Thursday, May 20, 2010

How Democracy Has Failed Thailand's Poor

As gun battles raged, killing dozens on the streets of Bangkok these past few days, it has become increasingly painful to remember that just over a decade ago, Thailand seemed the most stable and modern democracy in Southeast Asia. Thais boasted a new, liberal constitution and the first freedom-of-information law in the region. The Thai press was self-assured and free, and local nongovernmental organizations were preaching the gospel of democracy and human rights to their neighbors.

As a Filipino journalist traveling to Thailand in the second half of the 1990s, I marveled at the confidence of Thai politicians, activists and journalists. They saw themselves at the crest of the democratic wave sweeping Southeast Asia, especially after the fall of Suharto in Indonesia in 1998. Filipinos felt the same way: Having ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, they considered themselves the pioneers of democracy in the region.

How things have changed. Today Thailand and the Philippines demonstrate democratic decay rather than renewal; the optimism of the 1990s is now a mirage. Since then, these two countries have been shaken by corruption scandals, antigovernment conspiracies and violent mass protests staged by followers of populist and anti-democratic leaders.

The problems are rooted in the contradictions of the democratic enterprise. In the Philippines and Thailand, democracy has largely been an elite and middle-class project. In 1986, Filipino businesspeople, lawyers, teachers and university students joined nuns and priests as they prayed in front of tanks manned by soldiers loyal to Marcos. The troops refused to fire, forcing Marcos and his family to flee the country.

In Thailand in 1992, well-off protesters used mobile phones to coordinate massive demonstrations against army commander Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon, the leader of a military coup that had ousted the civilian government. The protests were brutally crushed, prompting the king to intervene, thereby ending the violence and paving the way for the return to civilian rule.

These two events showed the potency of out-of-power elites and a politicized middle class straining at the leash of authoritarian rule. The urban pro-democracy movements led by the educated and affluent set the stage for the enactment of new constitutions guaranteeing civil liberties, competitive elections and other reforms.

Those who were relatively well-off in the cities benefited from the democratic space. But they failed to institute a more inclusive politics, and now both countries have higher levels of income inequality than Indonesia and Malaysia.

It was really only a matter of time before populist politicians came along — Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra and the Philippines’ Joseph Estrada — and tapped into the growing resentment among the poor, who were denied a seat at democracy’s table. They were elected by landslides because they appealed to the poor.

Both men were eventually ousted from power through undemocratic means. Reeling from corruption scandals, Estrada fell in a second “people power” revolt in Manila in 2001, just halfway through his term. Thaksin hung on a while longer but was overthrown in a military coup in 2006.

Today there is an impasse on the streets of Bangkok. Thaksin’s Red Shirt followers are using the weapon of mass protest that the elites now in power wielded in 1992 — and again, a decade later, in their attempts to oust Thaksin. The future of Thai democracy seems precarious. Neither side will accept elections or street protests as the ultimate arbiter of who gets to run the country.

In the Philippines, electoralism has triumphed. Benigno Aquino III will soon assume the presidency. Estrada has chosen to contest power through the polls. He polled second to Aquino, but his populist vice-presidential running mate — Makati City Mayor Jejomar Binay — appears to be winning.

If he does, then the country will have a president from the hacienda and a vice president from the slums. The former is an untested political heir; the latter, an Uzi-wielding local boss — as good an indication as any of the electoral choices Filipinos have.

Forty years ago the president-elect’s father, then-Senator Benigno Aquino Jr, famously said: “The Philippines is a social volcano.” One need look no further than Congress and local governments to understand what he meant. Today, a few hundred families control elective posts. Some of them, like the new president’s own clan, have been in power for four generations.

For the poor in the Philippines and Thailand, democracy has not meant liberation. It was simply the new face of domination.

The crisis in Thailand and the recent election in the Philippines offer fresh opportunities for renewal. Both countries need a new social contract, one that guarantees what democracy has thus far failed to provide: a voice for the majority of citizens and accountability for those who wield power.

By Sheila S Coronel executive director of the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University.

South China Morning Post

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