Whither democracy?

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thaksinThais may accept military rule for short-term stability after the excesses of the authoritarian former premier Thaksin, who was toppled by a military coup in September 2006. But  the longer the military remains, the less patient the people will be, observes Francis Loh.

Two important books focusing on Thanksin Shinawatra were published in 2005. These two English-language books are Thaksin – The Business of Politics in Thailand, written by leading Thai academic Pasuk Phongpaichit and her husband Chris Baker, and The Thaksinization of Thailand, jointly authored by Duncan McCargo (University of Leeds) and Ukrist Pathmanand (Chulalongkorn University).

Both books discussed Thaksin’s background, his involvement in business, and ultimately his ownership of the biggest telecommunications company in Thailand. They also look at his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) Party, how it won a clear majority in the 2001 elections, and the system of governance he introduced upon becoming prime minister of Thailand.

The McCargo and Ukrist book focuses more on Thaksin’s clever use of the mass media and his populist welfare programmes to explain his appeal to the rural masses. These are points which Pasuk and Baker also agree with. But they also make the important observation that, for Thaksin, development was a more important goal than democracy. In 2001, for instance, Thaksin had stated: ‘Democracy is a good and beautiful thing, but it’s not the ultimate goal as far as administering the country is concerned…. Democracy is just a tool, not our goal. The goal is to give people a good lifestyle, happiness, and national progress.’

CEO politics

In other words, Thaksin pursued developmen-talism, rather than democracy. To this, he added ingredients of economic nationalism and the need for Thais to imbibe a new social discipline too. And should that self-discipline be lacking, he was not unprepared to resort to repression.

Drawing on his involvement in the business world, Thaksin, according to Pasuk and Baker, ruled Thailand as though he was the CEO of a big business project, with minimum consultation of the people. Moreover, he also protected Thai big businesses from external threats and from internal challenges.

Such a depiction of Thaksin’s style of government probably sounds familiar to Malaysians, who might be reminded of how Mahathir too had pursued development over democratisation, protected local businesses from external ones as well as from internal critics. Not surprisingly, Thaksin was an ardent admirer of Mahathir

I recall hearing that many colleagues of these authors had egged them on to publish their books quickly; otherwise, the books would soon be out-dated – for it was anticipated not long after Thaksin had come to power, that his TRT government might not last too long. Three reasons have been given:


Riddled with corruption

First, the TRT government was soon embroiled in corruption and several ministers with big business backgrounds were accused of using their positions to feather their nests. Matters came to a head in January 2006 when Shin Corp, the telecom giant controlled by Thaksin’s family sold off 49 per cent of the company to Singapore’s state-linked investment firm Temasek Holdings for nearly US$1.9 billion, without paying any taxes on its windfall from the deal.

Democratisation on the march

Second, there was also the fact that the democratisation movement in Thailand was on the upswing since the so-called Black May 1992 tragedy. A year earlier in 1991, the military had seized power and promised to hand over power to civilians after a new Constitution had been drawn up. Elections followed. After the elections, however, General Suchinda Kraprayoon, the then military chief, attempted to take over power although he had not contested in the elections as required under the new laws. This attempt to seize power triggered mass protests in Bangkok and other major towns, resulting in the deaths of ordinary Thais, hence the name Black May 1992. In the event, Suchinda.was forced to withdraw.

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This successful campaign to restore democratic rule instilled a new sense of confidence and unity in Thai NGOs and other democratic groups. When parliamentary rule was restored, these democratic groups played an important role in pushing for the drafting of a new Constitution (Thailand’s 15th), which was completed amidst the 1997 financial meltdown and ultimately passed by parliament in September 1997.

Among others, the new Constitution provided for elections to both houses of Parliament as well as to local government. It also provided for the establishment of an independent Election Commission, an independent Constitutional Court and a National Counter Corruption Commission. The Constitution also contained guarantees of press freedom and upheld the right to form associations and to assemble, including the right to hold peaceful demonstrations.

No doubt, the constitutional changes were among the most democratic ever promulgated and Thai civil society became increasingly bold in reclaiming its rights. It was not surprising that allegations of corruption were soon reported in the independent mass media after Thaksin came to power. Criticism was also levelled against the high-handed CEO’s way of trying to rule by bypassing parliament and curbing critical civil society groups.

Problems in the South

Third, perhaps more disconcerting, was the way in which Thaksin managed the problems in southern Thailand. Following several incidences of bombing, the Thaksin government introduced via executive decree – that is, without parliament’s approval – a new anti-terrorism law in August 2003. This led to the introduction of martial law in the southern provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani.

Following a dramatic attack by rebels on Yala in July 2005, Thaksin declared a state of emergency in the southern provinces granting him wide-ranging powers including the right to impose curfew, to ban public gatherings, to limit travel, to censor and ban publications, to search and arrest without warrant, to detain suspects without charge, to confiscate property and to tap phones. This new decree was roundly condemned by many, including the National Reconciliation Committee set up by parliament to seek peaceful means to contain the violence.

For the Committee and other democratic forces, it is the use of such harsh laws and the violence by government forces (as in the Tak Bai killings of Muslims and the Kru Se mosque massacre in 2004) that have contributed towards the escalation of the violence, which resulted in more than 1,500 deaths in the past two years. Apparently, this is a view shared by military leaders, particularly the army’s commander-in-chief Gen Sonthi Boonyarat-kalin, a Muslim, who led the recent military coup.

