Protecting Democracy from Itself? (Sept. 22, 2006)

A Monument to Democracy

As cars race down Ratchadamnoen Klang road, one of the main arteries running through Bangkok’s government district, a silver-blue sedan has just pulled alongside a group of three young men. The passenger, a woman in her 30s with dark sunglasses, leans out of the open window and hands one of them a bouquet of roses. As she drives off, he hands the flowers to one of his comrades, puts on his helmet, and readjusts his assault rifle. Since Tuesday night’ s coup, these and other soldiers from the Royal Thai Army have been stationed all over the county, but especially here in its capital. Minutes later a group of teenage girls approach and politely ask for a picture. Soon after, each young man commemorates the event by standing, weapon in hand, in front of a signpost while another takes aim with a camera phone. The sign reads ‘Democracy Monument’

The monument stands as a proud tribute to a 70 year old aspiration: rule by the people. The generals that had it erected were responsible for ending the absolute monarchy and believed that Thai society needed to be ‘made ready’ for democracy by a powerful, paternal leader. Since that time, Thailand has lived through a World War, a Cold War, a miraculous economic boom, a disastrous crash, and 15 coups. But it has been 14 years since the last one and the fact that civilian governments oversaw the redrafting of the constitution after the 97 crisis without needing military guidance led many to believe that democracy had taken hold for good. The armed forces were now thought to be professionalized and untroubled by political ambitions.

With tanks and soldiers patrolling the streets of Bangkok for the 16th time, some pundits are again asking when Thai society will finally be ready. Most, however, understand that this is not the same as previous power grabs. A poll yesterday revealed broad and strong support for the action and people genuinely believe the Army’s claim that they want to be out of the job of governing as soon as possible. So, if the military doesn’t want to rule, why have a coup?

Angels, Devils, and Demos?

After over an hour, the pace of gifts and photographs has not relented. The frequent distractions leave little time for any careful scrutiny of potential threats. But then the jungle camouflage is meant to attract attention rather than to conceal. What does go largely unnoticed, however, is a policeman standing off to the side wearing a sidearm and a slightly forced smile. He gets no requests for pictures, no attention from pretty girls, and in all likelihood the prime minister that has been forced out of office was his preferred candidate and the leader of party he voted for.

The conflict that has defined Thai politics for the last year is not as simple as it is portrayed in Bangkok’s English newspapers and coffee house conversations. Former Prime Minister Thaksin is not a universally reviled, dictatorial devil and the Anti Thaksin PAD are not selfless, pro-democracy Angels. Democracy is rule by the Demos, the people. But to those with a slightly different turn of mind, it is rule by the Demos -the mob, the unwashed masses. In many respects, the conflict between the pro and anti Thaksin forces is over which demos will rule and how. Similar conflicts have developed in every democracy since ancient Greece, often with considerably more strife than is now present on the streets of Bangkok.

Mr. Thaksin came to power in 2001 under a new set of electoral rules that dramatically strengthened the power of political parties. With the largest electoral victory in the history of the Kingdom, considerable personal wealth, and powerful allies, Mr. Thaksin was able to implement a populist policy agenda that appealed to poor, rural Thais. 75-cent doctor visits, rural business programs, and debt relief for farmers endeared the Thai-love-Thais party to the poor and politically neglected. The war on ‘dark influences’ (the mafia) together with the new electoral rules have given a political voice to Thailand’s rural majority by weakening the mafia’s powerful political machines. In this regard, Thaksin’s regime was one of the most democratic in Thai history. Truly rule by the people.

But to the middle-class Bangkokians driving up and down Ratchadamnoen Klang in their sedans, Mr. Thaksin was simply pandering to that other demos in order to hide his corrupt dealings and lustful quest for greater wealth and power. Thai Rak Thai’s pro-poor platform gave them unpresedented legislative power with no end in sight. That power and Mr. Thaksin’s wealth wore down the new constitution’s cherished cchecks and balances. The non-partisan senate, the constitutional court, and the electoral commission all lost the political will to challenge the Prime Minister. Five years of promoting loyal allies in the armed forces and police entrenched his position further.

Suddenly Bangkok had lost its voice. The traditional elite were powerless against the tyrrany of what they saw as the duped majority. Last year, accusations of rampant corruption served as the catalyst for massive protests in the capital. Tens of thousands cheered along with Thailand’s opposition parties, calling for Thaksin to get out. The events since that time have been political drama of the highest order. Military maneuvering, boycotted elections, high profile court cases, fistfights in shopping malls, pleas for royal intervention, mysterious letters to superpowers, charges of les majeste, and an allegedly staged assassination plot. Through it all, both sides shouted their pro-democracy credentials and cast their opponents as antidemocratic fiends. To those outside of Bangkok, Mr. Thaksin was chosen by the people and was protecting their interests from the urban elites that wanted to overrule their election. Meanwhile the anti-Thaksin crowd wished to remove a corrupt tyrant that used his personal wealth to erode democratic institutions.

With the massive protests scheduled to resume and rumors that Mr. Thaksin had instructed police to use less restraint with the demonstrators, it looked as though that the conflict would become violent. Mr. Thaksin was reportedly also about to replace the head of the military, Gen. Sondi, with a loyal supporter. Many felt that the time for drastic action had come. Thus, when Gen. Sondi ordered the army into action, soldiers were met with flowers and gratitude all throughout the county. The ‘smooth as silk’ coup has brought the military into power once more, claiming that it will guide the country towards lasting democracy. The presence of these soldiers in front of the Democracy Monument and throughout the country has certainly prevented direct conflict. Perhaps Mr. Thaksin’s grip on power was too strong to undo without help from the military. But it is as yet unclear whether the underlying tension over whose voice will be heard can be resolved without a little confrontation. Democracy is a messy process and no provides guarantee of civility. Eventually the conflict-adverse armed forces will have to let political forces play out as they will.


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