“The Symbol of Democracy” vs “Enemies of Democracy”?

The world (or at least Thailand) has strangely turned upside down. After The Economist condemned his opponents as "enemies of democracy", Thailand has a new, self-styled "Symbol of Democracy". The Nation reports:

"If we want the country run democratically, I'm the symbol of democracy," Thaksin told thousands of supporters during a campaign stop in Kanchanaburi.

This from a man who actively undermines democratic institutions, intimidates the free press and let an esimated 2000 people be executed extrajudicially on his watch. Maybe he's a living manifestation of an "illiberal democrat" as feared by Fareed Zakaria (via fringer.org):

Over the last decade, elected governments claiming to represent the people have steadily encroached on the powers and rights of other elements in society, a usurpation that is both horizontal (from other branches of the national government) and vertical (from regional and local authorities as well as private businesses and other nongovernmental groups).


I have to admit, though, that I'm still ambivalent regarding the PAD and the opposition. I'm disappointed that we are scheduled to have a sham of an election next month, as I've tried to express commenting on one of Fringer's posts. Two letters to The Economist in response their editorial on Thailand, seems a bit like two voices arguing in my head.

The first one is anti-Thaksin, pro-PAD:

SIR – Thaksin Shinawatra did not “win” the last Thai election (“Enemies of democracy”, March 4th). He bought it, just as he bought support recently when thousands of rural folk were bused into Bangkok for a pro-Thaksin rally (they received several days’ pay for their trouble). The rural poor, who have no access to unbiased information, are being cynically manipulated by a government that controls national TV and radio.

Which helps explain why the opposition demonstrations are not as undemocratic as you suggest. The protesters simply want to fix an inherently faulty system before elections take place. Although the “party list” voting system ensures that the same rich families will continue to rule Thailand, no matter what the election result, something urgently needs to be done to restore the checks and balances that have been systematically disabled by Mr Thaksin. The Constitutional Court, National Counter Corruption Commission and even the Senate have been taken over by his cronies. Are the protesters the enemies of democracy? No way. Enemies of “democracy”, yes.

Nigel Pike

Phang Nga, Thailand

The second is anti-Thaksin and pro-PAD:

SIR – Like The Economist, I am no fan of Mr Thaksin, but I recognise and support his Thai Rak Thai party’s legitimacy to govern. I accept that he has an electoral mandate and should not be removed from office based on income-tax loopholes. The opposition parties, former allies turned enemies and the like, are now joined in demanding Mr Thaksin’s resignation but without any regard for the constitution. There will come a time when the opposition Democrats and their allies will also be faced with an unrepresentative, implacable “people’s power” trying to force them out of office. Guess then who will vigorously defend their mandate based on the constitution?

Kal Patrabutr

Nonthaburi, Thailand

Erm… I'll let you know once the two voices in my head reach an agreement. They first have to agree on a format and whether the debate will be broadcast live on TV Pool. 🙂


7 responses to ““The Symbol of Democracy” vs “Enemies of Democracy”?

  1. What, he bought every one of those votes, and the state-controlled media manipulates public opinion in the provinces that successfully? I don’t think anyone would argue that Thaksin’s reach extends that far.

    The media might be state-controlled, but that does not mean it spreads mere propaganda. He bused in people from the provinces…so what? It’s a time-honoured tradition. Politicians of all stripes do the same. No one asks how Sonthi’s mob affords to take time off work day after day…they’re the righteous ones, after all.

    I can’t understand why you’re having a problem judging the merits of those letters. Thais went to the polls only 12 months ago, and soon they will get the chance again. Thaksin will return to power, just as he did last time. Just how much democracy do Thais need before they are happy?

  2. poststaffer: Thanks for your comments. You pretty much took down the points in the first letter that I disagreed with. There’s something more though:

    … something urgently needs to be done to restore the checks and balances that have been systematically disabled by Mr Thaksin. The Constitutional Court, National Counter Corruption Commission and even the Senate have been taken over by his cronies.

    Some people out in the streets want to reverse these abuses, and for that end they should be supported. Thais want a democracy that doesn’t just show up every for years (or 12 months if you’re ‘lucky’) with elections – they want politician to be accountable everyday through these checks and balances.

