September 9, 2007

Thailand: When the Dogs Howl

Dictatorship threatens to bury Thai democracy
Michael Connors
Canberra Times
May 4, 2007

IT'S NOT the kind of Thailand you will see in travel brochures advertising "Amazing Thailand", but even casual observers can sense the nation is on the edge of a political meltdown.
Last year, the world's longest serving monarch, 79-year-old King Bhumipol Adulyadej called it "the worst crisis in the world", referring to the political crisis that wracked Thailand. The then prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, was fighting for his political survival amid mass demonstrations, military machinations, charges of lese majeste, corruption, and abuses of human rights.

He lost.

In September Thaksin was overthrown in a coup and by year's end a military appointed government was in place.

A Constitutional Drafting Assembly was formed to draft Thailand's 18th constitution since 1932.

No one has great hopes the new constitution currently being drafted under the shadow of the military will solve the country's woes.

The fragility of constitutional rule in Thailand has as much to do with vested and conflicting interests between old and new wealth as it does with flawed constitutional design.

And this is why it is possible to speak of meltdown.

During Thaksin's five years in office the government was charged with policy corruption that benefited his private business interests at the expense of rivals. While prime minister, his family firm invested heavily in AirAsia to compete against the national carrier, Thai Airways. He won tax concessions on his media activities, and the Export-Import Bank of Thailand provided soft loans to the Burmese regime to contract Thaksin's satellite and telecommunications firms.

As Thaksin's cronyism intensified, different groupings of business interests began to mobilise against him. They rallied under the convenient, though not completely inaccurate, cry that Thaksin was challenging the power of the king.

The current military-backed Government is now moving against Thaksin's wealth, and thus his political power. Last week, Thaksin's children were ordered to return half a billion dollars to the tax office. As more cases of corruption come before the courts, pro-Thaksin forces in Thailand are mobilising protests against the Government while Thaksin, in exile, claims disinterest in politics.

Whether the crisis will end in compromise, or will be fought to the end, is unclear.

So what of the prospects of democracy in Thailand? The Government promises an election will be held at year's end under the newly-drafted constitution. But pro-democratic and some pro-Thaksin forces are calling for the constitution to be rejected.

A rejection could be interpreted as condemnation of the coup and support for Thaksin paving the way for his political comeback in some form. Others fear that should an election be held pro-Thaksin forces will win anyway.

That's why some people have given up on democracy all together, saying the rural masses in Thailand are not ready for it. Instead a mixed system that incorporates the people, the aristocracy, and the king should be devised until the masses are ready to act like democratic citizens.

Such criticism of the electoral process betrays aristocratic disdain for the masses; and it might suggest that one of South-East Asia's most liberal of democracies (from the 1980s-1990s) might be headed down the road of Singaporean guided-democracy.

The principal charge against the masses is that they sell their votes to opportunist and corrupt politicians for less than 1000 baht ($A40) and have no regard for public interest. They elect corrupt governments that plunder the public purse, so what's the point of democracy?

Thais have dubbed pre-election nights "the night the dogs howl" because vote-canvassers make late-night visits to those they have paid to ensure they vote appropriately. Their nocturnal meanderings stir sleeping dogs and whole villages wake up to the howling: an apt sound for an aching democracy.

The question of succession is another potential site of meltdown. There is no doubt that without the presence of the current king, who has immense moral power in Thailand, political order in the interests of the old elite will be hard to guarantee. And this is where the political divide on regime form among the Thai elites opens up as they decide on a form of right wing electoral populism as exercised by Thaksin or someone like him, or a guided-democracy under the tutelage of the old establishment. Between both, the promise of Thai liberalism appears to be diminished.

The third significant site of meltdown centres on the continuing insurgency in the Muslim-majority provinces in the south of Thailand. Thaksin's demise was supposed to bring an end to the daily killings by insurgents and para-military state apparatuses. It was believed his insensitive incompetence had fuelled the insurgency. Instead, the killings have intensified, and taken on a more sectarian nature between Buddhist and Muslim.

The current Government appears no more competent than Thaksin's in dealing with the crisis. The three thousand lives lost in the last three years of the insurgency may be small compared with what may soon come.

Looking at the bleak prospect of Thai politics in the coming year it is hard not to conclude that it is more than just the dogs who will be howling.

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