Democracy at the Crossroads
Democracy at the crossroads: A perspective on Thailand’s political crisis
Professor Dr. Suchit Bunbongkarn
In the past decade, we have been witnessing dramatic political developments in Thailand. It started with the coming to power of Thaksin Shinawatra through elections. At a glance, it seemed that the Thai democracy began to institutionalize itself and there was a high hope among the Thai public that stability of the democratic government was possible. This can be explained by the fact that Thaksin was able to project himself that he was a new type of political leadership which matched well with globalization and the age of information technology. As a highly successful telecommunication business leader who became one of the richest men in the country in a very short period of time, he was the most suitable leader to lead the country to prosperity as he often pointed out. In addition, the success in elections of the Thai Rak Thai party convinced the Thais that the party system was becoming stable and institutionalized. However, things did not turn out to be as expected. Discontent against Thaksin's government began to grow only after a year Thaksin came to power. The issues focused around a growing concern with Thaksin's effort to dominate the legislature which might lead to a one party rule, his intolerance on criticisms and policy corruption. More importantly "anti-monarchy" elements, the public believed, were given more chance to campaign for their course without sanction from Thaksin's government. The discontent had not been politicized until a mass protest against Thaksin on the issue of policy corruption, conflict of interest and lack of proper respect to the monarchy was organized by Sonthi Limthongkul. The protest turned to be a mass movement known as the yellow shirt movement demanding Thaksin to step down. The then prime minister fought back arguing that he was popularly elected and no one could force him out except the voters. A mass movement to support Thaksin was organized and the conflict between the anti-Thaksin and pro-Thaksin movement caused a deep division in Thai society never happened before. A coup in September 2006 to oust Thaksin could not uproot Thaksin's influence. The conflict has shown no sign of ending despite the enactment of the new constitution and the general election in December 2007. Thai society continues to be deeply devided and the people have begun to question the prospect of the democratic development in the country.
The Red Shirt’s Challenge to the Establishment and Conservatism
The main stream of political value which has dominated Thai politics since 1932 is related to traditionalism and conservatism. This includes respect of the monarchy and the hierarchical social structure and maintenance of tradition and culture based on Buddhism like concept of karma, bun (merit), barami (charisma). It also includes avoidance of conflict or confrontation, patron-client relationship, and tolerance. These traditional and conservative values seemed to fit well with military rule which had dominated Thai politics more than half a century; they were also congruent with the civilian governments. The civilian ruling elites and most of elected politicians were conservative and did not want to see drastic changes in Thai society. However, this conservatism had not gone unchallenged. It started with Pridi Panomyung's economic scheme in 1933 which embodied the concept of state ownerships of the country's agricultural land. This was considered too revolutionary even among the leaders of the People's party and it was then rejected. During the Cold War period, the socialist parties, student movements and the communist insurgency were another challenge to the conservative main stream but they failed to uproot it. The pro-Thaksin red shirt movement is a real challenge to the conservative core value of Thai society and the conservative establishment. Its core group was composed of politician loyal to Thaksin, former left leaning students leaders, republicanism advocates and some business leaders both national and local level. Thus the movement cohesiveness still doubtful. Although the majority of the movement members mostly from the rural areas in the north and northeast simply want Thaksin to come back, the movement leaders" attack on General Prem Tinasulanond, the president of Privy Council and the present government as the government under the control of aristocratic and military elements and should be abolished can be seen as an effort to diminish the influence of the conservative establishment. But as the movement is unable to gain support of the majority of the Thai people, it can be said that the people continue to uphold conservative political ideas which include upholding the monarchical institution and traditional culture as well as preference on evolutionary change. The Thais still prefer democracy but they want to make it sure that democracy has to work well with the monarchy and traditional culture. In addition, the cohesiveness of PheuThai party, a pro Thaksin party is still in doubt. The party has divided into several factions and is unable to elect its leader. One may argue that this analysis would suggest that the majority of the Thai people are with the "yellow shirt" movement which is anti-Thaksin and very „conservative" in its political thinking. This is not correct the thais are will still conservative and may be supportive of some of the yellow shirt movement agenda. But there are a number of the movement's positions and policies with which they do not agree. This majority of the Thais sometimes are known as the third force. But it is not a cohesive force and there is not real leader and organization. The present Democrat led government is trying to be the leader of this force but it is still unable to do so. The coalition government is facing a number of problems ranging from bickering among the coalition partners alleged corruption in some ministries to constitutional amendment. Abhisit is among a small group of new type of politicians surrounded by old typed politicians. He needs to compromise in order to survive. Nonetheless, if the government is able to contain the red-shirt protests and resolve economic problems, its strength and popularity will increase
