Can Thailand learn something from Ukraine's political protests?
March 24, 2014 00:00 By Thepchai Yong
Is there something Thailand can learn from the Euromaidan, the ongoing political demonstration in Ukraine that has ousted President Viktor Yanukovych but is still far from achieving its ideal goal of seeing real democracy?
“Enough is enough. That’s what people should learn to say to corrupt politicians,” Nataliya Vernyhora, a hotel executive-turned-activist, told me without hesitation.
Five months on, with Yanukovych out of power and Russian annexation of Crimea, Independence Square in central Kiev today is still bustling with demonstrators demanding a say in how Ukrainians are governed.
They should have ended the demonstration with Yanukovych’s departure but they continue to stay on because they believe that their mission is still far from accomplished.
The crisis in Crimea might have diverted the world’s attention from Ukraine’s domestic political problems, but the Euromaidan protesters have no intention of dispersing. Russia’s annexation of Crimea has only added a new sense of urgency to the months-long protest.
Like all the other protesters at Maidan Square that I talked to, Vernyhora admitted that getting rid of Yanukovych and his corrupt band of political cohorts didn’t spell an end to Ukraine’s political woes.
The interim government led by Prime Minister Arseniy P Yatsenyuk, a veteran public official, has not offered much hope that Ukraine is heading for a better political future.
“We are here to make our voice heard. We want politicians to know that they cannot ignore people’s wishes,” said a young Ukrainian in a national guard uniform.
He had responded to the new government’s call for a mobilisation of reserves and volunteers to counter Russia’s military moves following the annexation of Crimea.
Angry Ukranians started pouring into Independence Square on November 21 after then president Yanukovych ditched a partnership deal with the European Union that had been years in the making in favour of seeking help from Moscow to save its sinking economy. The uprising by Ukrainians is unprecedented and some even call it a ”revolution”.
The pro-Moscow Yanukovych’s sudden U-turn on the EU deal was the last straw. Ukranians had already been seething over what they saw as blatant abuse of power and rampant corruption.
“Bandits get out” was a rallying cry that was heard everyday at the square.
“Yanukovych was the biggest bandit of them all. He was the most corrupt leader we have ever had,’’ said another protester.
“Bandits” includes members of the former president’s immediate family and those in his inner circle.
The protesters cannot be blamed for believing that Yanukovych and his political henchmen were responsible for making Ukraine one of the most corrupt countries in Eastern Europe.
Transparency International put Ukraine at 144th place on its Corruption Perception Index in 2013 (far worse than Thailand, which ranked 102nd out of 177 countries).
From taxi drivers to political activists and journalists, there is this strong sentiment that corruption is the biggest problem dragging down Ukraine’s economy.
Speaking to me after a press conference on Friday, Ihor Smeshko, former head of the Security Service of Ukraine and now leader of a political party that positions itself as a new alternative to the existing political establishments, said nothing had changed since the ouster of Yanukovych.
Smeshko echoed calls for Ukraine to have a system that held politicians accountable for their wrongdoings.
“What we need is a reform of the political system,” he said, but admitted that nobody in power is interested in doing that because “politicians are only interested in elections” but not the interests of society.
He also stressed the need for civil society to be active in monitoring those in power.
“Only an active civil society can bring about changes,” he said.
That’s exactly the reason why protesters like Vernyhora still find it necessary to continue to be part of the Euromaidan movement.
She was there when the temperature was minus 20 and when snipers and thugs harassed and killed protesters.
And she is still there today, sometimes doing menial jobs like peeling potatoes and preparing food from home for fellow die-hard demonstrators.
Few at Maidan Square are aware of a similar street protest that has been going on in Bangkok. But someone who knows something about it asked me: “Have the Thai people won yet?”
The way things are, it’s evident that both Thais and Ukrainians are far from achieving what they really want. Street protests may unseat governments but do not guarantee that cleaner politics and good governance is waiting on their horizon.
They have both stood up and said “enough is enough”. Now they need to stay on the long journey until they are certain that their voice and their political will is respected.