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Thailand's political turmoil

The recent political turmoils have received relatively scant coverage in the Western Press.  Nevertheless, many of us here at Foolsmountain think the events in Thailand are important and interesting because they touch upon so many interesting issues – including the rule of law, democracy, class warfare, public education, and the role of military – all of which are also pertinent to China.

At the risk of oversimplifying, here is a brief synopsis of events that has taken us to the current crisis. The current government was voted in relatively fair and square at the end of 2007. However it did not take long for charges of vote buying, corruption, economic mismanagement to surface. Large scale protests resulted in flashes of violence last week. Protesters now demand that Prime Minister Samak (and his cohorts) must step down as a precondition for negotiations. Part of what protesters want is a minimization of the power of votes, at least in the rural areas (which is made up of the poor and uneducated, the target of many alleged vote buying), in future elections.

Here is a brief excerpt from an Asia Times interview of anti-government protest leader Sondhi Limthongkul regarding what the current protest is about.

The international community and the international media hardly understand the real issue in Thailand. All the foreign journalists … ask the very cynical question: Samak is an elected prime minister so what right do you have to seize Government House? Why don’t you just form a political party and go against him?

[L]et’s find a way to customize democracy which would fit Thailand. Let’s not get democracy as you would go to McDonalds and order a hamburger, because democracy is still a Western export.

The academicians who got their degrees from Germany, from England, from the United States, from France, always use a mix-up between what they learned from these countries and invented a bloody constitution which does not work for Thailand. What I’m trying to say is let’s sit down together, find the flaws of our old politics. Do we want old politics to continue like this? Most would agree the answer is ”no”.

Then let’s find something else. Maybe we don’t need a 100% elected parliament. Maybe 70% [appointed]-30% [elected]. Note the word “maybe”. Or maybe we should reduce the number of MPs from 480 to 240, which means we would still have elections in every province. But maybe two or three MPs from every province would be enough.

The provincial, rural people lack access to the right information because whoever is in government always controls the media….[A]ccess to the right information is very crucial [to democratization of the provinces]. … [W]e have to find a way where the organizations and commissions that are supposed to be set up to check and balance the political process must be free from political interference, which is very difficult to do, very difficult, because they keep buying the people.

The whole thing happened because the Election Commission has never done its job. They closed one eye and took bribes and let cheating MPs into the parliament.

I’m not against elections, but what I’m saying is that 100% election-based democracy may not be the right answer. Let’s find a new way, because we’ve had 56 years of Western democracy, and 56 vicious years, and we’ve never had long-lasting peace.

Let’s find a way to get this country moving again and moving on solid ground, solid behind the people, making everybody happy that they have a fair share. A cake on the table to be divided among the people, let there be a win-win situation. Let’s not have the biggest piece go down to the politicians and a smaller piece to the people in the name of democracy.

The moment for change is now. People are talking about new politics now. People have a million thoughts about new politics. We need to screen all those million thoughts, then crystallize it and get it down to the nitty gritty and see what new politics really means and how it would be different from the old politics and which part of the new would be better.

Regarding the military and the King, Sondhi offered

Let’s sit down and find a new way of life, a better way of life so that we can have everlasting peace. So we don’t have to have another military intervention.

If the military intervenes again, this time it’s because the old politics allowed them to intervene, because the old politics allows the incumbent to abuse its own power because there is no good check and balance system. And some of the checks and balances can still be bought – which is why people feel disgruntled. That’s why the military could take this opportunity and come in again. So “new politics” for me is the real democratic politics.

It would give a role to the military. I’m talking about definite roles that would be put in the constitution and in the people’s minds that the military can only intervene in three matters: first of all, when there is a threat to the monarchy institution; second, concerning the sovereignty of the nation; third, when there is gross mismanagement by the existing government regarding human rights, liberty and corruption.

Apart from that, the military has no role. Nor will politicians be allowed to manipulate the military. The military should be separate from the defense minister. All military appointments should be decided by the Defense Council and then go straight to the King. Then it’s his prerogative whether he agrees or not with the new line-up. If he doesn’t agree with the new line-up, then he has the right to change it. So we separate the King, who would have his own base, which is the military.

