Thailand: The War on Democracy

It has gone quiet in Thailand, as the people who have been trying to overthrow the government tidy up the debris that litters Bangkok

It has gone quiet in Thailand, as the people who have been trying to overthrow the government tidy up the debris that litters Bangkok after the last two weeks of demonstrations. It’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 86th birthday this week, and nobody wants to disrupt it with unseemly scenes of conflict.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is taking an equally low-key approach. The Thai army has removed the barbed wire that surrounded her offices, and protesters are picnicking on the lawns while she runs the government from elsewhere. But next week the Civil Movement for Democracy will be back in action, and the outcome is not clear.

The main thing that distinguishes the Civil Movement for Democracy is its profound dislike for democracy. The demonstrators are trying to remove a prime minister who was elected only two years ago – and their goal is not another election.

“We don’t want new elections because we will lose anyway,” one protester told Reuters. If they succeeded in driving Yingluck from power, they would skip hand the country over to an appointed “People’s Council” made up of “good men” – who would naturally agree with protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban that the majority of the Thai people are too ignorant and flighty to be trusted with the vote.

“From a Western point of view, “democracy” is an elected government serving as the people’s representative,” Suthep told The Guardian. “Unfortunately, elections in Thailand do not represent people’s (real) choices because their votes are bought.”

They are “bought” not by bribes but by government spending on free health care and anti-poverty programmes. In most democracies this is seen as part of the normal political process, but Suthep and his supporters, who include a high proportion of the country’s middle classes, especially in the capital, regard it as illegitimate.

There is a conflict between the interests of the rich and the poor in most countries. In democracies it normally plays out in the electoral competition of right- and left-wing parties – but in Thailand, the rich take to the streets.

They do so because they always lose the elections. In five elections since 2001, the winner every time has been Thaksin Shinawatra or somebody chosen by him. Thaksin is a man of humble origins who built the country’s largest mobile phone provider and then went into politics. He proved to be unbeatable.

He set up programmes like village-managed microcredit development funds and low-interest agricultural loans. He created a universal healthcare system and provided low-cost access to anti-HIV medications. Rural incomes soared and health improved dramatically. Yet at the same time the GDP grew by 30 percent, foreign exchange reserves doubled, and he even managed to balance the budget.

From the point of view of the opposition Democratic Party, however, all this was just “buying the people’s votes.” When Thaksin won the 2005 election with an increased majority, it conspired with the military to overthrow him. He was then tried on corruption charges, but fled the country before the inevitable verdict and has since lived in exile, mostly in Dubai. But his party goes on winning every time there is an election.

That’s why his 46-year-old sister is now the prime minister. And if the current insurrection in Bangkok overthrows her, the voters will vote for whoever else represents Thaksin next time there is an election. The right in Thailand should really grow up and get over it.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.