Activists in 2014 wrapped a black cloth around the the Democracy Monument as a sign of protest against the military coup. (Photo by Apichart Jinakul)
Rao ma tueng jud nee dai young ngai? or “How did we arrive at this point?” is a Thai popular phrase expressing how one is facing a situation, with wonder and surprise, or just plain sarcasm. Many are asking the same question amid the current political predicament and ahead of the referendum on a constitution that imposes more control than gives way to liberal democracy.
“The people are not ready” and “they need to be more educated” before they can understand democracy, has been the argument from the beginning. A guided democracy, authoritarian even, is thus more suitable because Thailand is “unique”, unlike others especially those of Western democracies.
The “protectors’ of the system are the technocrats, both civilians and military, who are more knowledgeable and better equipped to deal with the nation’s problems than the “commoners”.
This line of reasoning remains and resonates throughout the present draft constitution. It reflects justifying the limitations of rights and liberties for the greater good; the need for “education reform” and “law enforcement” to amend the system and prevent leaders who are corrupt (from being elected — my addition); and correct the political rules that are “not appropriate” to the nation’s situation. National reform through a set strategic development plan will lessen conflicts, and establish reconciliation and peace.
On the other side are those who believe that an open, liberal democracy will be more beneficial to all Thais. Protecting human rights, ensuring freedom of speech and the liberty to pursue hopes and dreams under equal opportunities and the rule of law, are the basis for a peaceful and stable society.
Through elections, democracy will develop and mature, as people learn to pick good representatives and leaders and ditch the bad ones.
Political parties are vehicles through which policies are agreed upon amid divergent interests and presented to voters to decide.
A system of checks and balances, and accountability to the public, are much better than a corrupted bureaucratic system build upon patronage.
“The people themselves must be the makers of their own Constitution” said Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. Yes, Thais are unique, but there is a universal belief we as human beings must all uphold.
Wouldn’t it be great if it was a black and white world; a choice of dictatorship or democracy; authoritarian society or liberal; stability over chaos?
We may choose one over the other or pick the best of both worlds and live happily ever after. But alas, it is never that easy, for the world is grey and humans have faults.
Take Thailand’s deeply entrenched bureaucracy. Thais were never colonised nor did we lose in a world war. The bureaucratic system was never uprooted — and thus was not radically modernised. It has remained intact since the days of absolute monarchy through the present.
Thai bureaucracy, with its own ideology and modus operandi, is the nation’s largest political party.
There is no denial that the technocrats running various agencies have contributed greatly to the advancement of the country. But there are downsides too.
As bureaucracy grows, like every other organisation, it loses touch with reality. The power of patronage breeds corruption and blocks out a meritocratic system. People feel they are left out or taken advantage of by power hungry and corrupt officials, who are appointed and not accountable to them.
The ineffectiveness of bureaucracy to deal with the consequences of the Great Depression set the conditions for the Revolution of 1932. The more-than-decade long military dictatorship led to the student uprising in October 1973. And in May 1992, the urban middle class rejected the attempt by the military to gain control amid the worldwide shifts towards democracy and globalisation.
All three major events advanced democratic rule and reflected the public’s need to be heard and their woes addressed. Turning to elected politicians, many have argued there are good, bad and really bad, politicians.
The worst is when politics turns into a numbers game, in which the sole objective is to gain the most seats in the House of Representatives, and numbers determine the positions of ambitious individuals.
The best is when a political party gains enough votes to be able to change the way things are by implementing policy platforms promised to and chosen by voters.
Few political parties have clear platforms, legitimised by voters through elections, and successfully executed: Kukrit Pramoj’s Social Action Party welfare programme (1975), Chatichai Choonhavan’s Chart Pattana “War Zone to Trade Zone” foreign policy (1988), and Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai Party progressive yet populist agenda (2001).
The downside is, in a system of strong patronage, to get elected they must be patrons of sorts. Once in office, it is used as leverage to secure budgets and welfare handouts. Politicians end up competing to be patrons themselves both at the local and national levels. As cabinet ministers, they become the temporary head patron of the bureaucratic agency.
Without merit to uphold, patronage breeds political haggling and corruption allegations that destroy public faith and open the window of opportunity for the military to stage coup d’etats supported by technocrats and businessmen, and even the urban middle class.
Some politicians joined the last coup, as they hoped the military would change the political landscape to their advantage when a new constitution is drafted and elections called.
Since 2014, the pendulum has swung in the favour of technocrats. They opted for more control both in terms of the political structure and the development agenda into the future as stipulated in many of the laws passed and order signed, and of course embedded in the draft constitution.
This is a mistake. Control cannot be maintained because the paradigm has shifted, with a proliferation of internet and social media users, contributing to the vast information network, exchanging knowledge and forming opinions. Examples from democratic protests abroad instantly become a benchmark to be inspired, learnt and improve upon.
Economically, Thailand cannot exist alone in the world. The nation’s open economy is linked to the world and the well-being of our people depends on free trade and investment flows.
The pressure to comply with international standards of respecting human rights and liberty and freedom of speech and being a democracy stands alongside being accepted as a credible business partner. The barriers of non-compliance have a high price.
Some say the price to pay for democracy is well worth it and that it is a better alternative to allowing elected politicians to abuse their positions.
I would argue that the best way to contain the ambitions of politicians is to trust the voters. Pluralistic democracy will balance out diverse interests. But to make democracy work, the burden lies with the politicians. Political parties need to build platforms and address the various issues with a clear ideology of how to make them work.
They must screen and select candidates that are trustworthy, not just because he or she is the most popular patron in the area. Campaign finance must be reformed to ensure transparency and prevent donor influence and reciprocating favours.
Empty rhetoric resisting dictatorship and demanding a return to elections is not enough. Without a clear alternative other than a technocratic regime, politicians will just be contributing to the facade of a sham democracy of the technocrat regime.
About the author
Suranand Vejjajiva was secretary-general to the prime minister during the Yingluck Shinawatra government and is now a political analyst.