Thailand needs a democratic, just society Over the past year, several foreign governments have exhorted Thailand to “bring back democracy” and “hold elections”.
As Americans who between us have resided in Thailand for over a century, we regard these well-intentioned exhortations as counter-productive and simplistic, revealing inadequate understanding of the cultural, social, and political challenges that Thailand must deal with if it is to develop sustainable democratic governance.
In our view, Thailand needs less to return to any democracy already achieved than to build a democracy that can be sustained.
Foreigners should appreciate that Thailand has been striving to put in place a sustainable democratic system since the 1932 revolution. During some periods that goal receded from view, and in others it appeared to be close at hand. On the whole, the political history of the past 83 years has been a story of elite-dominated governments, characterised by greater or lesser degrees of top-down authoritarian governance.
Throughout these years of conflict, there has been broad agreement among Thais that Thailand should be a democracy of one sort or another. But defining the democracy that would best suit Thailand, and implementing the necessary preconditions for Thailand to achieve democratic governance, have eluded the best efforts of generations of Thais.
Genuine, sustainable democracy has yet to take root in Thailand. Numerous coups and constitutions enacted and then torn up over the past 83 years tell the story. We ask ourselves, what is this democracy which these well-meaning foreign critics wish Thailand to restore? We wonder what is achieved by demanding Thailand hold elections right away, considering the repeated frustrations and disappointments after the several elections held over the past decade. Is there any reason to believe that yet another election will magically resolve Thailand’s political paralysis?
In the case of governments run by the military or installed by the military, the authoritarian nature of the regimes has been obvious. In other cases, civilian governments have taken office through legitimate popular election, but once in power these civilian governments have often behaved in authoritarian ways at odds with true democracy.
For the most part, civilian governments have not developed, strengthened and sustained the values and structures necessary to effective liberal democratic governance. They have sometimes trampled on the rights of minorities, communities and individuals, they have all too often abused authority to increase their power and enrich themselves through illegal means, and they have sometimes vitiated the checks and balances and civil society that give meaning to democratic rule. We the undersigned are colour blind — we do not see that one side or another of the political fray is more or less virtuous.
The people’s constitution of 1997 was conceived to bring about a genuine political transformation, but even this constitution could not stand up to the power of the few against the rest. With rare exceptions, change of an elected government has only resulted in one clique replacing another in grabbing the power of the state for its own interest.
Moreover, elected governments, almost as much as military governments, have been averse to outside input to policy formulation. The hierarchical and patriarchal character of Thai society has resulted in elites of one sort or another — social, economic, political, military — regarding themselves as the rightful guardians of the interests of the nation, entitled by virtue of their position in society to determine what is best for everyone. Their agent of control has been the centralised bureaucratic government, which has not distinguished itself for responsiveness to the people’s will, or for its sensitivity to local wisdom and the diversity of regional socio-cultural heritage.
Elections over the past decade have mobilised Thai voters and enabled many of them to recognise the stake they have in elections. This has been a very important achievement. However, these same elections have also put in office governments that enriched themselves at the public trough and worked systematically to dismantle checks on their powers, resulting in judicial and military interventions to remove the elected governments. These interventions have overturned this newly activated public voice at considerable cost.
The root of the word “democracy” is the ancient Greek word demos, meaning the ordinary citizens. For a sound basis for democratic governance to be built in Thailand, top-down centralisation must be replaced by the articulation of authentic voices within the demos (or phracha, as it is aptly translated into Thai).
This will require a massive change of attitude on the part of both those in the corridors of power, and of the general citizenry. The former must learn to listen and heed the voices of the people, expressed through elections, civil society, and other mechanisms; the latter must become actively, intelligently, and responsibly involved in the kingdom’s political process, expressing views through the democratic process on decisions that affect their lives, and demanding accountability on the part of the government that they have installed in office. Complacent and easily manipulated citizenry is as much the enemy of Thai democracy as is a complacent and self-satisfied governing class.
The very qualities of “being Thai” that make Thailand’s culture so attractive — the courtesy, grace, sensitive aversion to conflict, respect for elders and superiors, avoidance of attachment and acceptance of the impermanence of all things - unfortunately help sustain a hierarchical society inconsistent with the values of democracy, which hold that elected governments should respect and enforce the rule of law, uphold transparency, and tolerate dissent.
None of this is to say that Thailand should not continue its quest for stable, sustainable democracy, or that its foreign friends should not continue to provide constructive assistance and advice to Thailand on how to achieve democracy. Quite the contrary, we hope that Thailand can join the community of stable liberal democracies sooner rather than later.
