Thailand: A democratic failure
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Thailand: A democratic failure

Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations has a blog post entitled “Thailand: A Democratic Failure and Its Lessons for the Middle East”. Key excerpts:

Yet as the experience of many developing nations in East Asia shows, these initial, exuberant glimpses of democratic reform can prove a mirage, and toppling a dictator hardly guarantees a smooth path to consolidated democracy. In the 1980s and early 1990s, nations from Indonesia to the Philippines to Mongolia embarked on their own democratic transitions, often after large-scale street demonstrations similar to the Middle East’s “Days of Rage.”Among newly democratizing nations, Thailand, where hundreds of thousands of Thais came out into the streets of Bangkok in 1992 to bring down a military government, seemed perhaps the best prospect for stable democracy. Thailand boasted a large, educated middle class, one of the best-performing economies in the world, and a relatively robust civil society. By the late 1990s, Thailand had held several free elections and passed a reformist constitution that enshrined greater protections for civil liberties and created a wealth of new institutions designed to root out graft and ensure civil rights. In its 1999 report on freedom in the world, monitoring organization Freedom House ranked Thailand a “free” nation.

Today, however, Thailand looks less like a success story and more like an example of how democracy can fail. Since a 2006 military coup, Thailand has reverted to a kind of soft authoritarianism: the military plays an enormous role in determining politics; the Thai middle class has become increasingly antidemocratic; and security forces have used threats, online filtering, arrests, and killings to intimidate opponents of a government sanctioned by the armed forces and Thailand’s monarchy. Freedom House recently ranked Thailand as only “partly free,” and the country has sunk near the bottom of all developing nations in rankings of press freedom. Thailand’s failures provide cautionary tales for reformers in the Arab world.

Where It Went Wrong

After forcing out the military and launching a first wave of democratic reforms, Thailand’s politics took a wrong turn in the past decade, starting the slide that has led to its soft authoritarianism. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, many leading Thai reformers, who had organized the protests in 1992, backed off, a major mistake. They believed, falsely, that Thailand had passed a threshold, allowing them to shut down their NGOs, their media watchdogs, and their transparency monitors. In the wake of the Asian financial crisis, many of these idealistic middle-class Thais suddenly found themselves unemployed, making it harder to spend time volunteering at nonprofits or leading nighttime discussion sessions about new political parties.

As Thailand’s reformers eased off the pressure, one of the country’s most powerful businessmen, telecommunications tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, used his fortune to build a political party and, in 2001, to run for prime minister. Thaksin took advantage of the fact that, contrary to what many reformers believed, the country’s institutions indeed remained weak. He bought up politicians to join his party, and when the courts tried to prosecute him for concealing his assets, he used connections in the judiciary to help win an acquittal, paving the way for him to take office. But Thaksin also offered policy proposals—inexpensive health care, loans to villages to start businesses—that genuinely appealed to Thailand’s poor, who still make up the majority of the country. No Thai politician had tried to court the poor with such comprehensive policies. Indeed, in the exuberance of the early democratic era, Thailand’s middle class seemed to forget that democracy would empower the poor at the ballot box—and that, if reform-minded parties did not appeal to this constituency, a less democratic-minded leader could win them over.

Elected in 2001 with landslide support from the poor, Thaksin soon showed he had little interest in strengthening Thailand’s democracy. Indeed, like Hugo Chávez, Vladimir Putin, Evo Morales, and other leaders who have emerged in many weak democracies today, Thaksin became an elected autocrat. He used his power to threaten Thailand’s free media, eviscerate its independent civil service, and launch a bloody campaign against insurgents in the country’s Muslim-majority south. Like other elected autocrats, Thaksin also rewarded political allies with large government contracts and punished political enemies financially.

