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.
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.