Nothing is more central to democracy or more transformative than elections, but elections are only part of what democracy is about. In our view, Thailand must focus on laying the groundwork for political system sustainability before and after elections, and not just on the elections themselves. Constitutions and electoral laws can be designed and redesigned with the assistance of the best scholars and legal minds to prescribe how elections should be conducted, but they are unlikely to succeed unless the essential groundwork is first put in place.
Let us reflect on the lessons of the last 83 years, and especially on the meaning of events of the past turbulent decade. We ask Thailand’s foreign allies whether they have thought about the underlying issues that Thailand must resolve if the kingdom is to be democratic in the full meaning of the word? Foremost among these, after taking office, the elected government must uphold the rule of law, tolerate dissent, and foster democratic governance and civil society at the grassroots level. We venture a few thoughts for Thailand’s foreign friends to ponder when next they feel an urge to call for Thailand to “bring back democracy”.
Rule of law is the most basic requirement for sustainable liberal democracy. Thailand has long had in place the superstructure of the rule of law, but it is apparent to Thais that laws are all too often not applied equally to the rich and poor, that the police are tainted with scandal, that the courts are not always impartial, and that those with connections and influence sometimes ignore the law with impunity.
The belief that everyone, high or low, is equal before the law, is not yet the accepted norm in Thailand. How to put that in place is a fundamental challenge facing Thailand in its quest for democracy. Until that is recognised and made a centrepiece of national development, we are not optimistic about the prospects for democracy in Thailand.
Success in putting in place a true rule of law and democracy would be more likely if less heed was paid to reinforcing “being Thai”, which is a static or backward-looking way of thinking. Instead, more attention should be paid to what the nation wishes to be in future decades, where it is headed in the widening world of AEC. A slow but sure peaceful evolution towards democratic governance must ultimately be based not on an outdated past but on the vision of a more progressive future.
Buddhism teaches impermanence, that all is constantly changing. Recognition and embracing of the inevitability of change can be the basis for beginning to develop a national vision of the future that bridges the colour-coded divisions of the kingdom, energises civil society to build a stronger and more just Thailand for all, and facilitates the respect for rule of law and mutual tolerance that will allow sustainable democracy to take root.
That vision would include, at a minimum, thorough reform of the education system to equip all Thais with the capacity for responsibly engaged citizenship, conversion of the police force into an effective guardian of the rule of law, complete intolerance for corruption, and transformation of the bloated centralised bureaucracy into a more efficient, trim and streamlined structure responsive to the people’s will and to the diversity of local interests and needs. The examples of some East Asian countries that have implemented this sort of transformative vision of national renewal, resulting in the creation of broad middle-class based democracies and prosperous societies, could be an inspiration to Thailand.
Thailand’s foreign friends should recognise the social, cultural and political obstacles to the conception and implementation of such a national vision of renewal, and to any immediate realisation of democratic governance. They should accept that this ambitious agenda should and could comprise Thailand’s long-term goals, but that achieving them will not occur overnight. Although those contesting for political power and control will do so in the name of democracy, the reality for some time to come may be semi-authoritarian regimes, deceptively packaged as “guided democracy”, “tutelary period”, and other terms masking the reluctance of the elite to entrust the future of the country to a democratic process with broad participation.
Foreigners should be sympathetic, constructively critical but also encouraging behind the scenes, avoiding public calls for immediate elections and a “return to democracy”, which only irritate. We firmly believe that real democracy will come to Thailand when the time is right, but that no amount of foreign pressure will hasten that day. When Thais cease to deny that the structures and values of the past - no matter how fondly one nostalgically remembers the ways of years long gone - will not serve the needs of a democratic future, only then will the kingdom have taken a big step towards political maturation.
Other countries that fairly recently had authoritarian regimes and hierarchical societies, such as South Korea, Taiwan, Portugal and Spain, all proud of unique, distinctive cultures of their own, have made transitions to stronger rule of law and higher quality democracy without giving up their national cultures. Now it is up to the Thai people to make it happen here.
Ultimately it will be the Thais themselves who will make their own decision as to the form of government they desire and will accept. Whatever they decide, one hopes it will be embedded in a democratic culture and lead to a more just society.
William Klausner is an anthropologist and socio-political analyst.
James Stent is a banker and analyst on political economy.
Robert Fitts is a diplomat and political analyst.
Danny Unger is a teacher and writer on politics.