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