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.
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.
With Thailand’s institutions only half developed following the euphoria of the early 1990s, its middle class, which once had fought for democracy, now faced an extremely tough choice as it watched Thaksin undermine the rule of law and gather enormous power around himself. Would they stick to the hard road of fighting for good governance and reform, when it could take years to oust Thaksin, if it ousted him at all? While Thailand’s political space had narrowed, it was hardly Libya or Belarus. Even under Thaksin, independent media voices still existed, with opposition newspapers openly criticizing the prime minister; the major opposition political party, the Democrat Party, still had a sizable group of seats, and could campaign openly in elections in a manner that would have been impossible in a place like Eritrea or Zimbabwe; though Thaksin enjoyed the support of the poor, Thai voters could be fickle, and it was not assured that he’d remain in power for decades. But the middle classes also realized that his populist rule stood to cost them their social and economic privileges—their dominance of banking and other business in the capital, and their links to the Thai monarchy, which assured those who had these ties of exalted status in society and business opportunities .
In Thailand, some of the anti-Thaksin protestors attended the 2006 rallies because of genuine concern about how the prime minister had amassed enormous power for himself. But others, including protest leader Sondhi Limthongkul, a wealthy media mogul who turned against Thaksin only after the prime minister threatened Sondhi’s holdings, came to the demonstrations because they realized that if Thaksin stayed in power, Thailand’s old order—in which a small number of businessmen, royalists, army officers, and civil servants had steered the country for years—would eventually be overturned. That old order, after all, had served the Bangkok middle class very well.
So, rather than battling Thaksin within the framework of democracy, and adopting some of Thaksin’s populist-style policies (which now, belatedly, the Thai government has done), the middle-class protestors endorsed a different concept of “democracy” from that of the working class, writes Marc Askew, editor of Legitimacy Crisis in Thailand. For the middle class, he says, “Western-style electoral democracy will always be compromised by Thailand’s corrupt politicians.” Indeed, many of Chamlong’s supporters encouraged a return to older forms of Thai “democracy,” in which a small oligarchy essentially controlled politics through unelected positions in parliament and the bureaucracy and the army, and the masses’ voting power mattered much less.
In elections scheduled for later this year, the party of Thailand’s urban middle class, the Democrats, will again contest the poll nationwide, running against pro-poor parties that have picked up the mantle for the exiled Thaksin. But for the Democrats to win, most Thai observers agree, the army and the royalists will have to convince some smaller political parties to join with the Democrats in a coalition. This is already happening: in the run-up to the new election, according to several Thai human rights activists, army leaders are quietly approaching top politicians and twisting arms to get them to join with the Democrat Party. In other nations, the middle classes have used similarly dubious means to push out elected leaders. Often, the middle-class men and women who first grabbed democracy in the street have turned again to the street.
In the Philippines, for example, the middle classes have become almost addicted to demonstrations designed to oust elected leaders they don’t like by means other than the ballot box. In 2001, urban Filipinos poured into the streets to topple President Joseph Estrada, a former actor who rose to power on his macho appeal with the masa, the underclass in the Philippines, and then demonstrated again in an attempt to remove his successor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
In Honduras, a similar story has played out. President Manuel Zelaya, who took office in early 2006, pushed to change the constitution to give himself more terms in office. Zelaya also enacted populist economic policies, like a hike in the minimum wage, which angered many middle-class business owners. As the day of a referendum on constitutional change drew near in 2009, Zelaya’s middle-class opponents began to openly protest his plans and agitate for him to be removed by force. In June 2009, the military stepped in, an intervention welcomed by many in the capital, Tegucigalpa. The army ousted Zelaya, forcing him into exile.
This middle-class habit of relying on street protests and military intervention to check the excesses of democratically elected populist leaders is hardly a solution. Instead, it merely motivates the working class to resort to similar tactics. Hence the events in Thailand last spring, when the red-shirted supporters of the exiled Thaksin took to the streets, sparking a deadly response from the security forces and the ultimate cataclysm of violence that destroyed central Bangkok.
