In a recent post on The Global Dashboard Blog, political analyst Leo Horn criticizes the Western media’s portrayal of Thailand’s current political crisis as steeped in cliches.
Resisting the typical “virtuous rural masses versus power-possessive urban elites” lens, Horn takes a broader outlook. He sees the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protest as social progress in its rawest form as it pushes the Thai nation to further its understanding of democracy. Horn reports, “against this background the rebellion of the educated Thai middle classes may be seen as a stand for democracy: rather than a backsliding on the democratic scales, I’d like to surmise that perhaps we are witnessing the teething pains of a slowly maturing democracy?”
Horn rightly points out that democracy does not rest on elections alone. His definition of democracy, while slightly esoteric, identifies five key working components: elections, political opposition, checks and balances, free media and rule of law “free of intimidation.” All of these components are covered in detail in Global Integrity’s annual Country Reports. The 2007 Thailand Report covers the time period that marked the end of Mr. Thaksin’s rule and foreshadows the current PAD protests. Highlights from the report include weak government accountability and a lack of oversight in matters of budget and procurement. On top of this, weak whistle-blowing protections and censorship of media outlets helped to concentrate power at the top by silencing citizen concerns.
Commenting on self-censorship in the media in 2007, our researcher remarked: “During the Thaksin era, there was a high level of censorship exercised against reports that criticized Thaksin. This is especially true in the case of TV. But newspapers could still report corruption news (though they allegedly faced harsh countermeasures by Thaksin.)” Mr. Thaksin’s consolidation and abuse of power undermined the supposed democracy seen after Thailand’s December 2007 elections by weakening institutions and the balance of power.
PAD’s ongoing protest shows the strength of political opposition in Thailand, a key tenant in Horn’s definition. Placing themselves on a world stage (vis a vis the airport), PAD is displaying their political voice in an act of civil disobedience that directly descends from democratic principles. While governance sector challenges still remain in Thailand, PAD’s victory in having Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat taken out of office provides a glimpse into the potential for Thai civil society to demand reform. Maybe we are watching, as Horn suggests, democracy progress rather than another class-based political squabble in Thailand.
— Norah Mallaney
Horn takes one tired cliche — the righteous popular revolt — and replaces it with another: a slow but steady movement towards Western democracy.
While the PAD protesters may be responding to failures of democracy, what evidence is there that their success represents “maturing democracy?” These are the same people that want to end the election of most of the parliament and replace it with appointees.
This is a power struggle, pure and simple. The PAD happens to be using a non-violent (for now) approach, but their only cause for protest is that they lost an election. The PAD says the vote is rigged, but I am reflexively deeply skeptical of this for a very simple reason: there are more poor people in Thailand than PAD people, and the poor frequently and enthusiastically support the current ruling party, just as they did former Prime Minister Thaksin. The line between vote-buying and Thaksin’s populism is a fine one, but I haven’t seen anything that suggests the ruling party doesn’t have widespread support. And when a minority faction uses illegal means (non-violent or otherwise) to sezie political power, it ain’t democracy.