The politics of the streets

By imposing the Internal Security Act ahead of today's planned rally by Pitak Siam, the government has shown that it takes this misguided political movement with its old-fashioned ideas far more seriously than many had realised. The obvious assumption is that the administration knows something that the rest of the country does not and has proof of wrongdoing or ill intent beyond the serious accusations it has already made. If that is the case and some sort of "insurrection" is planned under the guise of a rally, then arrests of suspects and a detailed public briefing are presumably imminent. Democracy does grant many rights but these do not include the right to cause chaos or instigate the violent overthrow of governments.

Then again, perhaps the government is aware of just how quickly matters got out of hand in 2008 and 2010 and has opted to err on the side of caution and public order. It was careful to wait until the Constitution Court had issued its ruling stating it had found no grounds to believe the rally was aimed at overthrowing the country's democratic system of government before it invoked the act, which allows the administration and its security forces to suspend normal law enforcement in three districts. This covers the Royal Plaza which has a rich heritage as the site of democratic rallies and loyal gatherings in the past; a role it will no doubt repeat in the future, whether or not the Pitak Siam rally, with its confusing and dictatorial agenda of pushing for an appointed government, goes ahead. If it does, as seems likely, police will need to take extra care in dealing with demonstrators to avoid any flare-ups or injuries. The art is to control the crowds without provoking confrontation.

Hopes that security forces and onlookers would outnumber the demonstrators in the wake of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's nationwide plea for people to stay away might well rebound because they fail to take into account the enormous advance publicity the government has inadvertently given the rally. There has already been a flurry of fanciful conspiracy theories on social media sites and this scaremongering has hyped what should have been a day-long gathering by a misguided pressure group trying to turn the clock back into something far more menacing. Such rumours and panic attacks are needless. It is time to let cool heads and common sense prevail. The days of coups and appointed governments are over.

That does not mean that the democracy we have is perfect. Far from it. It is riddled with imperfections and real grassroots democracy will remain a dream until all villagers are allowed genuine freedom of choice and not told in advance who they are going to be bribed to vote for. But the rural godfathers and other influential colour-coded cliques will not allow an erosion of their support base or tolerate any threat to the whole corrupt patronage system. Perhaps the sad truth is that our democracy mirrors our society, which might finally have got the government it deserves. It does seem to have maintained the capability of its predecessors to shoot itself in the foot. After a historic and triumphant week which saw US President Barack Obama and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao make successful visits here, it is a shame that we have to end it on such a sour note.

At least we have an eagerly awaited no-confidence debate coming up and that is usually a good example of democracy in action. Parliament and the ballot box are far better places to challenge a government than on the streets. Surely we should have learned that lesson by now.