Four horsemen of Thai democracy ride on apathy

Four horsemen of Thai democracy ride on apathy

We are presumably more than half done with yet another constitution. Not counting the temporary ones issued after the many coup d'etats, this will be the 17th since absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932. Debates have been raging whether the new constitution will — finally — help Thailand reach its goal of being governed by democratic principles.  I think not, for these reasons.

First, the majority of Thais see nothing wrong with cheating. Instead of being soundly condemned or totally shunned, those who become rich by cheating are often regarded as smart and praised. This convoluted sense of right and wrong has long been embedded in Thai values. 

The fictional character in Thai folklore — Sri Thanonchai — is, therefore, viewed as someone who should be admired for he can always find clever ways to undermine the rules. For this reason, many corrupt politicians are elected repeatedly and survey after public opinion survey shows that most Thais don't mind corrupt politicians as long as they personally get some benefits.

The government has used the legal process to convict corrupt politicians and ban them from politics for five years.

But only a few are likely to be convicted from now until the next general election, if the so-called roadmap issued by the National Council of Peace and Order is adhered to. 

Even if they are banned, their nominees — sons, daughters, spouses, relatives and friends — will contest the elections and win. 

The next parliament will, therefore, likely be filled with mostly veteran politicians and their nominees. 

Second, too many Thais are gullible, despite the millions of diplomas and degrees granted in the past few decades. 

They will readily accept whatever they are being told, especially by those with money or perceived to be in a position of authority and higher social status. 

The country has allocated the largest share of the budget for education in the past few decades but has utterly failed to achieve one of the principal objectives, namely, to inculcate critical thinking in its citizenry.   

The fact that Thais generally are not well-read reinforces this predicament. 

Although the often-quoted survey that found Thais on average read only eight lines of text a year has been hotly disputed, the fact remains that Thais who already read very little compared to people of more advanced societies probably read even less after access to the internet became so widespread. 

Even with the ease of access to information through modern media such as radio, television, and the internet, Thais are not relevantly informed, as they use these media outlets largely for entertainment instead of for education or following up on events outside their little cocoons.

Third, indifference is generally a preferred modus operandi for most Thais. There is a uniquely Thai expression of mai pen rai which in its best application means Thais are always ready to forgive those who do them wrong. 

But it is also used as much, if not more, in other situations. Thais are taught not to take upon themselves anything that is not affecting them directly since doing so is regarded as unnecessarily looking for trouble. 

This mindset extends further when applied with the concept of karma: They believe that those who do bad deeds will be duly punished in due course by their own bad karma. 

It is, therefore, nobody else's business to do anything about it, including trying to chase the crooked politicians out of office or persuading others not to vote for them.

Besides, what harms society is not the fault of the politicians but the collective karma that all have committed. Fourth, too many Thais are not into politics. There are three reasons for this. One, some are not interested in politics at all. They will not follow what goes on and may not even vote.

Two, some are either cynical or do not see how their votes will change anything. They may follow what goes on but may not vote in any elections. Three, some do not care sufficiently enough to spend time studying the issues and the positions of the politicians. 

To some degree, this approach to politics is part of a broader mindset called mak ngai, which I consider uniquely Thai that I have yet to find a close equivalent expression in English. 

It includes such things as laxness, laziness, carelessness, lack of seriousness, unthinking, preference for taking short-cuts, and a readiness to accept fate. This mindset is at least as widespread as the others above and a great obstacle to further development of the country.

The deadline for completing the new constitution has not been set. Once it is promulgated, I dare say, the four mentioned factors will set in motion the countdown not towards achieving democracy in Thailand, but towards its eventual abrogation.

Sawai Boonma has worked as a development economist for more than 20 years. He can be reached at

Sawai Boonma


Former Senior Country Economist at the World Bank and now a freelance writer.

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