May 19, 2010

Why Thai Politics is No Longer Normal

Posted Below is a longer version of a piece that appears in the The AGE today.

For Italian Translation Click Here or for Chinese translation see below.

Written for a general audience, I focus on broad trends rather than immediate analysis of what is happening now. As for current events, no one who supports the right of people to protest can support the use of military with armed weapons to end the stand-off. The degeneration into this state abuse of power is not excusable, and despite the existence of paramilitary elements in the red-shirts, the disproportionate use of weaponry by the government side is to be condemned.

When a social order is threatened, politics becomes about defining friend and enemy. Then you wage a rule-less war for complete victory.

History is a fat pile of friend/enemy wars and as monstrous as it sounds, this is how transformative change sometimes happens. In the process, old social orders survive by reform or tumble, and new orders rise. It is never pretty, and often bloody.

So it has been since former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was outsted in a coup in 2006.

The street battles and rising death toll in Bangkok right now signal that fundamentalist antagonists are now waging war over who defines democracy.

The red-shirts are seeking a new social order. The Democrat Party led-governing coalition, backed so far by the military, are committed to restoring a social order that is now in ashes. Each sees the other as the enemy.

The violent actions of both sides in the street battles are born of this dangerous logic of friend/enemy, and do not tell us much about what they stand for, what kind of Thailand they wish to build.

Some recent history will help.

After the 1991 coup and its bloody aftermath in May 1992, a politically liberal reform movement emerged. Elites recognised that the semi-democracy of the 1980s, when a retired general depended on palace support to stay as prime minister, was an age gone by. The movement resulted in the celebrated 1997 “People’s Constitution”, which enshrined the liberal doctrine at the heart of the Thai state. Henceforth, executive power (coming from a democratic mandate) would be scrutinised by a variety of liberal checks and balances, an electoral commission, and constitutional and administrative courts.

Some believe the liberal political settlement was devised in anticipation that King Bhumiphol’s death – even then thought to be in the twilight of his reign – required Thailand embrace an open politics based on robust political institutions.

Nevertheless, suspicious of the dangers of majoritarian democracy, elite liberals embraced a role for the monarchy, who they popularly represented as the supreme ombudsman, virtuous and able to restrain the venality of politics. Thus, the monarchy that had a reciprocal relationship with military dictators from the 1950s onwards was reinvented as a liberal institution by elites who feared full democracy without a moralizing centre to restrain mass appetite.

In anycase, no one expected a smooth path to liberal democracy. The military’s corporate interests remained and networks around the monarchy continued to wield power. Corruption was pervasive. Rather, the project was to be gradual and generational.

Then the project came unstuck. When the liberally-oriented Democrat Party ruled during the Asian Economic Crisis of 1997-2000, it failed to offer anything except implementation of an IMF austerity program. Such liberal feebleness paved the way for Thaksin Shinatara and his brand of authoritarian populism and popular pro-poor policies.

During his term as prime minister (2001-2006) Thaksin systematically tore up the aspirational liberal settlement. His disregard for human rights and the institutions of checks and balances is well documented, as is his undoubtable electoral support, which won him office in 2001 and 2005 (and would possibly see a pro-Thaksin government returned to power were elections held soon). Liberalism and Democracy parted ways.

The yellow-shirt movement against Thaksin that arose in 2005/2006 was a mixture of the liberal middle class elements, rural poor, and unionists opposed to privatisation programmes. There were also elite conservative elements who feared Thaksin was pushing them from their pedestal as power-brokers. They viewed Thaksin as a threat to the social order and most importantly to the monarchy.

Since 2006 liberals have loosely pacted with conservative elements in the state, and the yellow shirts, to defeat Thaksin and his supporters. Together, they brought down an elected pro-Thaksin government in late 2008. They are driven by a flawed logic of gradually returning Thailand to something like the liberal settlement of 1997 – with all its compromises. Some anti-Thaksin elements have called for a “new politics” that does away with full electoral democracy.

The current government, led by Abhisit Vejjajiva, recognises there are genuine grievances among the redshirts and has offered a raft of pro-poor policies since taking office in late 2008. Thai liberalism has moved towards a form of social liberalism that recognises the importance of equal opportunity. But perhaps, as in all revolutionary situations, this is too little too late. And now associated with scores of deaths as a consequence of the crackdown underway, what future does the government have?

What of the red-shirts, what social order, should they win, can we expect?

The redshirts are a diverse movement of middle layer farmers, leftwing activists, rural poor, working class urban elements, and middle class professions, and business. Importantly, Thaksin and his political networks play a role too. Frustrated with a failed year-long campaign to bring down the government, they have moved to endgame on the streets of Bangkok. Some redshirts have also embraced a para-military solution.

They pledge to return the 1997 Constitution, deal with the bureaucratic and aristocratic elements of the state, and make democracy ‘edible’. They support market capitalism and want a better deal for the “commoner”. They rightly speak of double standards in the execution of law, and of non-transparent processes that are non-democratic. Their program is powerfully attractive, but fatally flawed.

Like liberals who have failed to come to terms with the non-democratic nature of conservative institutions in Thailand, the red-shirt leadership and its backers refuse to publicly account for the authoritarian slide under Thaksin.

They have mobilized a powerful myth of a democratic oasis at the centre of which stands the Thaksin era. But apart from calling for an immediate election to enable the victory of Pheu Thai, the pro-Thaksin opposition party, no one knows what a red-shirted democracy would look like.

Thai politics is obviously no longer in a “normal phase”. It’s as if a textbook struggle between liberalism and democracy is taking place, except that real people are being killed.

Chinese Translation - Thanks to Ng Cheng Beng

红杉军要求新的社会秩序。民主党领导的联合政府 - 至今仍受军方的支持,要求恢复社会秩序,但它现已成灰。双方互视为敌人。
黄衫军反对达信,发生在二零零五 - 二零零六年,它是自由主义中产份子,反对私营化计划的乡村穷人,和工会会员的混合产物。还包括保守派的精英份子,他们害怕达信把他们作为权力掮客的基本盘给移走。他们视达信为对社会秩序,更重要的对王室,是一种威胁。
自二零零六年,自由派和国家的保守份子、以及黄衫军,结成松散的联盟,打败了达信和他的支持者。他们一起在二零零八年后期,把支持达信的政府给弄下台。他们是基於一个错误的逻辑,以为可以让泰国慢慢地回到好像一九九七年那种自由主义 - 包括所有的妥协。有一些反达信份子,还呼吁实行一种“新的政治”,取消全面民主选举。

作者:麦可康纳斯(Michael Connors)
麦可康诺斯在澳洲La Trobe University教政治学。他是《泰国的民主与国家认同》(Democracy and National Identity in Thailand)一书的作者。