Yingluck: Elements of anti-democratic regime still exist in Thailand
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Yingluck: Elements of anti-democratic regime still exist in Thailand

Before looking at reaction to the speech that has caused so much drama and debate in Thailand, it is really necessary to look at what Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra actually said.

On April 29, Yingluck attended the 7th Ministerial Conference of the Community of Democracies* and below is the text of her speech:

I wish to begin by expressing my appreciation to His Excellency the President of Mongolia for inviting me to speak at this Conference of the Community of Democracies.

I accepted this invitation not only because I wanted to visit a country that has made many achievements regarding democracy, or to exchange ideas and views on democracy. But I am here also because democracy is so important to me, and more importantly, to the people of my beloved home, Thailand.

Democracy is not a new concept. Over the years, it has brought progress and hope to a lot of people. At the same time, many people have sacrificed their blood and lives in order to protect and build a democracy.

A government of the people, by the people and for the people does not come without a price. Rights, liberties and the belief that all men and women are created equal have to be fought, and sadly, died for.

Why? This is because there are people in this world who do not believe in democracy. They are ready to grab power and wealth through suppression of freedom. This means that they are willing to take advantage of other people without respecting human rights and liberties. They use force to gain submission and abuse the power. This happened in the past and still posed challenges for all of us in the present.

In many countries, democracy has taken a firm root. And it is definitely refreshing to see another wave of democracy in modern times, from Arab Spring to the successful transition in Myanmar [Burma] through the efforts of President Thein Sein, and also the changes in my own country where the people power in Thailand has brought me here today.

At the regional level, the key principles in the ASEAN Charter are the commitment to rule of law, democracy and constitutional government. However, we must always beware that anti-democratic forces never subside. Let me share my story.

In 1997, Thailand had a new constitution that was created through the participation from the people. Because of this, we all thought a new era of democracy has finally arrived, an era without the cycle of coups d’état.

It was not to be. An elected government which won two elections with a majority was overthrown in 2006. Thailand lost track and the people spent almost a decade to regain their democratic freedom.

Many of you here know that the government I am talking about was the one with my brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, as the rightfully elected Prime Minister.

Many who don’t know me say that why complain? It is a normal process that governments come and go. And if I and my family were the only ones suffering, I might just let it be.

But it was not. Thailand suffered a setback and lost international credibility. Rule of law in the country was destroyed. Projects and programmes started by my brother’s government that came from the people’s wishes were removed. The people felt their rights and liberties were wrongly taken away.

Thai means free, and the people of Thailand fought back for their freedom. In May 2010, a crackdown on the protestors, the Red Shirts Movement, led to 91 deaths in the heart of the commercial district of Bangkok.

Many innocent people were shot dead by snipers, and the movement crushed with the leaders jailed or fled abroad. Even today, many political victims remain in jail.

However, the people pushed on, and finally the government then had to call for an election, which they thought could be manipulated. In the end, the will of people cannot be denied. I was elected with an absolute majority.

But the story is not over. It is clear that elements of anti-democratic regime still exist. The new constitution, drafted under the coup leaders led government, put in mechanisms to restrict democracy.

A good example of this is that half of the Thai Senate is elected, but the other half is appointed by a small group of people. In addition, the so called independent agencies have abused the power that should belong to the people, for the benefit of the few rather than to the Thai society at large.

This is the challenge of Thai democracy. I would like to see reconciliation and democracy gaining strength. This can only be achieved through strengthening of the rule of law and due process. Only then will every person from all walks of life feel confident that they will be treated fairly. I announced this as part of the government policy at Parliament before I fully assumed my duties as Prime Minister.

Moreover, democracy will also promote political stability, providing an environment for investments, creating more jobs and income. And most importantly, I believe political freedom addresses long-term social disparities by opening economic opportunities that would lead to reducing the income gap between the rich and the poor.

That is why it is so important to strengthen the grassroots. We can achieve this through education reforms. Education creates opportunities through knowledge, and democratic culture built into the ways of life of the people.

Only then will the people have the knowledge to be able to make informed choices and defend their beliefs from those wishing to suppress them. That is why Thailand supported Mongolia’s timely UNGA resolution on education for democracy.

Also important is closing gaps between rich and poor. Everyone should be given opportunities and no one should be left behind. This will allow the people to become an active stakeholder in building the country’s economy and democracy.

That is why my Government initiated policies to provide the people with the opportunities to make their own living and contribute to the development of our society. Some of these include creating the Women Development Fund, supporting local products and SMEs as well as help raising income for the farmers.

And I believe you need effective and innovative leadership. Effective in implementing rule of law fairly. Innovative in finding creative peaceful solutions to address the problems of the people.

You need leadership not only on the part of governments but also on the part of the opposition and all stakeholders. All must respect the rule of law and contribute to democracy.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Another important lesson we have learnt was that international friends matter. Pressure from countries who value democracy kept democratic forces in Thailand alive. Sanctions and non-recognition are essential mechanisms to stop anti-democratic regimes.

An international forum like Community of Democracies helps sustain democracy, seeking to promote and protect democracy through dialogue and cooperation. More importantly, if any country took the wrong turn against the principle of democracy, all of us here need to unite to pressure for change and return freedom to the people.

I will always support the Community of Democracies and the work of the Governing Council. I also welcome the President’s Asian Partnership Initiative for Democracy and will explore how to extend our cooperation with it.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to end my statement by declaring that I hope that the sufferings of my family, the families of the political victims, and the families of the 91 people, who lost their lives in defending democracy during the bloodshed in May 2010, will be the last [“will be the last” emphasis in original].

