Is Thai Civil Society Undermining Democracy?
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Is Thai Civil Society Undermining Democracy?

An op-ed in Philippine Daily Inquirer first begins with some comparisons between Thailand and the Philippines on the violence in the “South” in both and military intervention, but there are a couple of interesting passages:

On my last visit to Thailand a year ago, I bumped into an old friend, a prominent human rights leader who was active in the democracy movement in the 1980s. I gave him an astonished look when he told me he had accepted an appointment from the junta that seized power the previous year. He was now a member of the National Legislative Assembly in a country under martial rule. He acknowledged my puzzlement with a reassuring smile, saying: “I know how ironic it is.”

Dr. Amara Pongsapich, former dean of Chulalongkorn’s Faculty of Political Science, captured the democrat’s dilemma in these words: “The military coup on Sept. 19, 2006 was an undemocratic act to oust an undemocratically elected government with the promise of a new constitution and a new democratically elected government. The question is whether the end justifies the means or not. Thailand’s democracy is in the making, it is an ongoing process. The goal is to achieve sustainable democracy both in form and quality.”

After the coup, many academics and civil society activists were invited by the military to help craft a new constitution. The generals did not intend to keep power for themselves, they were told. They were there to pave the way for a truly democratic and accountable government. The plan was to end martial rule as soon as a new constitution was promulgated, and to begin the transition to a duly-elected government. Many accepted this wager with reservation, but not a few rejected it out of hand.

The military kept its word and gave up power after a little more than a year. A new constitution was passed and elections were held, but only after the Commission on Elections outlawed the political party of Thaksin. Yet, even as Thaksin remained in exile, hounded by charges of massive corruption, his political network, built on populist programs and money politics, remained intact. Samak Sundaravej, a known Thaksin ally, mobilized the same network and, to the consternation of the anti-Thaksin forces, won a majority of the seats in that election and got himself installed as prime minister.

Is Thai civil society undermining democracy? It would be easy to come to this conclusion if democracy were equated merely with elections. What Thailand’s democracy activists say they are fighting for seems to be something more. They see the pursuit of democracy as the protracted struggle to organize the poor as empowered political subjects, to wean them away from their subjection as an army of docile voters activated purely by money and patronage. They are determined to keep at bay the traditional politicians that have preyed upon the ignorance and vulnerability of the Thai masses—by constitutional means if possible, or by extra-constitutional pressure if necessary. Such are the paradoxes of democracy.

BP: I mean I find this a backwards step. It as if the PAD want to go back to the 70s or the 80s before we get “full democracy”. Having already been there and ended up where we are now, is going back really going to improve things?

How do we know the masses (ie PPP voters) are so ignorant and vulnerable? I mean as opposed as the masses who attend the PAD rallies.

btw, Samak, a known Thaksin ally?

On the appointment of members of civil society to committees by the coup leaders, I blogged about the “treason of the intellectuals” last year.