A Sad Day for Thailand

Yesterday was one of the worst nightmares in Thai history. It was worse than 14 October 1973, 9 October 1976 or 17 May 1992 because this time Thai people were deeply divided. Not only did the majority of the people in Bangkok not support the protesters when they were attacked by the army, but they turned against them too. This time the protest was regarded as a riot. Instead of a group of people fighting for democracy, some from among this group did a lot of violent action, leading to their being branded by the government as rioters.

This is the worst incident also because this is the first time (I believe it will not be the only time) that people from the provinces came to Bangkok to demand democracy. The previous three times were the works of the people of Bangkok themselves. This explained the situation yesterday quite a lot. It is almost as if the only ones who can fight for democracy are the people of Bangkok themselves.

There are many questions in all this. First of all, what exactly did the red shirted protesters fight for. They came out in tens of thousands to demand a real change for Thailand. I know that deep down most of them were realistic enough to realize that this was too much. But in any case they made their power felt.

It was when there were incidents at the ASEAN summit in Pattaya when things turned badly against them. They barged inside the main venue of the meeting, causing the meeting to be canceled. A deep embarrassment for the government. This, plus their blockade of several key junctions in busy Bangkok contributed to the resentment of the Bangkokians too. And when the army turned against them, the red shirts then fought back, using guerrilla tactics. This is really troubling because it may mean that the unrest will continue.

So this gave the pretext and the justification for Abhisit to use force. This was indeed a sad situation. What the red shirts are demanding is legitimate. They are Thais and they want to voice their views as to how this country should be governed. But now they are branded as rioters.

What we can only hope is that there is no more violence and that everybody wakes up and realizes that violence from either side would only drag Thailand down to the failed state status sooner. The guerrilla tactics have to stop. The legitimate demands of the red shirts need to be seriously addressed. This will cancel any reasons they have for protesting. People need to talk. Let’s hope that Thais come to understand and respect one another.

What the current conflict in Thailand is all about

I have been watching the situation in Thailand with some interest. Not much though. It\’s not like I follow every movement of each group minute by minute on the web. But I have been trying to make sense of it all.

What people do not seem to pay much attention to is the fact that Thailand is in a period of great transition which cannot be stopped. You might want to call it \’historical inevitability.\’ This sounds really Hegelian and idealistic, but it\’s true. Let me tell why.

First of all you have to take a wider picture. The current conflict in Thailand is not really about clashing personalities. Contrary to what is being portrayed in most mainstream media. The root cause of the conflict is not about the struggle between Thaksin and whoever that wants to bury him, but it goes much deeper. As long as this root cause is not addressed, we can\’t even hope to find an end to this conflict. It will just go on and on, and in the end the people will prevail, just as is the case in other countries who have experienced the same thing.

So what is the root cause? What the red shirted populace who came out in hundreds of thousands really want is actually not that Thaksin be back to power. Thaksin is only a front man in the struggle. He symbolizes something that the people really want, which has been denied them since the coup d\’etat in September 2006. They want to be able to govern themselves fully as mature people who are able to take care of themselves. This looks easy, but still those who traditionally are the power holders do not see this point. Either they know this deep down, but are blinded by their own self interests, or they perhaps sincerely believe that the people are children who need to be taken care of by the bureaucrats and the traditional power mechanism. Either way it does not face up to reality.

I know this is true when I look at what the red shirts are doing and are talking among themselves. It\’s like the people taking matters into their own hands. It is of course true that they are led by a handful core leaders with close ties to Thaksin and that there might be behind the door negotiations going on (I can\’t verify this because I am not in the intelligence community). But the fact that they have arisen spontaneously and are organizing in many provinces almost throughout the kingdom (even in the South, the traditional stronghold of the conservative yellow shirts) give us plenty of cause for optimism. It\’s an optimism born from the realization that democracy has now taken a firm root in Thailand, and Thai people do not want anything else, such as being told what to do and what to believe.

