Analysis: Thailand’s Half Democracy

Foreign analyses of the new charter often laments the return to Thailand’s “managed democracy” or “semi-democracy” of the 1980s.

Implicit in this is the assumption that an appointed military-dominated senate would naturally be loathed. However, within the Thai world, the 1980s (or the tenure of then-Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda) is often recalled as a golden age that laid the foundation for Thailand’s revival and its inclusion as one of the Asian Tigers of the 1990s.

Elder statesman Prem Tinsulanonda, who now serves as head of the Privy Council, oversaw this revival as prime minister after the chaos and turmoil of the 1970s.

His economic initiatives, such as the development of the Eastern Seaboard and investment incentives for foreign industries, set the stage for Thailand’s rise as one of the Asian Tigers. His internal and external diplomacy pacified the simmering communist movement that had beset the country since the 1960s and his long-term military oversight is credited with pacifying the separatism in the Thai deep south (until it erupted again under Thaksin’s rule).

Prem’s conduct during the two “rebellion” coups in the 1980s is also the stuff of legends. During the first, the King and Queen accompanied Prem in fleeing Bangkok which caused the coup to collapse in the face of this royal rebuff. Another violent and ultimately failed coup during his time in power established the Thai putsch as the exclusive activity of top officers in the defense of the nation–as opposed to a rebellion of middle-ranking officers to gain more power.

Prem’s eventual handover of control of government to incoming Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan was the first peaceful democratic handover of a government in Thai history.

The details and actual implications of events during Prem’s time as prime minister can always be debated, but the interpretation of the time as a successful era of government has been the one that remains in the public mind. It demonstrates the Thai focus on the results of actions rather than on the proper motivations, fairness or ethics that underlie actions.

Prem’s time in office is remembered as a rebuilding of a manageable nation under rules and regulations after decades of capricious dictatorship. Thus, promulgating a new charter that emulates this period of time—including an unelected senate and other powers that limit the activities of the elected—does not appear, from a Thai perspective, quite as alarming as it might seem to the international observer.

Indeed, to those who oppose Thaksin, these measures are the exact prescription required to counteract his perceived abuse of the electoral system for his own ends.

Again demonstrating the focus on results rather than any other factor, Thaksin (and the Pheu Thai’s) support continues to be predicated on the idea that Thaksin is best for the economy and people’s livelihood. This is still the ultimate measure of a government in the Thai world (just as it was in Prem’s time). Coupled with this is a Thai-style “dissatisfaction” over the unfairness and the lack of an evenhanded dealing concerning Thaksin’s legal cases. Red Shirts point to this dissatisfaction as the real underlying cause of Thailand’s strife and a barrier to reconciliation.

Thai-language articles about legal cases against Thaksin’s relatives sometimes have “hostage” in the headline because the government’s legal actions are clearly meant to show that Thaksin family members are under threat. The way these cases go depends on whether Thaksin makes moves to dominate another future government or disrupts the promulgation of the charter.

It would be unfair to lay opposition to military rule entirely at the feet of Thaksin. There is a genuine uneasiness from those on both sides of the fence over the military’s overt reentry into government. Thaksin has only been attempting to master the Thai world for 15 years or so—and the case can be made, for all the conflict caused, he has been decidedly unsuccessful.

The military-civilian struggle over government in Thailand has raged, often violently, for decades. The aftermath of Black May in 1992 seemed to put Thailand on a track where the military finally stepped back from attempting to directly enter the upper levels of government.

In the 1990s, former army chief Chavolit Yongjiyut became an international hero for his example in starting his own political party to contest elections rather than scheming to manipulate and overthrow governments. Police were finally equipped to manage protests in Bangkok. This separated soldiers and their guns from protesters who had been cut down so many times in the past creating crises that often benefited the military and their claims to protect the nation. Even the tepid coup of 2006 revealed a cautious and circumspect military that still assumed the people would see things their way and right the political situation.

After all this history, the spectacle of the military getting people to vote for a political world firmly under the control of a dominant military clique (the Eastern Tigers) is a stunning outcome. Those who fought so long and hard against military rule in Thailand are probably envisioning a future in which the aging Thaksin has lost influence over the political scene and an all-powerful military dominates once again.

The military’s bane has always been its own penchant for overt corruption, incompetence in governing and bickering for positions behind the scenes. By the standards of past influential military cliques, Prayuth and the Tigers have managed to avoid crippling incidents that would impede their ability to act and rule.

It is certain that, as time passes, scandals and fighting for power by sidelined and emerging military cliques will impact the military. This would gradually cause a situation where all political parties as well as the public grow weary of the roadblocks that were raised to constitutional reform. This might once again lead to a future where the public begins to agitate against an intransigent military in politics.

History never really repeats itself exactly so the future of Thailand will likely interweave new threads into politics such as the emergence of some sort of green party–perhaps supported by young, pragmatic voters who cannot be pegged as merely city or rural dwellers.

The Red Shirts seem determined to disappoint observers who hoped they could morph into a movement outside of the control of the Shinawatra family. The Red Shirts at one time seemed to be an opportunity for a new politics outside of the traditional parties and Thaksin’s dictates. Still, it seems unlikely that all the voters that underpin the movement will simply continue to follow venal Pheu Thai politicians as they randomly switch allegiances in future governments.

There is much to happen in the near term, but a broad look at the future might assume that Thaksin passes from the political scene more and more each year that he remains outside of the country. Rather than changing the political landscape forever, Thaksin was a singular irritant to the system. No other political block or grouping seems able to replicate or even benefit from the mass adulation that Thaksin generated.

Thaksin has a talent for directly addressing the hearts and minds of grassroots voters, long sidelined in Thailand’s bureaucratic hierarchy. At the same time he sabotaged his political movement by embracing outrageous profiteering of both money and power to reward and ensure loyalty from political cronies.

Barring the emergence of another figure that has the foresight and monetary resources to hold together an overwhelming political block, Thailand’s politics seems to be returning to its dominant historical theme–determining the proper scope and role of the military in civilian government.

See also: The fear of an elected senate

Earlier explanations and analysis of the Thai world Editor Ron Morris’ book, The Thai Book: A Field Guide to Thai Political Motivations, is available in the Kindle Store.

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4 Responses to Analysis: Thailand’s Half Democracy

  1. Pingback: The military on top | Political Prisoners in Thailand

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