What differentiates democracy from other political systems is that it doesn’t really need a symbol.
The Michael Douglas character in the Hollywood blockbuster “The American President” hit the nail on the head when he said, in defence of his girlfriend who had joined protesters in burning the US flag, that the true spirit of advanced, democratic citizenship lies in tolerance of hostility and ideologies that don’t conform to your thinking. That statement could be applied to the “missing plaque” in Thailand.
The essence of his remark is this: For democracy to thrive, the onus is not on the flag burners, but those who may not like what the former do but accept their right to do it anyway. “You want free speech?” the Douglas character says, “Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing centre stage and advocating at the top of his lungs what you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn the flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then you can stand up and sing about the ‘land of the free’.”
If that’s a great summary of true democracy, then we obviously have a lot of problems in Thailand. Tolerance here is minimal. People calling themselves “pro-democracy” give symbols too much importance. When products of democracy face protests, the protesters are condemned, stereotyped and are likely to be wiped out at the earliest opportunity. Charges of untoward conduct are easily dismissed, not by evidence to the contrary but by how much power one has in Parliament. In short, the pro-democracy movement in Thailand is in danger of becoming its own worst enemy.
The right to cry foul over the missing plaque is embedded in democracy. But it has to be a healthy democracy with an efficient check-and-balance system, a respectable legislature and properly functioning courts of law. As we can see, this country is missing a lot more than a revolution plaque where democracy is concerned.
We can place the plaque back where it was and surround it with the best anti-theft barricade in the world, but that doesn’t mean our on-and-off democracy will suddenly be all right. Again, the onus is not on the ones who have taken the plaque, but on the people bemoaning its absence. As the Douglas character said, if you want democracy, “you gotta want it bad, ’cos it’s gonna put up a fight”.
And the fight is not against those responsible for a plaque’s disappearance. What he means is democracy will keep testing you, even when you think you have a good hold of it. True democracy continuously seeks to separate the fake from the genuine articles. It always wants to make sure you are worthy of it.
Other political systems can have symbols. Religions also take symbols seriously. “Democracy lovers” can choose to duplicate them, or fine-tune their mindsets so that the ideology they advocate matters more when ingrained in their conscience. The integrity of a plaque is far less significant than the solidity of our own ideological wills.
True democracy is saying “We don’t need a symbol.” It’s not only because a symbol is nothing without the true yearning for equality, but also because the symbol can misguide weak minds about rights to protest or human rights as a whole.
True democracy is saying “History is nowhere near as important as the future, because while the other systems can afford a comfort zone, we cannot. And true democracy is saying “Even though the other systems cannot tolerate us, we will tolerate them.” Which means that if we cannot tolerate a plaque’s disappearance, what chance do we really have? Coming to think of it, if democracy really needs a symbol, maybe it’s the willingness to understand why the plaque went missing. Such a willingness could be the biggest symbol of all.
Democracy requires a much greater responsibility than protecting a commemoration plaque, and its advocates have to do a lot more than raising noise over its disappearance. Anyone in any ideological system can be assigned to guard a plaque, but not everyone can shrug off its absence by saying “It’s just a symbol.”
Which is why the situation in Thailand is quite peculiar, because the fierce “fight” doesn’t necessarily mean people “want it bad”. A lot of “fighters” are crying for the missing plaque, but not everyone in this country is crying over the missing ingredients of true democracy, which has probably become elusive for good reasons.