The traditional power mechanism has consistently said that true democracy cannot be established in Thailand because the people do not know how to distinguish \”good\” and \”bad\” politicians. But they have said this for more than seven decades, and one is at one\’s wit\’s end to find out exactly when in the future that will cease to be the case. What is emerging now with the red shirt phenomenon is that they are quite fed up with the way things are in the country. Those who are more attached to personalities naturally talk about Thaksin, but what they really want is not Thakin himself in person, but what he stands for in their eyes. And if Thaksin does not deliver that, they will vote him out of office in no time.

And this is what is beautiful about democracy. The people govern themselves; nobody is like a child who needs to be chaperoned. The way to get Thaksin, or any politician for that matter, in or out is through the voting booths. But what has happened in Thailand during these past three years has been otherwise. That contributed to the people\’s disillusionment and their coming out in hundreds of thousands to the streets of Bangkok and other provinces today.

Thai people today are much more knowledgeable and sophisticated than just a few decades ago. The policy of successive governments in mass education, and especially the spread of information and communication technologies contributed a great deal. Mobile phones and the web are used very effectively in co-ordinating and mobilizing forces, in such a way that it\’s not conceivable just a few years ago. There\’s no use for the authorities to lock away information or to feed the people sugar-coated half-true information as they perhaps did in the past, nowadays information spreads widely, thanks to the internet and the effective policy at closing the digital divide.

So what is happening right now is that the gap between those in urban areas and the countryside is closing fast. Thai people in general have become more and more middle class. So the argument that the poor peasant can\’t think for themselves will not be viable any more, only because they are no more poor peasants any longer. Those who still don\’t believe that need only to go to one of the provinces and see for themselves.

So all this is an encouraging sign. The current government has to listen to the people otherwise their days will be numbered. The demonstrations which started in late March and which has carried on until today is just one episode in the series of changes that will happen and will eventually change Thailand to the core. This will not sound so frightening to those who are used to the old ways, because information and ideas have their canny ways of going toward the insides of people, changing them from within. For those who watch Thailand, this is a fascinating time.

In the meantime, let us hope that there is no violence. They say that Thailand is being protected by a Buddhist deity. I believe this, and the deity is keeping a very watchful eye over us.

An Article by Thongchai Winichakul

I came across this article on “Anti-Democracy in Thailand” by Thongchai Winichakul from University of Wisconsin at Madison in the US. This is a must for those who would like to understand contemporary Thai politics. Usually Thongchai is a historian, but now we have a number of Thai historians making insightful comments on contemporary matter. Are we in Thailand witnessing history in the making?

The article can be found at


Coup d’Etats in Thailand

Many foreign observers of Thailand may be perplexed as to the frequency of Thai coups. Why are they so frequent? I have read in the news today that Gen. Chavalit, the former deputy Prime Minister, who has just resigned in the wake of the unrest two or three days ago, said that the situation now is such that only a coup d’etat is possible. According to him there is no other way out of the impasse.

Which brings about the very peculiar nature of Thai coups. To most people in the world, coup d’etats are violect acts and frequently what has happened is that the perpetrator of the coup wanted to gain political power for himself by toppling the government. So it is rightly regarded as an illegal act, a high treason. But the frequency and the relatively harmless Thai coups point to the fact that perhaps Thai coups belong to some kind of “unwritten” Thai constitution. That is, the coups are part and parcel of the working order of Thai politics.

So here are the components of Thai politics: There are the elected MP’s who form governments; there are the urban middle class such as the PAD who are usually opposed to the majority MP’s because they come from the rural areas which the urban middle class look down upon. But the military is also a player in politics too. Note that this is not the same as in the past where the military took power for themselves. If there is to be a coup right now, what the coup leader can do is nothing more than holding power for a short period of time and then arrange for an independent government. This is a familiar pattern, and it shows that coup d’etats are a part of ‘normal’ Thai political process.

