JUNTA CHIEF General Prayuth Chan-ocha mentioned at least twice during his hour-long speech to launch the national reform process on Saturday that what the country needs is "Thai-style democracy".
This leads to two questions: What is Thai-style democracy – and what is so Thai and democratic about it?
While Prayuth did not elaborate on the differences between Thai-style democracy and the so-called Western democracies, the fact that he used the words “Thai-style democracy”, and even added at one point that Asean needed its own form of democracy, has led some to suspect that what he meant was a new form of limited democracy and Asian values.
Is Thai-style democracy about accepting a military coup as legitimate and as an integral part of Thai politics?
Is Thai-style democracy about giving free reign to unelected “good people” to rule without checks and balances?
Is Thai-style democracy about limiting the sovereign power of the electorate and about limiting the power and role of elected politicians?
As the junta-sponsored reform process has just begun, I don’t wish to go into the details by trying to predict what Prayuth means by “Thai-style democracy”.
However, it can be reasonably stated that Thai-style democracy will deviate from what we expect from Western democracies.
“Thai-style democracy” is more about making semi-dictatorship seem more natural and palatable to Thais and the world.
There’s nothing essentially “Thai” about Thai-style democracy because we Thais in essence do not have a social consensus about the preferred form of government.
There are Thais who prefer a limited democracy, like in Singapore, which is ruled by supposedly “good and enlightened” people with a very weak opposition.
At the same time, there are Thais who prefer to see Thailand solving all its problems through an electoral and democratic process without the intervention of the Army every now and then – and with a perseverance fuelled by the knowledge that whatever experiment with parliamentary democracy we try here, it is only eight decades old. It is very young when compared with Western nations that went through much conflict before they became the imperfect democratic societies of today.
These are just two archetypal Thai opinions, and I am sure there are other groups who have starkly differing preferences as to the form of government, ranging from returning Thailand to absolute monarchy to turning Thailand into a republic. Thus there is nothing essentially “Thai” about Thai-style democracy.
Calling it “Thai” makes Thai-style democracy sound more natural and suitable for us, however.
If Thai-style democracy is in fact a form of limited and semi-democracy, one might call it semi-dictatorship instead. Calling Thailand a semi-dictatorship doesn’t sound good to the international community, however, and so instead of calling a glass half empty, they refer to it as half full.
Like the famous Thai smile – smiling doesn’t always connote happiness. A Thai smile could hide frustration, disagreement, or even displeasure.
The notion of “Thai-style democracy” should be treated with the same caution. Sometimes what you see or hear is not what you get.
Let us not fool ourselves that we have a consensus on what democracy or dictatorship in Thailand should be called and look like.
If Prayuth and his men are sincere in wanting to see reform, we can start by calling a spade a spade and learning to agree to disagree – without fear of being persecuted.