Disillusioned with Democracy: The Tale of the Thailand Coup

JURIST Guest Columnist Robert Albritton of the University of Mississippi says the recent overthrow of Thailand's elected government by unconstitutional means reflects a disconcerting failure of mass democracy in the country in the face of opposition from critical elites...



For forms of government let fools contest; that which is best administered is best.

These words from the British playwright Sheridan, quoted favorably by Hamilton in The Federalist, sum up the attitudes of many elite Thais toward democratic government. As in 1991, a military coup overturned a democratically-elected government on September 19, 2006 on the pretext of corruption. Whether corruption truly existed has yet to be proven, but what is clear is that Thai elites are still willing to sacrifice democracy when they find control of government slipping from their grasp. For the time being, they are willing to tolerate a ban on all political activities, including meetings of political parties, assemblies of more than five people, and restrictions on the news media — specifically a ban on criticism of the regime and other possible censorship, all restrictions that far exceed criticisms of the regime led by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Before censorship of the media took effect, the coup was challenged by some academics formerly opposed to Thaksin and even the opposition political party, Prajadhipat (Democrat), but few were willing to oppose the coup directly, especially after it received blessings from the palace. Clearly, they had underestimated the mood of the military and the palace that combined to end the 15-year trajectory of democracy.

Most Thais were in denial concerning clear signs of an impending coup. Within a year after the landslide election victory of Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party in the 2005 elections [1], significant fissures opened in the Thai political landscape. Thousands of Bangkokians gathered in Lumpini Park to listen to attacks on the government by Sondhi Limtongkul, a wealthy businessman who, after supporting Prime Minister Thaksin in previous elections, fell out with him over as-yet-unidentified business issues. Many Thais were enraged, however, when the Prime Minister sold the huge Shin Corporation shares to a Singaporean firm. The company included the major satellite linkage in SE Asia and a huge proportion of cell phone business. Some Thais argued that these were national assets that could not legitimately be transferred to non-Thais. In addition, Thaksin paid no tax on the sale estimated at around $2 billion, because of a law exempting capital gains from taxation when acquired by sales through the Securities Exchange of Thailand. On a routine basis, as many as 100,000 protestors marched to demand Thaksin's resignation or replacement.

Thaksin nonetheless had his own supporters located mostly in rural areas of the country and mobilized even larger crowds (as many as 200,000 in Bangkok) in his support. Eventually, in order to quell the continuous unrest, he dissolved Parliament and ordered a "snap" election, knowing that his popularity in the countryside would give him a new mandate to govern. The opposition parties, however, refused to participate in the poll and supported a move to encourage voters to mark ballots against any candidates. Because the election law requires that any candidate must receive at least 20 percent of the eligible electorate when only one candidate runs unopposed, this move was successful and, despite repeated by-elections, 14 seats remained unfilled.

The "Two Democracies"

This political conflict represents a resurrection of the "two democracies" identified by Thai political scientist Anek Laothamatas [2] that essentially pitted the politics of Bangkok against the rural North, Northeast, and Central regions from which the majority party, Thai Rak Thai, drew its strength. Underlying this cleavage is a division rooted in the history of Thai politics, but only now becoming critical to social stability as a result of advancing democracy in the Thai nation. Until the development of democracy, Thai politics was dominated by Bangkok, even though Bangkok comprises only about 10 percent of the population of Thailand. As democracy began to take hold (with each voter in the rural areas counting as much as each voter in Bangkok), it was only a matter of time before political power would shift to the politics and priorities of rural Thailand. The conflict between Bangkok and the hinterland was long in building, but, once the structures of democracy were in place, it was not long before the rural 80 percent asserted their political strength to the alarm of Bangkok elites.

At least two Thai scholars have argued that these cleavages have long existed between political orientations of Bangkok elites and Thai villagers. [3] According to this view, Thailand is, thus, a tale of two democracies - that of sophisticated urban elites (with origins or current status in Bangkok) and that of a rural, often isolated, parochial interest that views political activity, especially elections, as opportunities for personal or community benefit. This perspective is important because, historically, it has been the position taken by Bangkok elites that has determined the fate of democratic government in Thailand.

