of all wrongdoings. In the meantime, every populist policy measure promised by Yingluck in her election campaign failed miserably and caused billions of Baht losses. A tyranny of the majority (actually Yingluck’s Party had not won a majority of votes but only a substantial plurality of 48%) was blatantly imposed on the parliament, preventing a constructive relationship between the majority and the minority parties from emerging. Parliamentary life was merely a voting exercise under the instruction of Thaksin to get all his schemes approved.
This greedy and arrogant populist dictatorship angered the Thai people. Thai values do not reward selfish abuse of power. So from hundreds and thousands to millions have turned to the streets out of their aversion to and revulsion against abusive politics and family authoritarianism.
They want to reform Thailand for real.
Prime Minister Yingluck could not evade this popular anger and dissolved the House of Representatives to call for an election in February 2014.
An election as called for by the unwanted Yingluck administration should be postponed until constitutional reform is completed and approved with a national referendum. The Constitution should be further revised to learn from Thaksin’s deft manipulation of politics through money to reinforce the Rule of Law and checks and balances in order to turn the tide of Thai history away from corruption and dictatorship.
In the meantime, the Western democratic world, which for centuries had gone through various phases of undemocratic happenings in their democratization process, have now demanded that the Thai people bow to a hard pressed, immensely disliked, illegitimate and non law-abiding Yingluck and her government under the control of her brother and the rest of his Shinawatra family. The West seems to believe that elections can solve the democratic ills of Thailand and redress the democratization process to its rightful course.
But has not the West learned from Chavez in Venezuala, Iraq in 2005 with Shi’a majoritarianism, and more recently in Egypt with over-reaching on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood, that elections alone do not guarantee progress towards genuine democracy?
Is this only naive, simple-minded, shallow and superficial thinking? Or is it the result of really believing that Thaksin is a true democrat and is “our man”, one who stands firmly behind the amoral corporate capitalist way of running a country?
Why does the West not believe in the Thai people?
The wish of the Thai people from all walks of life is to change away from corruption and dictatorship. They want justice in politics. They are the rightful owners of their country. They now want to reform Thailand in every important and pertinent aspect. They want reform to occur before new elections are held. They want to experience for real a changed and reformed Thailand without any vestige and residue of Thaksin’s regime. Thaksin’s regime has done much damage and caused deep sorrows and divisions for the Thai people. They want to prevent money politics. They want to fight and eliminate corruption. They want a democratic Thailand, of participation and empowerment, and not of domination. They want to live with governance, transparency, and accountability. They want to keep out old-style politics. They want the country to observe and practice the Buddhist values of right minded governance and the Buddhist inspired economic philosophy of His Majesty the King. They want to ensure that those who volunteer to serve the country are not rent seekers. They want to protect the environment for future generations. They want to live in an inclusive and non-discriminatory society. They want the caring of the disadvantaged. They want to narrow development gaps. They want to ensure that Thailand is a society with justice and equality.
They do not want to live under a Mubarak or a Marcos. They do not want to be subservient pawns who must bow and scrape under the whims of a family fiefdom, especially one that does not respect core Thai values.
Does the West believe in the virtue of an elected few who, upon their election, abuse their office and prove to be no more than rent seekers or will the West believe in the masses’ desire for change, for advancement and betterment?
Does the West still believe in people’s power that has expressed itself by the millions in a peaceful, non-violent manner?
Can the West fathom the deep desire of the Thai people to get out of this cruel predicament once and for all?
Or is the West just too myopic to see the truth?
Reform of Thai constitutionalism is in the works. Studies and examinations of the experiences of advanced democracies around the world have also been active. Many discussions and writings have been going on simultaneously for quite some time by think tanks, academicians, political and social activists, and even representatives of the private sector, the farming sector and the labor force. Once the reform assembly is set up, work on a better constitution can be completed in months’ time.
Can the West respect the wish of the Thai people for reform first and elections later? Why couldn’t the West wait for the reform to be carried out first and for the elections to be held later? Surely the West has no hidden agenda of wanting to continue dealing with the criminal fugitive by the name of Thaksin? Let not Western vested interests overlook and overshadow the primary moral obligation to the Thai people of promoting and assisting in their democratic advancement. Thailand is going through a process which the Western world has already completed. It is to be recalled that advanced democracies had gone through ideological struggles, rent-seeking and money politics, class, racial and gender discrimination, and episodes of demagogue and populist leaders. Thaksin is not that different from Mussolini.
Thailand is now at a new stage of democratic development point, wanting to move forward and rid itself of all the obstacles that block the emergence of good governance, transparency, and accountability. We want to trust our elected leaders, we want them to be servants of the people, not servants of the rich, the powerful, or those who do not care about our country. We also want to be proud of them.
In addition, the West seems to believe that the Red Shirt movement is the foremost democratic force in today’s Thailand. In actuality, there are many variations of the Red Shirts, namely, a republican left that wants to end constitutional monarchy and turn Thailand into a democratic republic; the Red Shirts who want a communist republic; and the Red Shirts who are fascist and ultra-right or seek a one-man, one-party authoritarian state; the Red Shirts who are on a payroll without ideological commitment; the Red Shirt masses who are induced by hate and propaganda; the Red Shirts who are believers in democratic justice and equality.
The recent demonstrations have seen many of the Red Shirts who seek justice and democracy, who realize the truth about Thaksin’s thinking and misconduct, join the protest against the unlawful amnesty bill. It is noticeable also that Red Shirt gatherings during the past one year have not been able to achieve the quantity of participants desired and could not last more than two days. There have been also splits, in-fighting and recriminations within the Red Shirt leadership. Thaksin and Yingluck have been relying more and more on the police force, and have not been able to muster and motivate the Red Shirts as before. But even the police have now largely turned against their one time colleague and patron.
The proposed reform process will be inclusive of all points of view. It is therefore open to genuine and respectful contribution of ideas and participation from the democratic Red Shirts.
A sensible government would not hold an election when the country is in an uproar and the people are against it. One could visualize a massive election boycott. So let us move forward on the Reform Process.
Kasit Piromya is a Thai diplomat, Democrat Party politician, and former People’s Alliance for Democracy (“Yellow Shirts”) activist. He was Foreign Minister of Thailand under Abhisit Vejjajiva from 2008 to 2011. He is currently an opposition member of the Thai parliament.