DEMOCRATIC DREAMS:(il)LIBERAL REALITIES

I

It seems that everyone in Thailand is a supporter of democracy.

Even General Prayuth, the man who led the most recent overthrow of an elected government, has insisted that his government is “99 percent democratic”, in spite of his never having been elected, his virtually unlimited power under the notorious Article 44 of the interim constitution, and his somewhat contradictory analysis of Thailand’s problem over the past decade and a half as being the result of “too much democracy”. 1

“Democracy”, the word anyway, has been used in so many ways to describe so many different styles of government over the years as to have become almost meaningless unless accompanied by either a definition or a qualifier. My own use of the term outside of scare quotes refers to what is commonly known as liberal democracy, with liberal being used in the political-legal sense of a set of laws and institutions that work to limit state power and thereby protect the rights and freedoms of the individual.

“Democracy” unqualified by such things as rule-of-law and equality before the law is, as Tolstoy is supposed to have said of the difference between state violence and revolutionary violence, different from dictatorship “as dog shit is different from cat shit”. And like the old reactionary, I don’t like the smell of either one. It would appear, however, that this is where I part company from many observers of Thai politics.

Since the most recent coup in May of 2014, a spate of articles in international media and literally thousands of tweets, Facebook comments, and blog posts have condemned Prayuth and the Thai military for having destroyed, dismantled or otherwise terminated something constantly referred to as “Thai democracy”. A few of the articles and many of the various denizens of social media have gone so far as to lament the passing of Thailand as a “model” or “beacon” of democracy for SE Asia and to situate this halcyon past in the early part of this millennium:

Just a decade ago, Thailand was a beacon of democracy in the region, trusted by Western democracies to nudge Myanmar out of authoritarianism. Now, the reverse seems imminent.  2

If we journey back to 2005 and the Thailand that was a “beacon of democracy”, we find a nation governed by a popular and powerful Prime Minister who over the previous few years had initiated and defended death-squad style extrajudicial executions of over a thousand young men supposedly involved in the drug trade, successfully muzzled almost all criticism in the Thai media through manipulation of government advertising budgets, lawsuits and outright purchase of outlets, not to mention having his cousin put in charge of the Royal Thai Army’s television stations, i.e. most Thai television, and on and on.

Given the facts of the matter one can only conclude that what is meant by referring to this period and this administration as a golden age of Thai democracy is that he was really really really elected.  Because, as so many subsequently published books and articles made clear, the Thai Rak Thai administrations were many things, some very positive and progressive, but invested in liberal democracy was not one of them.

Possibly the most appropriate term for what Thaksin achieved and was on his way to imposing as a long-term substitute for more traditional forms of “Thai-style democracy” is “democratic authoritarianism”. As Thitinan Pongsudhirak pointed out in 2003:

On paper, Thailand under Thaksin as governed by the 1997 Constitution is more democratic than ever. In practice, Thaksin’s rule is increasingly authoritarian, so much so that it can be compared to past military dictatorships.

In 2002-2003, when the true nature of TRT “democracy” was becoming evident, it was possible to imply an equivalence between previous military dictatorships and the Thaksin administration without being labeled a “fascist-royalist” reactionary. In those days, all you needed to be– to be able to see and comfortably label Thaksin’s authoritarianism as what it was– was a liberal. Jump ahead a dozen years and two more military coups and it is no longer possible to discuss the nature of Thaksin’s democratic authoritarianism without suffering the slings and arrows of outraged “pro-democracy” folks.

II

Not that “pro-democracy” commentators attempt to deny Thaksin’s authoritarianism. “Oh no”, they will tell you when you question their apparently context-free condemnations of the Thai military for its destruction of Thai democracy, “everyone knows Thaksin was authoritarian. But at least he was elected. I think the Thai people should at least have the right to choose their leaders.” While it is impossible for a liberal democrat to disagree with this sentiment, it is absolutely necessary to point out at the same time that this is in no way, shape or form a defense of democracy, but merely a call for elections, no matter what the sordid results.

