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In the name of democracy: Thailand in transition

Thailand's experiments with democracy are again entering a rather uncertain phase.

india Updated: Sep 21, 2006 16:21 IST

Thailand is once again torn between military power on the one hand and democratic aspirations on the other.

On September 19 night Thailand saw its 18th military coup since the first military coup happened in 1932.

This military coup is significant because it happened after 15 years of experiments with democratic governance.

This coup is also interesting as the leader of the Administrative Reform Council that led the coup is Gen Sondhi Boonyaratklin, the first Muslim who became army chief in a predominantly Buddhist country.

It is also noteworthy that the Privy Council headed by Gen Prem Tinsulanonda, an advisor to the king and who was in power from 1980 to 1988, is playing a significant role in the new political context.

Thailand's experiments with democracy are again entering a rather uncertain phase.

However, this coup is in the name of 'restoring' democracy by capturing power from the 'democratically' elected caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The erstwhile kingdom of Siam changed its name to Thailand, meaning 'the land of Free".

From 1932 onwards, Thailand has seen a clear pattern of power shifting between the military and democratically elected civilian governments.

In many ways the politics and society of Thailand have been shaped by the stable and highly revered monarchy, military and religion.

Even when there were spells of democratic government, the political forces shaped the discourse and sustained the power base.

In fact, even after 15 years of democratic experiments most of the TV channels and radio networks are still controlled by the military.

Thailand, with a population 64.1 million, has emerged as one of the most significant countries of Southeast Asia with a relatively stable democracy and economic recovery after the financial crisis in 1997.

The main protagonist in Thai politics during this phase has been Thaksin. In many ways Thaksin symbolised the strength and limitations of Thailand's experiments with democracy.

Thaksin has been a metaphor for the new economic boom and political process of Thailand.

He is a third generation Chinese-Thai, born in 1949, in the northern city of Chiangmai.

He too was trained in the Military Academy, starting his career as a police officer in 1970, and then went on do a PhD in criminology in the US on a government scholarship in 1973.

On his return from the US, he became one of the most successful businessmen and became a billionaire within a span of just 15 years!

He started his first computer dealership in 1987 and went on to build Shin Corporation, one of the biggest business conglomerates in Southeast Asia.

The corporatisation of Thai politics happened with the advent of Thaksin. He founded Thai Rak Thai (Thai loves Thai) almost like a corporate venture, with its headquarters in one of the big towers owned by the Shin Corporation.

Like an intelligent investor he invested money and got many rich Thai corporate magnets as shareholders in his new political venture.

Thai Rak Thai was neither right nor left; it was more of a corporate venture, using communication technology, mobilisation tactics and media, making use of the insecurity after the financial crisis of 1997, selling dreams of nationalism as well as economic recovery.

Within a span of three years of launching the corporate venture of a political party, Thaksin became prime minister in 2001.

During one of his interviews, Thaksin said "democracy is a just a means to get power".

In many ways, this exposed his rhetorical commitment to democracy and his real efforts to run the country like the CEO of a business corporation.

In the process, Thaksin ended up subverting every institution and process of democracy.

He not only corporatised his party but attempted to corporatise the state as well. He used populist poverty eradication programmes and pro-poor rhetoric and, on the other hand, increasingly favoured big corporations, including his own, and went on to privatise everything.

He did not like criticism and fancied himself following the footsteps of Mahathir Mohammed of Malaysia or developing Thailand in the form of a "democracy" like Singapore.

In the process he ended up as a populist authoritarian corporate leader, using democracy as a means and as rhetoric to legitimise his power.

That is why he failed to provide a political solution to the political unrest caused by the Muslim minority population in southern Thailand. More than 1,000 people were killed within a span of months.

He has been accused of rampant violation of human rights, especially because of extra-judicial killing of an estimated 2,500 suspected drug peddlers.

Through clever political management as well as media campaign, Thaksin won his second term with a landslide majority (377 seats in the 500-member parliament) in the election in February 2005.

However, during his second term he became increasingly unpopular among civil society, political class as well as middle class in Bangkok.

The perceived subversion of law and institutions to sell off his family stake in Shin Corporation to a powerful investor in Singapore for a whopping 1.9 billion US dollars without paying any tax created a huge political backlash.

This resulted in an unprecedented political mobilisation against Thaksin.

As a part of his "put up or shut up" policy he dissolved parliament and declared a snap poll in April 2006.

Though the main opposition Democratic Party and others boycotted the election, Thaksin won 57 per cent of the vote.

However, the constitutional court declared the election null and void and asked the government to conduct a fresh election. Thaksin decided to continue as the caretaker prime minister in spite of the widespread protest against him.

Thaksin is a hero, villain and victim of the new democratic experiments in Thailand. He used democracy as a means, with his corporate investments and newfound wealth, to capture power for its own sake.

He ended up as a victim of his own unprecedented success of the only elected prime minister, successfully completing a term and getting re-elected.

He also became a victim of his own sense of invisibility and a democratic rhetoric and pretensions. So there are not many people shedding tears for Thaksin and his brand of democracy.

In the political landscape of Thailand, the unifying and stabilizing force is the highly revered King Bhumbol Adulyadej.

He has been head of state for the last 60 years, the longest serving monarch in the world. He commands a unique sense of moral authority.

In spite of several political coups, the gentle manner and rare interventions of the king helped to stabilise the polity and political process in Thailand. In the present political impasse, the ordinary people of Thailand hope that the king will help to restore the process of democracy, in spite of the coup.

It is yet to be seen if the promised restoration of democracy will help to create a genuine democratic political process and space in the "land of Free".

(John Samuel is International Director of Action Aid International based in Bangkok.)