Beware of throwing out Thai democracy with the government

A whistle-blowing demonstrator joins the “Bangkok Shutdown” rally, continuing months of anti-government protests. EPA/Rungroj Yongrit

The position being put by Thai anti-government leader Suthep Thaugsuban is that democracy is not at present supportable in Thailand and, indeed, may never have been supportable.

Somehow, Suthep suggests, a “people’s council” should be appointed in place of the parliament (and presumably a government to be formed by a royally appointed prime minister).

This was pretty clearly the position taken by a well-known defender of Suthep’s People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), Sirilaksana Khoman - an academic analyst with the National Anti-Corruption Commission whose work is to be applauded - in a recent Channel NewsAsia interview. The PDRC’s complaint is that a political party such as the ruling Pheu Thai Party can win a majority of seats and use its legislative power to ride rough-shod over minority opposition.

Nonetheless, major nations have accepted the risk of a “tyranny of the majority” for very long periods. The model of democracy in use has been modified periodically and in various ways in various countries to mitigate the possibility.

The “checks and balances” between the three branches of government may not work very well, of course, and a governing party may ignore or suppress minority interests. It is necessary then to ensure that the opposition can call the government to account and moderate its programs. Parliaments can check the power of a government through censure motions, parliamentary committees (as long as these are not stacked with government members) and “private members’ bills”.

Clearly, in Thailand, such procedures have not been working during at least the life of the recently dissolved parliament.

In more and more countries, voters have chosen to deny the major parties their support. Smaller parties may then be asked to join major parties in coalition. In so doing, the small parties moderate the larger.

However, small parties may proliferate, as they have tended to in Thailand to a ridiculous extent and with perverse effects. Thais also have long traditions of putting pressure on governments through extra-parliamentary opposition – including mass street protests.

Corruption pre-dates Thaksin

The Thai protest movement likes to insist that it is committed to removing “Thaksin’s regime”. This phrase is meant to connote a state of affairs in which at least there has been rampant corruption.

However, it is specious to suggest that large-scale corruption has been a feature of the Thai polity only during the last ten years. The governments of the 1980s were known as “buffet governments” – state powers were there to be selected for personal and factional benefit.

Corruption is not a uniquely Thai problem, either. Every society has to create notions of morality, as well as to create and enforce criminal codes, to control the issue. Thailand’s challenge is perhaps to nurture a moral code that has been around in Buddhist precepts for a long time, without sustaining the social and political influence of the clergy, or sangkha.

Thai-based American commentator Jeffrey Race has recently written a widely circulated but curious piece. In Race’s neo-conservative view, Pheu Thai’s leaders:

…have no goal other than personal benefit. But this is the norm of politics in every country.

Race goes on to give credibility to the idea of “duelling elites”, saying:

Some view Thailand’s entrenched conflict as no more than two business coalitions competing to plunder the nation.

The coalition presently in opposition was, according to Race, altogether more virtuous of the two when in government. Its “virtues” included: improving “the reliability of the judicial system” (no stacking of courts?), devotion to “freedom of the press, public life and public debate” (but also devotion to the strictest interpretation of article 112 of the Criminal Code concerning lese majeste?) and economic liberalisation.

Reasserting rule by elites

Race is also evidently supportive of a past era of “gentlemanly alternation of elites” in government. It appears to Race, evidently, that the “business coalition” led by Pheu Thai is ineradicably tainted by Thaksin (which is the protesters’ view).

On the other hand, Race is not clear about whether he would be content to see the Thaksin family go into permanent exile or would also want somehow to restore the former “pattern of Thai rule”.

Let us be clear that this would be a repudiation of the rural population and the urban poor. These segments of the nation became aware earlier this century that they could achieve political influence and use it to improve their lives. They are now at risk of being disenfranchised.

One hears strange claims that the protests are truly a people’s movement, more specifically that the people have used social media to govern the movement. Of course, information has flowed through social media (as has misinformation) and people have exhorted each other to join marches and rallies. That does not mean that the protest leaders are being instructed by the supporters, or even that a conversation is occurring between them.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban’s brand of populism is closer to demagoguery than democracy. EPA/Rungroj Yongrit

Suthep has been a demagogue par excellence. His followers have tweeted constantly (perhaps even when blowing their whistles), but I cannot imagine how they can have been doing anything other than indicate their general approval and responsiveness to Suthep’s oratory. They have not been controlling him.

That said, the protest movement permitted this demagogue to emerge and he has encouraged violence in the form, at least, of storming compounds and offices and attacks on the registration of candidates for the February general elections.

Two explosions last Friday and Sunday in Bangkok resulted in a death and injuries to many protesters. Those responsible may be loners, organised pro-government “red shirts” or agents provocateurs. Whoever was responsible, the explosions have to be seen in the context of the general lawlessness instigated by Suthep’s campaign.

Democratic voices fight to be heard

Let us not lose sight of the fundamental point that a “people’s council” would be a council of the elite(s) - not of the demos. Suthep is leading a repudiation not only of the misconduct and malfeasance of Thaksinist rule but also of major segments of the population that have come to understand that they constitute the demos: they have adopted the ideal of democracy, in some measure.

Surely the cost of repudiating this will be greater than the cost of discovering Thai ways of “keeping the bastards honest”, as Australians say. Fortunately, cautionary commentaries and serious alternatives to Suthep’s simplistic and dangerous prescriptions are being publicised.

There are voices in those journals, like the Bangkok Post, that seek to define enlightened elite opinion. There are other voices among Thai business leaders. See, for example, articles by Pasuk Phongpaichit and with Chris Baker; Thitinan Pongsudhirak; Somkiat Tangkitvanich and Voranai Vanijaka, not to mention the writers of the Post’s editorials.

It must be hoped these voices will prevail between now and the elections, scheduled for February 2.

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