It is at this point that contemporary discourse surrounding Thai politics enters and re-enters the fog-bound, mist-enshrouded land of smoke and mirrors, where a democratically-elected leader who sets up death squads and gives them quotas in order to eradicate the scourge of drugs from the nation is not held responsible for the crimes against humanity thus committed but is in fact exonerated by the expedient of referring his crimes to Thai state traditions, to the many people of all social classes who supported the killing, in other words, to a version of Hillary’s “it takes a village”.

Again, what you get when you question this rather interesting approach to identifying legal responsibilities in democratic governance is something along the lines of “Oh no. Of course Thaksin was responsible for the deaths. But so was everyone else who applauded them, which was almost everyone. And you know, he got the word from on high…wink wink nudge nudge…

So all those Palestinians dancing in the streets to celebrate the bringing down of the World Trade Center should have been hauled in and renditioned so Obama’s predecessors could “torture some [more] folk”? The mind boggles.

So even though constitutionally he was the Prime Minister and therefore the head of government, some extra-constitutional authority giving the nod should actually be recognized as sovereign and therefore more guilty than the PM? And that is how we defend democracy?

“Well, no, of course not,” the pro-democracy advocate of today will sigh, “everyone knows his government never really had full control. Parliamentary democracy in Thailand is not what it seems. Real power lies outside the political realm.” So, the democracy that was destroyed in 2006 was not really democracy at all? “Right. Not really democracy.” But this discussion began with…

At this point, unless it is going to be just another endless round of ins-and-outs of the fog of illogic and inconsistency that is meat and mead for these “pro-democracy” advocates, someone usually has to say “I am bored talking about Thaksin. That was then, this is now.”

III

In 2011, after five years of wandering in the non-democratic wilderness of one junta, one quickly aborted elected nominee Thaksin government, and a military-backed “legitimate” government headed by Abhisit and strongman-insurrectionist-monk Suthep that ordered the killing of almost 100 protesters demanding elections in May of 2010, Thailand was returned to “democratic” government.

Having spent those five years as one of the “democracy” advocates that I am, admittedly, somewhat unfairly (though not much) castigating in this article, I decided to step back and watch.

Here we had what everyone had been clamoring for: free and fair elections had been held, the people’s choice had been made resoundingly clear, and the beautiful Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of Thaksin, had been installed as Prime Minister at the head of a Pheu Thai administration, whose election slogan was “Thaksin Thinks, Pheu Thai Acts”, thus assuring the faithful that they had in fact elected, yet again, Thaksin Shinawatra to lead the country. (And at the same time making it appear rather ridiculous when “pro-democracy” advocates insisted that Thaksin was not really in charge any longer.)

Anti-Thaksin people at this point made much of the farce of a “democratic” administration in fact run by a self-exiled convicted abuser of power from hotel rooms in Dubai and over Skype. Most of us were prepared to overlook this “small” irregularity in order to give the YL administration the opportunity to establish its democratic credentials on its own merits.

As was soon made evident, however, this government was very far from in control. During the flooding in 2011, both the royalist Democrat governor of Bangkok and the RTA made it absolutely clear that they were not taking orders from the national government.

As a result, of course, the Yingluck people were made to appear incompetent and the Royal Thai Army, whose image had been tarnished somewhat by the fumbling inadequacy of the ruling body set up following  the coup in 2006, emerged with its public face shining and its role as savior of the nation and its people reinforced by daily news videos of soldiers effectively dealing with the floods in spite of the incompetent Shinawatra administration.

Things never really got better for those of us watching for signs of the government’s commitment to liberal democracy. Yingluck did not publicly  criticize  either the head of the army or the governor of Bangkok, both of whom should have been held up to fierce criticism if not charged with subordination and dereliction of duty for their refusal to cooperate with the government during the flooding.

There were a few attempts at legislating “improvements” to Thai democracy, like altering the constitution to return the Senate to all-elected status, but clearly most of what was initiated could just as easily be read as moves to shore up their parliamentary control.

And of course when the Pheu Thai government finally did try something risky it was not anything involving radical change to the desperately undemocratic forms of the Thai state, it was nothing more or less than a sleazy attempt to bring brother Thaksin home under a half-hearted amnesty bill that failed to address the real problems with the politics of the Thai justice system and how it had played out over the previous eight years.

