Thailand: Towards A Better Model of Democracy?

By Kalinga Seneviratne* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

SINGAPORE (IDN) – For the past six months thousands of people under the banner of the Peoples’ Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) led by a former Deputy Prime Minister have been rallying across Bangkok calling for the overthrow of the “corrupt Thaksin regime” while the police and military stood by, even sometimes clearing the way for their marches. PDRC sabotaged the February elections called by a government under siege and later succeeded in getting the Elections Commission to nullify the results.

The demonstrators have been calling for the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Yinluck Shinawatra to be replaced by an unelected Peoples’ Council to redraw the constitution to stamp out money-politics in the Thai electoral system. Finally the military seem to have come to their aid, and put democracy to the test.

“Why the media think election is so important – North Korea has elections, China also has elections – why is it so fixed about an unelected body?” asked Thai political scientist Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap in response to a question I posed to him about Thai anti-government protestors’ demands for an “undemocratic” path to political reforms.  “Winning elections is not the only important point of democracy, a more important part is how elected representatives use their power in the House (parliament) and in the Senate to serve national and public interest” he added.

He spoke a few days before the Thai army moved in to overthrow the government of Pheu Thai Party that was set up by one of Thailand’s richest men and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. He was himself overthrown by a military coup in 2006 and subsequently charged and convicted for corruption. He lives in Dubai to avoid serving a 2-year jail term in Thailand.

Since plunging into politics in the 1990s, the former Telecom tycoon and billionaire businessman has been a controversial figure in Thai politics. Some even call him a divisive figure who manipulates the one-man-one-vote democratic system to buy the support of the rural poor – who form 70 percent of the Thai electorate. He has won one election after another and now for the second time, his party has been overthrown by a military coup.

Speaking on South Korea’s English-language regional satellite channel Arirang in November, Thaksin explained that what he did to Thai politics was to provide a way to empower Thailand’s poor farmers in particular.


“When I started my new party I went to rural areas. Old farmers came to me and asked please be PM for the poor. It really touched me. They wanted someone to look after them. They have no hopes in life,” he explained. “One thing they need . . . is access to capital… I set up the village fund different than microfinance. You give money to the villages and let them set up the committee to manage . . . people  don’t need a lot of money they need about 200 dollars so that they can send their children to school, grow chicken, sell to the market.”

This scheme came to be known as Thaksinomics. “They need opportunities, they need access to knowledge, to information, to government services, to capital … I use this door track policy for rural economy and second track is export. I export by helping the farmers to get a better price. I’m their salesman.” This was how Thaksin saw his role as a politician and businessman.

But, for his opponents this was corruption. He used the rural people to buy votes from populist policies and in return he designed the political system to benefit his family businesses and that of his business cronies.

“Thaksin regime says they are protecting what they call democracy – running for elections, get the majority and run the country whichever way they please, because they won.  PDRC is fighting for a better democracy,” argues Dr Somkiat Onwimon, a former Senator, academic and TV host, who took to the stage at PDRC rallies calling for the overthrow of the elected government.

“Buying votes from voters that is only one simple form of corruption, but, Thaksin regime kind of corruption is more complicated than that,” he said in an interview given to me in April.  “Once you are in power you change the law to be in your favour, so that you can buy and sell state enterprises, invest in new infrastructure projects … it’s not actual corruption which can be caught by the law. It is a kind of corruption because they have the power to change the law (to make it legal).”

One example he pointed out was how in 2006, while being the Prime Minister, Thaksin changed the foreign ownership laws from 25 percent to 49 percent so that he could sell his family business Shin Corp telecom network to Singapore’s Temasak Holdings and make a huge profit out of it. This was the trigger for the army coup of September 2006 that ousted his government.

The trigger for the latest coup was an amnesty bill, moved by the government of Prime Minister Yinluck Shinawatra (Thaksin’s sister) last year. Thailand’s anti-corruption movement  gathered steam in September 2013, when the ruling Phue Thai Party tried to push through parliament a blanket amnesty bill that would have absolved politicians convicted of corruption and serious crimes linked with political conflicts since 2004.

The government dressed it up as a bill of reconciliation and creating unity in the country after years of fierce political battles between the urban “yellows shirts” that represent the traditional power elites of Bangkok and the “red shirts” the rural electors mainly from the northeast of the country that firmly supports the Shinawatra regime. Though the amnesty would have covered all sides of politics, it was widely seen in Thailand as a bill designed to allow Thaksin Shinawatra to come back to the country a free man.

“It has become a nation-wide protest movement of the woken silent Thai majority against money politics as exemplified by Thaksin,” argues Dr Termsak, who has worked with the ASEAN Secretariat for 20 years, before retiring in 2012.

Non-elected Peoples’ Council

The PDRC is advocating setting up a non-elected Peoples’ Council that represents various sectors of the Thai community to draft a new constitution over a period of 18 to 24 months that would have strong checks and balances to stem political corruption.

“In America they have mafia organized crime, but here in Thailand we have organized corruption by those who are in power. Spending a little bit money getting votes and for next 4 years they can make a lot more money,” notes Dr Somkiat. “There is no way you can get rid of this system except that you get rid of the whole system by revolution.”

Dr Termsak argues, democracy and elected parliaments are not the answer to eradicating corruption. “We need non-politicians to improve  the political system, examine the election law, even the constitution, try to plug all the loopholes so there’s no return of money politics.”

This is what Thai protestors are calling for – a non-elected “Peoples Council” – consisting of people of integrity from the community. They do not seem to believe that multiparty democracy can solve the problem.

Dr Somkiat believes that this process would take between 18 to 24 months. He argues that Article 7 of the Thai constitution allows a traditional way of conflict resolution, where or whenever the constitution is unable to provide a solution. Interestingly, the army says that they have not abolished the constitution but suspended it.

But, the Assembly for the Defense of Democracy, a group of academics aligned with the Red Shirts movement in a statement published by the Thai social media website Prachatai argues that such reform cannot possibly be achieved simply by listening to just one group of people who have taken to the streets.

“A reform must begin by responding to the needs of diverse groups of people and advance on the basis of an inclusive and equal partnership, without which a reform will merely serve as an excuse for the elites to grab power and hold on to their own vested interests.”

While the military seem to have consolidated their power in the country with the arrest of both members of the Pheu Thai Party government, red shirt leaders and PDRC protest leaders, the coming days will be interesting to watch how the scenario of an unelected “Peoples Council” to reform the Thai political system is unveiled. Would the Thais provide a better model of democracy or go back to the old ways of rule by military juntas?

If they succeed in reforming democracy to get rid of money-politics this could provide a benchmark for most democracies around the world, including in the West.

*Kalinga Seneviratne is IDN Special Correspondent for Asia-Pacific. He teaches international communications in Singapore. [IDN-InDepthNews – May 25, 2014]

The writer’s previous IDN articles:

Top left picture: United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, Red Shirts, protest on Ratchaprasong intersection in 2010 | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

2014 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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