Democracy in Thailand

by | Dec 2, 2008

With my wedding in Bangkok fast approaching, I have been watching the events unfolding there closely and with trepidation. I am dismayed at the blinkered and naïve reporting and commentary in the mainstream Western press about the situation in Thailand (I refer in particular to The FT, The Economist, The Washington Post etc). The political impasse is described in clichés, as a battle of virtuous rural masses versus power-possessive urban elites, of progressives and democrats versus royalists, militarists and other hideous elements of the ‘ancien regime’. I’ve no doubt that the current events signify a failure of democracy in Thailand. It is indeed that very failure that the protesters are decrying, with resort to ever more desperate tactics.

A recent blog by the FT’s Gideon Rachman – whose pieces I frequently enjoy reading – typifies the mainstream view, which is shallow and simplistic both in its account of the situation and in its interpretation of democracy (see article here). According to Mr. Rachman (who by the way likes clichés):

“The urban middle-classes are rising up and demanding that democracy be rescinded.
Do not be fooled by the fact that the group occupying the airport call themselves the “People’s Alliance for Democracy“. Their intent is clearly anti-democratic. They have just brought down an elected government.”

In this vein, the anti-government movement (known as the People’s Alliance for Democracy, or PAD) has been widely condemned on the basis that it unlawfully rejects a government that was voted in through the ballot and thus has prima facie democratic legitimacy. It seems to be a straightforward case of foul play on the part of the urban elites, who directly challenge the people’s choice. Or is it?

The premise that elections in themselves constitute democracy is deeply flawed for a start. Many countries have the vote, yet not many are truly democratic. And ballots have on occasion delivered despots. A narrow procedural interpretation of democracy misses out on what the real substance of democracy is. The essence of democracy resides in the institutions that uphold and protect human rights and the principles of freedom, fairness and order. As my brother Joe puts it, voting makes you only 20% democratic, the other four prerequisites for democracy being: a credible opposition; checks and balances; a free press; and the rule of law free from intimidation. When democracy is abused, it is often these four aspects that are attacked, not the people’s right to vote (see his article ‘What Democracy is Not’).

Thailand’s educated middle classes have good reason to protest. The problem with the current government is that it remains firmly in the grip of the brazenly corrupt and patently undemocratic – indeed tyrannical – Mr. Thaksin. Mr. Thaksin’s net worth tripled during his years in office. He used his fortune – which was ill-gotten from the outset – to concentrate political power in his hands until he became a distorting, destructive force unto Thailand’s democracy. Even from exile he continues to hold the strings, directing money to allies and supporters in Thailand, and putting in place proxy Prime Ministers. Earlier in the year, when the army, and later the police, refused to act on his orders to disperse the PAD rallies, he allegedly brought in paid thugs by the lorry-load to do the ugly work instead.

Democracy calls for checks and balances to hold power to account, and these are needed most where power is most concentrated. Yet Mr. Thaksin nakedly abused his tremendous power by annihilating all checks and balances. Journalists who dared criticise Mr. Thaksin were persecuted. By withdrawing advertising money – which he controlled – or threatening lawsuits, newspapers were effectively coerced into taking approved editorial lines. And when the law inconvenienced him, he simply changed it (doing so was easy as parliament was filled with his cronies and sold-out MPs). He supported a law that protected his monopoly in the telecoms sector by baring foreign ownership, but when a good time came to sell, he changed the law to enable the deal. He further tinkered with the law to avoid paying taxes on the $1.9 bn he made from the sale of his telecoms empire to Singapore’s Temasek. This was the final straw, in the eyes of PAD.

Democracies are not perfect political systems, as Churchill once famously observed. Civil disobedience has often been a progressive force for democratic evolution. It paved the way for Indian independence and democracy, and brought the European empires to their knees. Even in the most mature of democracies it has played a role. It forced through the Civil Rights Bill in America and set in motion political changes that opened the way for America’s election of its first black president. As displeasing and alarming as the PAD protests are, they are holding power to account.

To his credit, Mr. Thaksin does deserve some praise for creating a political platform for the poor farmers of Thailand’s populous North-Eastern Provinces, something his predecessors had failed to do. But most of his rural policies (e.g. cash handouts, easy credit, debt relief) were populist, short-sighted and unsustainable. In a relatively poor and young democracy as Thailand, vote-buying is often par-for-the-course. But where there used to be a near competitive market for votes, Mr. Thaksin created a monopoly with his vastly superior spending power. However, it is in the market for ideas that the PAD should do more to compete with Mr. Thaksin for the ‘hearts and minds’ of these hitherto voiceless farmers, by proposing policies that convincingly address their needs and concerns.

While disapproving of the PAD’s tactics (not least because of the disruption to my wedding!) I can nevertheless understand their impatience. When the highest courts found Mr. Thaksin guilty on corruption charges on the basis of strong evidence, he fled, but he didn’t give up. The proxy government led by his brother-in-law Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat has been attempting to amend the constitution to protect Mr. Thaksin from facing charges. The PAD’s request to whoever next gets appointed as caretaker PM is simple and clear: ‘drop Mr. Thaksin’s self-serving constitutional amendments, or else face us in the streets again’.

In and out of office, Mr. Thaksin has systematically emasculated the foundations of democracy in Thailand, by compromising all its key institutions – the press, the courts, parliament, law enforcement etc. Against this background the rebellion of the educated Thai middle classes may be seen as a stand for democracy: rather than a backsliding on the democratic scales, I’d like to surmise that perhaps we are witnessing the teething pains of a slowly maturing democracy?


  • Leo is Head of WRI’s London Office and Director for Strategy and Partnerships at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities and Professor of Practice at the SOAS Center for Development, Environment and Policy. Prior to joining WRI Leo served as Climate Change and Environment Adviser for the Africa region at the United Nations Development Programme, covering 45 countries. Before that he had served as an adviser to the British and Chinese governments and the World Bank, covering a range of technical and strategic issues linked to the environment-development nexus. Leo writes here in a personal capacity and his views do not necessarily reflect those of WRI.

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