The Role of the Military
For some political observers, the military may intervene again if there is a crisis caused by the Red shirt movement or any other kinds of crisis, but I believe that a coup to over throw a civilian regime is highly unlikely for a number of reasons. One of them is that the coup in 2006 indicated that launching a coup is one thing, to govern the country after the coup was another. The military leaders have now realized that the problems facing the country are too complicated to be solved by a military rule. For some political observers, the military may intervene again if there is a crisis caused by the Red shirt movement or any other kinds of crisis, but I believe that a coup to over throw a civilian regime is highly unlikely for a number of reasons. One of them is that the coup in 2006 indicated that launching a coup is one thing, to govern the country after the coup was another. The military leaders have now realized that the problems facing the country are too complicated to be solved by a military rule. Secondly, if a coup is unlikely in the future, then how can we explain the nature of the civil-military relations at present. Some explained in term of military tutelage. I am not sure this is an accurate explanation. I don't think that the military is strong enough to lead a civilian government in every issue and to ensure the government's stability and survival. Thirdly, some suggest that the military is a part of the political establishment. They have argued that the conflict in Thailand at present is the conflict between the elites and the rural masses. I do not want to argue against this here although I believe that this interpretation or analysis is rather superficial. My point is that when it comes to political issues, the military is not monolithic. Like someone argued that it is simplistic to assume that if they wear the same uniform, they think alike. Thai military leaders are the elites but as they are not monolithic, the establishment may not be cohesive.
The Monarch and Political Crisis
Where does the King stand on this conflict? The monarch has been very careful not to do anything unconstitutional. At the peak of the crisis from October to November 2008 when there was a violent suppression or the anti-Thaksin protesters in front of the parliament and occupation of Suvarnaphumi airport which the government did not suppress, some wanted the King to intervene. The King did not indulge their wish, but let the situation run its course under the constitution. In Western constitutional monarchies, the governments are relatively stable, efficient and responsive to the needs of their people. There may be some few uprisings or demonstrations, but the governments are able to handle them effectively and hence the sovereigns are not under pressure to intervene. However, in Thailand there have been military coups, political violence, riots, uprisings and demonstrations which have often led to political instability. This creates a situation wherein the monarch must determine whether he should directly or indirectly intervene while remaining politically neutral. Nevertheless, the King, since ascending to the throne in 1946, has been most effective in maintaining political neutrality while, at the same time, making it known that he was very concerned with any political problems which might lead to violence and bloodshed. The role of the King in political crisis situations is not stipulated in the constitution. When the public expects the King to do something to bring the country out of a crisis, what should the King do? In fact, when a crisis breaks out, it is the government's responsibility to resolve it, but the King may give advice if things are getting out of hand. Being above politics does not mean that the King cannot be concerned with political problems threatening the country's stability. The King may give advice to the government on how to solve the nation's problems, but he is always careful not to overstep his duties as stipulated in the constitution. In April 2006, when the protests against Thaksin's government became stronger, and the government mobilized its supporters to counter the protests, there were calls by several groups for a royally appointed prime minister, but the King did not make any response. It was understood that the constitution did not give him power to do so. In his address to newly appointed judges in April 2006, the King insisted that political problems must be resolved through constitutional means. Even when he “intervened” in 1973 and again 1992 to end bloodshed in Bangkok after clashes broke out between soldiers and anti government protesters, what he did was not unconstitutional. He gave advice to the parties concerned to end the conflicts peacefully. His words carried weight due to the moral authority he had acquired through his political neutrality and integrity. Criticisms sometimes occurred, especially in foreign media, as to military coups in Thailand arguing that they are illegitimate like the one on September 19, 2006. These critics argued that when the palace accepted them, it was against the principle of political neutrality, and, thus, the coups were made legitimate. Regarding the question of legitimacy of a military coup, in the case of Thailand, one has to look at the acceptance of the public. As long as there is not a large scale public protest, one can say that the military takeover is accepted and, thus, effectively legitimized. Since 1932 there have been a number of successful coups and they were acceptable to the public if the coup leaders made sure that they would not be in power for long. Therefore, whether a military coup can be legitimate or not depends on the public acceptance not the King's. In fact, the King, being above politics, cannot express his views on any coup. At any rate, as mentioned earlier there is now a sign of growing discontent on the part of the public against a military coup which would make a coup in the future very difficult to undertake and be deemed as legitimate.
