When mobilisation equals democracy...

opinion May 05, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

New rallies loom, and so does Square One

Democracy mobilises its advocates. That’s what it does. It persuades people to go to the ballot boxes, encourages them to make their voices heard on the streets, or spread opinions as far as the minds can absorb. In that sense, Thailand’s democracy must be flourishing. Only we are in danger of tearing apart the nationhood in the process, as new rounds of mobilisation near for both sides of the national conflict.
Thailand is debating what the true essence of democracy is. Two schools are battling it out, with one side insisting that if the majority is truly empowered the rest will take care of itself. The other side demands better checks and balances, pointing that unchecked empowerment of the majority can lead to extreme power abuses. Both camps are backed by millions, so it is not easy to discard either of them.
But if democracy is about mobilisation, isn’t Thailand’s current state of affairs, unfortunately and dangerous as it seems, unavoidable? Or has the mobilisation by both sides of the national divide crossed the line dividing democracy and fanaticism? We shall not forget that, if supported by enough people, fascism or fanaticism can proclaim itself to be “democratic”. If nine out of ten people say killing is right, is killing right?
Problem with democracy is people can poke holes on its proclaimed values or easily expose its advocates as hypocrites.We have seen democracy “advocates” switching at will from emphasising the powers of the majority to preaching human rights of the minority. They may argue that both – power to the majority and rights of the minority – can co-exist, but isn’t that just a wishful thinking. 
If, in a country of one million, 900,000 think corruption is acceptable, what should we make of the other 100,000 who wouldn’t compromise?
Thailand is second to none when it comes to mobilisation democracy. We are near the bottom when it comes to democracy as it’s supposed to be. Human rights advocates decry cancellation of the February 2 election but how many of them condemned other factors that weakened the country’s democracy, like poor checks and balances and rampant corruption?
We are a country obsessed with numbers and not values. Democracy needs both. It needs the numbers to make sure no particular individuals or groups can impose their thinking on the majority, but if the numbers are not guided by the right principles, what’s the point? Thais have selectively studied democracy, which is why the country is here today.
Suthep Thaugsuban and his supporters are nowhere near perfect. However, if their campaign led to a general election with a voter turn-out below 50 per cent and a sizable number of voters marking “abstention”, it’s time democracy “advocates” take serious notice. He has mobilised people, made voices heard that otherwise would have been ignored, and spread opinions about what is wrong with a “democratic” government.
In short, Suthep’s is also “mobilisation democracy” designed to counter another “mobilisation democracy”. It’s too late to pinpoint which side is more right or more wrong, but the cause of the detrimental standoff remains unchanged. Thailand’s democracy as it’s practiced gives more importance to numbers than it should while true values have been all but abandoned.
As long as numbers are allowed to overshadow integrity, we will continue to see seizure of government agencies, blockade of intersection, shooting between security forces and protesters or simply between protesters of different ideologies. We will continue to see a government blatantly effect highly-contentious policies and politicians in power shrug off corruption charges as “conspiracies” to weaken “the power of the people.”
Not everything the majority thinks is right is right. Democracy, for its own sake, should start seriously preaching that painful fact. Mobilisation is important, but, as with all learnings, everybody needs to move on after finishing the textbook.