On Political Books

May/June 2011 Bangkok on the Nile

Middle East reformers would do well to study Thailand for lessons in how not to build a democracy.

By Joshua Kurlantzick

Legitimacy Crisis in Thailand
edited by Marc Askew
University of Washington Press/Silkworm Press, 350 pp.

For more than two decades, Chamlong Srimuang has stood out on a Thai political scene dominated by interchangeable local bosses wearing interchangeable black suits. Now in his seventies, the former general turned celibate Buddhist ascetic still sports an army-style buzz cut from his military days. Chamlong became famous in the late 1980s for winning the Bangkok governor’s race by calling for clean politics in a country where graft has long been the norm. In 1992, after Thailand’s military staged a coup (one of many in recent Thai history) and forced out an elected but corrupt government, Chamlong launched a much-publicized hunger strike, catalyzing a massive—and largely peaceful—middle-class revolt that forced the military to stand down and that led eventually to a civilian government and a more inclusive democratic rule.

Fifteen years later, in 2006, Chamlong again rallied tens of thousands of Bangkokians to demonstrate in the old part of the city agitating for the government to step down. Only this time, they were fighting to push out not an army supremo but an elected leader, Thaksin Shinawatra. As I wandered among the protesters, I found something of a blockparty atmosphere: families sat on blankets snacking on mango ices while a young singer serenaded them from a nearby stage. Many of these largely middle-class demonstrators were dressed in yellow, the color of the Thai monarchy—one institution revered by Thais across the political spectrum. But their message was a little chilling: most expressed the hope that the army would step in to “restore democracy” after Thaksin had undermined the courts and the media. Later, I ran into a prominent Thai official whom I’d known for years and who had become a supporter of these protests, even though he once had been a powerful voice for bringing democracy to neighboring nations like Burma. “They might call it democracy here [in Thailand], because there was an election, but it’s not democracy just because someone wins the most votes,” he told me.

By September of that year, Thai armed forces took over the government, and Thaksin fled into exile, where he remains today. At intersections across Bangkok, middle-class Thais, many of whom had fought on the very same streets against military regimes, now gathered to toss flowers on the troops. But in the twenty-first century, an era of globalized economies and news at Internet speed, military juntas can’t manage. Thailand’s new military leaders badly mishandled financial decisions, leading to panic by foreign investors, and seemed incapable of understanding how to address the country’s numerous new economic and trade deals. And if Thaksin eroded democratic controls on his power, the Thai military damaged democracy far more.

After 2006, Thailand spiraled into serious bloodshed and anarchy. As the middle class turned against democracy, rather than trying to fix its flaws, the working class lost their faith in the country’s political institutions. Instead, they built their own mass protest organizations, and last spring these demonstrators, clad in red—Thaksin’s signature color—took over large swaths of Bangkok’s central business district. When the so-called red shirts refused to give way to a heavy police and army presence, the security forces unleashed a furious attack, shooting live bullets into the crowds, which included many journalists. Some of the red shirts fought back with makeshift weapons and, occasionally, guns, and by the end of last May, at least eighty people had been killed in Bangkok street fighting, and thousands were injured. The Thai capital, which normally looks like a modern city, full of flashy hotels, wine bars, and coffee shops, now more closely resembled Baghdad, with gutted buildings and streets cordoned off by blockades and hospitals crammed full of bodies.

It took only fifteen years for Thailand’s democracy—once considered among the most promising in Asia—to break down and return to autocratic rule. As we watch the mass demonstrations that are roiling the Middle East we would be wise to remember what happened in Thailand. After the first joyous years following the military’s exit two decades ago, Thailand’s reformers—like their peers in other nascent democracies in Asia, Latin America, and Africa—got lazy. They did not build strong democratic institutions to check power, nor promote policies that materially benefited the poor and working-class Thais who make up the majority of the country, thus paving the way for the election of a populist autocrat. And once Thaksin built his power, the Thai middle class, rather than doing the difficult work of fighting him through the ballot box, the press, and other democratic means, took the easy way out: they looked for the men in green to step back in.

It’s a lesson that people in countries like Egypt or Tunisia should pay close attention to: ten years from now, Cairo or Tunis may have reverted to strongman rule. Once the initial joy of toppling leaders like Mubarak fades, these Middle Eastern nations easily could fall prey to an authoritarian-leaning populist. And if that happens, many Egyptian or Tunisian middle-class men and women easily might look for salvation at hands of those in uniform.

