Thailand’s Big Step Backwards

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Thailand’s Big Step Backwards

In abandoning its democratic ideals, the country risks a return to a pre-modern era.

Thailand’s Big Step Backwards
Credit: REUTERS/Erik De Castro

There have been many disturbing developments taking place in Thailand of late, despite the relative calm made possible by a year of martial law. Freedom of speech has been curtailed alarmingly since the military staged a coup, with academic dissent and members of the opposition being called into the barracks for “attitude adjustment,” psycho-intimidation, detention, or even arrest. Many who insist on voicing their disagreement with the military regime have had their passports revoked, forcing them to seek asylum overseas. Social media surveillance and media censorship, and the rising lèse-majesté allegation and prosecution, have gripped Thais and non-Thais alike in fear and silence. Constitutional and other reform moves are showing signs of a throwback to an authoritarian era, with the prospects of unelected government, appointed prime minister, non-democratic elements, and further centralization of powers in the hands of the old traditional elite: the military, the bureaucracy, and the monarchy establishments.

Since May 2014, the international community has been asking: How did Thailand come to this? Just a decade ago, Thailand was a beacon of democracy in the region, trusted by Western democracies to nudge Myanmar out of authoritarianism. Now, the reverse seems imminent. It seems increasingly conceivable that neighboring Myanmar could pass Thailand on the march towards greater freedom and democratization.

How do the traditional elite or the typical monarchy-fearing Thais explain this backward spiral? First, they will say that the protracted demonstrations aimed at preventing elections from taking place, which they claim to be well-intentioned, and the counter-protests by election-supporters, have destabilized the country and the military’s reluctant intervention was needed to salvage the nation from further chaos and to “bring back happiness” to Thais.

Second, they will insist that former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his entire clan are hugely corrupt, as if Thai politics before them had been clean and pure, and that he threatened to undermine, or even overthrow, the royal institution, which they claim is unconditionally and universally revered by all Thais.

Third, they will tell you that Thailand is unique and that its monarchy is the best and the noblest, that Thailand is exceptional by the fact that its national identity is interwoven with the royal establishment at the top of the social hierarchy. They will also reassure you that Thailand remains committed to its own version of democracy, which they claim has worked well with the constitutional monarchy, at least until Thaksin came along.

These arguments are well-worn talking points spun by the Thai bureaucracy and the conservative segment, which comprise the well-heeled rich, the manipulated poor, and the brainwashed mass. But just how many Thais really support this medieval version of monarchy is not known, because no referendum on this has ever been allowed. Thais, unfortunately, have no choice about their country’s regime type; they are made to believe from birth that they are fortunate to have the best royals in the world. Any dissidents are effectively ex-communicated. Developed countries, most notably the U.S., Japan, and the European Union, have tried in vain to use logic and liberal political arguments with the Thai leadership, who have refused to budge from their outdated and insular views about what roles the monarchy should play in modern times. This old guard insists that the only way is to preserve these ancient practices and protocols, and that Thaksin and his networks must be banished from Thai politics for good, if the country is to achieve unity and prosper. For this purpose, lèse-majesté is wielded as a tool, on the ground of safeguarding national security, to repress different views and suppress progressive reform efforts.

To those educated in the liberal arts and Western philosophy, the arguments of the military and traditional elite ring as empty excuses to cling to absolute power. Their talking points are flawed for many reasons. First, the conflicts and unrest over the past years were not caused by Shinawatra alone, as they claimed. In fact, they were symptoms of a serious ailment afflicting Thailand’s political culture, one that needed urgent treatment if Thailand was to survive in the modern era. Demonstrations by the mostly urban, whistleblowing crowd who proudly saw themselves as “corruption police” during late 2013 to early 2014, which ushered in the May 2014 coup, were misled and mistaken in their democratic assumptions. In fact, the resort to non-parliamentary means, particularly the sabotage of elections and destruction of ballot polls, showed the disrespect the demonstrators had for the majority and their fear of losing the elections. Again, they will tell you that the mass was deceived by Thaksin and therefore democratic elections were not the solution. Imagine if other countries were to come up with the same justification every time they wanted to get rid of a popular political opponent.

Second, the military’s claim to “return happiness” to Thailand is unconvincing. This definition of “happiness” is paternalistic – no referendum has been held to ask the people what they really want.  And while corruption is widely reviled, no one says a word about the culture of patronage that has eaten away at the country’s democratic core, the patronage networks in which the monarchy sits at the apex. Patronage, which often eludes the law, can be as bad as corruption.

Third, the claim that democracy has been compatible with Thailand’s political system and culture until Thaksin came to power is unfounded. Thailand’s democracy is young and has always been weak – and weakened by Thai culture. The country first experienced democracy only as recently as the 1990s, and the system has been hampered by a monarchy-centric bureaucracy and an electorate with little political and civic education, and dragged down by cronyism and patronage. The crux of the problem lies in the fact that the traditional elite refuse to share power with or accommodate the new elite – the new power machine of Thaksin and his competitive networks, and the fact that conservative elements cling to their power and privileges, which have been undermined by the growing call for greater equality and rights brought about by democratic awakening.

Thailand cannot claim a commitment to democracy, unless it improves its understanding of and respect for individual liberty and freedom of opinion. Most important – and most difficult – is the need to reform the country’s monarchy, whose relationship with Thailand’s elite networks and the masses needs a serious analysis and debate. Sadly, most Thais continue to shut their doors and block their ears to different views, demanding that the world understand them while they refuse to consider how the outside world perceives them. As the world gives up on this once-vibrant country, many Thais will be further imprisoned by fear and lack of political imagination. Even after elections are held, it is unlikely that Thailand will become more democratic or more free. The impeachment and possible prosecution of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of Thaksin and a democratically elected prime minister in her own right, is another bad sign that the country’s reconciliation is unlikely to succeed given this winner-takes-all mentality.

Most disturbing of all is the lack of moral courage among mainstream intellectuals, the elite, and the middle class, who prefer to self-censor and stay silent. Unless the lèse-majesté law is reformed, Thailand will never progress towards modernity, let alone democracy. Equally worrying is the trend of accusing supporters of democracy of being against the monarchy, which risks linking the monarchy with authoritarianism. As the current and future leadership show no sign of embracing more progressive reforms, the only hope may lie with the country’s younger population. Influencing this cohort through liberal education and positive exposure to democratic values may be the only path to save Thailand from its return to antiquity. Thailand, ironically, seems too tied down by its own Thai-ness to modernize and democratize.

Sam Michael is an independent writer.