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Weakening voting rights will only provoke greater division

A society in which we disregard the voice of others when they dare to disagree with us can no longer address social, political and economic challenges

Thailand's contentious and fragile democratic arrangement has come under increasing pressure in recent days, culminating in a remarkable concession from the Pheu Thai government led by Yingluck Shinawatra. On Monday it dissolved Parliament ahead of another anti-Thaksin march on Government House.

However, the move is unlikely to assuage protesters' anger at corruption in government. Meanwhile, for hardline government supporters, this concession was a step too far.

Anti-government protesters led by former Democrat MP Suthep Thaugsuban are pursuing a campaign to free Thai politics of Shinawatra family influence. Although still uncertain, their main proposal is to suspend electoral democracy and establish a "people's council" as the country's interim leadership.

The members of this council will almost certainly be unelected, which inevitably brings its legitimacy and representative nature into question. Unsurprisingly, many sceptics have described this idea as little more than a coup in disguise.

What kind of a future society is Thailand then creating for itself, when a mass of citizens are now prepared to ignore their constitutionally enshrined voting rights in an attempt to challenge entrenched political corruption? How can such a regressive move - rescinding long-fought-for democratic rights - help achieve resolution to this latest national dispute?

The right to vote extends to the underprivileged majority in rural provinces. Although this demographic may not be regarded as having minority status, their experiences and overall quality of life indicate just such an inferior position.

Millions of Thailand's rural population continue to subsist as an effective underclass, without the privilege of a secure economic status or the realistic possibility of accessing high-quality education. In their stereotypical perceptions of this majority, the Bangkok middle-class remain harsh and closed-minded, behaving towards them as if they were second-class citizens.

Such social division and injustice was thrown into sharp relief last week by the death of Nelson Mandela. Reflecting on the life and legacy of this rare individual, we may find ourselves better able to understand that it is the quality of moral fortitude that challenges injustice, and that this is what history will ultimately recognise.

During his time in office, Mandela was able to support the rights of the disenfranchised black majority and also those of minorities not only because of his established political capital, but also because of his essential humanity. And importantly, South Africans were increasingly coming to accept, sometimes against their own immediate self-interest, that the apartheid status quo was no longer tenable.

"We have travelled too far along the road to freedom to turn back now," said Mandela, after a 1992 massacre of protesters in Bisho and before he became president. "We shall not be deterred by the threats or the actions of the forces of the past. Our people have the right to hope, the right to a future, the right to life itself. No power on this earth can destroy the thirst for human dignity."

It is alarming to hear protesters in Bangkok attempting to blame the problem of vote-buying on a lack of education among the rural majority. Is Thailand now witnessing the attempt to establish a precedent of removing individuals' right to vote (an inherent human right) because of their alleged failings?

Isaan resident Rattana Kampui is one among many who strongly disagrees with the anti-government protesters: "I am from Ubon Ratchathani but I have a national ID card so I should have the right to vote. I only want my voice to be heard just like those in Bangkok. Suthep's 'people's council' will only make me feel like I am no longer a citizen of Thailand, because my voice and my vote will mean nothing to this council."

With millions of disaffected Thais now feeling the same, and with the reconciliation process evidently stalled, there is little hope that the divide between Bangkok and the rest of Thailand can be bridged any time soon.

A society in which we disregard the voice of others when they dare to disagree with us can no longer intelligently address escalating social, political or economic challenges. Yet, this is Thai society today as we observe it, where voters often question the motives or rationale of those with different perspectives, without bothering to question their own.

The anti-government coalition seeks to justify its stance by focusing on the problem of vote-buying. But the reality is that in Shinawatra strongholds and elsewhere, vote-buying is no longer the decisive factor it once was. Voter behaviour today has become a much more complex matter.

Furthermore, that a populist political mandate was at all achievable, first by Thai Rak Thai and now by Pheu Thai, is indicative of the many historical injustices that existed before most Thais had even heard of Thaksin. No amount of evasive political argument can change this fact, despite continual attempts to divert attention away from the "elephant in the room" of Thailand's social inequality.

The unfolding of the current crisis has an air of inevitability given the seeming refusal of most Thais to consider the possibility they might be blinded by prejudice, or that those of a different political persuasion might have valid claims.

Is it really credible to deny the link between deep-rooted political corruption and the voting decisions of millions? When those decisions continue to be dictated by short-term decision-making and motivations that are essentially self-serving, then politics will play out accordingly.

Until Thai voters prove themselves capable of examining such questions with greater objectivity, we cannot expect a miraculous change. In the meantime, the game of brinkmanship being played by our political class will very likely push Thailand to the edge of yet another abyss. And the damage will, as usual, be felt most by those who are already the most marginalised in society.

Titipol Phakdeewanich is a political scientist at the Faculty of Political Science, Ubon Ratchathani University.


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