Critiquing Thaksin, IV: Thaksin and Democracy (2)

In our last major post we distinguished between two aspects of democracy: that concerned with representation and majority rule, and that concerned with procedural rules and norms intended to maintain a climate of open debate and free discussion. These include free speech, an open and diverse media, respect for dissidents, and protection for those who criticize the powerful.  A central purpose of these norms is precisely to hold leaders accountable, and prevent democratic societies from morphing into elected dictatorships, in which he who has won the last election maintains all power.

Critics of Thaksin have focused precisely on Thaksin’s role in undermining democratic norms. A bit of context here: the 1997 “People’s Constitution” was widely praised for its promotion of civil society and democratic norms, and for its efforts to weaken the culture of “money politics,” in which politics become dominated by businessmen and their proxies, each seeking to obtain advantages for their private concerns.

Running up to the 2001 elections, Thaksin had the support of many civil society leaders and intellectuals who thought the new constitution represented a historic opportunity to establish a lasting basis for liberal democracy in Thailand.  Within a few years, many of these same allies of 2001 had joined Thaksin’s harshest critics, and portrayed him as a major threat to democracy and the rule of law.

How did that happen?

Before mentioning one or two specifics, it might be helpful to comment on Thaksin’s style of leadership, as seen by his academic critics. Thaksin, they charge, repeatedly sent the message that criticism was unwelcome, if not unpatriotic, and moved aggressively to silence critics, while rejecting all criticism himself.

 Pasuk and Baker (Thaksin: The Business of Politics in Thailand) thus mount the following charges against Thaksin: that he suppressed rural protests; attacked NGOs critical of the government as illegitimate; instructed the army to begin monitoring domestic political activity; bought the country’s only independent television station and sacked numerous journalists; pressured print publications (leading to the resignation of the Bangkok Post’s editor in 2004 shortly after an editorial ran terming Thaksin “arrogant); canceled The Nation newspaper’s public affairs programs on state television; and personally attacked prominent public intellectuals critical of his regime. Thus Thaksin in a 2003 speech:

“Some academics, for example, cannot teach and cannot make students analyse. Some researchers cannot research, but want to draft the constitution. These people will have to go and do not worry about them. We need to move our country ahead.”

 In contrast, Thaksin presented his own judgment as infallible:

 “As long as I am prime minister, the interests of the nation are paramount. The people have no need to worry. Sometimes I get attacked. This happens because either: one, they just have to attack me; two, they don’t know what is going on; or three, they have good intentions towards the country but lack full information.”

 Famously, Thaksin also blasted statements of concern by the National Human Rights Commission concerning the mounting toll in the war on drugs in March 2003. Thus Pasuk and Baker: “After Padit Chaereonthaithawee, a human rights commissioner, disclosed that he had talked about the drug war with UN officials overseas, Thaksin lamabasted him as a ‘whistle-blower’ and called his action ‘ugly…sickening.’  The TRT Party announced it was planning to have him impeached, and Pradit’s family was subject to abusive phone calls.”

 All this is important, but there’s still more. Duncan McCargo and Ukrist Pathmanand (The Thaksinization of Thailand)  have documented the extensive reach of Thaksin’s network of power into every sector of Thai society, especially the military and major Thai corporations, during his time as premier.

 They argue that Thaksin is “not an ideas man. He is a brilliantly successful opportunist, who is gradually taking control of the state and economy of Thailand. His core project is the replacement of the old power group—a network based around the palace, Prem, elements of the Democrat Party, members of prominent establishment families and senior bureaucrats—with his own network of intimates and associates. This enterprise involves defusing political reform and neutralizing the competing players and institutions embodd in the 1997 constitution. In doing so, he has rescripted that constitution, ironically without changing a single word of it: the people’s constitution has become the leader’s constitution. The liberal project of the 1990s lies in tatters, replaced by the most authoritarian government Thailand has seen in 30 years.”

 (Writing in 2004, the authors presciently add that while Thaksin is “already the most powerful Thai prime minister for decades…there are numerous realities around him that Thaksin and those around him cannot control. Sooner or later those realities may begin once again to reshape Thailand’s profoundly malleable political order.”)

In short, there is exceptionally strong evidence that Thaksin used his electoral majority not to lay the basis for a stable liberal democracy, but to extend the power and influence of his own networks, not to promote accountability and a free society but rather a myth of an infallible leader whom the people could always trust.  Thaksin’s long-term aim appeared to be single-party political rule combined with the economic predominance of his business groups and effective control of the media, all held together by personal charisma.

From the standpoint of liberal democracy, it’s a disturbing vision. Indeed, the contempt for Thaksin exhibited by some public intellectuals reflected the scorn of a cheated lover: having put their faith in Thaksin to capitalize on the democratic elements of the 1997 constitution, they watched the leader set aside the spirit of the constitution and rule as a sophisticated strongman.

In the end, Thaksin overreached: the profit from the sale of the Shin Corporation in early 2006 set in motion a political crisis that did not end until the coup of September 2006.

 And yet, as problematic as Thaksin may have been for long term prospects of liberal democracy in Thailand, the coup d’etat was worse. Duncan McCargo of the University of Leeds pulls no punches in his various critiques of Thaksin; yet shortly after the coup, he told the Chronicle of Higher Education

 At the moment, there’s this rather unreal sense of relief…

But I think those feelings are a mistake. The analogy for me is, you have this absolutely excruciating toothache, and you’re nowhere near a dentist, and you just find some guy by the side of the road who offers to pull the tooth out with a pair of pliers. So the pain is gone. But a few days later, it occurs to you that there’s a huge hole in your mouth. And you realize that if you’d actually been able to get to a dentist, you could have done some surgery on that. You wouldn’t be left with this irreparable damage.

And that’s what happened after the last coup, in ‘91. People thought it was great, for a while. People were talking about how handsome the coup leaders were and how great they looked in their uniforms on TV, and that kind of thing. But after a few months, they realized they had no involvement in the running of the country and the society.

That’s where Thailand remains at the moment. How do you evaluate a leader operating in a context of weak democratic norms, when that leader has problematic authoritarian tendencies, and yet the immediate alternative is substantially worse?

It’s a difficult question, but one we’ll take a stab at in the next post.


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2 Comments on “Critiquing Thaksin, IV: Thaksin and Democracy (2)”

  1. W. Chairat Says:

    As a formal Thai citizen, I personally think that the killing in the south was orchestrated by the military junta. There was an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate him by the same milatary group who is running the country right now.

    Thaksin, with his micro-management style, had created a lot of enemies during his time as the prime minister. Many were not happy with his interferences to the senate and election commissioners. The tax-free sell of Shin Corp. was used as the accuse by those enemies to dethrone him from the power. Nobody seems to care for the fact that individual sells of stocks in Thailand exempt from capital gains tax. However, as for the corruption charges, so far there are no hard evidents to support the allegations from the junta-appointed investigators.

  2. jeru Says:

    Thaksin’s micro-management style is legendary. And that also points to Thaksin’s guilt in all the extrajudicial killings, Shinawatra family tax evasion, conflict of interest AmpleRich-Shin-Temasaek $1.8 billion sale, Suvarnabhumi airport corruption scandals, Rajadipisek Baht 780 million conflicted land sale, and many more TRT shehanigans.

    The election fraud that led to the dissolution of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party must have been masterminded by Thaksin Shinawatra himself. After all, Thaksin Shinawatra prides himself the consumate Micro-Manager.

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