Critiquing Thaksin, IV: The Question of Democracy (1)

In our post on possible “mitigating factors” associated with the human rights charges against Thaksin’s regime, we posed what might be called the realist question: Sure, Thaksin and his regime had some serious warts. But given the weak democratic culture of Thai politics, and given the behavior of the military junta since seizing power last September, don’t we have to ask the question of whether the plausible alternatives to Thaksin as leader in Thailand were/are even worse?

We will return to that question before long. The principal agenda in the next couple of posts, however, is to provide a quick overview of the fourth set of critiques of Thaksin and his regime. This line of critique argues that Thaksin had a negative effect on the development of democracy in Thailand, and used his popular mandate to move the nation in a worryingly illiberal direction.

It’s a widely held view among academics who study Thai politics; see (again) Pasuk and Baker’s Thaksin: The Business of Politics in Thailand and McCargo and Pathmanand’s Thaksinization of Thailand.

But it’s also a somewhat counter-intuitive view, if one considers six major facts pointing towards an opposite conclusion.

First, Thailand is not a well-established liberal democracy with a long history of peaceful transitions of government. Moreover, there are prominent, influential illiberal aspects of Thai society, starting with the existence and continued political influence of the royalty (that’s His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulayadej), as well as the widespread reverence towards the king’s person. This very week, a controversy has emerged over the question of whether a Thai academic at Silpakorn University violated the lese majeste laws in Thailand forbidding insults, defamation, or threats against the king, by posing this reasonable sounding question on a final exam:

“Do you think the monarchy is necessary for Thai society? How should it adapt to a democratic system? Please debate.”

The royal influence in Thailand is significant not just because of such restrictions on open speech, but because of the royalty’s continued political influence. The king has strong connections with military leaders and other influential persons who make up what Duncan McCargo calls a “network monarchy.” Moreover, the king has consistently promoted a view of the world, rooted in his interpretation of Buddhism and his belief in a hierarchical society, that is profoundly skeptical of Western-style democracy and market economies. The signature idea of this philosophy is that of a “sufficiency economy,” one oriented towards meeting local needs rather than economic expansion, an idea that some have heralded as representing a genuine alternative to capitalism and its problems.

Thaksin Shinawatra was not one of those so convinced. Set against this backdrop, Thaksin stood for modernization, integrating rural areas into the market economy, and making Thailand more competitive internationally. Moreover, he built his own network of power, one sufficiently strong to challenge the network monarchy’s predominance in Thai life. In short, Thaksin can be seen as the modernizer who represented an alternative to the paternalistic conservatism associated with the Thai monarchy.

Second, Thaksin represented the interests of the rural majority, developing a program to direct resources to the rural poor after conducting focus groups with rural residents prior to the 2001 campaign. Whereas the king offered paternalism, Thaksin offered real resources (or so the argument would go).

Third, there is the fact that Thaksin won elections with large majorities in 2001 and 2005.

Fourth, there is the fact that Thaksin’s political opponents used numerous unethical tactics to try to unseat the Prime Minister from power during 2006, including media reports in the summer of 2006 that Thaksin was party to a conspiracy to overthrow the king, reports that appears to have been a complete concoction. (Thaksin did however issue a public statement that summer blaming “charismatic” persons for trying to topple his regime, a statement interpreted by many as an implicit criticism of the king.)

Fifth, there is the fact that Thaksin was indeed replaced by a military coup on 19 September 2006.

Sixth, there is the fact that Thaksin has remained one of the most popular figures in Thailand even after his removal from office.

Given these considerations, how can the critics claim Thaksin was bad for democracy? Wouldn’t respect for Thaksin entail having him remain in power, until removed through the electoral process?

We can begin to answer the question by distinguishing two different aspects of “democracy.” The first involves equal representation of everyone’s interests, principally achieved via elections, and the principle of majority rule. The second consists of respect for procedural rules ensuring a fair, open, and vigorous public debate open to all opinions and interests, as well as respect for individual rights and the rights of minorities and dissenters.

If one considers the first dimension of democracy alone, then Thaksin would seem to be on very solid ground as a popular figure who enjoyed majority support, and actually took actions benefiting the interests of that majority. But the real force of the critique of Thaksin concerns the second dimension of democracy noted above.

We’ll get to the substance of those criticisms in the next post.

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2 Comments on “Critiquing Thaksin, IV: The Question of Democracy (1)”

  1. david Says:

    Just discovered this site via links.
    Thank you for giving a voice to all the Blues who are quite sensibly reserving judgement on the new regime.
    Keep up the good work.

  2. Vichai N Says:

    I hope this thread will not be a repeat of Andrew Walker’s (of New Mandala), BangkokPundit’s and Fonzi’s(ThailandJumpedtheShark) the majority is all that counts in a democracy and for so long as Thaksin Shinawatra gets repeatedly voted in by a majority vote, all past criminal allegations (including extrajudicials, tax evasion, and conflicted criminal corrupt conducts during his tenure) are forgiven and need NOT be explained, much less judicially prosecuted.


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