But there is a caveat. In order for this arrangement to work, all parties have to subscribe to the ‘unwritten’ agreement — such as the military cannot hold on power and so forth. But then after a coup the coup leader has sovereign power all to himself. He can do anything and his decree will become law of the land. What would be effective in stopping him from doing anything he pleases in the case he does not listen to the unwritten agreement? This is scary.

Now back to Buddhism…

Thai Politics in the Eyes of the PAD

Now the demonstration in Bangkok led by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) has dragged on for more than a month. It is rather doubtful what they have achieved. They started out at first against the motion for amending the constitution, but after that motion was dropped they kept on going, and changed their objective to the resignation of the Prime Minister. And now that the Prime Minister and several of his cabinet members are being grilled in Parliament in the hands of the opposition Democrats, they changed their objective again.

It is this new objective that is the most startling. In the attempt to distance themselves from the Democrats, they said that their ultimate objective is a new kind of political system where the representatives of the people have much less power and less role to play in governing the country. Instead, they are proposing that the majority of Parliament consist of appointed members. I am not making this up — appointed members.

So the essence of the PAD’s proposal is that they want to move the power from the hands of the people to the only handful of powerful elites who can appoint members of Parliament. Their latest proposal is that there be 70 percent of appointed members against 30 percent of elected members. This can be interpreted in no way other than than the people have only 30 percent of the power, and the elites 70 percent.

I cannot by any imaginative extension see how this is going to be a democratic institution at all. Surely the PAD might propose an elaborate system of searching and appointing MP’s, but in the end the power rests in the hand of the search committee, who will certainly consist mostly of senior government officials. Now government officials — judges, military officers, high ranking officials in various ministries, technocrats, etc. — are supposed to be civil servants. They are supposed to serve the people rather than lording over them.

The PAD’s main argument for this anachronistic proposal is that they feel that representative democracy has no future in Thailand. But that is a tired old argument. As true representative democracy has been given no chance to grow and settled in the past 70 years in Thailand, then how could one expect it to be strong? The PAD’s argument, in fact, has been in the air for much longer than the actual democratic system in Thailand. It was very often said that Thai people were not ready for democracy yet because some unscrupulous personalities would manipulate the system and gain power to themselves.

But aren’t the Thai elites the ones who have manipulated the system and gained power for themselves all these years? When will the people be given a chance? When will the cycle of dependence stop? When will Thai people be truly free? I don’t think the PAD’s proposal will start toward providing any satisfactory answers to these questions.

Regardless of the demonstrations, mass mobilization, and the rhetoric, the PAD is making a philosophical argument. Their core idea is that they distrust democracy. They don’t believe that democracy will work. But let us think what would be their alternative. Selection and appointment of MP’s by a limited number of elites. For them this works better. But what about those who died for democracy in Thailand in 1973, 1976 and 1992? What did they really want? Did they really want the kind of system being proposed by the PAD?

Perhaps the only strongest argument against a democratic form of government is one made, implicitly at least, by the Singaporean government. They seem to be saying: Look at what we have achieved. We have lifted a tiny country of 3 million from a third-world, developing country status to first-world, fully developed status in just a few decades. Look at our gleaming office buildings and clean, tree-lined streets. Look at how affluent and well educated the people are. Would all these have been achievable if not for the guiding hands of the People’s Action Party? What need there is for diversity of opinions and opposition parties and oppositional politics? Do you really want that?

But even the strongest argument is not strong enough for refusing democracy. But more on that later. What I want to say here is that the PAD is not envisioning Thailand to be another Singapore either. It is absolutely unclear what they really envision Thailand to be like except for getting rid of Thaksin. If representational democracy stands in the way because the people are so attached to him, then get rid of representational democracy. This is like throwing the baby with the bathwater.