And the people involved in politics should just go about managing the country.

Interestingly enough, our movement this time has never had any contact with the military. Mainly because we simply don’t think we should rely on the military because we believe in people’s power these days. Judging by the number of people who are joining us, I think it would be wiser to stick to the people.

The people’s power we have been able to garner has become a formidable force – even could become a threat to the military because we could actually create a people’s revolution.

Regarding the basis of his support, Sondhi said,

People are willing to contribute 100,000 baht, 200,000 baht, even a million or a couple million. But normally contributions come in at around 1,000 or 2,000 or 10,000 baht. They’re all from the middle classes.

The people are coming more and more, more and more, people from all over the country come to join us. Interestingly they take turns – some [provincial] districts send 200 people and when its time for them to go home and tend to their business, another 200 people come.

There has always been a pool of contributions from local businessmen, who pooled their money to rent a car, to pay for the gas, and they come over and stay overnight. And this sort of thing has been going on for 104 days. This is the longest marathon protest the world has ever known.

What do people think about the events going on in Thailand?  Is what we are seeing simply routine progression of a maturing democracy?  Is it a warning that democracy alone does not offer a fair and equitable political solution?

Are you surprised that the army has not gotten involved? The army chief has been quoted to say:

We are not taking sides. … If the nation is the people, we are the army of the people.  But now the nation is divided into two parts. We cannot be with one side. We have to be with the people, all together.

What can China learn from this – and from the broader Thailand experience?

  1. Wukailong
    September 9th, 2008 at 07:23 | #1

    “Is it a warning that democracy alone does not offer a fair and equitable political solution?”

    At least it’s a warning that democracy needs a good foundation. I’m not sure why the military plays such a large role, though. In Turkey, which seems to have a similar problem, the military is secularist, often fighting against a government and people that are religious. They take an active role in restraining the government so it doesn’t get too permissive of religion.

  2. Chops
    September 9th, 2008 at 12:07 | #2

    “(UPI) — Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej was ordered by a constitutional court Tuesday to step down for hosting a cooking show while in office.

    A BBC report said Samak was a TV chef before becoming prime minister.”

    http://www.upi.com/Top_News/2008/09/09/Court_tells_Samak_to_resign/UPI-16911220960113/

  3. September 9th, 2008 at 12:46 | #3

    1. Thailand has averaged about 1 coup every 3 to 5 year for most of the last century. This is not a singular event, like most people reading news headlines think, rather there is much context and tradition.
    2. Because this is not a singular even in Thai history, this is absolutely NOT a referendum on democracy, rather it could be seen as a referendum on corruption, power politics, vote buying, influence peddling and the politics of personalities and small group interests. Democracy cannot thrive in this environment.
    3. The military, in this case, is (finally) correctly staying out of a political conflict. This is not typical for Thai politics and will most likely not continue if the protests drag on much longer.
    4. This will be over very quickly if one of two things happens. First, the king says anything. Second, the military moves to support either party. Again, if protest drag on and the economy (for which the military has a large stake) is hurt, there will be action by outside influential third parties.
    5. The unfortunate reality of Thai politics is that this will happen again. Regardless of how this incident is resolved/ended. If the king steps in things will be calm until he is needed again (or, dare I say, dies–which is something Thailand is preparing for–he’s over 80 and not in great health).

  4. Ted
    September 9th, 2008 at 15:19 | #4

    Re: Allen “Is what we are seeing simply routine progression of a maturing democracy? Is it a warning that democracy alone does not offer a fair and equitable political solution?”

    Is Thailand really a Democracy? The story I heard was that prior to each of the previous bloodless coups the King selected the next leader.

    Limthongkul statements on the military said alot. Especially his third stipulation permitting military intervention “…when there is gross mismanagement by the existing government regarding human rights, liberty and corruption.” Expressly granting the military an independent role in oversight is either a painfully naive statement or an attempt to reach out to those military leaders who would side with Limthongkul. Agree with David, the military is right where they should be.

    Re: Wukailong “At least it’s a warning that democracy needs a good foundation.”

