The State of Democracy in Thailand

On December 2nd, the Thai Constitutional Court ruled against the governing coalition parties led by People Power Party (PPP) on vote-buying charges and ordered the parties to disband. The incumbent Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat was ousted shortly afterwards, ending a several-month long anti-government protest by the People Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which largely represents the urban elite. The ruling would seem to support the PAD’s persistent claim that Somchai was not a proper, democratic leader but another corrupt proxy of the hated Thaksin clan. Democracy, it would appear, has prevailed, though at huge expense: Thailand’s reputation as a safe business environment and friendly tourist destination has been shattered.

However, some argue that the court’s ruling, the protests, and the silence of Thailand’s respected King effectively constituted a political coup of the government that, while unpopular among the middle class, was nevertheless elected by the people at large.

The King’s role in recent events has been a particularly hot topic. The country’s revered symbol did not intervene in the stalemate between the PAD and the PPP. His silence spoke volumes with many interpreting this as tacit approval of the PAD demonstrations. Sharing this point of view, the Economist magazine of this week featured a story entitled ”A Right Royal Mess” that discusses the critical and controversial role that King Bhumibol Adulyadej has played in Thailand’s modern political development and the recent “yellow-shirt” protests.

Coincidentally, the Economist has disappeared from Thai newsstands. AsiaBooks, one of the distributors, claims its disappearance was a result of paralyzed transportation rather than an informal ban, but this has convinced few. More likely, the distributor feared the country’s vigilant lèse-majesté law which prohibits critical discussion of the royal family. Such self-censorship discourages open political discussion. Most agree that such laws violate the fundamental right of free speech without fear of punishment that is the right of all democratic people. Thailand, it seems, falls far short on this count.

Yet open discussions rather than more conflict is precisely what Thailand needs. Many wonder whether a new prime minister can end the growing split of society. Supported by the “red- shirts,” the corrupt Thaksin-party was bolstered by support from the countryside due to his significant achievements in healthcare, micro-credit, and improved public service. As a result, parties associated with him continue to benefit from widespread rural support. Yet the PAD, representing the other side of society, has made it clear that they will again take to the streets if another pro-Thaksin faction wins control of government. Whether out of genuine distaste for corruption or self-interest, the PAD is effectively holding the country and economy hostage until the people at large elect the “right” leaders that they can approve of.

The tension between the rural poor and urban affluent looks set to remain. Let us all hope that a new prime minister will arise who is capable of soothing the political disorder. In the meantime, Thailand needs to learn how to respect democracy and its values; otherwise, endless coups and toddling governments will throw Thailand’s hard-gained political and economic development into ruins.

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