Thai democracy, a pressure cooker

Johanna Son

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Why is it that, in the year 2014, some groups still openly ask the armed forces to intervene in a political situation, and the military itself publicly stresses 'no'?

DAY ONE. Anti-government protesters in full force on the first day of 'Bangkok Shutdown', Jan 13. Photo by Johanna Son

BANGKOK, Thailand – “I have no idea how this messy situation can be resolved, really,” a 30-ish taxi driver here in the Thai capital said, shaking his head as he drove smoothly through its unusually stress-free streets this week. “Man keun pai leaw (It’s way too much already),” he sighed.

He was referring to the protests ongoing under the “Bangkok Shutdown,” which got underway on January 13 as the latest series of rallies since November to force caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to step down from office.

While the “Bangkok Shutdown” has by no means brought the city of more than 8 million people to a standstill, it has certainly affected its residents’ daily routines. For more than a week now, protest supporters have been donning protest shirts and gear in the red, white, and blue colors of the Thai flag, including whistles (the protesters’ symbol), and selecting which rally site to go to for the day or after work hours.

Like many others, I begin these restive days by following, every morning, the news and reliable social media feeds that update where the protesters and their leaders are marching, show pictures of the different rally stages across the city, where violence has erupted, which shopping malls are closing earlier than 10 pm, which elevated-train stops are okay to use. Then I adapt my schedule as needed – and yes, everyone knows that the potential for violent incidents rises at night.

Thus far, it feels like an extended New Year’s vacation here, with nippy weather to boot. But the “holiday” feeling belies the stress that is building up, much like in a pressure cooker that many fear will spill over at some point.

No real dialogue is underway, and after days of huge protests at eight areas in the megacity (entire stages have been set up in busy junctions, including near Sukhumvit Road’s biggest malls), at least 3 incidents of bomb explosions and two deaths from them, have been reported since January 16.

Against this backdrop, a political stalemate hangs over this country of nearly 70 million people. Everyone goes about his or her daily business, but with watchful eyes and ears, and aware that the situation may change in a second.

Emergency decree

On the evening of January 21, the caretaker government declared a state of emergency that would take effect in Bangkok and nearby provinces for 60 days.

The state of emergency comes less than two weeks before a general election scheduled for February 2, a date that was set after Yingluck dissolved Parliament in December. Her dissolution of Parliament far from satisfied her opponents, but clearly her Puea Thai Party (For Thais Party) remains confident it would win another vote.

At a January 17 interview with foreign journalists, Yingluck said she would not and could not resign that her being caretaker prime minister until a new government is in place, within 30 days after an election is held, is what the law provides for. “We have to continue with the general elections. If people do not accept any rules, then it is not a democracy,” she said.

“If some protestors do not like the current government, the most efficient and swift way to ensure that the Government is out of power is through voting in the general elections,” Deputy Prime Minister Pongthep Thepkanchana added.

Twists and turns

While the emergency decree tries to address issues of security and order, deeper and recurring questions about democracy and the democratic process, elections and governance simmer.

The questions are not particular to Thailand, but gain resonance in a country where the same issues have come up and again over the past decade, in fact since the entry of populist Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister in 2001, into the Thai political scene.

PROTEST ART. Protesters use 'art' to deliver a message to the government. Photo by Johanna Son

Over recent years, the country’s deep divisions have gone through many twists and turns – many rounds of protests against incumbent governments, the rise of occupation-style protests (used by the anti-Thaksin forces to block the Suvannabhumi airport), a military coup against Thaksin in 2006, court decisions that unseated governments, elections and now, yet another series of street rallies – the biggest in years.

Led by an ex-minister and former member of the Democrat Party who says he has given up politics, Suthep Thaugsuban, the protests have attracted a wider mix of people who say they are fed up with having a Shinawatra in power and what is popularly called “Rabop Thaksin” or “Thaksinocracy,” which, to them, includes corruption and populism. They see Yingluck, Thaksin’s sister who became prime minister in July 2011, as a nominee of her exiled brother, and want them out of the political scene.

“I don’t know if the protests will succeed, but I’m joining to see if they will,” said Lek, who has never joined protests until now. “We want Yingluck to step down, even as caretaker PM. Elections are not the answer, because they will just win again.”

