Finding Thailand's political model

Finding Thailand's political model

August was a time of anxiety for two former leaders -- Thailand's ex-PM Thaksin Shinawatra and the US' former president Donald Trump. Last month saw some uneasy moments as they both became inmates -- even if for a short time.

"It is not a comfortable feeling, especially when you've done nothing wrong," Mr Trump commented on his mug shot moment as inmate no. P01135809.

Two days earlier, in Thailand, which is now fit to be called the "Land of Compromises", Mr Thaksin returned home and was in prison -- for a day or so. Unlike the case of Mr Trump, his inmate mug shot has not been released. Thaksin's inmate number is also not widely known.

Both leaders -- Thaksin, with a reduced jail sentence and Mr Trump, currently on bail awaiting trial -- came to power through democratic elections. Many political experts now agree there are fine lines between democratically elected leaders and autocrats.

Elections, they say, are not a panacea for democracy. And democracy is no guarantee for social equity and justice for all.

Despite the concerns of some self-critical Thai academics, dissidents and "pro-democracy" leaders who wish for real or disruptive change, Thai democracy continues to evolve, with a relatively free media, a rise in people's political engagement and a new generation of career politicians.

Thailand and the US are in the same group of countries with "flawed democracies", according to The Economist's 2022 Democracy Index.

Both countries are "in transition". Most countries are, whether they admit it or not. Inequality and lapses in social cohesion pose new threats to most countries.

For Thailand, in its prolonged political conflict, the sequencing, from the 2014 military coup to last month's formation of the coalition government that is a blend between the Pheu Thai Party and its former foes, seems in line with the peace-intervention playbook: military intervention followed by a stabilising period, then election and power sharing through a "national reconciliation" government.

"Whether or not the new coalition government is part of a national reconciliation process depends in part on what one considers to be the main fault lines in society and politics," says Matthew Wheeler, International Crisis Group's senior analyst.

There is little indication, he says, that the government will tackle the more fundamental problems driving political polarisation, including a lack of consensus on balancing popular sovereignty and unelected authority.

But for some conflict-resolution practitioners, the fault lines of conflicts are often the analysts' constructs.

The root causes of Thailand's conflict, especially civil conflicts, are not the social or political divides in as much as they are the ability of leaders, influenced by key national and international actors, to polarise, mobilise, radicalise and exploit divisions among societal groups.

As all conflicts are context specific, non-Thai critics, including state and non-state actors, may need to read the new banner: Hold your yardsticks and halt.

"I think each country should choose its form of government but what's important is to have compassionate leaders," said Rima Salah, academic at Yale University and former high-ranking United Nations veteran in humanitarian and peacebuilding work.

Not lacking of able technocrats and foreign-educated experts with PhDs, Thailand has been and will be capable of Thai-owned national reconciliation and peace processes, albeit punctuated with military intervention.

If August brought post-election heartaches for the electorate and the "pro-democracy" camp, this month could bring in a new healing season.

It is up to Thai policymakers and doers in the new government and civil society to drive the country forward with less ideological fever and political branding and more genuine commitment to put people at the centre of short and long-term policies and actions.

At the global level, this month brought world leaders to gather in New York at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

The focus of their debate was not on the forms of government, but how to improve human conditions.

And the yardstick is not GDP. It is the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) indicators in ending poverty, inequality, the climate crisis and other global ills to ensure "no one is left behind".

This September's high-level UNGA, sceptics may say, is the "orgy of hypocrisy" as leaders fall short of delivering on the SDGs.

But United Nations proponents argue the UNGA is the only universal world forum where all 193 countries can have equal footing to speak their minds.

From this year's UNGA debate and extensive policy menus in the United Nations Common Agenda to "turbocharge" action on the SDGs, what could be the choices of policy priorities and approaches of the new Thai government?

First, on democracy, the UN Common Agenda narratives frame "democracy" together with "good governance" and "rule of law".

If the coalition government's commitment to democracy is genuine -- beyond balancing power and vested interests -- its immediate top priority should be to tackle corruption and security sector reform, observers say.

Simply put, to advance democracy -- reforming the military as well as police and judiciary organs -- must be a top priority, put into words and as specific steps.

The real test for the government is whether it will be able to get rid of corruption, ranging from money politics and vote-buying to business-government collusions, subtle or overt, and other systemically corrupt practices.

Key performance indicators for the new government are the measurable steps and progress in curbing corruption and reforming the security sector.

Second, Thailand's roadmap to gain a higher level of international respectability does not lie in hiking up its GDP.

Rather, to be a returning star on the global stage, the path is through achieving the SDGs with a political will, innovative policies and courageous action to address poverty, inequality in rights and dignity, digital divides and climate challenges. How? By anchoring public policies with human security.

Thailand's long-term political and social equilibrium or stability depends on it striving for human security, in providing every Thai with safety from chronic threats such as poverty, hunger, disease, "repression and protection from all harms".

And it is not the sole responsibility of the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security.

Rather, human security is the collective responsibility of the new government, every state organ, civilian and uniformed bureaucrats, and civil society actors in all sectors -- with the real participation of ordinary Thais, particularly the marginalised.

Example: Asking the poor -- not the privileged -- how to end poverty has become an innovative policy approach with success stories, such as Brazil, the new comeback star of the world stage.

"In Brazil, we have already proven once, and will prove again, that a socially fair and environmentally sustainable model is possible," Brazil's President Lula da Silva told the UNGA.

Third, global multiculturalism counts. The UNGA debates re-enforces the diversity of views among world leaders from China to Cuba and the United States.

Regardless of its model of government, each country, with its unique culture and history, has a choice to choose and showcase its national policies and action towards the SDGs.

Whether Thailand will choose the Scandinavian, Singaporean or Brazilian model, others, or all of the above for its system of government and public policies to achieve human security remains to be seen.

Most likely, it will be the Thai model that fits the culture, history, national psyche and Thai exceptionalism. The model's sustainability, however, depends on whether it is truly people-centred.

Suchada Kulawat is an analyst who served with the Foreign Ministry, the UNDP's Bangkok regional office, the Mission of Thailand to the United Nations, at the UN Headquarters in New York and during UN peace missions in Asia-Pacific, Africa and Europe.

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