    Agree. I think it was in Bob Woodward’s first book on the Bush Administration where I read Condoleezza Rice’s ridiculous lamentations on Iraq a few years after the U.S. invasion. I couldn’t bring all my books to China with me so I’ll have to paraphrase, I think she said something like “where is [Iraq’s] Jefferson, where is their Washington?”

    Her comment sums up the …*poof* voila, Democracy… mindset that helped lead to the Iraq conflagration.

  5. Netizen K
    September 9th, 2008 at 16:51 | #5

    I think the King is too powerful. You can’t say a bad word about the King. If you do, bang, you’re in jail. Google knows that too.

  6. Daniel
    September 9th, 2008 at 18:36 | #6

    I still think it’s a bit awkward for these constitutional monarchies to exist in places which claims itself as democracies. I know that some form of heirchy exists in nearly every society and sometimes it’s almost like “royalty” with background being a strong status marker yet…Sorry for such blunt statement being an ordinary American speaking his mind.

    However, a classmate of mine said that it’s such a strong tradition and the symbolism behind is another one of the cultural-nationalistic binding relics. How would China learn from this aspect since it’s cultural-nationalistic binding relic of monarchy or something similar like the scholars of the past, isn’t around?

  7. September 9th, 2008 at 18:39 | #7

    Thailand has had lots of coups but not much in the way of “coup related deaths” that is partly because of the king providing a easy method of peaceful resolution, without the king any of the other coups could have resulted in much more trouble. So Thai’s would be very reluctant to remove this role from him even if they find themselves on the other side of an argument.

    As it relates to China it is Thaksin who is the equivalent of the CCP – He may have been corrupt – but he ran the country well and the nation benefited. The PAD (the protesters) on the other hand are hurting the country through their protests (obviously), so they can put a person who can’t run the country as well into government.

    Sondhi Limthongkul’s position is contradictory – he seems to accuse “thai love thai” of winning the election by cheating – and yet seems to accept that there is no way they can win in a fair election.

    and this is painfully ironic
    “The provincial, rural people lack access to the right information because whoever is in government always controls the media”
    since the key person driving/funding the protests is a media mogul.

  8. September 9th, 2008 at 18:47 | #8

    Re the king
    I mean that the king selects the leader in large part with the idea of preventing bloodshed. the King commands no army – he just has the prestige to force the defeated to realize they are defeated and to stop fighting in the interests of Thailand.

  9. September 9th, 2008 at 18:51 | #9

    I mean that the king selects the leader in large part with the idea of preventing bloodshed. the King commands no army – he just has the prestige to force the defeated to realize they are defeated and to stop fighting in the interests of Thailand.

    Sort of like the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000?

  10. Netizen K
    September 9th, 2008 at 21:11 | #10

    The Thai King commands the army constitutionally and practically. In a proper functioning democracy like UK, the Queen commands the army constitutionally but the Prime Minister commands it operationally. The UK Army is only loyal to the Queen in constitution. In actuality, it’s loyal to the Prime Minister. Thailand is not like that.

  11. JL
    September 9th, 2008 at 22:19 | #11

    The protest leaders may say it’s a case of the failure of Western democracy, but to me it seems more like a case of failure caused by inequality…
    The middle-class protesters and poorer, rural voters have radically different interests. When the latter out-weigh the former at the ballot, the middle-class can only complain that the farmers are too stupid to know what’s good for the country, and argue for the farmers’ voice to count for less.

    It’s tempting suggest that democracy doesn’t work in very unequal countries, and then conclude that places like China should wait until CCP rule has improved the lot of the farmers before introducing a democratic reform. (which is basically what the CCTV4 Asia news program I watched yesterday said –although it didn’t make the connection explicit)
    But on the other hand, unequal countries that aren’t democracies can also suffer political turmoil for similar reasons as Thailand is now.

  12. Wahaha
    September 9th, 2008 at 22:24 | #12

    JL,

    Most poorest cities in US have been controled by democratic partys for decades.

