The Bangkok Ochlocracy
As 2013 draws to an end, ochlocracy is again a staple in Thai or rather Bangkok politics since 2006. The other staple is a coup and junta, which is always the Democles Sword in Thai politics too. Thai Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha said that with regards to a coup in Thailand to topple the corrupt Yingluck regime, “That door is neither open nor closed“. The General did not want to take sides especially when the winning side is not clear yet, but his comment while perhaps off the cuff, is a terrible insult to Thai democracy. Incidentally, there are nine coups in Thailand since 1946.
A military allowed to takeover the government via a coup? A ruling party that conceded to have another election to let the (rural) people decide who they want in power although this election is rejected by the opposition as they are confident the Pheu Thai Party would win? Already the protests which looks like it would be more disruptive and violent has undermined Thailand’s economy because investors are jittery. Should the mob rule? Should the Bangkok elite which constantly played the monarchy card rule? Is a coup the solution? If you asked the neo-Yellow Shirts aka Suthep Thaugsuban’s mob, the answers would be Yes, Yes and Yes.
People of the Year: Muan Maha Prachachon, 2013 Thai Uprising
Published: 30/12/2013 at 12:00 AM
Discontent, it is said, is the first necessity of progress.It’s discontent that lies at the hearts of the hundreds of thousands of people who have taken to Bangkok streets since last month to protest against the amnesty law that sought to absolve all crimes and corruption cases from 2006 onwards without any clear justifiable reasons.
It’s discontent against the flagrant abuse of power by a majority of democratically elected representatives who not only voted to pass a law that would have rendered the justice process meaningless but did so at 4:25am – unbecoming conduct by parliamentarians for such highly questionable legislation.
The almost spontaneous uprising against the draft law started with tens of thousands who joined then Democrat MP and former party secretary-general Suthep Thaugsuban at a rally on Samsen Road, and grew into hundreds of thousands within weeks.
The demonstration forced the government to backtrack and kill the draft bill by telling the Senate to reject it.
The spirit of the 2013 uprising, the will to mass together to challenge injustice and the force for change it engendered, has earned the mass uprising, or muan maha prachachon as it has become known, the Bangkok Post’s 2013 People of the Year distinction.
For one thing, the phenomenon has raised hope there will be no more “politics as usual” in the country.
It is the first time that white-collar working-class people and business entrepreneurs have spoken up and demanded they be treated as informed citizens who are willing to engage in participatory democracy, in activities that go beyond casting their ballot on voting days.
When Sondhi Limthongkul formed the People’s Alliance for Democracy six years ago, only a few thousand people in these classes joined him as the so-called yellow-shirt demonstrators and three years ago, when the United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship, or the red shirts, staged rallies against the military coup and the Abhisit Vejjajiva administration, most of the demonstrators were from grassroots classes including farmers and blue-collar workers.
Whether the newly emerged force – born out of discontent – will grow into a positive movement that brings about political progress remains to be seen.
Indeed, the “muan maha prachachon” movement or the “great mass of people” is not without flaws.
As the uprising against the political amnesty law grew under Mr Suthep’s leadership, it morphed into a demonstration to oust the Yingluck Shinawatra government and so-called “Thaksin regime” – a term used to refer to the influence of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra on politics and more loosely to the tyranny of the majority.
Mr Suthep then pushed his movement’s demand to suspend elections and make way for a “people’s council” – to be partly selected by professional groups and partly appointed by Mr Suthep’s group – to reform the country.
While its demand seems to resonate with many people – hundreds of thousands rose up every time Mr Suthep called on them to march _ it is questionable whether the movement is for a “less flawed democracy” as many demonstrators have claimed, or simply “less democracy” as Mr Suthep’s proposal seems to suggest.
“The movement claims to be the ‘great, great people.’ But what does ‘great, great people’ mean? ‘More people’ or ‘the more important people?’ ” asked political analyst Chris Baker.
A bird’s eye view of protesters packing Ratchadamnoen Avenue and the Democracy Monument on Nov 24. The protests have continued for 2 months so far. SITHIKORN WONGWUDTHIANUN
Mr Baker chronicled the rise of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra _ the central figure in the country’s protracted political conflicts – in his books including Thaksin: The Business of Politics in Thailand.
He said the movement’s rejection of the one-person, one-vote basic principle of political equality is clear.
“Some supporters have clearly said they think Bangkok people should have more weight in the elections than non-Bangkok people. This is important. We outside observers now know what this movement stands for,” Mr Baker said.
Thammasat political scientist Kasian Tejapira said the 2006 military coup led to the bloody crackdown four years later by the Abhisit government against anti-coup red-shirt supporters.
