Monday, April 4, 2011

Trapped in the dead zone of our decaying democracy

Most marine creatures either die, or if they are still mobile, flee a dead zone, when the level of oxygen dissolved in the water is reduced or depleted.

There are many factors that either individually or combined create a dead zone. They can be physical, chemical or biological. The resulting common denominator however, is just one - no life can grow or blossom in a dead zone.

And a dead zone is where we find ourselves today in our so-called democracy.

While excess chemical nutrients, fertilisers, urban land use, runoff sewage, shallow sills, sediments and decomposed algae contribute significantly to the reduction of oxygen in water that leads to aquatic dead zones, apathy, avaricious corruption, abuse of power, lack of education, and absence of viable check-and-balance mechanisms are among the contributing factors to the dead zones in democracy.
Unfortunately, these negative factors are ubiquitous in our "democracy", which was once touted as the success story of East Asia. But no more.

We have elections and we have a parliament comprised of supposed representatives of the people, but democracy is not what we have achieved. For Thailand's democracy, the phrase "to be alive but not living" fits like a glove.

The latest censure debate in Parliament was worse than a dog and pony show, which can occasionally be vacuously entertaining. Many of us experienced a woozy feeling in the stomach when a Cabinet member known for numerous unscrupulously "unusual" policy initiatives received the highest vote of confidence.

We lost our faith in law and order - the backbone of democracy - when Government House was seized and occupied for months, the airport was shut down by mobs, buildings were burned, properties were ransacked and looted, and lives were taken.

And no one will admit to responsibility. In most cases, there are no real consequences and no accountability whatsoever.

We lost our faith in democratic institutions and means, because they have never taken root, let alone been consolidated to become the beacons of political reform and development.

We do not have strong party institutions. Leaders are not creations of the party, but instead the party is the creature of the leader. When a leader is discredited, nothing is left of the party.

Our civil society is also weak, and there is no viable watchdog mechanism to discipline politicians.

On the surface, our press is relatively free, but a second inspection renders a murkier picture. Several members of the press are receiving allowances from politicians, which in and by itself is unethical, regardless of whether or not they are actually presenting biased press reports in favour of their patrons.

Economic inequality, systemic injustice and Corruption (the upper case is not a typo) are so egregious that we have reached the point of no return. How can there be any reversal of these hideous plagues when no one in the seat of power has any incentive to change, and people who want to administer a cure are not in a position to do so? It's another case of those who can don't care, and those who care can't.

These plagues are a result of the decomposed algae that sucks the life-giving water out of our political landscape, leaving it a democratic desert.

Education is an enigma in Thailand. Our education budget is almost 30 per cent of our national budget (among the highest in the world). But much of that money does not go to improving the quality of teachers or the curriculum as it is supposed to.

Instead it is funnelled by politicians to their cronies for political purposes.

Many real teachers privately agree that all things education could improve drastically if only the Ministry of Education was abolished altogether.

Education is a necessary condition of democracy. Without it, our Parliament will always be filled with so-called representatives who buy their way into the chamber, knowing they can get all of their campaign investment back, and much more loot besides after they are in. Out of every ten chips, one (perhaps) is allocated for their constituents, while nine (at least) are reserved for themselves and their cronies. Without a well-educated and well-informed majority of citizens, democracy can only be a mirage.

Thailand's middle class, once hailed as the best hope for the nation's economic growth and political reform, is wilting under the blazing heat of radioactive political material. The middle class is disillusioned and becoming more anti-democratic. What good will an election bring, if people keep electing the same old rogues' gallery to run the country? And we can forget about reform. What has happened is that populist elected autocrats - winning on the false hope of the poor's newfound political empowerment - are using their own power to undermine the very institution of democracy, to which they belong and through which they are supposed to fulfil their pledges.

As peoples across the Middle East and North Africa revolt against entrenched dictators and autocrats, Thailand is just one of the cautionary tales they can heed. Democracy needs strong and independent government watchdogs, free and responsible press outlets, a viable civil society and unions, as well as a sustainable political party system and educated constituents. Most importantly, it requires national unity. Mass demonstrations can bring change, like the yellow and red shirts did here in Thailand with all their sound and fury. But the question of whether those changes can be turned into reform and the strengthening of democratic values and institutions is a more complex question that requires hard work.

The situation to avoid can be summed up by Yeats' words in his poem "The Second Coming": "The best lack the conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

That is the formula for a democratic dead zone.

By Pornpimol Kanchanalak The Nation, Bangkok

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