Perhaps their distrust is stronger and deeper than just getting rid of a former Prime Minister. I think their distrust of democracy runs deep. It seems that representational democracy would just breed another Thaksin in the future. So getting rid of one would not solve the problem. The root cause has to be eliminated. But Thailand has experienced autocratic or oligarchical rules for so long in the past, so long that we know what it is like. The basic question is that where is the guarantee that those who are entrusted with power will be a “morally upright” one? Do we really want the fate of our country to be dependent on the character of some individuals only? Didn’t we learn about this kind of experience in our collective past?

So let us summarize the PAD’s argument as follows:

Democracy gives rise to corrupt ‘strongmen’ who manipulate the system and gain power to themselves.

Therefore the only way to stop the strongmen is to eliminate democracy.

But that argument is fallacious because it is very far from certain that democracy will necessarily breed the strongmen. This might be the case if there is a lack of rule of law and an independent judiciary, but Thailand is at least strong on the judiciary, and the PAD themselves acknowledge that. So it is quite difficult to understand how their argument could be valid.

PAD Demo

The PAD might counter that the ‘strongman’ in question was none other than Thaksin Shinawatra himself. But the rise of Thaksin could be explained through various factors, including the 1997 Constitution, which strictly separates the legislative from the executive branch, which I think did the most damage among all the factors. Freed from the scrutiny of the legislative branch, Thaksin thought that he could do anything without there being any power above him. The Parliament then became a mere decorative item. And there are of course many other factors, all of which contributed to Thaksin’s arrogance and his eventual downfall.

But that is not a sufficient reason for arguing that we should stop having democracy. All these are factors internal to a democratic system itself which can be updated and tweaked, certainly not shutting the whole thing down. So in the end there has to be an argument for the intrinsic value of democracy itself, one that is based on the rights and dignity of people, and on the fact that people are generally liable to faults and weaknesses. Perhaps I’ll do this in later posts.

Thai Demonstration

Watching the demonstration that is going on in Thailand is like watching soap operas. Same old plots, same old endings. This present one is no different. It originated when the media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul of the Manager Media Group called for a rally in order to protest against the proposed motion to amend the constitution by the People’s Power Party (PPP), and then it dragged on and on. Even after the PPP announced that it has withdrawn the motion, the protest is still there because its leaders think that as soon as the rally is called off the motion would be put back in again.

So all this is about the trust that we have toward one another. The government does not trust Sondhi and his People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), and the latter obviously does not trust the government either. So from the original calling for the withdrawal of the motion, the protest has changed its objective to demanding Samak, the Prime Minister, to resign.

The problem is what would happen if Samak actually resigned. According to the constitution, there has to be another round of Parliament meeting where the name of the new Prime Minister is proposed and voted on. That could happen, and it could also happen that Abhisit, the leader of the lone opposition party, the Democrat, might be nominated. That is admittedly a slim chance, but it is still a chance if the coalition parties jumped ship from the PPP and joined the Democrat.

Thai rally

But if that is the scenario then the PAD’s rally would be nothing more than a push for the Democrats. However, the leaders of the PAD staunchly deny that and it is well known that pushing the Democrats back to the Government House is not in the agenda. In fact Sondhi himself used to be severely critical of the Democrats themselves.

So what is their real agenda? They want to uproot what they call “Thaksin System” once and for all. But I doubt that they will be successful. Most Thais know that if another general election is held, then any party that is allied to Thaksin will control the most seats again. The hold of Thaksin on the Thai contryside is that strong. But then in Parliament there are only these two opposing factions (with some smaller parties acting as opportunists who can join any side). So if not the Thaksin ally, then it has to be the Democrats. So we are back to the same picture.

There is the third alternative, in fact. Another coup d’etat is not entirely out of the question. And if that happened, then a “neutral” government will be installed. But then we are back to the same old plot again. (Remember that this is a soap opera.) The neutral, military installed government cannot last long because of the certain intense pressures from the world community, so there will be a drafting of yet another constitution and a general election, which the Thakin-allied party (whatever the name) might win again.