Let us continue to support democracy so that the rights and liberties of all human beings will be protected for future generations to come!

BP: What is most surprising is that the speech comes almost two years of mostly conciliatory speaking. Below are some comments in the following order of importance:

1. The main audience for the speech was domestic. One part was aimed at the government’s owns supporters. The government has been trying not to do much to upset the establishment, but some of the government’s own supporters want the government to move at a faster pace on constitutional reform and a number of other political issues as well as to take the fight to the establishment. BP wouldn’t say this was aimed at “the base” – to use US political parlance – as not all members of the “Puea Thai base” are more interested in the political programs. A number would prefer more attention to so-called “populist” policies. Nevertheless, for some who support the government, particularly amongst red shirt supporters, the speech was talk of a more direct approach. Will it be matched with more action over time?

2. Another section of the domestic audience this speech was aimed at is the “establishment”. Simply put, the speech seems to indicate, together with the recent refusal of Puea Thai to submit testimony to the Constitution Court over the Court accepting a petition against the proposed rewrite of Section 68 of the Constitution, that the government is no longer willing to continue backing down as they did last year with the constitutional amendments and amnesty.

BP thinks Thaksin’s preference would be for a compromise, but given the last 18 months have seen a number of backdowns from the government, the speech and other recent events/actions is likely meant to be a sign to the establishment that the government will press ahead if a deal cannot be worked out. Will the government actually press ahead of no deal is forthcoming?

3. Part of the speech was aimed at the establishment in another way. That is by speaking to an international audience – see bolded and underlined parts. The speech is trying to build up support for sanctions and other measures if there was another coup. This Brookings paper indicates Thailand was a participant in 2000, 2002, and 2005 conferences, but was “not invited” in 2007 (no doubt because of the 2006 coup and military-installed government at the time). The US Deputy Secretary of State stated at the latest conference “we have established a Governing Council that is truly democratic, enabling the organization to make tough decisions, including the suspension of countries where democracy has seriously faltered”. One example of this was that Mali’s membership with the Community of Democracy was suspended in 2012 after a coup in the country. Obviously, the Community of Democracies is not a well-known organization in Thailand so Thailand’s suspension as a member if there was a coup would not receive much news. Then again, with Yingluck’s speech the Community of Democracies has become more well-known. Nevertheless, it is more of a symbolic message to the establishment, particularly the military, that a military coup would not be looked on favourably by the international community and Thaksin will “fight” this time unlike in 2006.

NOTE: There are a few other issues about the speech that would like to look at in future posts particularly, the “why now?” issue as well as the insult directed at Yingluck by the Thai Rath cartoonist in a Facebook post, the politically ill-advised lawsuit by Yingluck against the cartoonist, and very ill-advised and concerning statements by the ICT Minister about shutting down websites that posted defamatory comments (he seems to have backed down on the comments), but these are issues for other posts.

* There has been a great deal of commentary about what Yingluck said, but less so on the forum that she spoke at. Community of Democracies (CD) website explaining the organization:

The Community of Democracies is a global intergovernmental coalition of democratic countries, with the goal of promoting democratic rules and strengthening democratic norms and institutions around the world.

The Community was initiated by the minister of Foreign Affairs of Poland, prof Bronislaw Geremek, and US Secretary of State dr Madeleine Albright, inviting all democratic countries to a conference in Warsaw hosted by Poland in June 2000.The conference gathered ministerial delegations from 106 countries from all over the world, who signed the final declaration, Toward a Community of Democracies , still today the most comprehensive international declaration on democratic values.

Today, well over 100 democratic countries who meet democratic standards participate at ministerial meetings every two years to discuss issues of common concern. The Governing Council is the highest decision-making body and presently consists of 24 member countries. Participants and members of the Community collaborate with each other and with civil society to strengthen democracy in a variety of ways: in the UN Democracy Caucus, in working groups, in missions on the ground and in global initiatives

From the CD website on the  7th Conference theme “…it concluded two years of Mongolian presidency of the Community of Democracies, highlighting the message of democracy on the rise in Asia“.

BP: It would have been unusual if she had not talked about the coup and democracy in Thailand….

US Embassy on the participants of the 7th Conference:

Different Heads of State and Foreign Ministers will take part in the conference, among them the President of Nigeria, Mr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, and Prime Minister of Thailand, Mrs. Yingluck Shinawatra; EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Baroness Catherine Ashton; UN Under-Secretary-General; Foreign Ministers of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, Czech Republic, El Salvador, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Japan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Slovakia, Serbia and Ukraine. The Ministers will interact with leading democracy actors: Nobel Peace Prize Laureates Aung San Suu Kyi and Tawakkol Karman, UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Association, Maina Kiai, heads of the international organizations – International IDEA, OSCE, NDI, IRI and NED – civil society activists from all over the world, members of parliaments and invitees from the private sector.

BP: The G8 or G20 it is not….US Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns also spoke, but the vast majority of the speakers were not elected heads of state/prime minister level (although we got a video message from Obama) although this meant Yingluck did get a prominent speaking position following the President of Mongolia…

This earlier report on the CD conference by fellow Asian Correspondent writer Michelle Tolson is also worth a read: A tale of two democracies: How Mongolia has outshone Cambodia