85 years on, troubled Thai democracy not so unusual

politics June 25, 2017 01:00


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AFTER 13 military coups and countless political uprisings, some may have already lost faith in Thai democracy since the Siamese Revolution took place 85 years ago. However, that is not such a relatively long time for a country to achieve stable, fully fledged democracy.

At Chulalongkorn University’s political science faculty on Friday, academics took turns looking back into history in order to understand what is going on now and what might happen in the future, as well as drawing comparisons with other countries such as France for a better understanding of Thai democracy.

The seminar was held to mark the anniversary of the bloodless revolution that shifted the Thai ruling regime from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one, Friday’s event being closely observed, but not interrupted, by some plainclothes military officers.

Thanet Apornsuwan, a noted history professor at Thammasat University, suggested that one of the reasons why Thai democracy had not moved forward was because the state failed to establish institutions to serve the law and order that lies at heart of an efficient democracy.

Thailand, as well as the whole of Southeast Asia, instead focuses on building moral order based on the characteristics of their rulers

“The region does adopt [democratic] modernisation, but still with great lack in subjectivity and focused on individuals,” Thanet said “In Thailand, for instance, there is a blurred line between the state and society. The Thai state also does not sustain for social purposes.”

As a historian, the professor also stated that it was important to equip history together with political studies so as to provide grounds for empathy together with an analytical lens.

Kullada Kesboonchoo Mead, Chulalongkorn’s lecturer on international relations, said that Thai democratisation can be explained through the lens of political economy, contributed to by social forces and with Thai capitalists at its centre.

“Thai political changes have depended on the power to control and distribute resources as well as leaders’ characteristics,” she said. “In comparison with France, Thailand took a shorter time to transform from a feudal to a modern state.”

This also explained how the US has played a role in the Thai landscapes, from the rise of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat in the 1950s in the time of the Cold War to the 1973 popular uprising against Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn. The role still literally continues, mostly through the US movement in the civil society sector. These US factors in Thailand were also related to its financial relations with the Kingdom, especially with the Thai elite, she said.

“What we can currently see in Thai politics is grass-roots people being more [politically] alert,” she said “More or less, [former PM] Thaksin Shinawatra had made those people aware that their benefits were linked with politics. 

“We might see a mass movement, which starts to grow from capitalism.”

Chulalongkorn political science lecturer Kanokrat Lertchoosakul pointed to comparative timelines for Thailand and France, starting from the revolutions in 1932 and 1789 respectively.

After the upheaval that overthrew Louise XVI, France did not jump directly into democracy, Kanokrat said. In fact, it went through being a republic five times, being an empire twice, a restored monarchy under a constitution, and falling under a military junta. 

“These changes were caused by several clashes between the conservatives and the liberals, the bourgeoisie and the labourers” she said “Political settlements in France actually became concrete as late as 1986, when the system allowed coexistence between president and prime minister, who may be of different stances.”

It took almost 200 years there, from the first revolution, to resolve the political deadlock, she said, concluding that Thailand’s 85-year-old unstable democracy was thus not so peculiar. 

“Democratic development is not linear. It’s actually a lifelong struggle,” she said. “A democratic system can be efficient only when all blocs recognise each other. The parliament should also be designed to accommodate balance of power.

“The military’s concept of curbing thoughts is thus impossible in the long run, especially in such a development that has to go through cyclical transition.”