Middle East reformers would do well to study Thailand for lessons in how not to build a democracy.
Yet today, Thailand looks almost nothing like that model emerging democracy. The never-ending cycle of street protest, by both the middle class and the poor, paralyzes policymaking, hinders economic growth, and deters investment at a time when the country’s authoritarian competitors, like China and Vietnam, are vacuuming up foreign capital. Few Thais now trust the impartiality of the judiciary, the civil service, or other national institutions; some even have begun to wonder about the impartiality of the king, once so revered that Thais worshipped him like a god. The Thai military once again wields enormous influence from behind the scenes, a dramatic reversal from the 1990s, when most Thais genuinely believed the military had returned to the barracks for good. Perhaps worst of all, a once freewheeling media has become increasingly shuttered and servile. The Thai government now blocks over 100,000 Web sites, more than in neighboring Vietnam.
How did the model collapse so quickly? As Michael Montesano, one of the contributors to Legitimacy Crisis in Thailand, notes, the election of Thaksin Shinawatra in 2001 was a catalyst, and a warning to other emerging democracies. But many of the factors that allowed Thaksin to corrupt the Thai political system were already in evidence.
As several of the contributors note, the flaws in Thailand’s young democracy appeared very quickly after the excitement of the first protests, and the early period of post-protest change was critical, as it will be in the Middle East. After passing a new constitution in 1997, many Thai reformers relaxed, excited and comfortable that they had finally, finally achieved democracy. I lived in Thailand at that time, and even as democracy seemed to be prospering, the country was hit hard by the Asian financial crisis, which decimated Thailand’s currency, wrecked the stock market, and led to skyrocketing unemployment.
As the country, which had been one of the best-performing economies in the world for decades, slowly recovered from the financial crisis, many of my progressive Thai friends gave up their NGOs or their crusading newspaper columns and focused instead on making—and spending—money. Megamalls sprung up in downtown Bangkok to cater to this consumer exuberance, selling coffees that cost more than an average Thai person’s daily wage and mobile phones with the latest updates. Many of my Thai friends joined consulting firms or banking houses, and the stock market rebounded along with massive consumption. But with less pressure for good governance, and the media focusing on soccer and celebrity murders, the institutions that had been launched in the early 1990s withered. A new, high ranking court designed to stop graft and insider political dealing became weaker and politicized; watchdog nonprofits folded; efforts to strip the military of its remaining political powers died down.
Those early mistakes might not have mattered, but Thailand got unlucky. In 2001, Thaksin, a tycoon who sold himself as a get-things-done type, morphed into an elected populist autocrat, uninterested in compromise and any loyal opposition. Unlike previous Thai politicians, Thaksin launched several programs to help reduce poverty that proved enormously successful, including cheap universal health insurance, an initiative to provide micro-loans to villages, and others; inequality dropped significantly, and the poor had genuine reasons to celebrate Thaksin’s administration. Before Thaksin’s era, Thailand had grown strongly, but the urban middle class, in concert with the army and the royal family, had produced a closed and self-dealing economic system in which the vast majority of the benefits accrued to urbanites, often with army and palace connections, while the majority of the country, the rural poor, was excluded from the Thai miracle. It was the kind of system that, in many ways, was similar to the rise of the urban middle class in Egypt or Tunisia today: economic mobility based not so much on innovation but on connections, often to autocratic rulers.
Thaksin helped explode these connections and cronyism. But Thaksin, himself a billionaire and an extremely charismatic politician, also soon used his power to neuter the Thai media, with his company and his allies buying into major media outlets and then using the influence to silence critical reporting. He shredded the independence of Thailand’s bureaucracy and judiciary, promoting his cronies. He oversaw a crackdown on the narcotics trade that morphed into what appeared to be a witch hunt for political opponents. In the crackdown, more than 2,000 people were killed, some by suspicious gunshots to the back of the head. By 2005, after being elected a second time by a wide majority, Thaksin wielded enormous power.
The elected autocrat now seems common to new democracies, despite cultural or regional differences, and in nations with large poor populations, like Yemen, or historically repressed religious majorities, like Bahrain, it’s easy to imagine such a figure coming to power in a relatively free and fair election. Already, in Venezuela Hugo Chávez has used his domination of broadcasting licenses to replace critical private television stations with state TV, and has forced the most vocal private channel off the air. Chávez has introduced legislation that makes it a crime for critics to offer “false” information that “harms the interests of the state.”
In Nicaragua, the former Sandinista Daniel Ortega survived Ronald Reagan, the Contras, and Oliver North and, after winning the presidency again in 2006, began using the judiciary to intimidate any media outlet he or his family did not control, and the police to raid the offices of one of Ortega’s most prominent media critics. Completing his power grab, in the 2008 elections Ortega presided over alleged massive fraud.
Throughout the former Soviet Union, the initial generation of elected leaders, most of whom received their political education in the Soviet system, have revealed themselves to be autocrats at heart. In Kyrgyzstan, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who had been one of the leaders of Kyrgyzstan’s 2005 Tulip Revolution against the autocratic regime of President Askar Akayev, soon proved himself nearly as authoritarian as his predecessor. Perhaps most infamously, Vladimir Putin, who learned his political lessons in the KGB, has undone nearly all the political progress made in Russia during the Yeltsin era.
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