“They” are the supporters of Yingluck and Thaksin’s Puea Thai Party, which has been winning elections to the consternation of its opponents. Puea Thai’s base is in the rural areas, in particular, the poor northeast, which is why anti-Thaksin groups say that the votes of Thaksin’s supporters, benefitting from populist policies, are bought during elections. For them, “election” has become almost a dirty word at this point.

Reboot Thailand?

The call of Suthep’s People’s Democratic Reform Committee is that because the political system has become so skewed, the country needs to shut down, be reformed, in order to start all over again. “Reboot Thailand,” some of the placards say.

Supporters of this idea argue that for elections to reflect the voters’ real will, the system put in place by the government – including the latest Constitution in 2007 – needs to be reformed. Therefore, they reject the February 2 election although it is part of how a parliamentary system of government usually provides for a new government to get a fresh political mandate.

Suthep’s committee proposes that these reforms – there have not been many details – would be done by an unelected people’s council over perhaps a two-year period, before an election is held. Some people back the idea while others do not, saying this would bring Thai political development backwards, instead of forward, in the 21st century.

Writing in the English-language daily Bangkok Post, contributing editor Atiya Achakulwisut points out that Thailand did have a non-elected government after the 2006 coup, one that hugely dented the country’s credibility.

“Does Mr Suthep remember what people said of the coup-appointed government? They said two things: a domestic disappointment and an international disgrace.” She added: “The truth, cold and unavoidable, is no democratic country in the world would recognize Mr Suthep’s unelected reform council or interim government. His anti-democracy dream is a dead-end one.”

At the same time, she said, the kind of governance shown by the Puea Thai Party in power is as much part of the polarization in the country. There have been little genuine attempts to be more inclusive of the views and aspirations of the electoral minority, stemming from the government’s view that its having the numbers means it can largely do what it wants, Atiya wrote.

“Ms Yingluck has to admit that her government and her ruling Puea Thai Party have fallen into that exact trap of championing only the electoral domination side of democracy, to the point of short-changing space for others.”

She quoted former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as having said in a government-organized reconciliation forum here in 2013 that how the majority relates to the minority after an election – when the task becomes governing an entire country regardless of how certain groups voted – is key.

“Part of the trouble is when democracy is seen as a kind of winner takes all. Then you get the situation in which the majority comes to power and the minority feels as if they are kind of shut out and excluded,” she quoted him as having said.

Hard questions

STREET RALLY. The crowds build up after work near Chidlom Skytrain station. Photo by Johanna Son

Listening to heated discussions among both those that accept an election as a way of resolving the crisis and those who reject it, some recurring questions emerge.

Some of these are: While elections are an indispensable element of the democratic process and the legitimacy of any government, are they enough? Has Thailand clarified among its constituency the common rules of the political leadership game – rules that must be accepted and respected regardless of who wins?  Or are rules to be set up, accepted or rejected, depending on who the winner (or loser) is supposed to be? How does society focus on the democratic process and not get lost in personalities?

Why is it that, in the year 2014, some groups still openly ask the armed forces to intervene in a political situation, and the military itself publicly stresses “no”?

Are there lessons to pick up from the observation that whatever the faults of a democratic system, there is no better and more accountable system than this to date? Can an unelected body, however altruistic it says it is, be held accountable in the way an elected group is? Are there ways to “improve” the quality of democracy, and bring accountability and inclusiveness up into it, and how?

Can the political opposition in Parliament craft an alternative platform of government to woo voters in future elections, as a way of changing governments, instead of boycotts? Can politics mature to the point that the battle is fought through votes, not just by campaigning by educating voters on wise choices when exerting their individual power?

Amid the din of the protests, there is a need for a genuine conversation over many of these issues. But this is far from easy in an atmosphere where families and friends are split down the line, and where groups often largely listen to their own partisan media and social-media vehicles.

Thus far, a few hours after the state-of-emergency announcement, crowds were reported to be continuing their protests downtown. Local media quoted Suthep as saying, “We will march on every road they have banned (marching on)…We will do everything they forbid us to do.”

His group is emboldened by the crowds in the streets, some of whom have been giving cash donations to keep the protests going. Some offices have allowed staff to attend the protests during work hours.

Meantime, the Election Commission is asking the courts whether the February 2 vote can proceed, given security and other concerns. A postponement might let some of the immediate steam off, but the pressure continues to simmer. –

Johanna Son, a senior journalist and editor, has covered Asia and has lived in Bangkok for 14 years.

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