“If voting made a difference”, Mark Twain once wrote, “they would never let us do it.” In Thailand, this has more than a hint of being true.
The election was never going to resolve many of Thailand’s problems. The power of the pen, as a popular hashtag went, was never going to be enough to win against a military regime; on the other hand, the regime was never going to be successful at forcing everyone to turn their backs on Thaksin Shinawatra.
But there was at least a case for optimism: that we can return to regular parliamentary procedures, that a level of free political speech be returned, and that even if the military government remained in power, it could be held more accountable than before. The election had shown an unprecedented level of political engagement from younger voters. The debates had created a new level of policy-oriented, interesting political discourse. Thailand could have moved forward.
The recent days since the election, however, has diminished much of that positivity. The Electoral Commission, in what is probably a world first, announced it had actually not yet decided how it would calculate the seats in parliament — which incredulously managed to reduce the commission’s remaining credibility. The army commander, Apirat Kongsompong, had an outburst at a press conference and warned against “pretentious foreign-educated leftists”. And most recently, the leaders of the Future Forward Party were charged with sedition for largely trivial cases from years ago.
Professor Prajak Kongkirati of Thammasat University wrote on Twitter: “It is ordinary in every society for conservatism, centrism, libertarianism and progressivism to co-exist. It is abnormal for authoritarianism to shut out debate and different thinking.”
Yet that is exactly what is happening, even. Trust in what is a flawed democratic process is decreasing. Political discourse remains limited. Differing lines of thought are deemed illegitimate. We return to calling those we disagree with “extremists” and trying to shut out anyone on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.
Thai people often say that they do not like conflict, hence the need for unity (samakkee) and reconciliation (prongdong). But we need to distinguish clearly between political conflict that is resolved through extra-constitutional means and political conflict that exists within the parliamentary realm.
Conflict is inevitable in any free and open society, where different ideologies are bound to clash. This is healthy conflict; it moves society forward and produces better policymaking. Conflict that is unhealthy, however, is the conflict that Thailand has been having for the past two decades: where mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance are low, where people resort to dubious extraconstitutional means to win.
In other words, true unity and reconciliation is not a society where there is no conflict. That is impossible. It is one where we can agree to respect democratic norms and act within its bounds.
The purpose of the election should have been to return Thailand to a healthy form of conflict, where debate and discussion is lively but is bounded by what is possible in a parliamentary context. But attempting to slay down two party leaders before they have even officially entered parliament makes it clear to everyone that this will not be the case. Already, days after the election, protests have returned and people are back on the streets.
And indeed, this is already a lost cause for the junta. Imprisoning the leaders of the enormously popular Future Forward party will simply serve to turn them into martyrs and energize an already angry movement. It is impossible in the long term for the voices of millions of voters, and that of a new generation, to be ignored and sidelined completely.
What I fear is what will result from that attempt to ignore those millions of voters. History has shown that Thailand has a strong activist culture, and people have not hesitated to take to the streets if they feel the need to. But doing so will open a political pandora’s box once again, and any outcome could result; the military regime remains entrenched and is unlikely to yield, while this new strain of Thai progressivism will not go anywhere. What that means is a return to the same old cycle of democratic disruption that we have seen for the past two decades.
This election was an opportunity to move forward, even in a flawed way. Alas, it has given us more reason to be as pessimistic as before.