To the bewilderment of the international community, Thailand has experienced increasingly divisive politics in the last decade. A military coup, continuous street protests in one form or another, and uproars and walk-outs in the parliament. One could say that Thailand seems unable to find its way to stabilise its politics. In reality, Thailand has been on a democratisation path that began with the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.
The Cold War made security considerations a priority and brought with it military alliances between the West and military governments. But the aim of the Thai people never deviated from a desire for democracy.
The mid 1990s seemed to give reality to that hope. The people’s constitution was promulgated in 1997 with broader public participation. Independent bodies, such as counter corruption and elections commissions, an audit agency, and a human rights commission, were created, along with a strong executive to ensure stability of the parliamentary system.
Then tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra appeared on political scene and with him came abuses of power, mixing business with politics, and super-scale practises of money politics and nepotism. Populist policy measures were introduced simply to gain votes.
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Work in progress
In 2006, street protests erupted against corruption and lack of good governance, in favour of transparency and accountability. The trigger for this outburst was Thaksin’s sale of his family corporation, a monopoly which had profited handsomely from preferential treatment.
In response to the protests, Thaksin’s political machine organised and supported a counter protest movement, the so-called Red Shirts. In September 2006, the military intervened and wrote a new constitution which was adopted in a referendum. Thaksin was convicted of corruption and sentenced to two years in prison. He fled the country and still remains in exile. New elections were held in 2008, and Thaksin’s party won outright but his proxy governments faced with protests and did not last. Seeing the drift in public opinion, a coalition partner turned against him and aligned with the opposition Democrat Party in parliament.
Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva became prime minister. Thaksin’s Red Shirts staged street protests and used violent means in the course of 2009 and especially in 2010. Parliament’s work was disrupted and obstructed by Thaksin’s people who spent more time on procedural matters than on substance.
Abhisit tried to negotiate and compromise to no avail. Eventually, Abhisit dissolved the parliament and held new elections in July 2011, but lost. Thaksin appointed his younger sister, Yingluck, as his puppet prime minister. Her government spent most of the time searching for ways and means to bring back Thaksin to Thailand, scotch free and whitewashed of all wrongdoings.
In the meantime, every populist policy measure promised by Yingluck in her election campaign failed miserably and cost billions of Baht. A tyranny of the majority (actually Yingluck’s Party had not won a majority of votes but only a substantial plurality of 48 percent) was blatantly imposed on the parliament, preventing a constructive relationship between the majority and the minority parties. Parliamentary life was merely a voting exercise to get all of Thaksin’s schemes approved.
Millions turned to the streets out of an aversion to and revulsion against abusive politics and family authoritarianism. Prime Minister Yingluck was forced to dissolve the House of Representatives and call for an election to be held February 2014.
Reform before elections
The election should be postponed until constitutional reform is completed and approved with a national referendum. The Constitution should be further revised to reflect lessons learned from Thaksin’s deft manipulation of politics through money, to reinforce the Rule of Law and put into place checks and balances in order to turn the tide of Thai history away from corruption and dictatorship.
The West’s vested interests should not overshadow their primary moral obligation to the Thai people of promoting and assisting in their democratic advancement.
In the meantime, the Western governments are demanding that the Thai people bow to Yingluck and her government. They seem to believe that elections can solve the democratic ills of Thailand. But has not the West learned that elections alone do not guarantee progress towards genuine democracy? Is this only naïve and superficial thinking? Or is it the result of believing that Thaksin is a true democrat, one who stands firmly behind the capitalist way of running a country?
The wish of the Thai people from all walks of life is to move away from corruption and dictatorship. They want to reform Thailand in every important and pertinent aspect. They want to prevent money politics. They want a democratic Thailand, one of participation and empowerment, and not of domination. They want to live with governance, transparency, and accountability.
They do not want to live under a Mubarak or a Marcos. They do not want to be subservient pawns bowing and scraping under the whims of a family fiefdom.
Desperately seeking democracy
Thailand is now at a new stage of democratic development point, wanting to move forward and rid itself of all the obstacles that block the emergence of good governance. We want to trust our elected leaders; we want them to be servants of the people, not servants of the rich, the powerful.
In addition, Western governments seem to believe that the Red Shirt movement is the foremost democratic force in today’s Thailand. In reality, there are many variations of Red Shirts: a republican left that wants to end constitutional monarchy and turn Thailand into a democratic republic; some who want a communist republic; some who are fascist and ultra-right or seek a one-man, one-party authoritarian state; some who are on a payroll without ideological commitment; some who are induced by hate and propaganda; and some who are believers in democratic justice and equality.
The recent demonstrations have seen many of the Red Shirts who seek justice and democracy join the protest against the unlawful amnesty bill. There have been splits, in-fighting and recriminations within the Red Shirt leadership. Thaksin and Yingluck have been relying more and more on the police force, and have not been able to muster and motivate the Red Shirts as before. And even the police have now largely turned against their one time patron.
The proposed reform process will be inclusive of all points of view. It is therefore open to genuine and respectful contribution of ideas and participation from the democratic Red Shirts.
A sensible government would not hold an election when the country is in an uproar and the people are against it. So let us move forward on the reform process.
Kasit Piromya is a former Thai Foreign Minister. He is currently a member of the Thai parliament.