Anti-democracy in Thailand

This essay, by Thongchai Winichakul, was circulated recently on the Thailand-Laos-Cambodia (TLC) email list.

Anti-democracy in Thailand
Thongchai Winichakul, Professor of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Thailand is facing one of its biggest threats to its still-fledgling democracy. The anti-democratic movement led by the militant People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) – a misnomer if ever there was one – is pressing for the end of traditional electoral democracy. The succession crisis looming once King Bhumibol Adulyadej passes makes the turmoil a “perfect storm” with no end in sight.

The turmoil began with the unprecedented success of Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire politician whose party won landslide election victories twice, in 2001 and 2005 (and again in 2006 but was nullified by a dubious court’s ruling). His success was due primarily to his “populist” policies that benefited the lower-class majority of the country. Thaksin’s administration, however, was marred by human rights violations and corruption scandals, exacerbated by demagoguery and intolerance of criticism.

The PAD emerged in early 2006 to fight Thaksin. It supported the return of power to the monarchy – usually seen as the highest moral authority in the land – to clean up corrupt politics. The instability created by the PAD’s protest paved the way for a military coup in September 2006. The coup regime took various actions aiming at preventing Thaksin and his people from returning to power, including questionable legal actions and court rulings, a new constitution and a closely-monitored general election in December 2007.

Despite those measures and a barrage of anti-Thaksin sentiment in the media, Thaksin’s party easily won that 2007 poll. The PAD took to the streets again, this time occupying the grounds of the prime minister’s offices, vowing to stay and fight until the elected government was ousted and a new political system implemented.

The PAD is the convergence of at least four socio-political forces, with different reasons for hating Thaksin so much.

The first is, generally speaking, the Bangkok and other urban elite. These people fought the military for parliamentary democracy at various points from 1973 to 1992. They have enjoyed political influence over several governments, exercised through the mainstream media and politically active intellectuals. But the strong economic boom of the 1980s and 1990s, and indeed the blossoming of electoral politics, has brought forth the rising power of the rural and urban poor, and the lower middle class, who form the electoral majority.

Elections and politicians representing them are their channel to get a fair share of the country’s resources and power. Thaksin’s success reflected this social change, as his party built up its strong mass support among the rural folks despite the increasing scorn poured on him and his supporters by academics and the media. The disgruntled urban elite believe that the rural folks are, in their words, too ignorant and stupid for democracy. Electoral democracy, to the elite, is not suitable for Thailand because money can allegedly buy a ruling majority. This “class” factor is the reason for strong support to the PAD among the urban middle and upper class, including the mainstream media and academics, many of whom become fanatics of the PAD.

The second political force is the “bureaucratic power.” Before 1973, under military rule, the country was run by soldiers and technocrats who dominated the upper echelon of the bureaucracy. They believe that they represent the public interest better than elected representatives, because they consider the latter to be naturally corrupt. Democratization and elections since 1973 have opened the door to people outside the circle of these bureaucrats, who consequently have lost some of their power. They believe that democracy breeds endemic corruption and that Thaksin was taking the country down to the abyss.

The third force that operates the PAD is activists from various civil society and labor organizations, and a media empire owned by the leader of the PAD, Sondhi Limthongkul. Led by former leftist radicals who are veterans of the struggles for democracy of the 1970s and 80s, these activists bring an anti-capitalist ideology into the 21st century with a conservative twist, rooted in nationalism. They consider Thaksin emblematic of “evil capitalism” and globalization that would harm the country. Fighting the “evil capitalism” has been one of the PAD’s slogans, and radical songs of the 1970s were common at the PAD gathering, although Sondhi’s Manager Media Group, which includes a daily newspaper both in print and on-line, a radio broadcast and a satellite television (ASTV) is highly influential. Not only does it often set the headlines for the entire country, but the PAD also builds up its base of supporters via the ASTV.  The PAD’s propaganda runs around the clock every day, feeding the public with their ideology, concocted news and information, and rumors and lies that serve their political agenda and viciously destroy their critics. The PAD’s demagoguery is more dangerous than Thaksin’s by far. But it is effective; the PAD is now like a cult, with hard-core followers who think and speak alike close-mindedly, and becomes increasingly militant. As they claim political righteousness, they defied laws, dehumanized critics and opponents and intimidated them too, and armed.

The last but perhaps most important element of the PAD is the monarchists. They are a network of the powerful conservative, royalist elite with varying vested interests in having a strong and active monarchy steering the country’s political life. They are responsible for empowering the politically influential monarchy of the past 40 years, while promoting the image of a semi-divine monarchy “above” politics. The much-revered monarchy is in fact very political but masquerades as being above self-interest, and is unaccountable, thanks in part to the severe lese-majeste laws.

The monarchists saw Thaksin as a serious threat at various levels: a patron of some royals in line for the throne and therefore a dangerous kingmaker (literally speaking); a competitor to the monarchy for popularity and a pretender himself; and the mastermind plotting a republic. The general belief in Thailand is that the president of the Privy Council, if not the king himself, was behind the 2006 coup. As the succession looms, given the health problems of 80-year-old King Bhumibol, the paranoia among these powerful monarchists escalates. They cannot allow Thaksin, or any politician, to be in an advantageous position. At the same time, various factions among the monarchists are jockeying for advantageous positions for the upcoming transition. The monarchists and the succession concern turn the brewing hatred against Thaksin among the other groups into a perfect political storm. The PAD is probably honest when they say that they are fighting for the monarchy, except the former leftists in its leadership who can sing the royal anthem louder than the royalists if doing so helps them achieve short-term goals.

Some of the allegations against Thaksin are justified, while others are specious. Yet Thaksin opponents have gone all out to get rid of Thaksin, his political machine, and his mass base. The judiciary went out of their way to destroy Thaksin by several questionable rulings including one that relied on a dictionary rather than laws, and one that involved a serious violation of the proper judicial process. In doing so, they damaged their credibility and put the future of the justice system at risk. The PAD also instigated the nationalist hostility against Cambodia that led to clashes between the two countries. The Queen publicly offers her support to the PAD, giving royal cremations to honor those who died in a violent confrontation with the police, one of whom while transporting bombs for the PAD.

The PAD makes clear that its goal is to replace one-man, one-vote electoral democracy with their “New Politics,” aka “Thai-style Democracy,” with only 50 percent of the country’s lawmakers being elected. The PAD is clear in their intent to dilute the voice of the majority. Some power would be given to the monarch or the Privy Council, in order to balance the power of corrupt politicians. This idea of “Thai-style Democracy” was originally hatched in 1906 when King Chulalongkorn, an absolute monarch, argued against the emerging ideas of democracy. The elite’s distrust in people never goes away. The PAD does not realize that if this approach is implemented, the monarchy might be headed down a dangerous path, because a powerful monarchy is bound to eventually become unpopular, and rarely lasts long.  

The PAD’s strategy and tactics are to provoke violent confrontations, with unrest to serve as the pretext for military or royal intervention. Despite its violations of laws and highly aggressive actions, the PAD’s accumulation of arms and its increasing militancy have been condoned and excused by academics, the media and several human rights organizations, including the National Human Rights Commission, because their common enemy is Thaksin. They help provide an intellectual shield for the group.

The PAD behaves as if they are above the law because, after all, as many in the country know but cannot openly say, their ultimate supporters are among those in the highest places in the nation.

About Andrew Walker