  13. September 9th, 2008 at 22:47 | #13

    @JL

    It’s tempting suggest that democracy doesn’t work in very unequal countries, and then conclude that places like China should wait until CCP rule has improved the lot of the farmers before introducing a democratic reform. (which is basically what the CCTV4 Asia news program I watched yesterday said –although it didn’t make the connection explicit)
    But on the other hand, unequal countries that aren’t democracies can also suffer political turmoil for similar reasons as Thailand is now.

    Amy Chua (a Yale professor of Chinese decent) has an interesting book called World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability.

    In the book, Chua argued that

    globalization has created a volatile concoction of free markets and democracy that has incited economic devastation, ethnic hatred and genocidal violence throughout the developing world. Chua illustrates the disastrous consequences arising when an accumulation of wealth by “market dominant minorities” combines with an increase of political power by a disenfranchised majority. Chua refutes the “powerful assumption that markets and democracy go hand in hand” by citing specific examples of the turbulent conditions within countries such as Indonesia, Russia, Sierra Leone, Bolivia and in the Middle East.

    In the book, Chua also specifically went into how flagrant the political situation can be when one also toss in ethnic rivalry into the mix.

    It’s a fascinating and sometimes scary read…

  14. Chops
    September 10th, 2008 at 00:03 | #14

    American coup d’etat: Military thinkers discuss the unthinkable

    “WASIK: So it seems clear that whether we like it or not, the military has learned how to use the political system to protect its interests and also to uphold what it sees as its values. Thinking over the long term, are there any dangers inherent in this?

    KOHN: Well, at this point the military has a long tradition of getting what it wants. If we ever attempted to truly demobilize—i.e., if the military were suddenly, radically cut back—it could lead if not to a coup then to very severe civil-military tension.

    BACEVICH: Because the political game would no longer be prejudiced in the military’s favor.”

    http://www.harpers.org/archive/2006/04/0080995

    A similar question would be whether a coup can happen in China.

  15. September 10th, 2008 at 00:49 | #15

    @Chops,
    The U.S. military may be much more involved in American politics and civil life than most Americans realize…

    See, for example, Nick Turse’s recent book The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives.

  16. werew
    September 10th, 2008 at 02:14 | #16

    Obviously you can’t conclude from this one incident that democracy is a horrible system/ideology, but this incident does tell us that democracy have flaws and there even can be a better or equal alternative. People, including ones above, really believe that democracy is the best and flawless system in the world and any failure must be only because that democracy isn’t implemented well. Just by being a democracy there would be no more problems, because democracy solves all social problems. The main reason why democracy works so well in the developed western countries is because they are highly developed. Everything is near perfection. With highly developed legal system, a stable economy, a large wealthy and educated middle class, and an apt military, almost any system/ideology is going to work pretty well. During the industrial revolution in US, is the worker’s rights protected? Is there a fair legal system that doesn’t favor the rich? Is there a non-corrupt relationship between the government and the corporations? Is there no ethnic conflicts and violence? Is there not many violent quellings of protests of the poor, especially when it involves the interests of large corporations? All these things are symptoms of developing countries and not the sign of a non-democracy. Nobody went through their developmental stage with a harmonious and fair society with equal rights for everyone.

    Besides, is it really proven that non-democracies doesn’t work in developed society? Seems like Singapore is an example of the performance of a non-democracy in a developed society. They have the lowest corruption rating in the world, surpassing many democracy, even without freedom of speech and opposition party. Scientifically, people are not viewing democracy as a system objective enough. The safe conclusion to make about the results of social experiments should be that there are inconclusive evidences about whether democracy is the best system or not, and more variables need to be controlled in future experiments, such as developmental stage, geographical and ethnic composition.

  17. Ted
    September 10th, 2008 at 03:06 | #17

    Allen Re: “Sort of like the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000?”

    Disagree with the analogy, there are nine justices in the Supreme Court.

    Re: “globalization has created a volatile concoction of free markets and democracy that has incited economic devastation, ethnic hatred and genocidal violence throughout the developing world.