I have read somewhere in these wordpress blogs that there is an attempt to justify democracy without relying on its consequences. Perhaps China could justify its political system by showing the economic prosperity of all the strata of the population. But still, perhaps democracy is an intrinsic good, according to the author of the argument. Something like — the people have an intrinsic right to a democratic government. But what about Thailand? China does not have coup d’etats or revolving door governments, or mass rallies that repeatedly topple governments, and the West does not have totalitarian regimes or three dozen constitutions in half a century. Thailand have all of them. So should the author of the argument take Thailand into his equation?

I promise that the next post will be back to Buddhism. 

Demonstrations Tonight

For those of you who are in Thailand, you might know already that there will be two large demonstrations tonight in Bangkok. These are the groups who have been confronting each other for more than three years now regarding their differences about which way Thailand should be going. Those who have any vaguest idea of what is going on in Thailand know that the confrontations have been centered around Thaksin Shinawatra. One group, led by media mogul Sonthi Limthongkul, wanted to get him out of office and tried for a number of corruption charges. The other wanted him to continue as Prime Minister.

The coup d’etat on September 2006 changed the picture somewhat, as Thaksin was indeed kicked out out of office through sheer force (though no actual force was used) and a new military-installed government took power and a new constitution drafted. After about a year Thais had their general election and during this time the Thai Rak Thai party, which was led by Thaksin, was disbanded and the entire bunch of party executives were barred from entering politics for five years. The election resulted in an ally of the Thai Rak Thai (some say it is actually a reincarnation – a very Buddhist concept) coming to power, and since the well known names had already been banned from politics, what we have as ministers are some lesser figures who would not have held the minister portfolio otherwise.

The key issue here is that the 2007 constitution has a very strict rule against those who abuse power in politics. And because of this the People’s Power Party (Thai Rak Thai’s possible reincarnation mentioned earlier) itself stands a good chance of being dissolved too. So the demonstrations tonight will be essentially about this issue. The anti-Thaksin group wants to stop the amendment of the constitution, and the other, pro-government group, want to support it.

So you can see the general picture somewhat, I hope. As this is a “mostly about Buddhism” blog, I don’t want to become involved too much in politics here. So I am not taking sides. What I would like to say is that I see this as a symptom of “growing pains,” so to speak, of a real and meaningful democracy. I may be an optimist, but then all Buddhists are 🙂 . This shows growing pains because in a real democracy conflicts are to be expected, and here in Thailand we are experiencing a real conflict between large segments of the population taking place. In the old days this could be settled by civil wars, but I really hope that things will not turn out that bad. This is why democracy is so necessary and important.

Democracy is necessary as a means of resolving conflicts without violent means. This much is obvious. One who has followed Thai politics for some time might say “But this is already a democracy. We have elections and Thaksin turned out to be duly elected. What is wrong with it?” Well, what is wrong is that it appeared that Thaksin tried to bend the law for his own purposes. A democracy has to be backed up by a strong legal system, so that when one tries to gain unfair advantages the law would prevent that from happening. More specifically there has to be a boundary beyond which even democratically elected government cannot cross. This is a persistent theme in political philosophy. Should there be a limit to the power of a democracy?

No, I am not condoning coup d’etats by any means. This is why I am talking about growing pains of Thai politics. The conflict that is happening now, if handled carefully, will mature into some kind of normal diversity of opinions in a functioning democracy. Both groups who are demonstrating have their own visions of what they want Thailand to become. The diversity could then sort itself out in the normal kind of democratic choice. The problem in Thailand for so long is that this diversity has been kept under the carpet, and those who have the real say in how the country is governed are the bureaucrats and technicians who think that they know more and better than the ordinary people.

So there will be some kinds of conflicts for a time being, and let us hope that there will be no violence. Perhaps Thais are mature enough not to let that happen. Perhaps they will learn from this experience so that they develop strong constitutional and legal framework so as to restrain abuse of the democratic and populist power. This is the key and unless this is in place the growing pains will continue to haunt Thailand for a considerable time to come.