Amidst glitzy department stores and brand-name billboards, somewhere between 170,000 and 3 million self-described ‘peaceful’, ‘sophisticated’ and ‘educated’ protesters have paralysed central Bangkok in the past week. They are demanding the government’s resignation and the appointment of an unelected ‘council of elders’ to push through sweeping reforms in order to restore democracy and eliminate corruption in Thailand. They are largely made up of supporters of the opposition Democrat Party, and hail mainly from Bangkok and the southern provinces
The protesters’ ire is also directed towards former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, his sister and current Prime Minister Yingluck, and their Pheu Thai Party. Despite political scandals and a conviction for corruption-related charges, Thaksin is still very popular in the ruling party’s core northern constituency, so much so that the Shinawatras have effectively won every election since 2001.
But among many in the Bangkok middle and upper classes, Thaksin and his sister are reviled. For the protesters, support for a moralistic drive towards reform and anti-corruption has served as an excellent pretence for the forced removal of the Shinawatras from the Thai political landscape.
Since the 2011 election, the Yingluck government was more or less able to keep the military on side and street violence at bay. However, by any standards, the Shinawatras had a very poor 2013. Protests began in November on the back of a botched amnesty bill. The last-minute amendments to the bill were seemingly designed to clear Thaksin of his corruption charges and allow his safe passage back to Thailand.
Furthermore, poor policies such as the rice-pledging scheme which leaked billions of baht, and concerns over graft on the planned loans for vast infrastructure and water-management projects, contributed to ill-feeling towards the government. The Pheu Thai government has also continued to erode away confidence in the appointed courts and independent institutions which act as checks-and-balances to the government’s power and underpin the Thai democratic system, and upset the country’s traditional elite.
Any opposition party in a functional democracy would be salivating over a chance to contest an election against a government that has been as inept as Yingluck’s. However, the Democrat Party and the protesters — in their professed desire to protect democracy — have astonishingly turned their backs on elections and democracy itself.
The initial anti-amnesty protests were almost universally popular among Thais from all walks of life. Sensing the growing momentum of the anti-Thaksin sentiments held by many who joined in, Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister with the Democrat Party, seized the opportunity to transform the apolitical, anti-amnesty demonstrations into a frenzied attempt to remove a democratically elected government from power.
Although the protesters’ grievances with the government are in many ways justified, and their arguments for decentralisation, media and education reform, and stricter measures to curb corruption are valid, their demands for the resignation of the government and installation of a reform council are fundamentally anti-democratic.
Suthep and his supporters do not see that any attempt to remove Yingluck and the influence of her brother from power, implement reforms and restore the appointed institutions from outside the democratic system will lack legitimacy and durability. Any appointed government or council that is put in place as a result of military, judicial or mob intervention will lack a sufficient democratic mandate to represent the country. Such extra-constitutional actions will not restore their professed ideal of ‘real’ democracy. Rather, they will only intensify divisions within Thai society that have held Thailand back from becoming one of the region’s economic and political heavyweights.
Street protests and violence are now ingrained in Thai political culture. They appear to be the first and only recourse for groups wanting to affect political change as both parties have lost faith in the democratic system’s ability to resolve differences in the country.
The Democrats and protesters feel that elections do not keep the government accountable and that the Pheu Thai has used its electoral dominance to create a ‘democratic dictatorship’ where there is no room for dissenting voices.
On the other hand, the Shinawatras feel that the courts and independent institutions no longer serve an impartial regulatory or balancing role, but they have been politicised and stacked with the old conservative elite supportive of the Democrat Party. They feel that the will of the people is best manifested through elections.
In democracies the world over, there is a delicate balance between the power and responsibilities of elected representatives and appointed observers. This balance is not always without friction, but it creates the necessary checks-and-balances for a stable political system. In Thailand, the balance has been lost. The solution to this crisis cannot be found out in the streets. Instead, both parties must come together to renegotiate a political contract that creates the foundations for a political system that facilitates opposing viewpoints, fosters a sense of trust between the parties that the ‘rules of the game’ won’t be broken or eroded, and resolves political disagreement in the Parliament not the streets.
For a country that relies heavily on families of tourists looking for tropical island getaways and incredible cuisine, as well as foreign multinationals looking to headquarter their regional operations in Bangkok, a lurch away from democracy will do Thailand no favours.
Unless the leaders of both sides can find a working compromise to halt the political unrest and street protests that have gripped the country for nearly a decade, risk-averse tourists and foreign investors will be increasingly inclined to spend their money in Thailand’s growing neighbours like Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, who will be only too happy to welcome them.
Jacob Hogan is a research fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand.