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Stepping back from the brink

No leader is indispensable, especially when holding on to power causes such division

Thailand has been sliding fast into an abyss. A state of lawlessness and growing signs of a failing state are ominously moving towards us with increasing velocity. But it is not too late to stop political and economic disintegration if we pull together and act in solidarity now.

Never before in our history have things become so alarmingly confused and the future so bleak. Patriotism has become a threat to the powers that be. A meditating and praying crowd is deemed as performing an anti-government act. Residences of prominent business personalities and contrary views of our respected citizens have become targets and triggers of violence. This is a state of nature in which life has, in the words of prominent English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, become "solitary, nasty, brutish and short".

Indeed, life in Thailand has been "solitary and nasty" for a long time now. At least for the past 13 years of the current regime. A large section of our citizenry has been feeling increasingly lonely. Lonely even in the crowd, that is. Everyone has harboured a sense of disappointment about the past, frustration about the condition of life in the present and concern for our country in the uncertain future.

But no one could open up and complain to the next person for fear that the neighbour would belong to another political camp, another colour group or another political persuasion. The eerie quiet submission of the past few years could be explained by this "loneliness in the crowd" attribute.

What the PDRC has succeeded in doing is bringing these lonely souls together to become a formidable force of political awakening calling for comprehensive reform of the Thai political system. These "solitary individuals" have now formed a new political movement against all the wrong things infiltrating Thai society.

The despicably high tolerance of corruption, the pervasive abuse of power and privileges, the prejudice and discrimination against the poor and marginalised people, the impunity of powerful political figures and state officials, the arrogance and widespread sense of invincibility among the political elite, the abject cronyism and destructive nepotism in the entire bureaucratic structure of the state.

All these have undermined the strength of our society and diluted our tremendous potential on the regional and international stages.

Two opposing ethos, if we can call them that, are now at loggerheads, threatening to rend apart every fabric of Thai society. On the one side is a misguided and extremely dangerous thought that "extremism in the pursuit of power and wealth is no vice as long as it commands an electoral majority". For over a decade, this modus operandi has been in place and seeping into every echelon of our society wherever a majority is won - from the national level down to the provincial councils and tambon administrations. Corruption and conflict of interest have become acceptable and a "new normal".

The other mode of thought now, spearheaded and sustained by the PDRC and its allies, is an equally stubborn belief that "moderation in opposition to an absolutely corrupt regime with tyrannical bent is no virtue because moderate measures would never be able to overthrow it".

Now we are seeing extremist determination, if not tactics, spreading all over the country. The end result is definitely a widening and threatening confrontation down to the grassroots level.

And a warning has come down now that a dangerous recession and other economic ills will follow closely on the heels of this unprecedented divisiveness in our body politic. The two opposing sides will not concede to each other soon. A stalemate is rather certain. Paralysis is probably a more accurate description of things to come. And the heaviest price will have to be paid by the Thai people, the country at large and our unfortunate posterity.

One of the noble, but less articulated, principles of democracy is that "no individual, no one, no leader is indispensable". A true democracy should guarantee that a leader would not stay beyond his or her welcome. And sometimes, in a more perfect democracy, leaders would realise that the ultimate service to their beloved country might be, just might be, to let go of the mantle of power.

And especially when holding onto such meaningless, ineffective and senseless power means more insecurity and more divisiveness for the country they have sought to serve, then there really is no point to that futile power.

This will remind us of a famous observation by Niccolo Machiavellli, a Renaissance political philosopher of 15th century Florence, of the disunity and weakness of Italy.

The Pope, Machiavelli said, was the cause of all the problems of weakness and disunity of Italy. He was not "strong enough to occupy the whole Italy, and not allowing anyone else to do so".

We can say that the fate of Thailand now is in a similar situation. The regime is too weak to govern. But it is still strong enough not to allow any other form of government, with some major reforms, we hope, to emerge and replace it. While its grip on power is obviously loosening, the last throes of death are still very potent and destructive. The painful anxiety now spreading among Thais is how to contain the damage of the receding tsunami of power. The best bet is not to expect a prince in shining armour on a white horse to rescue us.

The wisest course of action would be to unite and rise together to reclaim the unity and dignity of the country back from the brink.

The writer is a distinguished scholar at the King Prachadipok Institute and a visiting professor at the University of Malaya.


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