Friday, November 25, 2011

Thailand - Uprooting the poisonous tree of the coup d'etat

Middle class people in Bangkok and elsewhere feel that politicians do nothing for them except cheat. That's why a coup is a no-brainer way to get rid of corruption. Rural people, however, now take democracy seriously because it has been transformed into something they can effectively use to leverage a fairer distribution of power and resources. That's why a coup to oust democratically elected politicians is viewed as a no-go for them.

How do we manage these different views in moving society forward? The venerable PA Payutto wrote" "Social directions are decided by ditthi [views/ beliefs/ ideologies]. A sense of value of any given thing, either on an individual or social basis, is ditthi.… On the social level, we find attitudes adhered to by whole societies. When there is a conviction in the desirability of any given thing, society supports it. This collective support becomes a social value, a quality adhered to by society as a whole, which in turn pressures the members of society to perpetuate such beliefs or preferences."

Some would argue that democracy is just one among many political views with no claim above others. They might claim that occasional military rule is better for our society. If anything, our five-year-long political turmoil reveals how deeply divided Thai society is in its views about democracy and military rule.

Here, it can be argued that democracy is not just another view, but a process - in fact the best available one - to mediate conflicting views. The Buddha warned against clinging to any view. Democracy lessens such clinging through its built-in respect for diversity of views, freedom of expression and idea exchanges based on equality, non-discrimination and non-violence. A democracy allows multitudes of views (for example, on anti-flood measures), meta-views on how to manage those views (democracy or dictatorship?) and even meta-meta-views like discussions on the comparative merits of democracy and dictatorship. Such luxury, however, rarely exists in authoritarian rule, where there can be only one ideology.

What would the Buddha think of democracy? Without an extensive account of his thoughts on politics, the Buddha's teachings have been quoted to support different systems. But certain deductions can be made from what he did. The Buddha modelled the Order of monks not after a kingdom but the Vajjian confederacy - one of the world's oldest democracies. He also told disciples to look for guidance from his teachings, without naming anyone to succeed him. The Sangha is, therefore, governed not by the authority of individuals, but with monastic rules that require monks to be regularly subjected to mutual examination, just as politicians should be.

When the Vajjian confederacy came under attack, the Buddha cited its democratic system's protective advantages. He said it can be expected to prosper as long as the Vajjians "hold regular and frequent assemblies; … meet in harmony, break up in harmony and carry on their business in harmony; … do not authorise what has not been authorised already, and do not abolish what has not been authorised, put proceed according to what has been authorised by ancient tradition". The first two can be interpreted as emphasis on public reasoning and democratic mediation of views, while the last can be interpreted as respect for the rule of law.

Identifying democracy with public reasoning in The Argumentative Indian, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen wrote: "Public reasoning includes the opportunity for citizens to participate in political discussions and to influence public choice. Balloting can be seen as only one of the ways - albeit a very important way - to make public discussions effective, when the opportunity to vote is combined with the opportunity to speak and listen, without fear. The reach - and effectiveness - of voting depend critically on the opportunity for open public discussion."

Sen also reminded us how early Buddhism thrived on such a democratic space: "The so-called 'Buddhist councils', which aimed at settling disputes between different points of view, drew delegates from different places and from different schools of thought.… These councils were primarily concerned with resolving differences in religious principles and practices, but they also addressed the demands of social and civic duties, and furthermore helped, in a general way, to consolidate and promote the tradition of open discussion on contentious issues."

While early Buddhism valued open discussion, modern Buddhist states seem intent on shutting down debate. Some are run like police states where ideologies and policies are dictated on the populace through propaganda machines, while censorship shuts down freedom of expression and idea exchange. In others, democracy often exists merely in form as a series of elections, rather than in essence. Public reasoning is silenced with illiberal laws, allowing the country to slide towards one form of authoritarianism or another. It's no surprise, then, that one of the Nitirat (group of anti-coup academics) recommendations is the revision of the lese majeste law, which has been turned into a lethal political weapon rather than a safeguard of the monarchy, as originally intended.

When the Buddha "set in motion the wheel of dharma (dhammacakka)" with his first sermon, he gave a new meaning to ancient India's wheel symbolism, which previously referred not to just any wheel but that of the war chariot - ethe quivalent of modern-day tanks. While Brahmanistic rites celebrated the supreme rule of the universal monarch or cakkavatti - one who turns the wheel - the Buddha declared every member of society a wheel-turner. In Vasettha sutta he said: "Action makes the world go round. Action turns generations of men. Beings are held together by action, like the chariot wheel by the linchpin."

Even if Nitirat's proposals are ignored by the government, that should not stop people from adopting them, especially the "Declaration on the Fundamental Values of Liberal Democracy." Although, as Nitirat is ready to admit, this probably won't by itself stop tanks in the street, it will help roll back their wheels in the people's minds.

A declaration promoting participatory democracy and human rights will provide an alternative to coups for combating social and political ills, including corruption. It chips away at the ignorance (avijja) of failed imagination and paves the way for the construction and strengthening of social and political reality (sankhara), where the rights of citizens take priority in the public consciousness (vinnana) with appropriate legal apparatuses (namarupa) to ensure realisation of those rights.

These will help sharpen public organs (salayatana) like the media to become a watchdog for human rights and liberty. The achievements of these rights will be met with a public sense (vedana) of delight, a desire to uphold such values, and a deeper commitment to the idea of human rights as the central principle holding society together. Setting the democratic wheel in motion, this gives a positive feedback to the virtuous cycle, and further dispels ignorance. Once this Dependent Origination of democracy and human rights takes root in the public consciousness, it cannot be torn down or dislodged by any coup.

The Thai words for "state" and "citizens" notably are both from the Sanskrit term, rastra. The state and the people can only be one and the same. One day a more democratic Thai society will thank Nitirat for reminding us that the rule of law must be of the people, by the people and for the people - no more and no less. The Nation, Bangkok

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