Democracy in Thailand – response to comments

by | Dec 12, 2008

This is a response to some thoughtful reactions to my earlier post on democracy in Thailand, and to arguments made in last week’s Economist about the situation there.

My arguments are no vindication of the PAD, whose reckless actions I find condemnable and ultimately counter-productive and whose proposals (including the 70% vote) are misguided. My intention was to provide some background on the current political situation, background that I found lacking in my main news sources. And to challenge the simplistic notion that what we are seeing is a rejection of democracy by rich urban elites who feel threatened by a democratic government that cares for and represents the poor. There are many valid reasons why ordinary citizens from all walks of life united against an elected government: their primary motive was not to defeat democracy, rather to fight its abuses.

The portrayal of the current political crisis as a battle of rich urban elites versus a majority of poor rural folk united behind the popular Mr. Thaksin is inaccurate and unhelpful. Poor farmers in the north like Mr. Thaksin. Poor city-folk in Bangkok don’t. Poor Muslims in the south hate him. While Mr. Thaksin’s party gained the most seats in parliament, more people voted against him than voted for him. He doesn’t have the kind of broad-based popular mandate that many commentators credit him with.

Conversely the PAD are not a homogenous group. As last week’s Economist put it: “the PAD is a motley bunch, united only in its fanatical hatred of Mr. Thaksin”. It is Mr. Thaksin’s abuses of power that they are outraged about, not his policies to help the poor. People did not take to the streets in protest when Mr. Thaksin first announced and implemented his “populist” policies. Neither were there street protests when his crack-down on drugs led to extrajudicial killings of hundreds (thousands?) of supposed drug traffickers many in dubious circumstances. Neither did they take to the streets when he botched up the relative peace in the south. Thais have a high tolerance for politicians’ professional shortcomings.

But what many Thais could not stomach was Mr. Thaksin’s reckless bending of the system to suit his own personal needs. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when Thaksin used some cunning structures to avoid paying tax on the sale of Shin Corp to Temasek. He also had changed a law to aid in this sale. That was what brought people into the streets in protest, and led to the formation of the PAD.

The PAD is a political movement with a focused agenda – i.e. to stop Mr. Thaksin’s continued meddling in the nation’s politics. As a movement it has changed a lot over the past two years: alarmingly, its tactics and rhetoric signal a growing disillusionment with democracy. Their proposal of a 70% appointed legislative body – which would clearly constitute a dilution of democracy – is particularly ill-considered.

The Economist points to the Monarchy’s meddling in Thai politics as a cause for the current mess. Well, if that is objectionable, why is Thaksin’s meddling any better? The PAD denounces precisely that. And even if I disagree with them on many ideas and tactics, I agree with them on this issue. While the Crown’s interventions are postulated by political commentators deciphering hearsay, hints, and signals, there is ample and strong evidence of Thaksin’s meddling in the public domain. Frankly, would Mr. Somchai Wongsawat have been given the premiership had he not been a trusted ally (brother-in-law) of Thaksin? Mr. Somchai himself said upon being forced out that he was relieved as, in his words: “I was not working for myself” (quoted in the IHT, December 5th, 2008). By his own admission, Thaksin has vowed to stay in politics, despite being barred from political participation for another four years by the country’s highest court. And he is not shy about meddling. The phone-in appearances at mass rallies in Bangkok and the bribing of deserting MPs (at the tune of THB 55 million per head) to join his new party are some examples of his brazenness. The PAD rightly points out that Mr. Thaksin’s continuous meddling in politics and state affairs is unlawful and unconstitutional.

The PAD’s blockading of the airport was wrong, and pointless. The government didn’t capitulate: in the end it was a court decision that ousted the PM and his government. That siege has tainted Thailand’s image, further weakened its already fragile economy at peak tourist season, and set back its dreams of becoming a hub in ASEAN. The country will take years to recover from the hole it has dug itself into, and I hope those responsible will be brought to justice.

But while I blame the PAD for taking the airports for ransom, I find it harder to blame the police or the army for not moving in and removing the protesters by force. The Economist points to the reluctance of the army and police to intervene as evidence of Royal backing for the protestors. But is it really a bad thing that the armed forces were determined not to use violence to disperse crowds – both yellows (PAD) and reds (pro-Thaksin) alike? Many of those occupying the Government House and two airports were women and youngsters, and an intervention will have been very bloody.

Perhaps I over-egged the pudding somewhat in commenting that we are witnessing the teething pains of a maturing democracy. These are testing times for democracy in Thailand. But the real threat to democracy is not in the obdurate challenges to an elected government (which is merely a tyrant’s façade). Mr. T more than anyone else is to blame for the current sorry state of democracy in Thailand.


  • Avatar

    Leo currently serves as Director for International Cooperation at the World Resources Institute (WRI). Prior to that he had worked in UNDP, the World Bank and DfID. He worked for six years in China where, from 2006-2009 he led a pioneering cross-governmental partnership between the UK and China on sustainable development, initiated by Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Wen Jiabao, and involving 17 government ministries/agencies. In parallel, he co-founded the China Carbon Forum and led it to become a thriving professional association serving as the key interface between the business community and senior Chinese government decision-makers on climate policy reform issues. Leo writes here in a personal capacity and his views do not necessarily reflect those of WRI.

More from Global Dashboard

Our COVID Future: The Long Crisis Scenarios

Our COVID Future: The Long Crisis Scenarios

Created in partnership with: COVID-19 marks a turning point in the 21st century.​ Levels of uncertainty are off the chart, making predictions impossible. ​But if we can create plausible stories about different futures, we create a...

Protecting our Critical Global Infrastructure

Protecting our Critical Global Infrastructure

Earlier this week, we published Shooting the Rapids – COVID-19 and the Long Crisis of Globalisation. In the final section, we present a plan for collective action at the global level with four elements:  Firefight better – getting the emergency response...