In Legitimacy Crisis in Thailand, a recent collection of essays edited by Marc Askew, several authors insightfully chronicle the breakdown and ultimate demise of Thai democracy. Overall, their sympathies clearly lie with Thailand’s working class and poor, who voted for Thaksin, then saw their votes annulled by a coup, and then watched as electoral shenanigans in post-coup elections led to the formation of a government dominated by a party sympathetic to middle-class and elite concerns. But the authors, most of whom have spent years in Thailand, understand the country well enough to know there is more than enough blame for Thailand’s national meltdown to go around.

In the 1990s, Thailand, like many developing nations in post-Cold War Asia, Latin America, and Africa, seemed poised for a democratic transition. It was a country that seemingly enjoyed many advantages— the kind that Tunisia, a relatively wealthy and stable nation, does today. Thailand had a well-educated and relatively homogenous population, with near-universal literacy, a high-performing economy, and peace on its borders. In the 1990s and early 2000s, when I lived in Bangkok, the country held several free elections and passed a progressive constitution that guaranteed a wide range of civil liberties. Most of my Thai friends at the time assumed that the country would continue to strengthen its young democracy. Foreign visitors lavished praise on Thailand. Secretary of State Colin Powell declared in 2002, “Thailand has lived up to our expectations in so many ways.” In its 1999 report on freedom in the world, monitoring organization Freedom House ranked Thailand a “free” nation. The Thais who had protested in the streets of Bangkok in the early 1990s exulted in their country’s progress.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Comments

  • Rich on May 20, 2011 2:28 PM:

    Kurlantzick's discussion of Thailand is oddly underdeveloped given his affiliation and having lived in Thailand during the 1990s. I've worked in Thailand since the early 90s and lived there through the currency crisis and the years immediately before. Thailand's recent problems with democracy are, in many respects, the latest recurrence of problems that have chronically dogged the country since independence from the absolute monarchy was declared in the 1930s. There were two major factions in the original independence movement--one centered on neo-fascist ideas and admiration for Mussolini, while the other was based on a frankly woolly set of socialist ideas--both represented a rising new "middle class" of sorts (in the European sense of the term). The neo-fascists ultimately won and their failures ultimately led to a series of military governments and their counter the previous democracy movements of the 1970s. Those ultimately led to weak governments and a long "national unity" government under General Prem (who heads the King's privy council) during the 80s. Prem operated as a benevolent despot and helped build the economy. He was succeeded by more democratically elected governments which alternated between intense corruption and ineffectual detachment from common people, which a military coup in between.

    Thailand's lack of democratic institutions clearly goes back to 30s. Corruption and the lack of strong, broad based political parties has been a problem. Many of the country's political leaders have moved all over the ideological spectrum during their careers. For example, General Chatchai (who lived in a compound down the street from me in Bangkok) had been a at various times a reformer and a corrupt army general. he ended his career with an exceptionally corrupt term as Prime Minister which was cut short by a military coup in the early 90s. Chamlong also has been all over the place and has fallen from the grace which he held after Chatchi's demise in the 90s.

    Thailand's corruption and failed democracy enabled the King to emerge from the shadows and take an active role in brokering these inevitable failure and the King took a more active role as time has gone on since the 70s, which has diminished with his health in recent years. the credibility of the royal family is now in doubt for the first time in decades and the heir apparent is the least popular member of the family and probably the least suited to any kind of leadership. the King's role generally has been constructive although he sided with those who killed democracy demonstrators in the 70s.

    To the extent that democratic ideas have not died in thailand, it has been succeeding waves of middle class people who have championed them. there also have been real grassroots efforts among the poor, although these often have been co-opted by political players such as Taksin. As for Taksin, his initial base was with the reform-minded urban middle class, although his voting base included the bought-off rural poor. The middle class quickly recognized him as the petty fascist he was, but the populist appeal remained. Thailand is a closed hierarchical society, with a heritage of slavery (still manifested in debt bondage and other disenfranchisement of the poor). This has been an impediment to developing strong political parties. Urbanization of the population and the growth of an educated middle class may change some of these dynamics, although it is likely to take many years, and a succession of more failed governments. the country is lucky in that it has the freest press in Asia. The absence of constructive royal intervention may help in the long run, although the failure of the royal family to act in recent years adds to the anxiety felt by Thai people.

  • D Fawcett on May 31, 2011 2:36 AM:

    As someone who lived in Thailand, worked in Bangkok, and was here during the coup and the riots in 2010, I find that some of Mr. Kurlantzick�s are at odds with my understanding of events. He writes that from 2006 on Thailand spiraled into "serious bloodshed" and anarchy, although the 2006 coup was bloodless and the subsequent military control of the government was far from anarchy.

    It is difficult to accept his assertion that the Thai middle class turned against democracy. Thaksin's election was ruled invalid by the courts, due to electoral fraud, and subsequent to the coup a new election was held and a civilian government returned to power. Several governments have been formed since the election as coalitions shifted and a general election has been called for early July 2011.

