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Kingdom at crossroads, foreign experts warn

Respected foreign voices invited to speak about Thailand's political footing have warned that the country faces an uncertain future. They were speaking yesterday at the symposium "Thailand's Political Crisis in a Foreigners' Perspective: Past, Present and Future" organised by Thammasat University's Faculty of Economics.

Edward Knuth, a lecturer in British American Studies at Thammasat University, said the Kingdom was facing a vicious political cycle.

Military intervention had been used "as a political strategy" by People's Democratic Reform Committee protesters, who were calling for a coup and were expecting it, he said.

Political phenomenon

Calling for military intervention as a political strategy is a political phenomenon that emerged after Thaksin Shinawatra came to power and is part of "the vicious cycle", he pointed out.

Knuth explained that there was a five-step pattern to the cycle: dictatorship followed by a paper democracy and then a period of actual democracy followed by a political crisis that finally leads to military intervention.

He pointed out that there were better solutions for the Kingdom than staging a coup. Though the military used the potential of an escalation in violence as the reason behind the coup, Knuth said it could have upheld the democratic process by protecting election sites instead of seizing power.

He concluded his talk by asking: "What does it take to be a democracy?"

His answer: "Letting [elected] people who you don't like or trust run the country while you stay on the sidelines and fight through a democratic process."

Marc Saxer, resident director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation - a supporter of democracy in the Kingdom since the 1970s - said what surprised him the most was it took seven months of political upheaval before the May 22 coup was staged.

"This indicates that there's a shift in the balance of power that is going on," Saxer said, adding that it's "almost impossible right now" for junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha to use large-scale power to suppress dissidents like Field Marshal Sarit Thanarath did in the 1960s.

The NCPO, Saxer said, had to centre itself round the notion of morality and was aware that if it resorted to brute force it might lose its hold on power.

Saxer said Thailand was facing a very long transformation crisis and a new social contract was needed through various groups compromising.

He noted however that the patronage system still governed Thailand and "runs everywhere" despite the emerging middle class in the provinces.

Claudio Sopranzetti, a post-doctoral fellow at Oxford University and an anthropologist specialising in Thailand, said the Kingdom was facing an open-ended future and could emerge either more democratic or less.

Sopranzetti cited Thai newspapers back in 1920, which were critical of the monarchy - the opposite of the situation today.

He also predicted Prayuth might run in elections in a few years and the upcoming permanent Constitution might reflect the current junta-sponsored provisional charter.


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