Is a genuine watchdog just a pipe dream?

opinion January 20, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

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The controversial protest by the PDRC aims to create a cleaner political system, but it has opened the door to violence

Can the People’s Democratic Reform Committee evolve into a real political watchdog as urged by former pro-democracy leader Thirayuth Boonmee? To begin with, the merits and shortcomings of the anti-government network cannot be agreed upon. Some see it as a fascist or ruffian middle-class organisation that can’t come to terms with the results of normal elections. Others, Thirayuth included, see the movement as a way to make the “people’s voice” really heard.
The essence of the PDRC may lie somewhere in between. Or we can’t simply judge things yet as they are still unfolding. A smooth transition to a purer democracy, where politicians are honest and advocate genuine checks and balances, would justify the PDRC. But violence may overshadow everything the movement proclaims to stand for.
For all the criticism against it, the PDRC has succeeded in killing off a highly controversial bill that an elected government managed to push through Parliament, without a fuss. And thanks to the movement, a question has been asked loudly about the ruling party on one hand trying to make the entire Senate come from direct election but on the other trying to subdue Parliament when it comes to scrutinising foreign treaties. Accused by its opponents and foreign media of obstructing democracy, the PDRC has shown it champions checks and balances as an integral instrument of the political system.
In fighting democracy’s controversies, the PDRC itself has become controversial. The road blockades and blatant aggression that marked the uprising of supporters of the ruling party back in 2010 can’t be used as an excuse to do something similar. The PDRC has denied that the “Bangkok Shutdown” street campaign was a copycat political tactic to give the Pheu Thai Party a taste of its own medicine. However, although there have been no tyre-burnings or bombs raining down on the Skytrain as yet, the PDRC cannot guarantee that violence can be avoided forever.
The explosions, shootings and killings or wounding of some armed forces personnel in 2010 were blamed by Pheu Thai and the red shirts on “mysterious hands”. The PDRC has also indicated a “third party” has been at play in the current stand-off. The question, however, must be: Who gave the mysterious hands, or the third party, opportunity to strike? When political demonstrators blur the line between “peaceful” actions and aggression, they also have themselves to blame.
Not only are its means controversial, but the PDRC is also too intricately associated with one political party. Suthep Thaugsuban’s resignation from the Democrat Party has not helped dispel that perception. This is the main obstacle standing between the real PDRC and Thirayuth’s dream of a powerful and genuine watchdog.
Do we need a truly independent political monitor capable of doing what the PDRC has achieved, for example, burying a highly questionable law passed by the House of Representatives? Yes. Can the PDRC assume the role without causing or aggravating national strife? That’s absolutely doubtful.
The PDRC was born out of lopsided political power distribution. The red shirts share a similar origin. The only referee acceptable to both camps must be one that represents both of them. That is easy to say but nearly impossible to implement. Thailand needs a restart, just like the PDRC says, but the problem is that its arch-enemy, Thaksin Shinawatra, has said the same thing. Whether the PDRC is a baby step forward, or a major step backward as its critics charge, the road toward a society with a truly effective watchdog seems very long indeed.