Thailand’s Democracy Under Siege

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Like many other countries in Southeast Asia, Thailand is historically and culturally an inherently unequal society. The Thai language, for example, serves as a linguistic medium imbued with hierarchical indicators and class-based insinuation. Before addressing someone correctly, you are expected to determine first and foremost the person’s age. Then, the correct prefix can be placed in front of the name. Other linguistic and colloquial additives are used to connote the speaker’s positioning, chosen, preferred, or congenital, in the country’s social pyramid. And this is not to mention the continued, albeit waning, existence of royal and aristocratic titles and surnames among the populace.

Many other nations, you might argue, also have their share of royal families and privileged classes. But in Thailand, the system has been exceptionally well-preserved in the sanctified value system that belies the liberal veneer.

The stark contrast between rich and poor in Thailand may not be as extreme as it is in the least developed countries, but the unaddressed and reinforced disparity is a contributing factor that has fueled Thailand’s chronic conflicts.

Most elites in Thailand either have royal connections or derive their massive wealth from big businesses that, in turn, send tributary donations to royal and governmental projects. A large number of Thai elite were educated overseas and send their children abroad to ensure their continued privileges in the society. Public schools and educational institutes in Thailand, despite their relatively good standards, are nowhere near being among the world’s best. As testimony to Thailand’s conservatism, Thai university students still have to wear uniforms until graduation.

The Class Divide 

Looking at Thailand’s political crisis from a class-based perspective alone is flawed, offering only an incomplete explanation. Still, it is undeniable that Thailand’s social division is an outcome of a lopsided social structuring and a growing divide between conservative and progressive elements.
While these observations are mostly a micro picture of Thailand, it is precisely these cultural and socio-historical attributes that make democratization in Thailand problematic. At the risk of indulging in conspiracy theory, one often wonders if the masses in Thailand have been kept ignorant on purpose. State mechanisms, from school curricula to civil service codes, have long emphasized unity and conformity at the expense of values like equality and egalitarianism.

Currently, government agencies in Thailand are being deployed by the military government to monitor dissenting views with the purpose of keeping Thais in the cocoon of so-called national unity. Their rationale? The Thai monarchy has been a uniquely and solely benevolent pillar in the Thai society – as if no other social elements have ever done any good for the country. In short, diverse opinions will not be accommodated as this interferes with the perceived need to keep the country “unified.” Thailand’s overseas offices have also been instructed to reach out and explain the military government’s plans and policies, on the misguided assumption that a correct “understanding” of the junta’s “good intentions” will encourage the international community to accept and approve of their methods.

The exceptionalism and excessive glorification of the established order in Thailand, in this case the palace, is self-entrenching and carries enormous risk. It has done little to advance democratic education among Thais, resulting in an uneven and superficial understanding of their rights and duties as citizens. Suppressing dissent and instilling a sense of forced reverence – as evidenced in the several cases of arrests and other psychological warfare methods – is not the optimal way to strengthen democracy. The chronic protests that have repeatedly occurred among different groups serve as evidence of a serious breakdown in normal policy and political process.

Rethinking Paternalistic Rule

The problem with Thailand’s democratization, then, does not lie solely in Thaksin Shinawatra or in the excessive influence of parliament. Rather, it is the culture of impunity indirectly sustained by an unequal social structure. It is a common knowledge in Thailand that if you get caught breaking the law, you are quite likely to get off the hook if you have a powerful connection, palatial and political especially.

Given this starting point, many Thais have little faith in political institutions. This, in turn, breeds a culture of protests, extra-parliamentary politics, and the competition to attach oneself to individuals with a view to obtaining impunity. Personality cults and patronage-style governance weaken institutions, creating a cycle of corruption, bad governance, and double-standards, which further undermines public trust in politicians and the democratic process.

At some point, the Thai leadership will need to ask whether this cycle of paternalistic rule is sustainable. Elsewhere around the world, official institutions have learned, willingly or otherwise, to reform and adjust to changing socio-political contexts. The Thai military, like other actors in Thailand, will need to do the same. While it is using the opportunity of the coup to undertake several initiatives, such as stamping out mafia gangs and cleaning up corrupt systems, it will be interesting to see if it can resist the siren call of corruption and vested interests itself.

In particular, the two-pronged approach of running a “happiness campaign” of free concerts and fun festivals for the general public, while leaning on individuals to report in and sign a letter pledging to stay out of political activities has drawn widespread flak and raises eyebrows about the military’s expressed intention of consolidating democracy. Resisting pressure now will only mean larger, more severe cracks later. Silence, especially on the part of the palace, is not always golden. Palace defenders should protect the Thai monarchy from being exploited for political gain. One way to do this would be by improving the application of the lèse-majesté law to prevent unfair or excessive punishment. Most importantly, the junta needs to understand that reform of the monarchy does not necessarily mean abolishing it, as it seems to fear. And keeping the public in blissful innocence will only delay the nation’s political maturity.

Like it or not, Thailand needs to make room for different opinions. On the political and administrative fronts, more open debate is needed. Hunting down dissenting voices betrays the military’s insecurities, not its strength Thai people need to be better informed on politics so that they can engage in substantive, quality political debates, as opposed to the kind of rhetorical hate speech that has created this protracted divide. Otherwise, no government, civilian or military, will be able to end the pervasive corruption and acrimony that have engulfed the country. The Thai bureaucracy, too, needs an overhaul to make it more professional and meritocratic. To achieve this, the mainstream Thai body politic must strengthen civil society to reduce the polarization between extreme elements. At the same time, the Thai people must gradually learn to speak to each other as equals in the same, civil language. Only then can democracy begin the take root in Thailand.

Samak Mith is a freelance writer based in Singapore.

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