Thailand in Crisis: Unanswered Questions

Thailand’s current political crisis has lasted almost two decades. Three constitutions, two military coups, seven prime ministers, extreme political polarization, numerous color-coded protests and endless turmoil: it is the story of a crisis that has engulfed Thailand in both chaos and tragedy, involved all from the elite to the masses, and still shows no clear sign of ending.

If insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, then it would not be difficult to argue that Thai politics has truly gone insane. The cast of characters at each stage might have been slightly different, but the plot remained largely the same. A poorer, more rural but newly empowered majority fought a more prosperous yet fearful urban middle and upper class, but both sides have found, time and time again, that neither have quite the resources and political capital to overwhelm one another. The result, after twenty years of conflict, has been stalemate and exhaustion. Both sides may keep trying to retain political power, but no single victory has been enduring for any of the parties to this conflict.

The question now becomes one of how to move forward. Evidently, much has gone wrong. How, then, do we fix this mess? I have organized this discussion around finding solutions to three questions that have yet to be answered.

1. How can we build institutional forbearance and mutual tolerance? In a Bangkok Post article, I argued that we need to foster two norms that two Harvard professors, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, say are crucial to sustaining democracy: institutional forbearance and mutual tolerance. Mutual tolerance is the “the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals”, while institutional forbearance refers to “the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives” (i.e refrain from abusing the powers of office for maximum advantage). Without these two unwritten norms, Levitsky and Ziblatt argue, democracy will decline.

It is abundantly clear that neither norms have been well-respected in the past two decades. In his quest for political domination, Thaksin Shinawatra ignored the rule of law, intimidated the judiciary, promoted cronies in the armed forces, neutralized supposedly independent political institutions and interfered with the media. Attempting to ram through the Amnesty Bill at 4 AM is another example. In addition, both reds and yellows refused to accept each other as legitimate. The rhetoric shows as much: reds often referred to their enemies as amart (an archaic term for elite, meant to convey a sense of feudalism) that had to be crushed and overthrown, while yellows accused the reds of being kwai daeng (red buffaloes, a Thai slang for stupid) that should know their place. This inability for mutual tolerance resulted in the conviction that the ends justifies the means and thus the bloody street protests that gripped Bangkok multiple times.

Democracy cannot be sustained in conditions of such extreme animosity and polarization. If both sides continue to believe that they can use any means necessary to prevent the other from attaining power while consolidating their own, democratic procedures cannot be upheld. But how can we foster these norms? How do we nurture reconciliation, reduce polarization and avoid the temptations to play hardball? The first step, I believe, is the building of political literacy. It is why I wrote this series: to illustrate the pitfalls of not displaying mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance. But how we move on beyond here is an open question.

2. Is it possible to prevent the politicization of the military and judicial activism? This series has shown the almost tedious cycle of court rulings and military coups that time and time again felled prime ministers and governments. The military, despite early beliefs in the late 1990s that it was becoming steadily de-politicized, remained a largely partisan force that saw political intervention as a duty. The courts, on the other hand, consistently intervened to the benefit of one side, imposing harsh verdicts for even relatively small transgressions.

Why was this permitted to happen? The answer is relatively simple. The answer follows on from the lack of mutual tolerance: once it is believed that political enemies do not have any legitimacy, then the use of extra-constitutional mechanisms such as military coups or judicial activism are easily accepted. There is a genuine belief that Thaksin and the forces that he represents are a uniquely dangerous and corrupting to Thailand and allowing him and his allies to remain in power would conclude in the overthrowing of the Thai state as we know it. The fears were existential, and such coups, whether military or judicial, were welcome to prevent the corrupting forces that kept winning at the ballot box. The flip-side of this perspective is exasperation that anti-Thaksin parties such as the Democrats proved utterly incompetent at fighting elections; thus, conservatives were left with no other recourse.

But even if we accept this viewpoint, it is difficult to agree with the corollary that such undemocratic mechanisms are sustainable and are compatible with building a sustainable democracy. Judicial activism creates the unsurprising perception that the courts are partisan, significantly hindering their legitimacy and thus their ability to enforce the rule of law. The military, on the other hand, will continue to hang over elected governments like a cloud. For a true democracy to be built, political issues must be resolved through parliament and at the ballot box. In more practical terms, this means that anti-Thaksin forces must learn how to win elections again, instead of shunning democratic methods. This is not an impossible task. Global politics show that even once-formidable political juggernauts everywhere can eventually be defeated. The task for the anti-Thaksin becomes finding a compelling alternative vision for Thailand that can allow it to attain electoral victory.

3. What does a true Thai democracy look like? Constitution drafting is a task that Thai governments frequently find themselves occupied with, each iteration being announced as the cure to fix democracy. Indeed, they can be viewed as an unending quest to build the perfect ‘Thai-style democracy’. What should this democracy look like, however? The 1997 constitution represented a major progressive step towards enshrining rights, preventing corruption and creating checks-and-balances. It made the fatal step of creating a strengthened executive, however, that Thaksin successfully exploited – too successfully. The 2007 constitution thus took a step backwards in reducing the concentration of power within the executive, but this was not enough to deter Thaksin’s nominee governments. The 2016 constitution has thus brought in even more checks and balances, including formal military oversight of politics.

The underlying motive for all Thai constitution drafters has been the need for khon dee (‘good people’) to run the government, where moral people would triumph and rule with wisdom. The anti-Thaksin camp believes that red shirts are uneducated, uncouth and thus unfit to run the country, susceptible to the populist and corrupt allure of the Shinawatras. However, translating the theory of a moralistic monopoly of government to practice has proved impossible. The pro-Thaksin camp, on the other hand, has spoken the more classically conventional democratic language of elections and rights. However, they fail to recognize that this tyranny of the majority does not accommodate the entrenched interests and legitimate concerns that anti-Thaksinites have. These competing notions of Thai democracy both ignore that we are failing to accommodate all classes, regions and groups.

Are there reforms that we can make to create a Thai democracy that is more accommodating of all interests? Yes. One often-proposed step is the decentralization of power from Bangkok, so that local governance becomes more effective and the stakes for control of Government House are lowered. But in the end, the most important move that is needed is to build a true understanding of what democracy and pluralistic governance is. Democracy is not about always ensuring that good people is running the country, because no system of government, authoritarian or democratic, can guarantee that. It is also not about building a majority that can then sideline all other voices in society. Democratic governance, instead, must be both pluralistic and accountable. It must empower emergent voices in society while protecting existing ones. It must recognize the sovereignty that is vested in the people and allow them to hold their elected officials accountable. It must allow for full political participation in ways that exist within the bounds of the constitution.

The quest to build such a democracy continues.






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