Monday, May 26, 2014

Game Over for Democracy in Thailand

Let's stop pretending about Thailand. There is a polite international fiction that last week's military coup is just a temporary interruption to democratic rule.

No. The evidence of this century is that Thailand is not a democracy at all.

The latest coup is confirmation that this is a country which fundamentally rejects the central precept of representative democracy – that the people choose their rulers.

Since 2001, the people have chosen their rulers decisively. In six consecutive elections, they have voted for the party of Thaksin Shinawatra or his allies.


His margin of victory in 2005 was the biggest in modern Thai history. His sister's margin of victory in 2011 was the second largest. The Thai people affirmed their choice yet again at the polls just three months ago.

There was electoral fraud, as there is in every Thai election. But no credible expert has tried to argue that the results of the last six elections did not reflect the people's choice. 

And on six occasions, a constellation of establishment forces has conspired to veto the people's decision. Last week's was just the latest.

It's that clear-cut.

You don't have to take my word for it. One of the leaders of the Yellow Shirt protest movement that helped bring down the Thaksin-based governments, media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul, has said it plainly: "Representative democracy is not suitable for Thailand."

He is getting his way.

This leaves one of the gems of south-east Asia and the region's second-biggest economy in a weird ahistorical twilight. While countries of east Asia have made striking advances towards democracy and full civil rights in the past 30 years, Thailand has regressed.

Even as Taiwan, South Korea and Indonesia have embraced full freedom for their citizens, even as the generals in Myanmar have relaxed their iron grip to allow a political liberalisation, in Thailand it is a general who now runs the country. Again.

Which establishment forces have conspired against democratic outcomes?

The latest purge of a Thaksin government illuminates three. First is the street force of the anti-Thaksin movement, the Yellow Shirts. Second are the courts. Third is the military.

But not all of the military. Note that the general who seized power last Thursday, Prayuth Chan-ocha, was the chief of the army, not the head of the entire armed forces. He sidelined superior officers with his lunge for power.

The three groups worked a three-part coup. First, the Yellow Shirts blockaded parts of Bangkok for six months, creating the impression of chaos to create a political crisis. Second, the courts stripped prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra of her post, but left her party in power with much-diminished legitimacy. Third, the army cited the need for a resolution to this confected crisis and took control.

These forces of the Thai establishment "are so desperate to rid the country of Thaksin and his allies that they are now holding the entire country hostage to their whims," Human Rights Watch Asia director Brad Adams says.

What of the man so revered by Thais, the king? Can he save the country?

An authority on Thai politics, Professor Andrew Walker of the Australian National University, says the sad state of affairs is the result of the failure of two of Thailand's central institutions.

First of those is the king himself, Bhumibol Adulyadej, the longest-reigning monarch in the world.

"Thailand's democratic failure is the most striking legacy of his long reign," Walker wrotes in his blog, New Mandala.

"For decades, anti-democratic forces in Thailand have been able to use the image of a virtuous monarch to undermine the credibility of elected politicians."

The position and title of king gives the impression to Westerners that he must be a politically neutral figure. He is not. You cannot speak this truth in Thailand under pain of a 15-year jail term for the archaic crime of lese majeste.

"He has consistently permitted anti-democratic acts to be staged in his name. Since General Prayuth's seizure of power last Thursday, there has not been one word from the palace about the importance of protecting Thailand's democratic system," Walker writes.

When the country's bickering politicians ceased hostilities last December to hear the king's birthday speech, he could have used the opportunity to call on the nation to respect the democratic decision of the people.

Instead, he called for unity. He made no mention of democracy.

Adds Walker: "In fact, in the last few months, the most active royal presence in Thailand's political scene has been one of the king's daughters who has openly supported protesters calling for the overthrow of an elected government."

The second failed institution, according to Walker, is Thailand's opposition. The Democrats – the main opposition party – have given up on trying to win elections. Instead, they gleefully encourage the Yellow Shirts in their sabotage of elected government. They advance behind the king's prestige to take advantage of serial coups.

The Democrats support democracy as much as George Orwell's Ministry of Love acted on that selfless emotion. The Ministry of Love, you might recall, was the headquarters of brutality and repression in the dystopia of 1984.

Not that Thaksin and his forces are saintly. The populist billionaire lives in exile to avoid arrest at home on corruption charges. He did some good for the rural poor of Thailand, but he had autocratic tendencies of his own. His Red Shirt street force is just as guilty of misconduct as the Yellow Shirts.

But the overarching question is not whether he or his sister is a good prime minister. The question is, who decides? As the latest coup attests so dismally, the Thai people are not being allowed that right.

Peter Hartcher is the international editor.
Illustration: John Shakespeare.


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