For these three reasons alone, it was anticipated that the Thaksin government would not last much longer. The question, therefore, was when the end would come and how it would come about.

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Not via elections

Apparently, Thaksin could not be so easily ousted via the electoral system. While in power, as it so often happens, he used the opportunity to put into place procedures that favoured the incumbents. Consequently, when pressure against him mounted, he called for snap elections and romped home to victory in the polls again.

Thanks to the provisions of the 1997 Constitution, however, there were adequate checks and balances put into place as well. Hence, the Judiciary subsequently ruled that the Thaksin’s snap polls had been conducted contrary to the law. For one, the electoral law insisted that elections not only had to be called perennially, but they had to be contested as well. In other words, when the major opposition parties refused to nominate their candidates to contest the snap elections, which they considered illegal, the TRT party candidates who won their seats uncontested were deemed to be have been illegally elected. (This is contrary to the situation in Malaysia where representatives may win an election even if there had been no contest for the seat). Legal intricacies like this resulted in Thaksin’s party being entangled in one court case after another.

Since Thaksin refused to step down as required by the Judiciary, the anti-Thaksin forces next resorted to extra-electoral means like demonstrations. It needs clarifying that these demonstrations, so long as they are peaceful, are considered part and parcel of the political process and are legitimate under Thai law, Likewise, peaceful demonstrations are also allowed in post-New Order Indonesia. In contrast, in Malaysia and Singapore, such demonstrations would be deemed ‘illegal assemblies’ and immediately curbed.

Perhaps taking the cue from Malaysia and Singapore, where such demonstrations would be considered to be ‘illegal assemblies’, Thaksin began to introduce curbs on the opposition and on the media which began to criticise Thaksin and published reports that exposed government corruption.  Even when the King, apparently, persuaded him to step down, he refused to do so.

Enter the army

Ultimately it was the Royal Thai Army led by Gen Boonyaratkalin which stepped in to resolve this impasse. Via a bloodless coup, Thaksin’s regime was ousted while he was away at the United Nations. A so-called Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy led by Sonthi was established and martial law proclaimed. All activities by political parties were banned, the media were warned not to disseminate news that could disturb the peace, and all gatherings of more than five people disallowed.

Yet, it appears that there has developed considerable euphoria over what has happened. According to polls conducted by the media, about 82 per cent of the people in Bangkok and 86 per cent of the people in rural areas support the coup. A widely distributed email which I received titled, ‘This can only happen in Thailand’, contained pictures of people from all walks of life welcoming the military coup. It included photographs of the public handing over flowers to army commanders, citizens taking pictures with tanks in the background, and young women dancing to entertain soldiers as they surrounded Parliament.

This reminds us of the previous military coup, also relatively bloodless, which occurred in 1991 when the government of Chartichal Choonhavan was overthrown. Then, as now, the military intervened on the grounds that the civilian government had turned corrupt. And then, like now, the military promised that they would only stay in power for a short time, install an interim government, prepare a new permanent constitution, hold new elections, and then hand over power to the victors at the polls. As discussed earlier, all these were carried out on schedule until Gen Suchinda tried to nominate himself as the new prime minister, which led to the bloody Black May 1992 tragedy, regarded today as a landmark event.

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In fact, it links back to the events of the early 1970s too, when an earlier generation of democratic young Thais also struggled against the military.  In October 1973 and again in October 1976, several hundred people were killed when the military conducted their coups.

The future

What does the future portend? Will power be returned to civilians?

While welcoming the military coup which has ousted Thaksin and resolved the stalemate, many Thai NGOs and other democratically-inclined groups are wary that the gains towards a more participatory democracy enshrined in the 1997 Constitution might be rolled backwards and a less participatory and more electoral democracy put into place instead. This would probably be a procedural democracy dominated by ‘professional politicians’ attached to dominant parties and connected to big business, to borrow a phrase from Ben Anderson, a well-known professor of Southeast Asian politics, that is, an elitist democracy a la American democracy.

The appointment of a former army commander-in-chief Gen Surayud Chulanont, instead of a civilian, to head the interim government does not inspire confidence. The interim Constitution, which will guide the work of the interim government, is geared towards restoring unity and stability, apart from overseeing the drafting of a new permanent Constitution and the holding of elections before October 2007, after a new permanent Constitution has been promulgated.

In other words, the 1997 Constitution has been found wanting by the coup leaders. Apart from acting as advisers to the interim government, they have also clearly stated that they wish to have a say in the drafting of the new permanent Constitution. From this viewpoint, the seizing of power by the military while helping to get rid of an unpopular leader has set back Thailand’s march towards democracy.

That said, it might not be so easy for the military to push through a permanent Constitution that does not adequately allow for participatory democracy. Still less will they be able to restore the old-style political system wherein the military was the final arbiter of so-called Thai democracy, like in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The following statement expressed by a leading Thai intellectual explains why this is so: ‘Thai society has become more and more democratic. The public do not like military rule. They can accept it for short-tem stability. But the longer the military remains, the less patient the people will be and the more trouble there will be.’

In this regard, there remains hope for democratisation in Thailand.

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