Thailand’s political turmoil
At the risk of oversimplifying, here is a brief synopsis of events that has taken us to the current crisis. The current government was voted in relatively fair and square at the end of 2007. However it did not take long for charges of vote buying, corruption, economic mismanagement to surface. Large scale protests resulted in flashes of violence last week. Protesters now demand that Prime Minister Samak (and his cohorts) must step down as a precondition for negotiations. Part of what protesters want is a minimization of the power of votes, at least in the rural areas (which is made up of the poor and uneducated, the target of many alleged vote buying), in future elections.
Here is a brief excerpt from an Asia Times interview of anti-government protest leader Sondhi Limthongkul regarding what the current protest is about.
The international community and the international media hardly understand the real issue in Thailand. All the foreign journalists … ask the very cynical question: Samak is an elected prime minister so what right do you have to seize Government House? Why don’t you just form a political party and go against him?
[L]et’s find a way to customize democracy which would fit Thailand. Let’s not get democracy as you would go to McDonalds and order a hamburger, because democracy is still a Western export.
The academicians who got their degrees from Germany, from England, from the United States, from France, always use a mix-up between what they learned from these countries and invented a bloody constitution which does not work for Thailand. What I’m trying to say is let’s sit down together, find the flaws of our old politics. Do we want old politics to continue like this? Most would agree the answer is ”no”.
Then let’s find something else. Maybe we don’t need a 100% elected parliament. Maybe 70% [appointed]-30% [elected]. Note the word “maybe”. Or maybe we should reduce the number of MPs from 480 to 240, which means we would still have elections in every province. But maybe two or three MPs from every province would be enough.
The provincial, rural people lack access to the right information because whoever is in government always controls the media….[A]ccess to the right information is very crucial [to democratization of the provinces]. … [W]e have to find a way where the organizations and commissions that are supposed to be set up to check and balance the political process must be free from political interference, which is very difficult to do, very difficult, because they keep buying the people.
The whole thing happened because the Election Commission has never done its job. They closed one eye and took bribes and let cheating MPs into the parliament.
I’m not against elections, but what I’m saying is that 100% election-based democracy may not be the right answer. Let’s find a new way, because we’ve had 56 years of Western democracy, and 56 vicious years, and we’ve never had long-lasting peace.
Let’s find a way to get this country moving again and moving on solid ground, solid behind the people, making everybody happy that they have a fair share. A cake on the table to be divided among the people, let there be a win-win situation. Let’s not have the biggest piece go down to the politicians and a smaller piece to the people in the name of democracy.
The moment for change is now. People are talking about new politics now. People have a million thoughts about new politics. We need to screen all those million thoughts, then crystallize it and get it down to the nitty gritty and see what new politics really means and how it would be different from the old politics and which part of the new would be better.
Regarding the military and the King, Sondhi offered
Let’s sit down and find a new way of life, a better way of life so that we can have everlasting peace. So we don’t have to have another military intervention.
If the military intervenes again, this time it’s because the old politics allowed them to intervene, because the old politics allows the incumbent to abuse its own power because there is no good check and balance system. And some of the checks and balances can still be bought – which is why people feel disgruntled. That’s why the military could take this opportunity and come in again. So “new politics” for me is the real democratic politics.
It would give a role to the military. I’m talking about definite roles that would be put in the constitution and in the people’s minds that the military can only intervene in three matters: first of all, when there is a threat to the monarchy institution; second, concerning the sovereignty of the nation; third, when there is gross mismanagement by the existing government regarding human rights, liberty and corruption.
Apart from that, the military has no role. Nor will politicians be allowed to manipulate the military. The military should be separate from the defense minister. All military appointments should be decided by the Defense Council and then go straight to the King. Then it’s his prerogative whether he agrees or not with the new line-up. If he doesn’t agree with the new line-up, then he has the right to change it. So we separate the King, who would have his own base, which is the military.
And the people involved in politics should just go about managing the country.
Interestingly enough, our movement this time has never had any contact with the military. Mainly because we simply don’t think we should rely on the military because we believe in people’s power these days. Judging by the number of people who are joining us, I think it would be wiser to stick to the people.
The people’s power we have been able to garner has become a formidable force – even could become a threat to the military because we could actually create a people’s revolution.
Regarding the basis of his support, Sondhi said,
People are willing to contribute 100,000 baht, 200,000 baht, even a million or a couple million. But normally contributions come in at around 1,000 or 2,000 or 10,000 baht. They’re all from the middle classes.
The people are coming more and more, more and more, people from all over the country come to join us. Interestingly they take turns – some [provincial] districts send 200 people and when its time for them to go home and tend to their business, another 200 people come.
There has always been a pool of contributions from local businessmen, who pooled their money to rent a car, to pay for the gas, and they come over and stay overnight. And this sort of thing has been going on for 104 days. This is the longest marathon protest the world has ever known.
What do people think about the events going on in Thailand? Is what we are seeing simply routine progression of a maturing democracy? Is it a warning that democracy alone does not offer a fair and equitable political solution?
Are you surprised that the army has not gotten involved? The army chief has been quoted to say:
We are not taking sides. … If the nation is the people, we are the army of the people. But now the nation is divided into two parts. We cannot be with one side. We have to be with the people, all together.
What can China learn from this – and from the broader Thailand experience?
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