Thursday, September 04, 2008

Mob Rule?

Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej went on radio at 7:30 this morning to announce that despite widespread rumors he would not resign. "How could I resign? I cannot resign," Samak told the nation. "I will stay on to protect democracy of this country. The whole world is watching us." And he added: "I need to uphold the rule of law because we are not a barbaric country."

But that is precisely what he has not done since last week when tens of thousands of anti-government protesters, members of the ironically-named People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), took over government offices, the culmination of 100 days of street rallies against the Samak administration. Despite declaring a state of emergency which prohibits gatherings of more than five people, the PAD challenge goes on. Samak turned over enforcement of martial law to the Army's chief General Anupong Paochinda who has done...nothing.

I'm a guest in the Kingdom of Thailand and am undergoing a crash course in Thai politics. Since this country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932 and changed its name from Siam to more modern "Thai Land," there have been numerous undemocratic changes of government, to the point where political instability seems to be a constant. And yet all factions continue to pay lip service to "democracy" as well as allegiance to Thailand's monarchy. PAD members wear yellow, the King's color, and carry has picture in their confrontations with police.

The Financial Times editorialized:
Thailand should pause. If Mr Samak is to fall from power, it should be by parliamentary means. Ruling coalition politicians may have grounds for ousting the prime minister in the event he mishandles the crisis. That would mean fresh elections. But the removal of Mr Samak by an alliance of street protesters and a reactionary elite would mean mob rule in Thailand.
I agree.

"There is a small possibility of anarchy. We will do so to pressure the government," Sondhi Limthongkul, a media mogul and one of the nine leaders of PAD, for whom arrest warrants have been issued on charges of treason, told foreign journalists. PAD is backed by affluent bankers, middle-class urbanites, conservative bureaucrats and the old-moneyed elite. "We can get the rich people supporting us to withdraw money from banks at a particular time," Sondhi declared. "The whole bloody financial system will come down." Since their occupation of Government House last week, PAD mobs have closed airports, disrupted train travel, and attempted to shut down a government TV station. A general strike yesterday, which included turning off electrical power, failed to materialize. "The PAD has no legitimacy anymore. It has become a very right-wing, conservative and intolerant group," said Naruemon Thabchumpon, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. "They say they are pursuing direct democracy, but if so they must accept and obey the rule of law. This is direct anarchy."

How sad. The Thai stock market is plunging, tourists are canceling their vacations in the Land of Smiles, and even though daily life away from the protest zone seems normal, there are no easy answers to this conflict. In previous blogs I've tried to explain how the major divide centers on Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire who was elected twice by the people, deposed by the military a year ago, and who is now living in exile in London. But it masks a class issue. Thaksin was a populist and authoritarian and his support is primarily among the rural poor. They voted for him and for Samak, his successor. The urban upper classes could not abide this. They say these votes were purchased by corrupt politicians, and to some extent they are right. But politicians everywhere have always bought support with gifts, specificially jobs. Rural people are not stupid, according to Chang Noi, a columnist in The Nation.
The problem is not that upcountry voters don't know how to use their vote, and that the result is distorted by patronage and vote-buying. The problem is that they have learnt to use the vote only too well. Over four national polls, they have chosen very consistently and very rationally.
Now they take gifts from both sides and make up their own minds how to vote. PAD has proposed a "new politics" in which 70 per cent of Parliament would be appointed (by who?) and only 30 per cent elected. According to Chang Noi, PAD's "bleating about vote-buying and patronage politics is simply an attempt to undermine electoral democracy because it seems to be working."

According to an article in The Star of Toronto, Canada, "Thailand democracy [is] at risk."
"The issue at stake is whether or not democracy will continue in Thailand," says Charles Keyes, a University of Washington anthropologist who has devoted decades to the study of the southeast Asian nation.

"Either the will of the people will be allowed to determine the nature of the government, or there will be a return to an older authoritarianism, or 'guided democracy.'"
The Financial Times quotes several other sources sources critical of the anti-government mob:
"The PAD strategy . . . is to [generate] enough political chaos so that institutions and parties are destroyed and a ‘new order’ rises from the ashes," wrote Giles Ungpakorn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, in an essay. “Needless to say, this new order will not be democratic nor committed to social justice and equality.”

Pokpong Lawansiri, a Bangkok-based human rights activist, also said the PAD’s campaign "would absolutely be a roll-back of democracy. What the PAD is demanding is very regressive."
The Wall Street Journal editorialized that "the PAD, are playing a dangerous game. If the Samak government is overthrown, there's no telling what might follow it. The best way to 'fix' democracy isn't to junk it, but to let it mature through peaceful transfers of power."

I do not understand why the PAD mob was permitted by the police to take over the seat of Thailand's government. Can you imagine what would happen if a few thousand people attempted to take over the White House in Washington? And once there, I do not understand why the PAD protesters were not evicted when the courts declared their "sit-in" illegal and issued warrants for the arrest of the mob's leaders. While the desire to avoid violence is laudatory, no other government that I know of would hand over the keys to the inner sanctum in the name of "civil disobedience" (I doubt that PAD understands or supports Thoreau and Gandhi's nonviolent use of that strategy).

Prime Minister Samak may not be the best leader for these times. And his less than year-old administration may not have produced any noticeable change. But the People's Power Party was fairly elected last December. Democracy, to me, means the people -- all of them -- have the opportunity to choose their leaders. And if the leaders fail them, then change may come again through the ballot, not through mob rule, or the Army's power. It has been suggested that Samak should dissolve Parliament and call new elections. While that would adhere to the Constitution, it would not satisfy the PAD because no doubt politicians loyal to Thaksin and Samak would be elected once again. So to prevent that, they want to trash democracy in Thailand.

As I write this, John McCain's choice for vice president, Sarah Palin, has been speaking to the Republican convention in Minneapolis. One CNN commentator said, "The most macho speech tonight was given by a woman." She was introduced by Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, and now a pit bull for the GOP. Over and over they spoke of McCain's experience as a POW in Vietnam, as if that somehow was a unique qualification to be president. Both of them did their best to ridicule Obama's credentials, seemingly unaware that all their charges of inexperience are equally valid for Palin whose brief career hardly makes her eligible to be president when the elderly McCain passes on. I couldn't help comparing the crowds cheering for McCain with the yellow-clad mob in Bangkok howling for Samak's head. And you know? I'm glad I'm here.


Anonymous said...

Thank you Will,

Great post. Informative and written with real clarity, thank you so much - it was just what I needed to keep abreast of what's going on there.

Very much appreciated. Thank you.

All the best, and keep out of trouble!



Roxanne said...

I second the thanks. I appreciate your informative, well-written observations and insights. Thailand is now a Real Place to me and not just a name on a map.

Thank you. And take care,