IV

The most interesting new twist that the Yingluck administration’s clear lack of authority over anything but the non-military aspects of the national budget has added to the “pro-democracy” vocabulary of contemporary nonsense is the amazing revelation that its less authoritarian nature is NOT the necessary result of having surrendered its authority to the military in order to be permitted to govern but should be understood as evidence of an increasingly “liberal” nature.

When Suthep and his genuinely fascistic PDRC people shut down a number of intersections in Bangkok and took over government buildings, holding them for long periods of time with almost no one present, the Yingluck government did nothing to assert control or maintain order. For many “pro-democracy” people, who at this point are better described as “pro-Thaksin” rather than “pro-democracy”, this lack of control has been transmuted by the magic of words into evidence of “increasing liberalism”.

Of course, they had no security forces to order to do so anyway. On the one occasion when the police looked like moving in on the insurrectionists, they were called back. Apparently even the police, long believed to be in the “pro-Thaksin” camp, were not prepared to attempt to enforce the law when those breaking the law were under extra-constitutional protection. Clearly the word had gone out from the military that the Yellows were not to be interfered with, as had been the case with the equally genuinely fascistic PAD back in the day. It was clearly time to pull the curtain back and let us see the little man controlling the levers of power for real.

And there was absolutely no resistance by  Pheu Thai or the UDD people because by staying quiet and being good Thai citizens following orders from the military they might just be eligible next time the wheel comes round to the “Thai democracy” setting. Only a fool would stand up for liberal principles like rule of law when that is really not how things are in Thailand.

And, ultimately, that is what it comes down to: when you begin to interrogate the apparent contradiction that in a country where seemingly everyone supports “democracy” everyone apparently agrees that democracy isn’t really possible. The belief that the Thai electorate is not yet ready for democracy has been the ideological cant behind the pronouncements of all and sundry on the anti-democratic side of the long-running conflict in Thailand since forever.

Now that it has been taken over by the “pro-democracy” side as  justification for repeatedly calling for elections that have zero likelihood of resulting in anything remotely democratic you really have to wonder.

What is to be done?

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7 thoughts on “DEMOCRATIC DREAMS:(il)LIBERAL REALITIES”

  1. Your arguments try to lead us to the conclusion that democracy in Thailand is impossible, and, therefore, we should resign ourselves to the perpetual rule of the long -lasting Thai Fascist troika : monarchy, military and oligarchy.
    Well, no , thanks.
    I am no Thaksin fan, but in any case I would prefer the worst elected government to the best dictatorship.For Thailand and for any other country.

  2. My arguments do no such thing.

    It is people like yourself who believe that the best Thailand can hope for at the moment is a return to the kind of “mixed” or “semi-democracy” that has been blocking the possibility of real democracy for decades who are arguing that “democracy in Thailand is impossible”.

    I am sure the mothers and fathers of the 1000+ young men killed in Thaksin’s “democratic” drug war would appreciate your concern.

  3. I am sure that the mothers, fathers, brothers or sisters of those tortured or disappeeared under the Royalist Junta terrorist rule will appreciate your concerns

  4. What I love best about this article is that it shows your willingness to “step back” and observe empirically the realities on the ground. So few other observers of Thailand’s peculiar predicament seem unwilling to do this. I’ve tried to argue for this on a few occasions. My most recent attempt is here in Mekong Press: https://www.academia.edu/34113176/Too_Much_Democracy_Review_of_Thai_Politics_by_Daniel_H._Unger_and_Chandra_Mahakanjana . All the best, -thomas

    1. Thanks, thomas. I have read and enjoyed some of your work, particularly that dealing with the difference between democracy and liberalism and the tendency of many to equate “democracy” with “liberal-democracy” as if all democratic polities are automatically also liberal.
      I have been trying for months now to come up with a piece that confronts this situation more head-on than my usual oblique style allows but so far have not managed to find my way through.
      And thanks for that link. I would dearly love to read that book but it isn’t available as an ebook and the non-digital version is expensive far beyond my budget. Too bad! Cheers, Michael.

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