    This is the situation the U.S. has been in since it was founded. I guess the difference is that by the time the U.S. started exporting democracy our country had developed a system that allowed aggrieved citizens redress. In developing nations without a mature legal or political system the guy with the most guns or the most cash wins. I don’t think democracy itself has a problem, but I do acknowledge that forcing a democratic system on ethnically distinct and economically unequal groups can exacerbate tensions. The issue of racism will have to be dealt with by any country, China included, where previously unequal groups have to identify shared values despite ethnic or physical differences.

  18. JL
    September 10th, 2008 at 06:06 | #18

    @ Allen

    Thanks for the link to the book, it sounds like an interesting read.
    Does Chua suggest any solutions?

    I know this is a bit simplistic, but it occurs to me that turmoil could be more likely under a democracy (because they generally allow protest) but more dangerous under an authoritarian system (because there’s less hope of the poor and marginalized enacting change peacefully, according to constitutional means).
    What do you think?

  19. September 10th, 2008 at 06:49 | #19

    @JL,

    Unfortunately, Chua does not offer much explicit recommendations. The main point I get from her is that minority market domination is a reality in much of the world. She sounds a clear warning that given such conditions, we should back off mindlessly encouraging wholesale democratic liberations lest such encouragements end up merely actuating class-based and/or ethnic-based violence across the world….

  20. September 10th, 2008 at 06:52 | #20

    @JL,

    As for your observation about democracy being more chaotic and authoritarian system being more dangerous, I think it’s not a bad observation. In the end though, the appropriateness of any political system probably really depends on a multitude of factors ingrained in the unique history, culture, and political context of each society…

  21. Tom
    September 10th, 2008 at 18:43 | #21

    Democracy is not one size fits all

  22. September 11th, 2008 at 02:45 | #22

    This has much more to do with corruption than it does with democracy. Here in Thailand, corruption has been pretty much expected and accepted. That has begun to change, and Thaksin’s guilty verdict was a huge indication of how much. People in high office are starting to pay for their wrongdoings – just a few days ago, Samak was found guilty of violating the constitution and stripped of his position. If you look at this conflict, both sides are in the wrong. Neither side is fighting in a true democratic spirit. One side is trying to buy votes, the other is trying to crush the votes from the opposing side (in this case the poor, rural population).

    What should be seen is how peacefully all of this has been handled, for the most part. In southern Thailand where I live, there are protests every day and night, but they have all been peaceful. Though I don’t agree with the protesters, I love to drive by the protests at night, and watch these peoples exercising their freedom to speak out against perceived injustices. That is the real strength of democracy. After living in both China and Thailand (and loving both), when it comes to politics I would easily choose life as a Thai, with all of its political up and downs, than life as a Chinese, where I was constantly subjected to an overzealous nanny government.

    It should be remembered that China has a ton of protests as well; the difference is that whereas Thai politics involves bloodless coups and exasperating political stalemates, the CCP just sends in soldiers to beat everyone into submission.

  23. September 11th, 2008 at 09:52 | #23

    @BSmith
    Seems to me it is less a matter of the rule of law taking over and more a matter of the legal system being co-opted by one side of the argument. Although I am pleased to see some chance of progress being made on the corruption issue…

    As to Exasperating political stalemates – they are costly things, I suppose it is a matter of how much growth and wealth that sort of freedom is worth to the people. different people might want to find a different balance.

  24. September 12th, 2008 at 01:53 | #24

    You’re right GNZ, I think many people are definitely willing to relinquish some political freedoms in return for economic gains. But I don’t think we have seen proof yet that relinquishment of those freedoms will lead to more economic gain than would have otherwise been possible. People use China as an example, and China has grown insanely fast, but I think that is due more to an incredibly industrious, hardworking population that was always ready to produce immense wealth: they just needed the foreign powers and early CCP to back off and open the way up for them. In every country they immigrate to, the Chinese are known to be hardworking and to gain wealth quickly as a result. It may be more of a cultural thing than a policy matter.

    For all of its messy politics, Thailand still has a higher GDP than China, and the quality of life in regards to other factors – clean air, environment, access to medical care – also seems better. Even the attitude and demeanor of people here seems much better – Thailand is “The Land of Smiles”, after all (could that be partially due to living in a relatively open and free society where you are free to express yourself? I don’t know). I can understand if some people value money more than freedom (although I disagree), but I think those people should take a step back and evaluate whether or not those lost political freedoms are actually translating into more money. It will be interesting to see how China’s GDP grows in the next few years, and whether or not the strong growth rate can continue.