He said what is going on is not different from a putsch. It’s just being done with support from the masses instead of military tanks and weapons. “The muan maha prachachon is a capitalist movement that will lead to the tyranny of the minority,” Mr Kasian said.
He insisted that only adhering to the framework of electoral democracy will lead the country out of deep-seated political conflicts.
Mr Kasian said everybody agrees the country needs reform. Still, a short-cut to reform without involving people throughout the country, carried out in a way that is seen as trampling on their voting rights, will only lead the country to further bloodshed.
For former Asean secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan, the mass mobilisation is political evolution and social transformation that is still unfolding in front of us. “We are indeed at a critical crossroads of a long historical journey,” Mr Surin wrote in a Facebook message this month.
He is associated with the former opposition party Democrats, which chose to boycott the Feb 2 election on the ground it wouldn’t solve the conflicts.
He said the rural electorate was awakened and made aware of its political power and potency in an open political process over a decade ago.
Now, the other end of the political spectrum including people who were politically passive have become agitated by the ways things are going.
“Deep grievances are being articulated against a rampant and unprecedented level of corruption, abuse of power, cronyism in business, nepotism in the bureaucracy, intervention in the check-and-balance mechanisms, control of government media and intimidation of free and independent news agencies.
“[They are also upset about] pervasive and systematic violations of human and civil rights, impunity for law enforcement personnel, ruinous populist programmes and ill-conceived government projects. All of these lead to a profile of anger, frustration, bitterness, emotional pain and political divide on the streets of Bangkok,” Mr Surin said.
The view is echoed by protester Khim Sitthip. The 60-year-old native of Nakhon Ratchasima has never missed a day of rally activity since joining the crowd on the first day at Samsen Road.
“The government ran the wrong policies but never dares take responsibility,” Mrs Khim said, referring to the rice-subsidy programme, widely criticised as costly and ineffective.
“The government also wanted to issue an amnesty to whitewash corrupt people. I could no longer sit at home and pay tax,” Mrs Khim said.
Another rally-goer, Wanchoke Chanchatri, 25, from Songkhla, said that since members of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government and her Pheu Thai Party openly had said they would not respect the Constitution Court, which decided that their attempt to rewrite the charter was in violation of due legal process, he could not recognise Ms Yingluck as premier either.
There are those who attend rallies because they want “good people” to govern the country, university students who want to rid the country of conflicts of interest, and those critical of the government’s environmental policies.
A common theme of the protests is the crowd’s opposition to corruption.
“It’s the corruption, stupid!” former finance minister Thirachai Phuvanatnaranubala wrote on Facebook.
He was referring to former United States president Bill Clinton’s phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid!” which alerted American voters that the key issue during the 1992 US election was not the war against Iraq but the poor economy.
Mr Thirachai suggested the “reform” which all sides seem to agree is needed should be one against corruption.
Anek Laothammatas, whose two-democracies theory _ that rural masses were easily manipulated by politicians into voting them into government, which would then be kept in check by educated members of the middle class in Bangkok who embrace democracy _ seems to have been tested by the political unrest.
“The Ratchadamnoen crowd is too diverse to be classified merely as an elite protest, an anti-Thaksin one or a pro-Democrat one. Certainly, the uprising should make political parties realise they could not ignore the middle or upper class as doing so would risk their losing political stability,” Mr Anek said.
He said the Ratchadamnoen protest debunked some old assumptions including a suspicion that anti-government crowds are used as a pretext for the military to stage a coup or a belief that the protest is an enemy of the red shirts.
“In fact, protest leaders must learn from each other now. The red shirt protesters or the Pheu Thai Party must study what people who gathered at Ratchadamnoen want, while the Ratchadamnoen leaders should also take into account the aspirations of the red shirts. They can’t ignore poverty, for example. They should unite and make poverty eradication a big issue in society,” Mr Anek said.
The Pheu Thai Party, which has focused on winning votes from the rural base and believed _ falsely _ that electoral victory would silence the minority middle class, must rethink their strategy to regain its support, Mr Anek said.
The former opposition Democrat Party must also turn itself into a party that is connected more closely to voters. It should not be a party that is run by only a few senior figures, Mr Anek, a former Democrat member, said. “It will be a failure of leadership of all sides, both political and intellectual, if so many people have come out in protest and they still haven’t learned anything,” he said.
Most of all, both the government and protesters must realise they have to engage with each other.
He said the protest has brought into sharp focus the need for the country to undergo major political reform to help raise the quality of politicians.
“If the leadership could use this protest constructively, they should use it to gauge public sentiments and real needs. Then, if they could, they should steer what could become a major confrontation into a national conversation, a negotiation to shape the country’s future politics,” Mr Anek said.
If that could happen, the muan maha prachachon would go down as a major political landmark and point of progress in Thai history.