You Can’t Get There From Here: A Road Map for Thai Democracy (Parts I & II)

“Roadmaps” are popular in Thai political circles.


Lately it seems that whenever anyone out of power in Thailand is demanding something that someone in power doesn’t want to give, someone in power comes up with a “roadmap”. Said roadmap is usually a vague list of more or less concrete steps to be undertaken before “democracy is restored” or “reconciliation is achieved”, whichever is perceived to be the demand or need of the moment. Over the past five or six years, it is usually both: first reconciliation, then democracy.

One reason these roadmaps never seem to guide the nation to its destination has to do with the rather pointed lack of a shared definition of ‘reconciliation’, to a minor extent, and, far more significantly,  of ‘democracy’ itself. Conveniently for all concerned, neither term has a fixed meaning. And equally conveniently for all concerned, both terms fairly glow with positive connotations. Who, after all, could be so churlish as to deny the value of either one?

Pared down to basics, the royalist-military-conservative wing defines ‘reconciliation’ as “STFU and do as your betters tell you”, a formulation hardly likely to endear itself to the vast majority of the Thai people thus being told to know their places.

Similarly, ‘reconciliation’, to the various levels of Thaksinite political expression, boils down to “Bring Thaksin home and let us get back to running Thailand Inc.”. In many ways it is the same definition directed at a different group. Everyone just wants everyone else to shut up and take it lying down. *

It makes for difficult politics.

As for the competing definitions of ‘democracy’, well, even on a roadmap it’s better to stay away from that one. But in the interest of “reconciliation” some delineation may be beneficial.

To those who define themselves primarily by opposition to the coup and all forms of military dictatorship in Thailand, ‘democracy’ conveniently means “elections”.

Once elected, Aleister Crowley’s injunction “Do What Thou Wilt Shall Be The Whole of the Law” becomes the predominant mode, unless of course the Royal Thai Army, the Constitutional Court, or any one of a number of independent bodies originally mooted by the oft-cited People’s Constitution of 1997 says you can’t.

Then it’s time to STFU and do as you are told or call another election and get democracy back on track.

Unless the Election Commissioners won’t let you. At which juncture it’s time for yet another coup to put an end to the undemocratic chaos, take a time-out, and rebuild “democracy”, as defined by those who support military coups as a means of restoring Thailand to the true path of ‘democracy’.

This group tends to define ‘democracy’ as rule by a group of people who are not greedy, and who are most definitely not dishonest politicians, and who are content to stay behind the curtain operating the levers that the PM and her cabinet and the houses of parliament push here and there in a kind of dumbshow until the real leaders accept a setting that most accurately expresses the will of the Thai people, as divined by these “good people”.

Generally speaking, the “good people” who provide the real leadership behind the scenes in this definition of ‘democracy’ are the same people who step out in front of the curtain and run things under military rule.


So, given that one way or another, the same people are in fact sovereign in Thailand regardless of what any given “constitution” might say, or what party any given election might return to nominal control of the government, what seems to be the problem?

To Be Cont’d…


*It should be noted that the one area of conscious and loudly-trumpeted agreement is that those who have offended against the lèse majesté laws, the notorious Section 112, are not important to reconciliation. Everyone agrees that these monsters should rot in prison or in exile until a higher form of amnesty is decreed from on high. More liberal observers of the Thai political scene tend to view any suggestion of ‘democracy’ that doesn’t include protected speech as somewhat lacking, but neither side in the present conflict cares much about that, as can be seen from their shared emphasis on “STFU” as a necessary component of ‘reconciliation’.


Thai Road Map (Part 2): Operation Successful-Patient Died

It goes without saying that without a correct diagnosis, finding a cure for what ails you becomes a matter of pure chance, and doing nothing may begin to look like the only sensible course.


Thai “democracy” has suffered from chronic sickness from the day of its birth, kept alive by rhetorical transfusions and the occasional moderately effective surgical procedure, only to fail yet again in the near-death experiences otherwise known as “coups”, whether “military” or “judicial”.

The fact that these coups are often touted as medical interventions, intended to revive our febrile patient “democracy”, should not be taken too seriously.

It isn’t so much that a coup could never actually be a positive step on the road to democratic government, it’s just that even a glance at the historical record in Thailand gives the lie to any such claim. In the Thai case, democratically-elected governments tend to be removed forcibly when they threaten to challenge the powers behind the curtain, as they have done repeatedly since Chatichai Choonhavan dared to privilege provincial capital and provincial development over the demands of the Bangkok oligarchs, and even had the temerity to attempt to cut the military budget.

To this day, the Chatichai “buffet cabinet” is remembered more for its massive corruption  than for its having had the temerity to challenge the Bangkok elite and its military wing, the Royal Thai Army. And to this day, Thai media and much of Thai academia has continually identified “corruption” as the disease gnawing away at the vitals of Thai democracy.

Diagnosis #1

From an elite perspective, anyone who is willing to abase him or herself in order to win the approval of the Thai electorate, most of whom are dizzyingly low on the Thai social-financial totem pole, must necessarily be low herself. The willingness to enter into constituency level electoral politics is stigma enough in this view, but the real criticism of politicians is aimed at their need to finance themselves and their supporters once they arrive at the trough provided by national budgets.

Indeed, it is the case that winning elections in Thailand, like in all contemporary democracies, requires vast amounts of money. It was expensive in the era of patronage politics, when votes were essentially bought through regional and local intermediaries, and it is vastly more expensive now in the age of massive expenditures on PR and advertising.

shin corruption

It is with this in mind that the Thai military and associated elite factions around the palace, in the bureaucracy, and at the helms of major capitalist enterprise have always insisted on the superiority of “supervised democracy” or “guided democracy”, often euphemistically named “Thai-style democracy”. Left to their own machinations, politicians will simply drain the nation dry through corruption, and so must never be allowed to exercise sovereignty as delegated by the sovereign people of Thailand.

The irony of course is that rarely have civilian governments managed to outdo the “guardians” in their exercise of corruption, either financial or moral.

Field Marshall Sarit is perhaps the paradigm case of the effects of Thai “paternalism” on Thai governance. He, like his South Korean near-contemporary Park Chung-hee, was remarkably successful at promoting economic development, and unashamedly authoritarian in insisting on personal control of every facet of government. Both have left behind a nostalgia in certain quarters of their respective nations for the kind of “good old days” of stability and control not dissimilar to the post-glastnost Russian nostalgia for Uncle Joe Stalin.


Sarit, however, left a trail of outright theft and sexual profligacy behind when he died. Prompted by claims against his estate by his children and the outcries of the over one hundred women who had acted as his mistresses throughout his life, a government inquiry found evidence of massive abuse of government funds to pay for his sex life and construct his personal business empire.

In typical Thai fashion, Sarit actually came out of this looking better than his wife, who was characterized as ‘greedy’ and his image has come down to us in such a manner that a contemporary Thai politician like Thaksin could conceivably attempt to mold himself in the image of Sarit in order to gain the loyalty of the Thai electorate.

Regardless of the lingering respect accorded to such a vicious dictator in certain quarters, the lesson has not been lost on Thai academics and bureaucrats and other mid-level apparatchik who often function as the public face of the elite: if Thailand is ever to successfully transition to a satisfactory and stable democratic system, “corruption” must be eliminated.

(To Be Continued)



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