Thailand must embark on Mandela's road to democracy

opinion July 23, 2014 00:00

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Former prime minister Anand Panyarachun speaks about the "Long Walk to Democratic Governance" at Chulalongkorn University to commemorate Nelson Mandela International Day on July 18. Here's the concluding part of his speech.

Nelson Mandela contributed greatly to the emergence of a new Constitution for South Africa in 1996 which embedded human rights and the Rule of Law in his country. The 1996 Constitution is appreciated globally as ground breaking in a variety of ways. It underlines the concept of “human dignity” as an overarching rationale and linchpin, a concept closely linked with human rights. And it contains a Bill of Rights entrenching a broad range of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, while clarifying also whether those rights are absolute and what is to be permissible when a state of emergency is to be imposed. 
Fourth, accountability and transparency should be guiding principles for governance. What plagues many governments is the opaque nature of power, replete with the ominous three C’s, namely (1) Corruption; (2) Cronyism; and (3) Clientelism. Where accountability and transparency are jeopardised, good governance is compromised and democracy is undermined. 
As with all settings, there is a need for checks-and-balances to prevent abuse of power and to ensure responsibility and accountability of actions. The South Africa which emerged with Nelson Mandela and the advent of democracy tried to address this equilibrium by means of a variety of institutions and processes. For instance, there is an active Constitutional Court which has used the notion of “human dignity” to press for changes in the economic sphere and a more effective response to overcome poverty. 
There is also a National Human Rights Commission which helps to keep a check on executive action, especially where the latter infringes basic rights, with the possibility of redress against violations. 
The presence of national pillars embodying power at the top is complemented by decentralisation and respect for the provinces and other localities. Interestingly, the South African Constitution set up a Parliament consisting of not only the National Assembly, but also the National Council of Provinces, with both houses participating in the legislative process so that there is a balance between the centrality of the State and the plurality of its provinces.
To promote democratic governance, even where democracy has in appearance arrived, various entry points need to be explored to nurture a sense of responsibility, particularly among those in power. 
For instance, access by the public to information held by governments is crucial to promoting transparency and responsible decision-making. 
In regard to politicians and law enforcers, there is a need to select capable candidates who possess integrity, to provide them with adequate remuneration, and to evaluate their performance with appropriate motivational incentives.
Likewise, there is a need for laws, policies and practices for the prevention and elimination of monopolies and the promotion of competitiveness; and a need for education and capacity-building to foster responsible behaviour from a young age, including a sense of duty to contribute to the collective interest and welfare of society. 
Fifth, a vibrant civil society is a key to ensuring a responsive government and safeguarding against executive excesses. Nelson Mandela recognised well the critical role of civil society, and a vocal press. Indeed, his emergence from years of imprisonment was largely due to assistance by those elements to remind and mobilise the global and local communities to pressure for his release.
In South Africa, the post-apartheid era has thus flourished with a plethora of civil society actors, including non-governmental organisations and community groups, which address a range of societal concerns and keep a watch over governmental and bureaucratic actions. 
Further, the health of a democracy can be measured by the authenticity of its civil society and the extent of citizen participation in public policy-making. Civil society provides an important source of information for intelligent debate on matters of public interest. 
Civil society also provides a mechanism whereby the collective views of citizens can shape and influence government policy. By bringing into the public domain arguments and information as a context for examining policy, a democratic government is forced to present counter-arguments or to modify its position. Such exchange strengthens the foundations of democracy. 
Finally, it is clear that when the deliberative process within a political system accepts the role played by civil society, it also implicitly agrees that citizens have a role to play in checking government in decision-making. A vibrant civil society thus ensures more thorough decision-making in a democracy.
Sixth, responsive leadership that answers to the needs of the people is critical. Whatever “pathways” are opened to democratic governance, the aperture would be incomplete without transparent and responsive leadership. 
Nelson Mandela’s achievements are not only to be measured by what he did during his term of office, but also by what he did after the end of his Presidency. He was a key supporter of a range of humanitarian concerns, including programmes and services for disadvantaged groups. He became, and remains today, a great role model for all of humanity. 
The qualities of leadership for sustainable democracy are to be found in those who act in an honest, transparent and accountable manner. They are consensus builders, open-minded and fair. They are committed to justice and advancing the public interest. And they are tolerant of opposing positions. 
The seventh and final pathway that I want to emphasise concerns the need to promote broad-based education and knowledge sharing. The work which Nelson Mandela initiated continues and cannot be considered to have finished. Its mission depends on building the knowledge base, attitude, skills and behaviour responsive to human rights and democracy. 
Democracy starts with the wisdom of the voting public, however that wisdom is acquired. The voting public must understand its responsibilities in a democracy and have access to the means to exercise choice in the democratic process.
Much depends on an educational setting that helps to open up the mind and avoid dogma and prejudice. Learning by doing is essential, underlining not only access to formal educational settings but also participation in community work to nurture a sense of care and commitment for the less advantaged. 
A struggle in many developing countries is how to channel resources to make education more relevant to the tasks of daily life, to change the emphasis from rote memorisation to creativity and independent thinking, and to extend the outreach of education programmes to all, including girls and women living in poverty. 
The heart of democracy beats not only with universal quality education, but also with the participation of all citizens in exercising their rights – first, to call for inclusion of issues of concern to them in the political agenda, and second, to choose among those whom they feel would best address their concerns in the political process. 
In Asia as in the West, democracy is won not just through the ballot box. The real struggle is fought out on the streets by students, farmers, workers and other ordinary citizens who come out en masse to express their dissatisfaction. For democracy to live, citizens must resist the temptation to being apathetic. This is part of democratic governance. Each community, workplace and school needs programmes for promoting grassroots democracy. We must enable the process to mature through our sustained commitment and actions. 
Ladies and gentlemen,
I started my statement by alluding to Nelson Mandela’s legacy and the critical link between the values he stood for and the path to democratic governance.
I would like to end my statement today with a quote from a 1999 speech by Mr Mandela:
“It is true that South Africa was often brought to the brink of destruction because of differences. But let us reaffirm this one thing today: it is not our diversity which divides us; it is not our ethnicity, or religion or culture that divides us. Since we have achieved our freedom, there can only be one division amongst us: between those who cherish democracy and those who do not! “
Let us draw from these words of wisdom in our collective efforts to build a stronger foundation for democracy in Thailand. 
Let us strive to avoid the mistakes of the past and continue our mission to complete the “long walk to democratic governance.”