Will 2005 be Thailand’s annus horribilis?

REGIONAL PERSPECTIVE: Will 2005 be Thailand's annus horribilis? - The Nation, January 24, 2005
Latest tough editorial from The Nation: ...While critics repeatedly blame the opposition's inertia, they forget that in 2001-2004 the government has maximised every means, formal and informal, within its reach to eviscerate dissident voices and activities. Mass media and civil-society organisations that used to speak up against abuses of power have now been snuffed out by the government...

[2015 note: Like many Thai newspaper articles from the early days of the Thai internet, this article is no longer online. Below is the complete text of the original article.]

REGIONAL PERSPECTIVE: Will 2005 be Thailand’s annus horribilis?

Published on January 24, 2005

With the election less then two weeks away, political arrogance has reached its zenith. In the aftermath of the tsunami, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s popularity is at an all-time high.

He has already declared an electoral triumph. His words and body language are harbingers of his autocratic tendencies and of what lies ahead.

While critics repeatedly blame the opposition’s inertia, they forget that in 2001-2004 the government has maximised every means, formal and informal, within its reach to eviscerate dissident voices and activities. Mass media and civil-society organisations that used to speak up against abuses of power have now been snuffed out by the government.

The level playing field enjoyed by the ruling Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party before its ascension no longer exists. Neither do the political pluralism and tolerance that once made Thailand an example of representative democracy.

Both the Democrat and Mahachon parties have appealed to the electorate to vote in sufficient opposition seats to check and monitor the government. The Democrats have called for 201 seats while Mahachon has boiled its message down to a simple “fight and get rid of authoritarianism”. Even Chat Thai Party leader Banharn Silapa-archa has not been able to remain idle: he has come out to say that the TRT party has abused state power. Such comments could not have come easily as his party is a key coalition partner in the present government.

Given the current atmosphere, attempting to get through to citizens who are still enjoying the populist give-aways and political marketing of the lurking authoritarianism can be difficult, if not insane. Sooner rather than later the TRT’s direct-sale political campaign will morph into a new dictatorship based on plebiscite politics.

Never since the country’s political transformation in 1932 has Thailand confronted an era in which popular sovereignty has been tested, yet this is what could happen if the TRT gets the absolute majority that it wants in the parliament on February 6. Still, winning the ballots is one thing; popular legitimacy is another.

Thaksin has enjoyed political legitimacy through numerical majority during the past four years. He is obsessed with numbers. He has made numerous predictions about how many seats his party will win, targeting anywhere from 350 to 400 of the 500 available. With him in charge, he has insisted, there is no need for an opposition. Over the past two weeks, he has been beaming with joy because the foreign press has praised him for his quick action in dealing with the tsunami in comparison with the slow pace of neighbouring countries.

In a democracy like Thailand’s, though it is rapidly deteriorating, legitimacy has a wider meaning. It encompasses a respect for views other than one’s own as well as the ability of independent monitoring bodies to check performance and governance on the part of the powers that be.

Every time Thaksin says he is not a dictator, one gets goose bumps. Every time he says he is just following the rules of democracy, he violates its very spirit.

During his four-year reign, Thaksin has caused a deep schism in Thai society between his supporters and his opponents because of the preferential treatment he shows the former. The situation is similar to the apartheid system as it seeks to exclude those who are not of the same kind. Only here it is not about skin colour but hard-core cronyism.

This situation, if sustained, will allow the prime minister to strengthen his power and control through plebiscites that allow him to retain the facade of democracy. For highly democratic countries such as Switzerland or Sweden, referendums on various issues are common because popular sovereignty is respected and hard to manipulate. But when elected tyrants use such techniques, the consequences can be disastrous.

In the past century, direct public referendums have been the favourite tool of undemocratic leaders looking to exploit the prevailing democratic environment. Ironically, since 2001 Thailand’s democracy has bred a mutant dictatorship, epitomised by Thaksin’s undeterred exercise of power.

Public opinion can be used to win backing for favoured policies, bypassing the parliamentary process. The public is given two options, either to accept or to reject a government initiative. The more gullible citizens will probably like this system and vote according to whim.

Beyond the domestic realm, Thaksin has turned Thai foreign policy upside down by going it alone, offending our Asean friends, especially at the recent Vientiane summit. Most importantly, government policy has alienated the country’s key neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia. These are moderate Islamic countries that have made progress in the march towards democracy and enjoy growing international stature. Thailand meanwhile is suffering from a downward trend. Sadder still is Thaksin’s unwavering connivance with the Burmese junta leaders.

When Asean leaders and politicians, especially those from Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, finally worked up enough courage to speak out against Burma’s increased intransigence, Thaksin chose to back the rogue state with a huge smile.

How on earth could Burma have become the country’s top priority? It is worth noting that every effort has been made to save and maintain the commercial deals this government has been responsible for. But as time passes, deadlier diplomatic minefields lie ahead thanks to a series of published allegations from Thaksin that Thai militants have been inspired and trained in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Such faux pas will have serious ramifications. Thaksin should have been more discreet and sensitive. Instead of waiting until such claims had been proven or clarifications had been given by those concerned, he preferred to blow the whistle. As it turned out, we have made fools of ourselves by making false claims.

So far his talk-tough, Thai-can-do attitude has won him more accolades at home, particularly in the rural North and Northeast. Creating imaginary enemies for domestic hype and electoral gain is not difficult, but in the long run such practices may backfire. So may stirring up nationalism in times of conflict. A small incident could ignite the flames of nationalism. Lessons from Cambodia must not be lost.

Inevitably, in months to come, the troubles in the southern provinces will take their toll on the rest of the country in terms of the economy and security.

The government will use the threat of militancy, which is no longer a domestic affair, as a new reason to place restrictions on civil liberties. Security policy-makers believe that these problems can be solved within five years through the prudent application of force and a massive financial mobilisation.

More threats, more controls, more insidious ploys – what could be worse for 2005?
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