The difference between urban and rural constituencies (according to the elite "urban view") is that:
Voting in farming areas is not guided by political principles, policy issues, or what is perceived to be in the national interest, all of which is (regarded as) the only legitimate rationale for citizens casting their ballots in a democratic election. The ideal candidates for rural voters are those who visit them often, address their immediate grievances effectively, and bring numerous public works to their communities. [4]
The ability of rural constituencies to acquire substantial power in parliaments under these conditions often led to doubts among the middle class, the mass media, and even academics as to the efficacy of democratic processes. For these groups, "democracy turns out to be the rule of the corrupt and incompetent." This creates a dilemma, for although the middle class opposes authoritarian rule, in principle, they hold rural constituencies in contempt, regarding them as "parochial in outlook, boorish in manner, and too uneducated to be competent lawmakers or cabinet members." [5]

The problem is that urban, educated, cosmopolitan candidates, who are skilled policy experts, are often held in equal contempt by villagers, regarded as being alien to rural electorates in terms of taste, culture, and outlook, who "fail to stay close to the voters in both a physical and cultural sense." [6] This veiled contempt for rural-dwellers by sophisticated Bangkok elites poses no problem under authoritarian regimes. Once democratic elections tipped the balance in favor of rural areas, however, significant gaps in perceptions and meanings of democracy developed.

Socioeconomic Status and Support for Democracy

Other cleavages not limited to the urban-rural divide emerged after 2001. Data from a 2005 poll foretold a growing political cleavage based upon class. [7] Cleavages based upon education, income, and social status have, over the past decade, produced considerable political tension that, until recently, seemed to be abating. The threat posed by these cleavages lies in declining enthusiasm for democracy and ambivalence among the middle class in supporting democratic consolidation. There is growing evidence that, while the middle class opposes authoritarian forms of government that restrict individual freedoms and exercise a heavy hand over commerce, the uncertainty of changes in government, even by democratic processes, can be viewed as destabilizing the economic and cultural environment traditionally led by elites of the middle class. The possibility that government may be seized by politicians with "populist" agendas poses an even more direct threat to the interests of a class that stands significantly above the average voter in Thai elections. What may be even more significant is the prospect that, because of the democratic ballot, traditional status (that is, non-economic) elites are pitted against rural masses that heretofore have had little or no political power.

Opposition to Popular Democracy from Traditional Sources of Status and Power

It is too facile to view these cleavages either as a product only of class or even of the urban-rural divide. There is another, more subtle, dimension to the emerging political conflict. The conflict over the Thaksin regime exposed significant differences between "traditional elites" and the masses in their understandings of popular democracy. Publicly expressed views of academics and supporters of traditional society indicate that the "reformers" expected voters to support traditional elites, that is, those who were "supposed" to lead the nation. The capture of the government by mass (as opposed to elite-led) democracy brought about a corresponding disillusionment with democratic elections among intellectual and urban elites. This sentiment was represented by academic and social activist Thirayuth Boonmi, who was quoted by the Bangkok Post as saying that it was worrisome that Prime Minister Thaksin had mobilized the poor --- and gotten them involved in politics (italics mine). What was even more worrisome, he went on to say, was that the poor voted differently from the middle class (italics also mine). The conflict between an emerging, mass-based democracy and traditions embedded in a hierarchical society pose a major obstacle to further consolidation of Thai democracy.

The Role of the Royalists in the Coup of 2006

Among the "traditional elites" who have become increasingly uncomfortable with democracy are the "royalists." Unable to unseat Thaksin by legitimate means, royalist elites made alliances with anti-Thaksin protest movements to the extent that representatives of the anti-Thaksin alliances appeared often "at the door of the palace" asking for help in turning Thaksin out of office. Thaksin did not help his cause by appearing to compete with the king, especially in insinuating himself into ceremonies honoring the 60th year of the king's accession to the throne. In addition, the hard line taken by the government in denying full control in the South to the military and interference in the annual reshuffle of military officers, alienated key elements of powerful elites that had been quiescent for over a decade.