  3. Tell me how the Senate has been taken over. Do you even know how it works? If so, do tell.

    As for those other beasts, they are what a fledgling (ie immature) democracy puts in place so the weak-hearted among us (the chattering classes) can sleep easy at night. They mean nothing, and it’s time you Thais grew up a little and learnt to take more faith in those politicians who govern your lives. You elected them, for God’s sake…what, they ran on an NCCC ticket as well?

    Thaksin in NCCC diapers. Never thought of that one before.

  4. I’m going to run away from explaining how the Senate has been taken over… why explain something inevitable? You remind me how naive the constitutional drafters and I are to believe that senators, as elected officials, are suppose to be above party politics.

    The ‘other beasts’ do sound good in theory and on the written page. One has only to read The Economist survey on Thailand to compare the feeling back then on the constitution and the current practical realities. The naive school boy in me still wants to give them a chance. After all, the NCCC had enough guts to cast a secretary general of a ruling party out into the political wilderness for a few years.

  5. OK, here goes another bunch of questions that will probably remain unanswered:

    >What, he bought every one of those votes, and the state-controlled media manipulates public opinion in the provinces that successfully?

    Thaksin has sold the Thai people a story about his own rise to riches and how he will be helping them make more money as well. Is his audience well-versed in the global experience of rural development or health care financing to the point where they can make a well-informed assessment of whether this story is sensible or not? Are you? Would you like to discuss why I feel TRT’s “grassroots development” policies are nothing more than feel-good snake oil that will ultimately ruin the country? Would you like to defend these programs?

    If you really believe that TRT’s development policies are in the best interest of the Thai people, then I challenge you to defend them. If not, then Thaksin has effectively lied his way into power. Perhaps you’re comfortable with that – perhaps you have an Orwellian view that so long as a majority believes something, then it is true. If Thaksin campaigned on a policy of 2+2=5, then his win means he was correct. Is that your position?

    If, instead, Thaksin has taken advantage of his opposition’s incompetence and stupidity (and I do feel that his opposition has been incompetent and stupid) to sell snake oil to the ignorant, I find that a curious testament to the glories of democracy.

    So – stake your position: Thakins’s policies are truly good for the villagers who support him, or it doesn’t matter so long ask people believe him. Which do you prefer?

    > The media might be state-controlled, but that does not mean it spreads mere propaganda.

    That’s right, the state controlling the media doesn’t automatically mean that it’s full of propaganda; however the media being full of propaganda DOES mean that it’s full of propaganda. For example – TRT claims that their policies are based on groundbreaking work on rural poverty done by noted Peruvian economist Hernando deSoto. I defy you or anyone anyone to argue how this is true.

    Do state-owned media offer equal time for opposing views? Do state-owned media provide risk assessments for major policies? Do state-owned media investigate government scandals – what happened to Alpine Golf Course, CTX, etc? Are state-owned media always 100% accurate? These are the things that make it propaganda, not simply being state-owned.


  6. H –

    On the grassroots policy, there’s an effort to discuss their merits (or lack thereof) on this webboard at 2bangkok.com. I also argued in fringer’s blog, that I don’t think we can dismiss the 30-baht healthcare program as a mere populist ploy.

    On government-owned broadcast media, I think the picture is more nuanced than what you imply. It’s not that they are not offering equal time for opposing views – just any discourse on politics is not coming out. We’re down to one or two really interesting political talk shows, the rest of the time we get talking heads reading newspaper headlines without offering any analysis.

    The broadcast media, under any government, does not have a tradition of investigative reporting. I think ITV used to, but as you know, they are under a different management now.

  7. Naphat – thanks for the fringer link; I’ll need a bit of time but I would like to get into that conversation. I’ve followed the discussion on 2bangkok, but the usual suspects who find plenty of time to poke holes into Thaksin’s opposition (specifically Tom V and Bangkok Pundit), are also completely unable to defend Thaksin’s policies.

    I found this comment from fringer most appropriate: “There have been a lot of valuable research and advice from NGOs and academics who have worked with the poor for years; the government just ignores them.”

    That’s exactly my experience. I’m not a development expert, but I have worked in the field in various capacities, and just from my limited knowledge it’s absolutely clear that this government has absolutely no clue what rural development entails. The At-Samart show was a disgrace – just the idea that all the problems of poverty can be solved by one guy roaming around dispensing advice!

    How much of your own integrity do you have to swallow before you can support this crook?

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