Only someone credible and accepted by all sides can lead the reform process and manage the short transition to new elections in which everyone participates
Once more the world watches Thailand and what looks to be a never-ending stalemate: powerful protests, wanton random acts of violence, divisive and hateful content in our press and social media. The Thai people have been through this cycle of failed government for too long. Our future lies in the hands of the few, whilst the many continue to question where this will lead us. We deserve better.
Our country has tremendous potential. With our unique history in Southeast Asia as being a country that was never colonised, we have undergone a revolution of development, teetering on the edge of being a “developed market”. The second largest economy in Asean after Indonesia and geographically at the centre of continental Asean, we have much to gain from the establishment of the Asean economic community next year.
We have an educated, professional workforce. Our country is a hub for automotive manufacturing, technology, services, leisure and the creative industries. It is an agricultural tour de force. Behind our famous Thai smile, there is a strong sense of national pride, a determination to succeed, a passion to preserve what we call “Thai-ness”, and the will and ability to continue to grow, develop and perform, both nationally and globally.
Yet it is the politics that has failed us. What is happening on the streets of Bangkok today is an irrefutable demonstration that the Thai people believe they deserve a better system. As the leader of the Democrat Party, I must share the blame for the failed politics, but at the same time I cannot shy away from my responsibilities to help lead the country from the current stalemate and I urge all political leaders including the current prime minister and all the political parties to do likewise. We must never forget that our claim to be “by the people and for the people” means our first duty is to serve the Thai people. We have a moral duty to “do the right thing”.
Despite our differences, we should all agree on some key principles. We want to preserve our democracy, so there must be no coups and all violence must be condemned and stopped. We must all demand progress in bringing to account the perpetrators of over 30 incidents of violence against protesters and opposition leaders in the last few months. And while we can agree on condemning voter obstruction, we must also protect the right of Thais to protest peacefully, for such a right is surely one of the hallmarks of democracy.
For the country to move ahead, we need to understand the grievances of the people protesting on the streets and those whose protest is registered with a no-vote or by simply not voting in the recent snap election. Only then can we draw up a roadmap for the future of the country. Such a roadmap must include a return to free and fair elections, accepted by all sides, and a clear, credible commitment to irreversible and comprehensive reforms.
So why are we in this political deadlock? Why have millions taken to the streets? Why was there a boycott of the elections and why did an overwhelming majority of eligible voters who could go to vote unimpeded refuse to do so or actively submitted a no-vote? The answers to these questions will enable us to identify the needed components for the roadmap.
The trigger for the unrest was the government’s attempt to pass an amnesty bill that permitted the return of a fugitive, self-exiled former prime minister, whitewash his crimes of corruption and return Bt46 billion of assets to him. This same administration was subsequently found guilty of manipulating votes and of fraud in Parliament. When the courts announced the verdict, the administration refused to accept it.
Adding to these woes now is the failure of the rice-pledging scheme. At least one million Thai farmers are waiting for payment for their last crop, with many payments outstanding from October last year. The policy, which promised to pay farmers far above the market price for their rice, was doomed from the start. We Democrats said then and we see now that it would not and has not worked – as the IMF, respected academics and many others did. Costing over Bt200 billion a year in losses, less than half of which benefits farmers, as well as losing the country’s status as the world’s top rice exporter, the scheme is also full of corruption and the National Anti-Corruption Commission is now expected to bring formal charges against caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra for her role in the scheme later this month. Failure to pay the farmers due to the lack of proceeds from the sale of the government rice stock adds to the economic woes caused by the failure of the subsidised first car scheme, the drop in exports and, most recently, the drop in tourism after the declaration of the state of emergency.
People protest because they are unsure their needs will be acknowledged. Thais are protesting against corruption. They are protesting against abuses of power. They are protesting against failed populist policies. They no longer trust politicians and the political process, including elections which they do not believe can be free and fair, given the intimidation against political opposition, the courts and all institutions that provide checks and balance over the last few years by government supporters, the police and the Department of Special Investigations. They can no longer tolerate “politics as usual” where an elected government abuses the democratic process and institutions to put itself above the law. Where else in the world have we seen a democratically elected government attempt to pass a law to whitewash corruption crimes of members of the leader’s family? Where else can we find a government that publicly says it refuses to help people, denying them access to government programmes because they did not vote for the parties in power?
That is why we and an overwhelming majority refused to participate in elections designed to legitimise the continuation of these abusive practices.
The current protest is not a Democrat Party protest. An Asia Foundation survey found that two-thirds of protesters have never participated in political demonstrations before. It is a protest of the people and they deserve the right to reform. We in the Democrat Party agree with their right to protest and their right to reform. We may not agree with their proposed means to achieve reform and we do not wish to see democracy suspended. But we wholeheartedly agree with the need for comprehensive reform to rid the system of corruption and abuses, to give the people honest and effective governments from democratic elections, governments who remain democratically accountable after elections. Only such reforms can guarantee responsible national, social and effective economic management that does not jeopardise the country’s and our children’s future. This is what Thailand and the Thai people deserve.
Yet reforms cannot begin with this government’s plan to continue with these sham elections. This will take months and may lead to further violence and ultimately fail to fill a quorum for Parliament or even be unlawful. Likewise, we need to face the reality that only someone credible and accepted by all sides can lead the reform process and manage the short transition to new elections in which everyone participates. That someone is clearly not the current government, the protest leaders nor the Democrat Party.
The country cannot afford to lose more time. Every day the stalemate continues means a loss of opportunity for the economy, the country and the people. It’s time to chart an alternative course. Thailand has proved resilient in the past, bouncing back from economic and political crises. The country can surely turn the new-found energy and unprecedented level of political awareness and engagement into strong foundations for a stronger and better system.
Political leaders must be the first to move. It is time for the government to engage others. So many groups have been working on reforms – the business community, NGOs, the Political Development Council, to mention a few. The aforementioned Asia Foundation survey also found two-thirds of protesters are open to ideas of compromise. On our part, the Democrat Party is ready and willing to play a constructive role. It really is time to restart Thailand.
Abhisit Vejjajiva is leader of the Democrat Party. This article first appeared in The Financial Times.