Unlike, say, two decades ago, when they might have simply accepted a middleclass-backed putsch and an illegitimate government, now the Thai working class will no longer stand for it. As in the Middle East at the moment, many rural Thais have cell phones, computers, and access to the Internet; they can listen to clandestine opposition radio stations or follow opposition Thai blogs that criticize the government and play a cat-and-mouse game with censors.
As several of the authors in the book note, many poor Thais, too, have attained enough education to be able to scrutinize government promises and interact directly with local officials and politicians. Twenty years ago, with less education and more fear of Bangkok urbanites and the military, many poor Thais accepted that they could not control politics, and that their fate in life was the result of bad karma, a kind of Buddhist punishment. Today, that type of fatalism is far more rare. With Thaksin, they saw—as poor Venezuelans saw with Chávez or poor Bolivians with Evo Morales—that if they became engaged in politics and banded together, they could elect a leader sympathetic to their concerns. Thaksin was a very flawed leader, and as a billionaire himself he was hardly familiar with poverty, but his policies did endear him to the working class.
As nearly all the authors in Legitimacy Crisis in Thailand agree, Thailand is not likely to rebound quickly from its current meltdown. The decision by Chamlong and other middle-class democrats to turn against Thaksin has badly split Thailand along class lines, with trust between the middle class and the working class vanishing. That trust will be hard to rebuild, and the current government, dominated by middle-class urbanites, isn’t exactly trying: just as Thaksin once did, the government in Thailand now jails demonstrators allied with the opposition, blocks the Internet, and harasses any critical journalists. The middle class’s support for military intervention could undermine the integrity of civilian government for generations. Violence has become increasingly common in a country once regarded as one of the most stable nations in Southeast Asia and an example of democratic consolidation to other developing countries.
Violence is almost certain to explode again this year, and it would not be surprising to see such a cycle of violence in a country like Egypt or Tunisia either, should the euphoria of today slowly disintegrate, leaving harsh divides.
Thailand’s fate, however, is not necessarily destined to be repeated in Egypt or Tunisia or other parts of the Middle East. In some young democracies, leaders are able to uphold both electoral democracy (winning the most votes) and constitutional democracy (upholding laws and institutions). In Brazil, the two-term president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who came from a leftist and populist trade union background, both implemented policies that made a real dent in absolute poverty and reassured middle-class and elite voters that he would respect their economic power and their property rights. Lula shepherded Brazil into an economic boom and left office as probably the most popular president in the country’s history, with both the poor and the middle class. Brazil’s middle class largely bought into Lula’s plans, supporting cash transfers for the poor as one means to reduce inequality in the country and improve the social welfare of the poor. In so doing, they helped bridge divides in Brazilian society and prevent politics from disintegrating into the kind of class-based warfare that has enveloped Thailand. This has allowed the Brazilian military to step back in as a guarantor of stability.
Other developing nations, too, seem to be heading in the direction of Brazil. A basket case ten years ago after the fall of longtime dictator Suharto, Indonesia has developed into a real democratic success story, with multiple free elections, a vibrant media, and far less of the middle-class longing for a military strongman that you see in countries like Thailand or the Philippines. Unlike Thailand, Indonesia has decentralized a good deal of political and economic power, letting poor rural voters feel much more connected to democracy.
But if Egypt and other Middle Eastern nations are to achieve the kind of democratic stability seen in Brazil and Indonesia, they will first have to deal with internal conditions that are likely to guide them down Thailand’s path. In most countries in the region, the middle classes, as in Thailand, have often made their money through connections, rather than by building new companies, and are going to be far more protective of their economic and social privileges. Many of these countries, including Syria, Jordan, and some of the Persian Gulf states, have large majorities that have long been ruled by a minority elite, and so in democracy a populist could rise to power with the kind of pro-poor policies that Thaksin mastered. What’s more, as in Thailand, in many Middle Eastern nations the army has obliterated nearly all other national institutions. If such institutions are not built soon, and built well, then when middle-class men and women look for a solution to some future elected autocrat, they will have nowhere to turn but the boys in uniform.
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