Sunday, August 31, 2008

To the Barricades!

The world, that part of it at least that pays attention to anything happening in Southeast Asia, has been treated to an arresting sight for the past week: The Bangkok mob storming the barricades to demand . . . an end to democracy in Thailand.

Two decades ago last month the people in neighboring Myanmar (Burma) by the tens of thousands went to the barricades in Yangon, chanting, “we want democracy.” An estimated 3,000 of the protestors were killed by the army and police.

In 1986 people in the Philippines filled the streets to topple the longstanding dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos and re-establish democracy in what came to be known as the People Power movement. In 2003 half a million people in Hong Kong marched to protest the government taking away their liberties.

The mob that stormed the national television station, blocked runways at the tourist resort of Phuket and has been occupying Government House now for about a week have a different objective. They want to oust a popularly and fairly elected government because, as one of their leaders put it, in a democracy it is “too easy to manipulate poor people.”

Last December Thai people went to the polls and convincingly elected a government headed by the People’s Power Party (PPP) and installed as prime minister one Samak Sundaravej. That this was a manifestly fair election can be assumed from the fact that the Thai army organized the vote and desperately wanted the PPP to lose and because losers never complained that the election was rigged.

No, the problem with last December’s election is that the wrong people won. The leaders of the vastly misnamed People’s Alliance for Democracy, leading the demonstrations in Bangkok, basically say: “We know you voted this government in with a landslide only a few months ago, but you voted the wrong way and it is our duty to reverse that outcome!”

The Bangkok elite don’t like Prime Minister Samak. There is, in fact, much to dislike about him. He has been implicated in bloody crackdowns in the past and often makes embarrassingly boorish comments. But he has done nothing recently that would justify rebellion, and, in fact, he has acted with considerable restraint during the past week as demonstrators occupied his own office-residence, forcing him to govern from an outpost.

The opposition accuses Prime Minister Samak of being just a surrogate for their longtime bête noire, the former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. That may in fact be true, as the PPP is made up of remnants of Thaksin’s followers (his party having been outlawed). It is also irrelevant. What the demonstrators can’t accept it that, given a free choice, Thai people have shown over and over that they want Thaksin.

When the People’s Alliance for Democracy began its campaign to oust then prime minister Thaksin three years ago, it focused on his alleged corruption. But now he has gone into what appears to be permanent exile, they focus their ire the system, namely universal suffrage that brought him and his followers into power.

They make no secret any more that the vote must be taken out of the hands of the unwashed and affairs of state left to the educated elite of Bangkok. One of the leaders, media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul, now agitates against “Western-style” democracy arguing that only the elite should be allowed the vote.

One of their proposals is that just 30 percent of parliament should be filled through direct elections and the remaining 70 percent appointed or chosen through some vague “new style of elections” based on membership in “professions”. In other words, ten million farmers might have one representative in parliament, while a thousand bankers would have their own representative.

The only other jurisdiction in Asia (or the world for that matter) with that kind of system is Hong Kong, where half of the Legislative Council is chosen through small-member functional constituencies along those lines, and people there have been agitating to end that system for years without success.

Thaksin’s real crime in their minds was not allegations of corruption, which they have had a hard time making stick, but his support for populist programs such as easier credit for farmers and an embryonic form of national health care. Such programs have made him a hero to many Thais, especially in the impoverished Northeast.

In fact, the attitude that people are “not ready” for democracy is still fairly common throughout Asia. Hong Kong businessmen make no secret that they oppose permitting full democracy in the former British colony, now part of China, for fear that the masses will tax them to pay for increased social services. They are happy to cooperate with the communist regime to suppress any advances towards fuller democracy

For the moment, the army seems set against staging another coup d’etat, despite the entreaties of the Bangkok mob. The generals held power a year and a half after their September, 2006, coup to oust Thaksin, but they did such a poor job of running the country that they blackened the name of military government.

Some look to Thailand’s revered 80-year-old monarch and final arbiter of Thai politics, King Bhumibol to intervene to solve the impasse, as he has done in the past. Premier Samak had an audience with the King on Sunday but so far he has remained silent, and there is no certainty the country can count of help from that quarter.

One of the ironies is that President George W. Bush chose Bangkok as the place to give a speech on human rights just prior to going to Beijing to attend the opening of the Olympic Games last month and to call for democracy and freedom in Myanmar. It would seem that Thailand is the country swimming against the rising tide of democracy in Asia.


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