Do Thais lack spirit for democracy?

Author: John J Brandon, The Asia Foundation

As Thais begin to celebrate Buddhist New Year (known as ‘songkran’) next week, they will be doing so under the specter that forces inside the country will not have reached an acceptable agreement in resolving the nation’s four-year political impasse.

Since mid-March, thousands of anti-government demonstrators, known as ‘red shirts,’ from the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) have tied-up traffic in major intersections of Bangkok, including the city’s commercial center where shopping malls and banks were closed for three days earlier this week. On April 7, after protesters pushed through the main gate of the parliament compound, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva declared a state of emergency in Bangkok to help restore order, the red shirts are demanding that Mr. Abhisit dissolve Parliament and call for new elections.

They vow to stay put until Mr. Abhisit steps down. The red shirts believe Mr. Abhisit lacks legitimacy because neither he nor the political party he leads, the Democrat Party, has won a popular mandate in an election.

In many respects, the red shirts have borrowed a page from their political opponents’ playbook. The supporters of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) (also known as the ‘yellow shirts’) were successful when they took to the streets to help bring down former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a military coup in September 2006. Subsequent governments were surrogates for Mr. Thaksin. In response, the yellow shirts staged high-profile protests, including taking over the Government House for three months in 2008, followed shortly thereafter by shutting down Bangkok’s two major airports for a week.

Many of Thaksin’s supporters are furious over what they call ‘a silent coup,’ led by members of Thailand’s established elite, including the military, which allowed Mr. Abhisit to form a government. In reality, since neither the Democrat Party nor the Puea Thai Party (to which the red shirts belong) received a majority of seats, Mr. Abhisit was able to cobble together a coalition of smaller parties to create a majority in the parliament. Members of this coalition had been previously aligned with Mr. Thaksin and then switched their allegiance to Mr. Abhisit and the Democrats. The optics may look lousy, but there is nothing illegal about this. As prime minister, Mr. Abhisit has the backing of the military and the palace, the likelihood of him being removed is remote. Mr. Abhisit will continue to rule, but how effectively remains in deep question.

Even if Mr. Abhisit were to capitulate to the red shirts’ demands to resign, a new election is unlikely to resolve Thailand’s political tensions. Neither the Puea Thai nor the Democrat Party would win an outright majority of seats in the Parliament. Therefore, smaller parties would play a critical role in how a new government would be formed. As political ideology has never played a factor in Thai politics, this would all be about who can cut the best deal by promising power and influence.

So when will things come to a head? Will there be violence? Last Buddhist New Year, the red shirts engaged in aggressive and violent acts causing loss of life, injuries, and damage to property. A car thought to be carrying Mr. Abhisit was viciously attacked and according to reports, had the prime minister been in the car, he very likely would have been killed. In the days before state of emergency declared today, the red shirts clashed with riot police and forced MPs to use ladders to scale the walls of parliament compound to escape. There appears to be a misconception in Thailand over the past few years that democracy equals intimidation — whether that means blockading major city intersections in Bangkok and forcing the country’s commercial center to close, tossing grenades at government buildings, shutting down a major international summit attended by Asian leaders, occupying the Government House, or closing a major international airport. It is these types of instances that behooved a retired Thai army general to comment to me recently: ‘Thailand’s political system is complicated, but lacks sophistication. The people understand the mechanics of what is involved in a democracy, but regrettably the public lacks the spirit.’

To his credit, Mr. Abhisit has never denied the red shirts the right to air their grievances, but has appealed to his opponents to work within the system rather than conducting mass protests on the street. But Mr. Abhisit’s appeal has not gained any resonance because many of these protesters have little or no faith in the political system. Conditions inside Thailand have been exacerbated by the failure of the country’s democratic institutions to bridge the divide between a new capitalist class that has won the backing of the rural poor with populist policies and an established elite that is seeking to maintain its traditional grip on power.

As Thais begin to celebrate their New Year among friends and family with the spiritual aspects of water and renewal, perhaps they will reflect upon the need for citizens to develop or rediscover that same public spirit to promote democracy, that rather ironically a former senior military officer said is missing. In all likelihood, it will take years before a political resolution is reached. Where ever one stands in the Thai body politic, this impasse is not something to feel celebratory about.

John Brandon is The Asia Foundation’s Director of International Relations Programs in Washington, D.C.

This piece was originally published here by ‘In Asia.’

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