If there is a country in Southeast Asia whose politics has been as vibrant as ours, that country has to be Thailand. The parallelisms in the political saga of these two countries over the last twenty years are truly amazing.
Both countries have a “Southern” problem – an Islamic secessionist movement that has waged an intermittent war for independence. Both are attempting to create the conditions for sustainable growth in a global capitalist economy, while seeking to address the pressing needs of the desperately poor and marginalized. They have Thaksin, and we have Erap.
Both societies have felt the hand of military intervention, have seen the outcomes of dysfunctional elections, and have heard the irrepressible voice of a politically-engaged middle class. They have witnessed the militant idealism of university students, and have mourned the countless lives that have been sacrificed at the altar of democracy. In times of crisis, both societies have also tended to seek guidance from their traditional moral figures – the Thai royalty and the Buddhist monks, in their case, and the cardinals and bishops of the Catholic Church, in ours. And finally, both are trying to establish a modern democracy in a society that is still, in every way, hierarchical, paternalistic, and highly unequal. Can this be done – without resorting to undemocratic means?
On my last visit to Thailand a year ago, I bumped into an old friend, a prominent human rights leader who was active in the democracy movement in the 1980s. I gave him an astonished look when he told me he had accepted an appointment from the junta that seized power the previous year. He was now a member of the National Legislative Assembly in a country under martial rule. He acknowledged my puzzlement with a reassuring smile, saying: “I know how ironic it is.” My friends from the two major universities, Chulalongkorn and Thammasat, who were active in the struggle to oust the regime of Thaksin Shinawatra, found themselves overnight in this precisely paradoxical situation. How must they deal with a military that has swiftly overthrown the enemy?
Dr. Amara Pongsapich, former dean of Chulalongkorn’s Faculty of Political Science, captured the democrat’s dilemma in these words: “The military coup on September 19, 2006 was an undemocratic act to oust an undemocratically elected government with the promise of a new constitution and a new democratically elected government. The question is whether the end justifies the means or not. Thailand’s democracy is in the making, it is an ongoing process. The goal is to achieve sustainable democracy both in form and quality.”
After the coup, many academics and civil society activists were invited by the military to help craft a new constitution. The generals did not intend to keep power for themselves, they were told. They were there to pave the way for a truly democratic and accountable government. The plan was to end martial rule as soon as a new constitution was promulgated, and to begin the transition to a dulyelected government. Many accepted this wager with reservation, but not a few rejected it out of hand.
The military kept its word, and gave up power after a little more than a year. A new constitution was passed and elections were held, but only after the Commission on Elections outlawed the political party of Thaksin. Yet, even as Thaksin remained in exile, hounded by charges of massive corruption, his political network, built on populist programs and money politics, remained intact. Samak Sundaravej, a known Thaksin ally, mobilized the same network and, to the consternation of the anti-Thaksin forces, won a majority of the seats in that election and got himself installed as Prime Minister.
As soon as Samak took the reins of government, the demonstrations in Bangkok came to life again. Led by the Peoples Alliance for Democracy, they brought up the same issues of corruption and electoral manipulation against Thaksin’s alter ego. They surrounded the government house where Samak held office, demanding his resignation. Samak mobilized his own supporters, setting the stage for clashes between anti-Samak and pro-Samak forces. The army has tried to keep them apart, and has, so far, maintained a neutral stance.
A few days ago, Thailand’s Constitutional Court found Samak guilty of violating a law forbidding government officials from engaging in any form of private employment, and ordered his dismissal from office. The offense: continuing to host a cooking television talk show after becoming Prime Minister. Samak’s supporters have vowed to restore to him by election the office he lost by judicial action. The anti-Samak demonstrators, meanwhile, have refused to fold their banners and leave the streets; they want Samak out of Thai politics forever.
Is Thai civil society undermining democracy? It would be easy to come to this conclusion if democracy were equated merely with elections. What Thailand’s democracy activists say they are fighting for seems something more. They see the pursuit of democracy as the protracted struggle to organize the poor as empowered political subjects, to wean them away from their subjection as an army of docile voters activated purely by money and patronage. They are determined to keep at bay the traditional politicians that have preyed upon the ignorance and vulnerability of the Thai masses — by constitutional means if possible, or by extra-constitutional pressure if necessary. Such are the paradoxes of democracy.
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