For Thailand’s sake, let’s move beyond Thaksin

opinion March 16, 2019 01:00

By The Nation

Our shared future depends on ensuring that next weekend’s voting lead to a progressive democracy



There are two indisputable facts about Thaksin Shinawatra. First, he was convicted of malfeasance while occupying the Prime Minister’s Office and sentenced to two years in jail by a democratic judicial system at a time when the country was under democratic rule. 

Second, he opted to flee punishment at a time when the country was under the democratic leadership of his own political allies. To those who are now arguing online as “defenders of democracy” that the March 24 election represents a prime chance to bring home a politically persecuted man, these two facts alone should be a command to silence.

In the years since the court judged Thaksin guilty in the shameful Ratchadapisek land-auction case, memories have become blurred, often opportunistically, sometimes wilfully. This has allowed the narrative to shift, portraying Thaksin as the victim of an elitist conspiracy. 

The claim ignores the fact that he fled overseas to avoid being imprisoned for violating a law that had been on the books for many years. The violation occurred while he was premier. The verdict came while his supporters controlled a democratically elected government. These are the inescapable facts.

Nor can there be any debate that the imminent election chiefly aims to settle the divisive political dispute stemming from disagreement over Thaksin’s plight. For the good of the country and every citizen, though, we have to move on as a nation. We have to let the gulf be bridged and prevent differences in ideology from holding votes hostage time and again. This is our chance to decide on greater issues with an eye to the future, not the past. 

We should be choosing which party can best improve the economy, education and healthcare, can best protect the environment, whether casinos and cannabis should be legal, whether the creative economy and cultural tourism are viable goals, and how prepared we are as a society to embrace the southern Malay Muslims, northern hilltribes and stateless immigrants and LGBT people across the land as our fellow full-fledged citizens.

We should be wary of politicians who sow division, and at all costs we should avoid becoming too enamoured of party loyalties, lest we be led astray from nobler, more progressive policies that would see Thailand hailed internationally as more than merely a destination for beach vacationers and sex tourists.

Several sensible campaign planks have emerged. Peua Chat wants to give gays and lesbians broader legal rights. The Democrats want to persecute state officials with connections to the illicit drug trade. 

Bhumjaithai is pressing for a technology springboard to lifelong free online learning. Chartthaipattana believes farm children should be schooled for free right through university. And there are more fine examples.

The bloat and corruption that mire Thai politics and the great Shinawatra-versus-military debate block progress in these and other areas. The main opposing camps, royalist and republican, pay no more than lip service to worthier ideas. They seek to dominate the campaign with divisive rhetoric about events that should be relegated to memory. They are counting on voters remembering the hurt felt over past uprisings and transgressions. Some of this might be acceptable but for the distortions and lies in circulation. 

We favour neither camp, but will side with the party best able to show us how it can take us further into democracy’s possibilities.