Sunday, January 13, 2008

Asia Sentinel: Thailand’s Coup by Stealth or Something Else

Michael Connors opines(excerpt):

Although the struggle between strategically relevant opposing forces in Thailand is presented through the idiom of democracy, the opposing forces who stand by the coupsters are actually an inter-sectoral mix of business, bureaucracy, police, military and royalists who care little for genuine democracy.

Agree. Democracy, in Greek, literally means "power of the common people." And I would say that the word "power" in Greek has the same meaning,or context, as the word, "Palang" in Thai.

Democracy is actually a misnomer. To be specific, when people talk about democracy in a modern context, they mean "liberal democracy." Well, the Thai elite don't want liberal democracy either, because legitimacy still comes from the the common people. In Thailand, the elite believe their status doesn't come from popular legitimacy, but either from position in the bureaucracy, social status, title, and their relationship to the palace.

If you want to read an interesting article about liberal and illiberal democracy, I recommend this essay by Fareed Zakaria.

As these inter-sectoral forces fight for state control they do so in a partial “state of exception” whereby, for the most part, force determines outcomes rather than law, persuasion or a democratic mandate. This is actually the same situation that held in the later Thaksin years, although the balance of forces has reversed.

I don't get this. Unlike the police, military, bureaucracy and the palace, Thaksin, whether you like him not, came to power on the "basis of law, persuasion and democratic mandate." If one wants to make an argument that Thaksin didn't sustain his power in this way, fair enough.

The acute state of Thai politics at this present time has little to do with democracy. An elite struggle that goes back at least a decade is manifest: a new brand of capitalism that seeks to break from the quasi-feudalistic hold of monarchy is in motion, but it is a force that dares not declare its name.


Enlightened Thaksin forces want a bourgeois revolution against the current way the monarchy and networks surrounding it work, but they dare not declare their mission.


These forces – a mix of the old left, old right, capitalists and technocrats - mobilise forces under a banner of right wing populism, including Buddhist chauvinism, but they have yet to elaborate any genuinely ideological position to challenge the force that thwarts their emergence. They are also hostile to liberal forms of democracy.

I don't know if I agree with this entirely. I don't think it is so clear cut. I think there are pro-Thaksin forces that want to challenge the old powers, and yes, some are not liberals. Clearly, Samak and Chalerm are not liberal democrats. And there are some who just want to replace a new regime, which resembles the old regime in its feudal like composition, with new faces.

The big difference, however, is that new folks actually derive their legitimacy, astonishingly enough, from the ballot box.

The ancient regime and it allies don't think they to have a popular mandate to rule at all. And they believe that they have the right to overturn the constitutional order anytime anybody challenges their wealth and power.

So where is the ‘left’ in all of this? Some serve the stealth bourgeois revolution of the pro-Thaksin forces. They are beholden to a version of objective history that pits “progressive capitalism” against quasi-feudalistic monarchy and aristocracy. They have been unrelenting in their claim of Thaksin’s democratic mandate, willing to ignore that democracy means so much more than a mark on a ballot paper. Such belief in the march of objective history has led to many historical calamities and it is not hard to see Thaksin as one of them. The killings of Tak Bai and the War on Drugs surely count as modern equivalents of the descent into governmental barbarism.

I agree with this, but I think supporting democratic legitimacy and supporting extra-judicial killings are two separate issues.

Others on the left and a range of political liberals have sought to use the monarchy as a buffer against the political authoritarianism represented by Thaksin. In doing so, they have found comfort in myths about the monarchy, tradition and elite democratization. They have supported the use of extra-constitutional power to overthrow the Thaksin regime. Beholden to a subjectivist view of history (good versus evil), such forces are willing to turn a blind eye to the palace’s history, and its privileged economic position. They seek the return of ‘royal liberalism’, in which the monarchy stands as the supreme ombudsman, supporting the emergence of constitutional rule.

Can't argue with this.

At this moment in time it appears that the contending fractions of the Thai elite are about to enter the final round of a long struggle. It remains to be seen if they will step back from the brink and instead embrace compromise. One thing, however, is certain: as long as contending elites fail to agree to any rules of the game and instead wage open political warfare for complete victory, Thailand’s chance of returning to some form of liberal democracy are slim.


When you really think about it, Thailand's political problems come down to this: Many in the old and new elite don't think they have to adhere to the rule of law. And while they continue to steal from the state and flout the rules with their political games to sustain power, the people suffer, especially in the long term.

In a sense, Thailand is the antithesis of a Benthamist utilitarian democratic society: The elite are competing to see who can cause the greatest suffering to the greatest many.

1 comment:

Red and White said...

Interestingly my brainiac colleague and historian Jack states that the original meaning of democracy was "rule by the mob" which seems suitable for the mindset of Thailand's elite.

The article seems similar to one I did a while back, though this one is far more professional of course.