Under the guise of democracy

opinion December 18, 2013 00:00

By Tarisa Watanagase
Special to

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The amnesty bill demonstrated that abuse of power is all too easy under our current system - reforms are urgently needed

Nationwide protests have been ongoing since early November, ignited by a highly controversial amnesty bill. The bill was originally proposed by the government to “heal the political divide” by granting a blanket amnesty to ordinary participants in the numerous political protests since the military coup in 2006 which ousted Thaksin Shinawatra, brother of the current prime minister. The bill was modified in its second reading to pardon protest leaders and those involved in the 2010 riots, in which pro-Thaksin supporters torched government buildings and major department stores. The riots led to clashes with authorities, resulting in over 90 deaths, many with bullet wounds from sources that have yet to be identified. Furthermore, the pardon would have extended to corruption cases brought in the aftermath of the coup, including those against Thaksin. 
But perhaps most shocking is the bill’s extension back to 2004, two years before the coup, when the Thaksin regime brutally cracked down on a group of protesters in Tak Bai, southern Thailand.
Police allegedly fired into the crowd, killing seven. The remainder were arrested and stacked on top of one another in trucks to be transported to a military camp in a neighbouring province. By the time they reached their destination, 78 detainees had died of suffocation. If the current government cites the unconstitutional nature of the coup as evidence for the illegitimacy of the corruption charges issued in its aftermath, on what grounds would amnesty be justifiable for the Tak Bai killings, which took place under a democratically elected government? 
Thailand is no stranger to corruption and political exploitation. Respondents in a June 2013 survey estimated that 30-35 per cent of government and state-enterprise project funding is lost to corruption, most going into the deep pockets of politicians. Transparency International’s Corruption Index ranked Thailand at 88 out of 176 countries in 2012, with a score of 37 out of 100. The ranking then dropped further to 102 out of 177 countries with a score of 35. 
In that context, the audacity of this amnesty bill is unprecedented. If passed, it would compromise the already weak moral institutions of the country with a blatant message that crime can go unpunished. How could Parliament push and vote for a bill that deviates substantially from the principles adopted in its first reading, violates the human rights principles, overrides the verdict of the court, and promotes immoral and fraudulent behaviour despite widespread protests? 
The answer: under the guise of “democracy”. 
With its absolute majority in Parliament, the ruling Pheu Thai Party claims a mandate given by the majority of Thais that gave it the right to proceed with the amnesty. With parliamentary checks and balances out of order, protesters took to the streets in the hope that their voices may be heard by the Senate. The Senate did reject the bill later and the government has now promised to withdraw it, even though the Constitution allows Parliament to revive it after 180 days. But public trust has been difficult to regain now that the government has lost credibility.
The world recently witnessed with frustration Washington’s debt-ceiling saga and resulting government shutdown. It provided a vivid example of how even the world’s most advanced democracy can be flawed. In this case, however, one can reasonably expect US voters to vent their anger in the next election. Unfortunately for Thailand, where political problems are deeply rooted in its economic, educational and societal divides between the urban rich and the rural poor, problems cannot be solved with a simple spoonful of democracy leading to a change for the better at the next election. When the priority of the rural poor is to put food on the table, political interests and the sustainable future of the country become secondary. Voting can be easily manipulated by politicians with questionable moral standards and consciences. Simply holding elections does not guarantee a democratic outcome, which is why the demonstrators are now calling for political reform rather than accepting the default democracy. While the West’s perspective on politics in developing countries is usually that democratically elected governments represent the will of the people and are therefore legitimate, this view ignores the fundamental differences in socio-economic conditions which may render conventional democratic strategies impractical. 
Objectively speaking, democracy is a long-term goal. The immediate concerns are reducing inequality on all fronts, as this is a prerequisite for a resilient and better-functioning democracy. However, to get our representatives to put the public interest ahead of personal gain, mechanisms must be established. Expanding the size of constituencies so as to make vote-buying a significantly costlier business, improving scrutiny of candidates by focusing more on transparency and their track records, and ensuring better checks and balances both by the public and independent bodies, are a few examples. 
Blindly supporting an elected regime and condemning any action against it as undemocratic will only promote pseudo-democracy. 
Tarisa Watanagase is a former Bank of Thailand governor.