January 30, 2014 00:00 By Dave Sherman
Special to The N
Democracy does not begin and end with the ballot box - it's a myth that this is all about an elite rejecting the popular vote
As Thailand’s protests intensify with a state of emergency imposed in and around Bangkok, some have begun referring to the demonstrations as “antidemocratic”, zeroing in on the opposition’s boycott of a forthcoming election and the protest leaders’ calls for an unelected “people’s council” to replace existing democratic structures. But the truth is more complex, with the protesters being arguably – and paradoxically – more democratically minded than the elected government they oppose. To understand how this is possible, one has to scratch beneath the surface of Thai politics and dispel some myths.
Myth 1: The protesters are
mainly ‘Bangkok elites’
Caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is widely acknowledged to be the proxy of her self-exiled brother and former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. The protests began last November after Parliament passed an amnesty bill that wiped Thaksin’s slate clean, allowing him to return to Thailand without serving his two-year jail sentence.
Spearheaded by the opposition Democrat Party and Bangkok’s middle classes, the protests grew even after the bill was withdrawn, morphing into a wider movement to reform Thai politics, cleansing them of Thaksin’s influence once and for all. These protesters are often called an “elite” by pro-Thaksin groups – it’s a term used to discredit their opponents, and it has caught on among many in the international media. In reality, while the protests indeed have their centre in Bangkok, most protesters are fairly diverse, and include the city’s middle and working classes, as well as students and people of all walks of life from the South. Crucially, the majority of the Bangkok-born working class do not support the government.
It is true that the protest does not enjoy much support in the North and Northeast, where the majority of the population resides. This geographic divide highlights the protest’s limits as a national movement, but it in no way supports the notion that protesters are an unrepresentative elite.
Myth 2: Urban protesters oppose rural Thais’ desire for equality
The protests were never driven by a need of urban Thais to deprive their rural compatriots of their rights, but were triggered by specific and highly provocative actions by the pro-Thaksin government and Parliament. The controversial amnesty bill carried one clear message: we are here to serve, first and foremost, the needs of Thaksin Shinawatra, not the country – and it was, in effect, the last straw.
But while the protesters want to remove Thaksin from the body politic, they do not specifically seek to punish his rural supporters. When Yingluck Shinawatra first assumed power after winning the 2011 election, all Thais accepted the result peacefully. Had “Bangkok elites” wanted to bring down the government simply because it represented the power of their opponents, they would have come out against it much sooner.
Some protesters have, unfortunately, said disparaging things about rural Thais, questioning their ability to make the “right” electoral choices due to a lack of education and other perceived faults. What this shows is that Thailand has a long way to go in conquering the many stereotypes that exist among its people – but it does not point to a protest born of a desire of one part of the population to disenfranchise another.
Myth 3: The protesters want
The protesters will invariably tell you that democracy does not end with elections – that it is not simply a piece of paper placed into a ballot box. This shows parallels to Egypt last year, as masses piled into the streets, challenging the elected government of Mohamed Morsi in its drive to consolidate power and impose a theocratic state on an unwilling populace. It’s not that Egyptians did not want democracy – a year earlier they had died in the streets fighting for it – but they felt democracy was usurped by the very government elected under its rules.
Thai protesters’ anger and disillusionment comes from a similar place. They are reacting to the government’s abuses of power, its vast corruption and a majoritarian style of rule that excluded opponents from any decision-making on key issues of governance. As the government became more and more dedicated to fulfilling Thaksin’s need to regain power, it became not just distasteful to the protesters, but politically illegitimate.
To the protesters, Thaksin has always been seen as an autocrat for whom democracy is simply a means to holding on to power, not a guiding political philosophy. Therefore opposing Thaksin and his proxy government is not seen as antidemocratic – as Thaksin himself is antidemocratic in substance, if democratic in form.
Meanwhile, Yingluck’s dissolution of Parliament and call for new elections as the protests intensified was viewed as nothing but a raised middle finger to the protesters: “We don’t care what you’re protesting or demanding; we will have an election, and we will win on the strength of our supporters alone. You don’t matter!” The protesters heard this message loud and clear, and it only deepened their resolve to resist an illegitimate government, hiding behind the facade of an election.
Hence, the demand for “reform before election” – with most protesters accepting democracy with free elections as a basic form of government, but only after reforming the system to eliminate Thaksin’s influence from politics.
In truth, eliminating Thaksin and his influence from Thai politics might be a very tall order, and the protest leaders’ unyielding demands for a vague and unelected council will have to be tempered by a more realistic and nationally acceptable compromise. Nevertheless, the protests in Thailand are not fundamentally antidemocratic. It is a reform movement born of a deep frustration and outrage with the way democracy has been cheapened and abused by one man and his interminable drive to regain power.