Saturday, October 31, 2009

Thai Democracy in Crisis

The struggle for democracy in Thailand will be "long and arduous," predicted political professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak, "so we have to pace ourselves." It could even take until 2032, the 100th anniversary of the end of absolute monarchy, for "I have always felt that the crisis we have is a 100-year crisis," he said.

That Thailand is not yet fully democratic was the consensus of the three panelists last week at a forum to launch the English translation of Chaturon Chaisang's book, Thai Democracy in Crisis: 27 Truths, held at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in Bangkok. Chaturon was a member of exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's government and was banned from politics for five years after the 2006 coup for his participation in the outlawed Thai Rak Thai party. "You're a victim of the abuse of human rights," said panelist Alec Bamford, a long-time NGO worker in Thailand, who complained that the book lacked a chapter on human rights, perhaps "the 28th truth." Bamford, like the other two participants, faulted the book for its uncritical appreciation of Thaksin, while applauding its theme that democracy is in trouble here. Extreme partisans of color, the yellow and red shirts, are struggling without compromise to define the future for Thais, and a standoff between a rising middle class in the provinces and an elite in Bangkok composed of militarists and monarchists awaits the uncertain outcome of the royal Succession. "Under Thaksin farmers wanted to drink wine and play golf," Thitinan said. "That had to be stopped."

Thitinan, whose frequent op-ed columns in the Bangkok Post reject both the radical right and the radical left, said that he was "not a fan of colors," and lamented that there was no longer any middle ground. Providing some historical background, he said that after the move to a constitutional form of government, the monarchy was at its lowest ebb. But from the 1950s there was a symbiotic relationship between the military and monarchy that kept Thailand from communism, a stability which promoted a long period of economic growth. The price to be paid for authoritarianism and repression is that today "the law in Thailand is about power, not about justice," and that there are few institutions to prevent abuses. "We have become victims of our own success." The academic, who is director of the Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS), Faculty of Political Science, at Chulalongkorn University, said he was very puzzled about why so many "intellectuals in Thailand are right wing and conservative." Despite an "overwhelming pessimism," Thitinan cited two sources of optimism: "Foreigners love Thailand so there must be something good," and though Thais "are poor at preventing problems, and nothing works the first time, they are very good at solving them."

While Thitinan praised Chaturon's book, he said he had declined to write a blurb for it because he didn't want to be identified as an anti-government "Red." He criticized Chaturon for soft-pedaling the allegations of corruption against Thaksin and his government which the author described as "irregularities." The complaints by the military and the right are difficult to answer. Chaturon has hedged his bets by not mentioning it. Thitinan said he tells the generals, "yes, the politicans are corrupt, but it is not your job to take away their job." Finally, Thitinan said there are two key problems to be addressed. The Thai media dumbs down the debate, and the Thai educational system leaves students, who learn by indoctrination, little prepared to analyze complex issues. Both the author and the two Thai panelists were all partly educated in the United States.

Supavud Saicheua, a financial analyst and director of Phatra Securities, also referred to the long period of economic growth in Thailand under authoritarian regimes, and said Thai businesses expanded and developed, but not politics. Many politicians became wealthy through contracts and concessions with the government, and conflicts of interest are built into the system. There is a need to change "from know who to know how." With 17 attempted coups since 1932 (12 were successful), Thailand is the land of "user friendly" coups, Supavud said, but "even a well-refined coup doesn't work." It got rid of Thaksin but not popular support for his policies. Even though the judiciary tends to favor coups, the commercialization of agriculture has encouraged the rural electorate to believe that the majority should rule. However, "Thaksin made populism look too good." Policies that have caused damage in Latin America create a burden. The autocratic Thaksin could control populism, and the level of public debt to GDP actually dropped, but the current governments copycat programs are uneconomical.

The ringer in the group was Bamford, a long-time officer of Amnesty International, who attacked Chaturon for neglecting human rights and for his benign view of political parties. He spoke of three well-known violations of human rights in the south under Thaksin's reign, the massacre of 32 Muslims at the Krue Se Mosque by the military in Pattani, the deaths by suffocation of 78 prisoners stacked like cord wood in truck by police, and the unexplained disappearance of Muslim human rights lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit, all in 2004. While no one was punished, there was impunity. "This is not democracy," Bamford said. "You must play by the rules." Another issue was the drug war initiated by Thaksin in 2003 which resulted in over 2,000 extra-judicial killings, many of them perhaps innocent and not involved in drugs at all. "Democratic governments need to be elected," Bamford said, "but this does not mean that all elected governments are democratic." The political parties Chaturon mentions, Bamford said, are less altruistic than political calculations to win votes with little discussion of the issues. And when the yellow shirts formed a new political party recently, there was only one candidate, "Kim Il Sondi!" Finally, freedom of expression is even worse today than under Thaksin, with "the Lèse majesté law going bananas."

[Apologies to a fine blog, Absolute, for stealing your excellent photos of the event, and for that writer and Bangkok Pundit for helping me supplement my notes with their reflections.]

Having recently joined the FCCT (most, but not all members, are journalists), I had a ringside seat at this absorbing discussion of crucial political issues in Thailand. The Thai political scene is fascinating to a guest in the Kingdom like myself. The right wing/left wing divide is not always easy to discern, with radicals from the 1970s joining both the yellow and red camps. I remain mystified by the power and independence of the military, with its huge ratio of generals. And, of course, coming from America, the monarchy is an enigma, the elephant in the Thai political room. (JCK Lee has an interesting article on the Succession and "Thailand's Political Muddle" in Asia Sentinel which can add a sense of urgency to the FCCT remarks, if it wasn't there already.) I had been somewhat sympathetic to Thaksin because of his populist program, until I finished the recently updated biography by Chris Baker and his wife, Pasuk Phongpaichiti. They show without doubt the widespread corruption by Thaksin and his ministers which, while typical of Thai governments in history, was particularly outrageous during his rule (and his goal to be a long-term autocratic dictator was undeniable). Our IDEA group is reading the authors' (under the pen name Chang Noi) Jungle Book: Thailand's Politics, Moral Panic, and Plunder, 1996-2008, collected from columns in The National English newspaper. Much of the primary data for the updated biography is contained therein. It paints an appalling picture of a country where the rich are getting richer, and the poor, poorer. I am inclined to support the red shirts, not because Thaksin is an important symbol for their anti-government campaign, but because I am convinced they have the moral high ground in seeking democracy and justice. Most agree that Thaksin supporters would win once again if an election were called, so Prime Minister Abhisit will probably remain in office because of his powerful backers, not the people's will. The streets have been quiet since the Songkran "riots" last April, not because of the draconian Internal Security Act which is declared every time a red shirt moves, but because the pro-democracy movement is slowly building support throughout the country, waiting until the time is ripe.

Lest I forget, Happy Halloween! (Don't trick-or-treat and drink...)

1 comment:

BangkokDan said...

Hi Will - nice post!

Please use anything you want from, just make sure you identify the source properly (with quotes, links and such).

Best -