Thai democracy at 85: Matured with wisdom or dying of old age?

opinion June 30, 2017 01:00

By Titipol Phakdeewanich
Special to The Nation

Eighty-five years ago, on June 24, 1932, Thai democracy was born through a coup d’etat that ended absolute monarchy. The time has now come for Thailand to be honest with itself and ask whether democracy is truly necessary for the country and its people.

The decades since 1932 have seen repeated public rejections of democracy. The most recent came with political protests by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) in 2013-2014, which called for military intervention to oust the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra. 

The PDRC acted as a catalyst for the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to stage a coup on May 22, 2014, which once again derailed Thailand’s democratic progress. The PDRC movement was the starkest example in recent history of Thais’ rejection of democracy, with millions openly embracing military governance.

Since the 2014 coup, some Thai and foreign observers have been misled into believing that the return to “business as usual” means Thailand is now politically stable. But this perceived calmness is only a consequence of the NCPO’s political suppression of opposition groups, and not a reflection of real unity and reconciliation.

“We have basically been treated the same all along since the 2014 coup – being followed, monitored and told what we can and cannot do, because they [the military] say we should avoid making trouble. ‘The country is now doing well and the military is paving the way towards democracy.’ This is what they told us,” said a red-shirt from a rural area in Ubon Ratchathani province, commenting  anonymously.

His report is typical of many that detail suppression of free speech and politics outside the capital, Bangkok, as a consequence of the NCPO’s campaign of “attitude adjustment”, “visits”, “informing the people”, and “giving guidelines”. The tide of criticism goes largely unreported in the mainstream media, instead finding voice in social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

During three years of NCPO rule, Thailand has faced strong criticism from international partners, including the European Union, the United States and the United Nations. The junta has rigorously defended itself, using the rhetoric of “domestic matters”, “Thainess” and “cultural uniqueness” to dismiss its obligations and commitments to international laws and universal principles of democracy, such as compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Meanwhile the NCPO, with support from the PDRC, has been rather successful in demonising democracy at home, while claiming to have reinstalled “Thainess” as part of the reform process. 

Evidence of that success comes in growing calls for the military to stay on in power so it can fulfil its mission of national reform. However, political observers and millions of Thais are now questioning whether the country is actually undergoing genuine reform, or rather being returned to where it was before the bloodless revolution of 1932. 

In fact, Thainess is being utilised by the military with great effect as both a political shield and weapon to convince citizens that their national pride lies in Thailand’s history of avoiding colonisation by the British and the French. The message – that foreigners (specifically Westerners) have different sets of values – is one that has helped the NCPO secure power. This and other cultural values work against the cultivation of democracy in Thailand, and are being utilised by certain groups to justify the country’s retreat from democracy.

When the NCPO launched a reconciliation process in March this year, those invited were asked a set of 10 questions. One stood out: Does comment or criticism from outside the country generate or escalate Thailand’s internal political conflicts? This leading question was intended to frame the government’s critics (especially outside interests and observers) as a threat to national security.

With its military might and self-legitimised political power, the NCPO has waged a successful propaganda programme over the last three years, significantly reinforcing the pre-existing social hierarchy and obedient mindset of many Thais, and effectively suppressed opposition and challenges to state power. It has also managed to demonise pro-democracy groups who oppose military rule, labelling them as troublemakers.

Thais have long been taught to be respect people according to seniority and social status. These principles continue to be recognised as a source of national pride – part of the “Thai character”, while understanding of the concept of equality and dignity of all humans goes neglected. The concept of human rights, a core element of democracy, has been underplayed by the Thai education system and the cultural values it cultivates in youngsters.  

Thai students show little recognition of human rights. Recently, a student at the elite Chulalongkorn University stated “I don’t know human rights, because it is not what I have learned. I am doing a Fine Arts degree.”

It won’t be easy to convince millions of Thais that military intervention is not a shortcut to democratic progress. Gradual evolution is in fact key for democracy, as observed in the United Kingdom which acted as a blueprint for Thai democracy.

Nevertheless, Thais must not mistake democratic principles as a devaluation of Thai cultural heritage and Thainess, because ultimately, democracy is intended to create a more equal society in which everyone is accepted and respected as a human being.

This 85th anniversary of our democracy offers us an opportunity to acknowledge that it is not only Thailand that is culturally unique, but every nation. However, the people of all nations have the right to expect certain similar things – namely, equality, liberty and freedom. Thailand must decide whether it wants to become a fully-fledged democracy, or allow democracy to die of old-age under military rule. 

Titipol Phakdeewanich is dean of the Political Science Faculty at Ubon Ratchathani University, and a visiting fellow at the Centre for the Study of Globalisation and Regionalisation at the University of Warwick in the UK.