By 2005, when Thaksin was reelected, again with massive support from the poor, he dominated the country’s political landscape. And yet Thailand had not become Equatorial Guinea or Libya; the Thai middle classes, who had led the democratic revolution before, could have fought back against Thaksin at the ballot box, through the remaining independent news outlets or in the courts. But instead, like middle classes in many emerging democracies today, they had grown disillusioned with democracy, believing that it had delivered only elected autocracy and that it would empower the poor at their expense.

So, instead of choosing the democratic path, Thailand’s urban middle class launched street protests in 2006 designed to bring down an elected government—by triggering a coup if necessary. The protesters encouraged a return to older forms of Thai “democracy,” in which a small oligarchy essentially controlled politics through unelected positions in parliament, the bureaucracy, and the army. They got what they wanted: the military launched a coup in September 2006, and Thaksin fled into exile. This process has been repeated in recent years in countries from the Philippines to Honduras, where middle classes have used similarly dubious means to push out elected leaders they viewed as excessively populist.

The Thai coup, unfortunately, only triggered a total meltdown. Thaksin might have damaged the country’s weak democracy, but the military ruined it. It shredded the reformist constitution and set the stage for today’s Thai government, which unleashed massive force against demonstrators who gathered in the streets of Bangkok in spring 2010. In that bloodshed, at least eighty people were killed, and parts of Bangkok’s central business district were torched, leaving the prosperous city looking more like Baghdad or Kabul.

The Lessons of Thailand’s Meltdown

Later this year, Thailand will go to the polls in a national election touted by the government as a major step toward reconciliation between classes and factions following the bloodshed last year. But the election is unlikely to be free and fair. The military allegedly has been working behind the scenes to build support for the ruling party, and if the opposition, still aligned with the exiled Thaksin, does happen to win, it is quite possible the armed forces will launch a coup. This would only further deepen class divides in Thailand and possibly spark all-out civil conflict.

BP: There is not much that BP disagrees with although BP thinks the total meltdown is yet to happen…. A total meltdown is more likely to occur if a big event happens. So much shit is likely to hit the fan then it will be blowing in all directions.

If the military launches a coup then if the military or the establishment thinks that last year’s protests were big and disruptive then well post-coup protests would dwarf that. This time it would not just be the red shirts either who may came out onto the streets. The problem that the red shirts faced last year was, what was their motivating cause to come out NOW? The PAD used Thaksin selling of Shin Corp in 2006, but last year there was no real motivating cause (yes, Thaksin had one, but what about specific outrage had just occurred that demanded a protest right then). Yes, there was double standards, but that was not a new issue. It was more of a build-up of issues over time. A coup would provide a motivating issue for so many people to protest and that the size of the protests would so overwhelm the Thai military that well the outcome for the military is unlikely to be good…

Now, there is talk that if Puea Thai wins the election that the military may try to intervene to prevent Puea Thai from forming a government. If so one can imagine the red shirts coming out on the streets then, although the protest numbers are likely to be significantly smaller than an actual military coup, OR if the intervention is unsuccessful then a coup if Puea Thai form a government and try to remove Army C-in-C Prayuth and other senior military leaders.

In 2008, then PM Samak maintained a close relationship with the military and really his and later PM Somchai’s PPP-led governments did not seriously try to rock the boat with the military, but look what good that got them? The military called on PM Somchai to resign, didn’t stop the airport shut down, and then engineered a Democrat-led party coalition. There is no reason for Puea Thai to be so deferential to the military this time around, that is if they form a government post-2011 election. In fact, one wonders if many in Puea Thai deliberately want to remove Prayuth to “induce” a coup as that could later lead to a greater reform of the military….

Now, if the military agrees with the above, then they (or more accurately the senior leaders of the current military) also have the incentive from trying to prevent Puea Thai from winning an election and forming a government because it would be so unwise to try to stage a coup when Puea Thai are in government.

btw, see BP’s previous posts on Joshua’s blog posts here (Thailand’s escalating violence), here (end of brand Thailand), here (on battles of elites), here (on soft authoritarianism), and here (Wikileaks)