    I hope this doesn’t sound like China-bashing. But I feel that a lack of political freedoms – especially restrictions on being able to protest injustice – leads to many problems, some of which are not so obvious, and whose effects may not be felt for years to come. But when they are felt, and when all that anger and dissatisfaction boils over (as happened in Hunan, Lhasa, etc.), it will create an enormous mess. Restricting freedom doesn’t erase the feelings that are now causing problems in Thailand; it only pushes them under the surface to simmer.

  25. Jerry
    September 12th, 2008 at 06:10 | #25

    @Allen,

    As usual, this is a thought-provoking topic.

    #13

    Amy Chua (a Yale professor of Chinese decent) has an interesting book called World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability.

    In the book, Chua argued that:

    … globalization has created a volatile concoction of free markets and democracy that has incited economic devastation, ethnic hatred and genocidal violence throughout the developing world. Chua illustrates the disastrous consequences arising when an accumulation of wealth by “market dominant minorities” combines with an increase of political power by a disenfranchised majority. Chua refutes the “powerful assumption that markets and democracy go hand in hand” by citing specific examples of the turbulent conditions within countries such as Indonesia, Russia, Sierra Leone, Bolivia and in the Middle East.

    In the book, Chua also specifically went into how flagrant the political situation can be when one also toss in ethnic rivalry into the mix.

    Allen, I have never read the book, so I will comment on the excerpt. First of all, I would rather use the term “Semi-free market”. I find it hard to believe that the world’s most powerful global corporations (including my ex-employer, Microsoft) would ever tolerate a “free” market. They have way too much to lose. They will only tolerate a playing field which is controlled or tilted in their favor. Secondly, democracy is an illusion which is wrapped around the US government. It is a clever way to hide the extent to which the ruling elite and large corporations actually run the government.

    So it is no surprise that the global corporations have governmental and market structures which they want to impose on other countries and regions. The global corporations do not like surprises. But their very act of imposing their structures on countries, whose cultures and ways don’t support those structures/philosophies, causes unintended consequences. Thank God that people in these other countries do not lay down like so many of the quiet, acquiescing lambs in the US. Yes, I am referring to the American public. I am heartened to see the people speaking up in Malaysia, South Korea, and Thailand. I love it when the French have one of their one-to-several day national strikes. I am heartened to see protests in China. The 1960’s civil rights marches in the US were some of the headiest days in the US

    I agree with Chua when she says that markets and democracy DO NOT go hand in hand. At least, real democracy and “free” markets. (Sometimes I want to throw up when I see the term “free market”)

    My personal, heretical, non-conformist (probably unrealistic) point of view: I believe that government and markets should serve the public. If our bodies behaved the way that “free” markets and “democracy” behave in this world, we would have very high mortality rates and much disease. We would have short lives with miserable existences. Which a number of people in this world experience.

  26. JD
    September 14th, 2008 at 01:49 | #26

    Wow, continuous democratic challenges, yet the Thais are still 30% richer than Chinese per capita. Imagine if China’s political system were even as advanced as Thailand. Not only would citizens have a say in important affairs, but they could also look forward to a richer, more just society.

    With a little effort, I think China could outdo its southeastern neighbour and implement a really good democratic model. But why compare China to Thailand in the first place? China’s benchmark for comparison should be the world’s most advanced, wealthiest, and well-governed countries.

  27. Robert
    February 17th, 2009 at 00:05 | #27

    Thailand will never be a western democracy, only until it achieves true freedom from it’s Grandpa Monarchy will fair elections occur.

    I feel very un-easy about a country that has a person who half the country see’s as a living god, I can’t buy into this as a western person and I just don’t get it ?

    Surely everybody is answerable, I have to say that even though Taksin is seen as a crimanal he also seems to have done a lot of good for Thailand. Opening up trade, raising up the poor, modernising Victorian style systems, developing the country.

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