We must say no to the dictatorship of the minority too

We must say no to the dictatorship of the minority too

When the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra threw open the doors of government buildings to protesters in Bangkok on Tuesday, Thais of all colours and indeed the world were astounded.

After two days of pitched battles with anti-government protesters straining to seize the traditional symbols of power-government ministries and Government House - the government suddenly changed course and instead worked with protesters to remove the barriers separating them. Protesters were greeted with flowers and hugs.

Anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban tried to claim a "partial victory" in gaining entrance to government buildings, but the government's strategy had clearly thrown protesters off. After celebrating in the compounds they had so strenuously tried to take, even they seemed to realise something was not quite right, and left.

The government's strategy, whether deliberate or inadvertent, might represent a new level of political struggle in Thailand. It also may challenge long-held beliefs over what ``government'' means or is in the first place.

For ages, the model of "overthrowing a government" has been to seize the physical representation of political power _ a castle, a palace or, perhaps, the person of the monarchy. Once you get it, you win! The legitimacy of the regime falls, the usurper claims the throne, and a new legitimacy is established.

In Thailand, this approach has driven military coup-makers time and again to seize television stations, prime ministers, and key government buildings. Then they dust off a copy of martial law provisions, cut into regular programming, read their announcement, and that was that.

In this case, Mr Suthep & Co started by coercing television stations to air the protesters' demands. Then they did their very best to delegitimise the Yingluck government by creating chaos and mayhem in the hope that the government would respond with deadly force. This in turn would give a pretext for the military to step in, depose Ms Yingluck, and rid Mr Suthep's People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) of the cumbersome constitution.

But it didn't work. The Yingluck government, strictly adhering to international standards for crowd control, did not cause a single death in these battles over government buildings.

In desperation, the PDRC had to find a martyr elsewhere and so it tried to pin the death of a Ramkhamhaeng University student on the government. However, the circumstances surrounding his death on the evening of Nov 30 are still unclear. There are also the bothersome facts that at least three red-shirt demonstrators were killed that same night and eye-witnesses accounts attest to violent behavior of anti-government groups attacking red shirts.

As coup leaders in Thailand inevitably do, the PDRC also tried to justify its actions by playing the monarchy card. It made the claims that the government had violated Section 68 of the constitution-attempting to change the democratic form of government with the King as head of state, and so was in violation of lese-majeste. In the PDRC's attempt to seize government buildings, at least one protest leader on the main stage prompted protesters to raise a royal portrait above their heads. Any attacks would be considered as showing disloyalty to the monarchy. Such cynical manipulation of the monarchy does nothing to further its cause.

The final unravelling of the PDRC narrative came when their efforts to seize the Government House were spoiled when the government simply conceded it to protesters. They were robbed of their victory.

But this point brings up the question: what constitutes a victory in this kind of struggle? Have the strong-arm tactics of coup leaders and insurrectionists become obsolete? If so, what's replacing it?

Allow me to engage in a little speculative political philosophy.

"The government" has always been an abstraction. To make it real, we think of its concrete manifestations _ the moments when "government" touches our lives _ taxes, the police car that just passed me, the voting booth, or as symbols that are also concrete and geographical-the White House, parliament, and so on, or sometimes as specific people or positions _ the president, the prime minister. All these things combined somehow equal "government" in our minds, to which we attach some level of legitimacy.

The government's "open-door" policy strategy with protesters puts "government" in a new light. An 1898 definition of "seat of government" reads, "the building, complex of buildings or city from which a government exercises its authority." Mr Suthep's strategy reflects this meaning exactly: to seize and paralyse what one traditionally associates with government. But was he victorious?

Or has something fundamental changed in the political landscape? How can one go about overthrowing a government in the age of connectivity and the internet? The Thai government can secure Government House, or it can concede it to protesters. Perhaps it doesn't matter.

In this new world, political power escapes the bounds of geography. Government, like everything on the internet, can be both nowhere and everywhere. What emerges is a sort of radically democratic space where ideas and ideologies are in clash.

So how can a Ms Yingluck or Mr Suthep claim victory? Maybe there will be no decisive moment as in the past. Ms Yingluck goes about her business and Mr Suthep his. The battle over discourses of legitimacy continues endlessly. The government gained legitimacy for no fatalities and for avoiding conflict. Mr Suthep & Co have bullied the media and gained uncontested access to the compounds of government buildings.

In the last month or so in Thailand, the term "legitimacy" has being tossed around a lot in political discourse, newspapers, and social media. For instance, a few days ago in the Bangkok Post, Stephen B Young characterised red shirts and northeasterners in particular, as irrational and mindlessly obedient to their charismatic leader, unlike, it can be inferred, the Bangkok elite who are "rational" and demand "legal legitimation". The vote was bought, he writes, implying that the results were not legitimate.

Broadly speaking, political legitimacy is often used in practice to refer to the legal foundations of a government and its exercise of power. In a democracy, legitimacy is based on the consent of the governed as expressed in the will of the majority and according to an accepted set of common rules (constitution and law). Individuals and groups attempting to thwart the will of the majority through illegal or unconstitutional means are by definition in rebellion against democracy. 

At the same time, any democratic government that breaks the law risks losing legitimacy.

This discourse on legitimacy is essential for any democracy. But it is susceptible to any party that would use force in the name of its cause.

There are perfectly democratic ways to address any wrongdoing of the government through the existing judicial system and a variety of autonomous bodies. These mechanisms have shown themselves absolutely willing and ready to stop the government at the drop of a hat.

As protests are likely to gear up again, the government could go back to defending the "seat of government." Or the military might return to its previous ways and attempt a coup. In that case, every democratically-inclined Thai needs to stand up for its government, not as a favour to Ms Yingluck, but as a matter of principle.

The solution to Thailand's problems is more democracy, not less; more transparency, accountability, rule of law, and addressing impunity.

It is time to say "no" to coups, or to, as a Thai academic has called it, a dictatorship of the minority.

David Streckfuss is an independent scholar.

David Streckfuss


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