A series of events foretold the coup for those who are sensitive to the intricacies of Thai politics. A series of speeches by Prem Tinsulanonda, spokesman for the Privy Council, and, thus, the voice of the king, indirectly chastised developments within the government, but, more importantly, in speeches to various military groups, reminded the military officers that the military belonged to the king, not the government. A visit by General Songthi to the palace preceded the mobilization of the military to take over the government, to replace the Prime Minister, and to abrogate the Constitution of 1997. This was followed by immediate approval of the coup by the monarch. As one Thai scholar put it, "If the king didn't give a nod, this never would have been possible." [8]

Constitutional "Reform"

Some Thai intellectuals have little regard for constitutions; therefore, the abrogation of the Constitution of 1997, has evoked only scant elite opposition. This constitution, however, has been suggested as the basic document for any new reform efforts and has received support from Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the opposition Prajadhipat (Democrat) Party. The Constitution of 1997 outlines explicit political and human rights unmatched in most constitutions of democratic states. Whether a new constitution will infringe upon or maintain these rights remains an open question.

Agitators for constitutional reform are united in attempting to write a constitution that will prevent concentrations of power such as those of the Thai Rak Thai party during the past five years. The Constitution of 1997, of course, was designed to overcome the anarchy of coalition governments that proved unstable and were associated with the economic collapse of the late 1990s. The solution appears to lie in what Thais refer to as "checks and balances." These are a series of institutions designed to countermand the government in a variety of sensitive areas, including the Election Commission, the Constitutional Court, the Administrative Court, a Human Rights Commission, and a National Counter-Corruption Commission.

The Constitution of 1997, however, never solved the problem of how these bodies were to be constituted. The solution was to have members of these agencies appointed by a theoretically nonpartisan Senate. Because these bodies often found in favor of the government, criticism of the Thaksin administration began to spill over onto these independent bodies. At this point, it is not clear how the issue of appointments to what are, in principle, watchdog bodies will be resolved. Furthermore, it is probably naïve to think that all aspects of corruption can be forestalled by any constitutional document. In fact, many of the complaints about elections, for example, are fruits of implementing legislation, not provisions of the Constitution.

Analysis and Conclusions

The history of democracy in Thailand has been one of elite-guided democracy. Whether the Bangkok intellectual and social elites will cede political authority to the hinterland remains the major issue for democratic governance, that is, progress toward mass-based democracy. Dominance by Bangkok elites of the press and academic discourse make this course an uphill struggle, and foreign media interpretations almost invariably rely on the very elites whose interest is at stake. In the long run, however, only mass-based democracy can be called true democracy.

The overthrow of a democratically elected government by unconstitutional means, especially with the collaboration of the palace, is shattering for analysts who believed that Thailand was making progress away from an elite-dominated society. In this case, elites have responded to a populist government with a resounding "No, we will not tolerate mass rule!" Earlier optimism about Thailand as a "democratic" state should have all but evaporated. Clearly, elites will not tolerate radical changes in society implied by mass democracy. The hopes of those who began the path to democracy, in 1932, have suffered seriously from recent events, even more than from the 1991 coup, because Thailand had come so far.

Notes

1. A poll by the King Prajadhipat's Institute in April, 2006, indicated over 80 percent approval for the Thaksin Shinawatra government. This nationwide approval, however, diverged sharply from Bangkok and the southern provinces.

2. "A Tale of Two Democracies: Conflicting Perceptions of Elections and Democracy in Thailand," in R.H. Taylor, ed., The Politics of Elections in Southeast Asia. New York: Cambridge University Press (1996) 201-23.

3. Laothamatas, op.cit., and Pasuk Pongphaichit and Chris Baker. Thailand's Crisis. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books (2001).

4. Laothamatas, op.cit., 208.

5. Ibid, 208.

6. Ibid.,, 208.

7. King Prajadhipok's Institute poll of the electorate during 2001 and 2005 parliamentary elections.

8. Quoted by Jocelyn Gecker on AP, 9/20/2006.


Robert B. Albritton is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Mississippi, where he writes on Thai politics and government.
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