Reform has to tackle differences among Thais over democratic principles
People view Wednesday’s developments triggered by the Constitutional Court’s ousting of caretaker prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra according to their own political leanings. Supporters of the Pheu Thai Party decried another “judicial coup”, while the other side insists that justice was finally served. Such bitter division was the root of the national strife in the first place, so anyone who thinks the end is near is probably being optimistic.
The court dealt Pheu Thai a heavy blow, but it’s also notable that the judges did leave room for the caretaker Cabinet to carry on. For how much longer is another matter, of course. The ruling that swept away Yingluck and several of her key ministers has left Pheu Thai with a coterie of “second-best” politicians in charge of an already-shaky caretaker administration. Were the judges being fair in not dismissing the entire Cabinet? Again, the response rests with your ideological viewpoint.
It’s not a “coup” if Pheu Thai, which won the 2011 election, could still pick Yingluck’s successor, one camp says. The other claims the judges only “pretended to be fair” because they knew the judicial noose would choke off the last-remaining Pheu Thai power-holder sooner or later anyway. The latter camp does not believe a post-Yingluck Pheu Thai caretaker government can last long.
The week’s developments only confirmed the depth and breadth of the ideological chasm dividing the nation. Regardless of the motives behind the transfer of Thawil Pliensri from the National Security Council and the promotion of Priewphan Damapong to the top police post, the Thai public remains polarised over the extent of the government’s democratic mandate and the need for checks and balances. Reaction to the Constitutional Court’s ruling has told us that much.
“One man’s judicial coup is another man’s checks and balances,” says a tweet from the anti-government camp. While the origin of the tweet left no doubt as to its meaning, we should examine it from both sides. There has been much talk regarding the need for reform, but any reforms must bridge the gap of ideological differences. If future reforms deliver measures to prevent “abuse of power” but at the same time Thais continue to disagree over what constitutes abuse of power, the reforms will be useless.
Was Thawil’s transfer a matter of power abused? Was the Constitutional Court’s dismissal of Yingluck an abuse of power? Thais are utterly divided on these questions. There are, of course, politically motivated attempts to demonise the government or the judiciary, but there are also “honest” opinions in their favour or against them. Reform must seek to address the differences, no matter how difficult the task.
Thailand’s problems revolve around the differences. Some say Thaksin Shinawatra abused his power in helping his ex-wife buy state-owned land, while others say penalising that act was unfair judicial intervention. When his Thai Rak Thai Party was dissolved, it was either because of election fraud or because the “checks and balances” were conspiring against him. Was Thawil’s transfer wrong? Should the rice price-pledging scheme, launched by a “government by the people and for the people”, be subject to scrutiny by the non-elected few? Shouldn’t an elected government be able to initiate an unorthodox Bt2-trillion borrowing plan? The list goes on.
People think differently and that makes reform tricky. On one hand any reform must reconcile our differences. On the other, it must maintain the ultimate democratic value of freedom of thought. That’s how thin the line is between Thailand making progress or returning to Square 1.