    I find it somewhat misleading to write that it was working class people who having lost faith in the political institutions formed the �Red Shirt� movement. The movement doesn�t seek to overthrow or even change the political institutions, but to assume control over them. They tried last year to achieve on the street what they couldn�t in Parliament, with disastrous results for the country's image. And let's not overlook that the Red Shirts are not led by the working poor and disenfranchised, but currently by the sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin, herself a member of the elite, and that the ruling Democrat Party has its share of support among the working poor as well.

    Kurlantzick writes that in May 2010 the Red Shirts refused to give way to a heavy police and army presence, overlooking that the army was called in because the police had refused to act. Further overlooked is the violence that was perpetrated by a militant faction within the protest movement. It was not simply a case of some red shirts fighting back with makeshift weapons, but with automatic weapons and grenade launchers, which had been put to use. One wonders how a more "advanced" democracy in the West would have handled a prolonged occupation of its Business District by an armed group.

    Finally, to say that Bangkok resembled Baghdad is an exaggeration, as most of the city was unaffected and most did not feel threatened. Perhaps Seattle 1999 would be a better comparison, although not as colorful. In any event, to compare Bangkok to Baghdad diminishes the real suffering that the people of that city endured.

  • Joe Feinstein on May 31, 2011 3:11 AM:

    In reading Joshua Kurlantzick�s review of Legitimacy Crisis in Thailand, I am reminded that Daniel Patrick Moynihan once famously observed, �Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.�

    In his narrative, the esteemed Mr. Kurlantzick asserts several things that simply are not so.

    To begin with, Mr. Kurlantzick states that �Thai armed forces took over the government, and Thaksin fled into exile, where he remains today.� While it is true that Mr. Shinawatra is currently in exile, that exile is not the result of the coup. Indeed, Mr. Shinawatra did not flee into exile as a result of the coup. The fact of the matter is that Thaksin was already out of Thailand at the time of the coup; he simply decided to not immediately return to Thailand. He returned to Thailand in February 2008 to face corruption charges, was arrested, and released on bail. He subsequently jumped bail in August 2008, prior to resolution of the first corruption charge, for which he was subsequently found guilty by Thailand�s Supreme Court, and currently remains in self-imposed exile. So, the only time that Mr. Shinawatra �fled into exile," He has been, and continues to be, free to return to Thailand.

    He then goes on to say, �As the middle class turned against democracy, rather than trying to fix its flaws, the working class lost their faith in the country�s political institutions. Instead, they built their own mass protest organizations, and last spring these demonstrators, clad in red�Thaksin�s signature color�took over large swaths of Bangkok�s central business district. When the so-called red shirts refused to give way to a heavy police and army presence, the security forces unleashed a furious attack, shooting live bullets into the crowds, which included many journalists. Some of the red shirts fought back with makeshift weapons and, occasionally, guns, and by the end of last May, at least eighty people had been killed in Bangkok street fighting, and thousands were injured. The Thai capital, which normally looks like a modern city, full of flashy hotels, wine bars, and coffee shops, now more closely resembled Baghdad, with gutted buildings and streets cordoned off by blockades and hospitals crammed full of bodies.�

    There are so many things wrong with that paragraph.

    First, Mr. Kurlantzick seems to have omitted the words �some of� before both middle-class and working class, as there were (and are) many in the middle-class and working class that disagreed with the protests. By most accounts, by the time the government sought to remove the protestors from Ratchprasong intersection, the number of protesters was reportedly less than 5,000 (out of a population of 65 million).

    Second, the protesters simply did not �take over large swaths of Bangkok�s central business district.� Rather, they took over only one of Bangkok�s many shopping areas.

    Third, the security forces did not unleash a furious attack on the protesters. The government surrounded the protest site, gave the protesters the opportunity to leave peacefully, and only then went in to forcibly remove the protesters that remained. Protest leaders fled the scene, later to surrender or flee the country, but other protesters opted to shoot it out with security forces.

    Fourth, the assertion that the �Some of the red shirts fought back with makeshift weapons and, occasionally, guns, ...� omits the number of M-16 assault rifles and M-79 grenades journalists observed being used by the protesters.

    And, lastly, the statement, �The Thai capital, which normally looks like a modern city, full of flashy hotels, wine bars, and coffee shops, now more closely resembled Baghdad, with gutted buildings and streets cordoned off by blockades and hospitals crammed full of bodies,� is simply wrong, plain and simple!

    One is left wondering if Mr. Kurlantzick has actually visited Bangkok during or after the 2010 protests. If n

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