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News analysis: Thailand hanging by a thread

Published on Jan 30, 2014 4:32 PM
 
Anti-government protesters take part in a rally in central Bangkok, on Jan 30, 2014. A video on a giant screen in a hotel meeting room showed scenes of past upheavals and confrontations, when Thais died on the streets of Bangkok fighting for freedom from dictators. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

A video on a giant screen in a hotel meeting room showed scenes of past upheavals and confrontations, when Thais died on the streets of Bangkok fighting for freedom from dictators.

The bloodshed played out on the video screen at Thursday's launch of the Reform Now Network in Bangkok by prominent intellectuals and business leaders. They said that their new group may be the "very last attempt" to create a space for dialogue and a way out of an ever-tightening circle of tension, as rival camps vie for power in what both appear to see as a zero-sum, winner take all game.

And on the lips of many Thais lighting candles and gathering every evening in small groups in Bangkok to support Sunday's mid term election is the question of what has happened to democracy in Thailand.

Thais have a history of fighting and paying a price for democracy. Poll after opinion poll shows the majority wants democracy, and elections.

Yet a large mass of mostly urban middle class people under the umbrella of the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) has vowed to paralyse Bangkok on Sunday and derail the mid-term election - attacking one of the central elements of a functioning democracy.

The PDRC stridently denies that it is anti-democracy or anti-elections, however, saying the movement has been smeared unfairly by western media and commentators.

The PDRC contends that recent elections have been essentially bought by Thaksin Shinawatra. The ambitious, stubborn billionaire was thrown out of the premiership by the army in 2006 on grounds of corruption and disrespecting Thailand's monarchy - but his proxy political parties have repeatedly roared back to power in elections, and his younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra became prime minister in 2011.

The Shinawatra clan and its network is the primary target of the PDRC. The movement which draws strength mainly from Bangkok's conservative middle classes and the opposition Democrat Party dominated southern provinces, wants to delay the election until reforms are instituted by an unelected "people's council".

Critics see the PDRC as a middle class backlash against electoral democracy, based on the conviction that the electoral process is prone to corruption.

But while vote buying is an acknowledged phenomenon in Thailand, recent research shows that the practice and culture is on the decline. Writing last month in the Bangkok Post, economics professor Pasuk Phongpaichit and historian Chris Baker called the claims of vote buying "dangerous nonsense".

"Recent false claims about vote-buying are a key part of the campaign to undermine electoral democracy," they wrote. "The real problem is that more people understand the value of the vote, and are using it in their own interest."

Thailand's conflict is complex and multilayered. It merges personality conflicts and revenge politics, class conflict, economic disparity and struggle over resources, and the fear of the urban middle class of a near future of rule by powerful, corrupt politicians without the stabilising presence of a morally strong and benevolent monarch.

It is also fundamentally about rule of law, says analyst Veerapat Pareeyawong.

"Class conflict is a part of this, but it not everything," he says. "For 40 years courts have ruled in favour of those who have carried out coups d'etat. Thai culture embraces the idea that there are always possible exceptions to the rules, and you can do it (break the rules) not just for yourself but for your friends. I blame the system from the schools to the courts. But once you have this, people also get angry.''

Each person in the street, whether in Bangkok or in the north east, believes they are fighting for democracy. In 2009, an Asia Foundation survey of Thais across 26 provinces, found that while 30 per cent said they would support authoritarian rule in some circumstances, 95 per cent still maintained that democracy was the best form of government.

In truth, neither the conservative PDRC with its largely urban middle class support base, or the Thaksin Shinawatra-aligned Puea Thai party with its ''red shirt'' and rural middle class support base, rejects electoral democracy, says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute for Security and International Studies (ISIS).

"The difference between them is the place of the monarchy-centred established order in Thailand's electoral democracy," wrote prof Thitinan in an email.

Professor Kriengsak Charoenwongsak, a former Democrat Party member of parliament, says: "Both sides do have some understanding and sympathy for democracy. But deep in their veins neither Thaksin nor (PDRC leader) Suthep Thaugsuban are true democrats.

''The real issue is they see this as a last battle. Sincere middle of the road people who really want real democracy both in form and essence are not vocal enough. Vocal minorities on both sides hijack the agenda.''

Lost in the din and hijacked by demagogues, democracy remains a work in progress in Thailand - and now hangs by a thread.

nirmal@sph.com.sg

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