Why we don't yet trust democracy

Why we don't yet trust democracy

After Gen Prem Tinsulanonda stepped down in 1988, Thailand began a new experiment with democracy. The result was one heartbreak after another.

During the 1990s, we went through a bunch of yahoos and thugs in each successive government. Each came and went through corruption and incompetence, and none went full term. We thought the saviour was Thaksin Shinawatra, who swept into power in 2001 _ then hearts were shattered, to say the least.

Here's the issue: In the Thai experience, democracy has never come with good governance. Rather, it comes with a bunch of yahoos and thugs rampaging amok, and corruption running out of control. At least before, during the days of "strongman" leadership, yahoos and thugs were on a leash, and corruption was systematic _ we knew what was up.

The irony is, Thaksin too was able to put the yahoos and thugs of the 1990s on a leash, and made corruption systematic, rather than out of control. But oh well, the past is the past.

Today, in a bizarre twist of contorted cultural perception, democracy and good governance _ which ought to join hands in a happy marriage _ are instead at each other's throats like a dysfunctional couple.

In the name of good governance, one side marches to overthrow a democratically elected government that is deemed corrupt and incompetent, possibly through undemocratic and even fascist means.

Meanwhile, in the name of democracy, the other side marches to protect said government, which though the other side deems it corrupt and incompetent, they believe is the best thing since jasmine rice was developed.

The bickering could be resolved by putting good governance and democracy together, uniting the two sides for the same cause. But the reality is that things aren't so simple. It's a matter of cultural attitude.

We are a society built upon cults of personalities, relationships and superstitions. As such, we have a difficult time differentiating personalities from ideals, and we tend to attach our loyalties and beliefs to personalities, rather than ideals. Democracy takes a back seat.

In addition, we are a society built upon relationships. If good governance is defined as transparency, accountability and rule of law, by such definition it undermines our social relationships, where anything is negotiable, including the law; where everything boils down to a matter of connections, the social relationships that can help us to progress and get away with things. It's learned in grade school. In fact we've been conditioned to this way of thinking through our parents from an early age.

Government postings and MP status are passed on to friends and relatives; contracts are negotiable and officials bribe-able, from the district to the national level. This is a society where the only law that truly puts the fear of the almighty in the hearts of the people is called lese majeste, where the phu yai (elder, superior) and the phu noi (younger, inferior) are supposedly equal under the law, but not treated equally under the law. Inequality underlies relationships in everyday life.

Furthermore, we are a society built on superstition. Good governance and democracy result from a scientific process. To achieve the most effective society where the people can enjoy human rights, equality under the law and opportunities for happiness, mankind has deduced a system.

In this system, idealistic principles are laid down and rules are made to follow, step-by-step and methodologically, in order to uphold those principles. Society is conditioned to respect and operate within the rules.

This does not conform to our superstitious culture, dictated by fortune and karma, ghosts and spirits, merit-making and bargaining with the gods through rituals and ceremonies, holy incantations and black magic, or to praying to idols and people, both alive and deceased.

There are, of course, many exceptions, but generally speaking this is not a society predisposed to the scientific methodology of democracy and good governance. The good news is, all societies the world over have been there before, and many are still stuck there. Even in the most democratic societies, those elements still exist, quite strongly in some areas. Therefore, the Thai society too can evolve.

It's a matter of education, of engineering the national conscience and cultural values. The past is not all bad. Keep the good, but leave the outdated behind. Democracy is full of holes to be exploited; recognise the holes and cover them. Make a happy marriage.

The even better news is, through information technology, more and more Thais are becoming aware of the possibilities and are looking for better things. But to make the best of it would require a national effort.

Who's going to lead us? Well, we have a prime minister. If not her, then the beauty of democracy is that every four years (or less) we get a chance to start anew, relatively speaking. In the meantime, we can all help to educate one another.

Put a little faith in democracy. It's annoying, frustrating and downright tiring. But it's the best system mankind has created thus far. If we keep working at it, then perhaps one day people on the two sides of the political divide will gradually realise, "hey, we actually want the same thing, don't we?".

Well, duh.

Contact Voranai Vanijaka via email at voranaiv@bangkokpost.co.th.

Voranai Vanijaka

Bangkok Post columnist

Voranai Vanijaka is a columnist, Bangkok Post.

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