Assertive Role of the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court.
In October 2008, the Supreme Court's Criminal Case Division for Persons Holding Political Positions set up under the 1997 and 2007 Constitutions handed down a two-year jail sentence against Thaksin who lived in exile in the UK on the charge of corruption. The court ruled that Thaksin was guilty of conflict of interest by helping his wife get discounted price for her purchase of a larger area of land in one of the Bangkok business districts. Another case was that of Yongyuth Tiyapairat former House Speaker and a government party MP who was accused of committing frauds in the general election in December 2007. the Court found him guilty and ousted him from the parliament in July 2008. As for the role of the Constitutional Court, its decision to disqualify Samak Sundaravej from premiership in August 2008 on the grounds that he had committed a conflict of interest by accepting money from a private company to appear on a TV program on cooking demonstration. The verdict was a heavy blow to the pro-Thaksin government at that time and although the government survived with a new prime minister, its legitimacy eroded substantially since the government continued to be a nominee of Thaksin as the new premier was his brother-in-law. Another heavy blow struck on the pro-Thaksin government was the Constitutional Court's rule on December 2, 2008 to dissolve the ruling People's Power Party (PPP) and two of its junior coalition partners on election fraud charges and as a consequence the then prime minister Somchai Wongsawat who was the PPP leaders and a number of cabinet members and MPs who were the executive members of the dissolved parties were ousted from office and have been barred from politics for five years. As a consequence, a new government was set up by the opposition – the Democrat Party. These rulings of the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court have been criticized by the pro-Thaksin people as being in favor of the anti-Thaksin movement. But to be fair to the judiciary, these rulings were done in accordance with the Constitution although they have, as a consequence, weakened the pro-Thaksin group.
What is to be done to resolve the conflict and make Thailand's democracy consolidated? What we need is a type of political reform which will lead to political institutionalization of Thai democracy. Thailand's democracy has been very fragile and whenever the country was in crisis, the people hoped the monarch would intervene. But the King, although very concerned with political fragility, always wants to resolve crises through democratic and constitutional means. In the past, the military often intervened when there were political crises, but they failed to launch political reforms to consolidate Thailand's democracy. A military coup is now becoming less and less acceptable, and the military knows very well that a military coup is not a solution to the country's political problems. Therefore, democratic development in Thailand will depend on the people themselves. Thailand's democracy has been very fragile and whenever the country was in crisis, the people hoped the monarch would intervene. But the King, although very concerned with political fragility, always wants to resolve crises through democratic and constitutional means. In the past, the military often intervened when there were political crises, but they failed to launch political reforms to consolidate Thailand's democracy. A military coup is now becoming less and less acceptable, and the military knows very well that a military coup is not a solution to the country's political problems. Therefore, democratic development in Thailand will depend on the people themselves. Bridging the gap between the rich and the poor is also suggested. This would solve the problem at the fundamental level, but it would take time. This would involve not only economic development but also social justice reforms. Another possible reform program is related to reducing political corruption, vote buying and the patronage system in elections. These are major concerns of everyone, but it will not be easy to get rid of them in the near future. In the area of political reform, apart from political institutionalization of political structures, promoting political ethics and clean government is necessary. These are core elements of good governance, and we need to develop them not only in the government bureaucracy but also in political society as well. Last but not least, a strong civil society is an important factor for political reconciliation and democratic consolidation. We have to accept the fact that our democracy cannot be sustainable if the people's sector is not strong. In Thailand, we need a vibrant civil society to articulate interests of the common people and fight for them. In the past we had a powerful bureaucracy and now the business sector has replaced it as a leading political force. But civil society or the people's sector is still weak. There are several non-government organizations or NGOs and professional groups participating in the political processes, but they are far from being powerful political forces. There are not only the 'yellow' and 'red' shirt movements. There is a so-called silent majority who want our democracy to work effectively without violence or instability. This is the people's sector that needs to be strengthened.