Gwynne Dyer: The war on democracy in Thailand

It has gone quiet in Bangkok, as the people who have been trying to overthrow the government tidy up the debris that litters the city after the last two weeks of demonstrations. It’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 86th birthday this week, and nobody wants to disrupt it with unseemly scenes of conflict.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is taking an equally low-key approach. The Thai army has removed the barbed wire that surrounded government offices, and protesters are wandering through the prime minister’s offices and picnicking on the lawns while she runs the affairs of state from some other location in the capital. But by next week the Civil Movement for Democracy will be back in action, and the final outcome is not clear.

The main thing that distinguishes the Civil Movement for Democracy is its profound dislike for democracy. In the mass demonstrations that have shaken Thailand since November 24, its supporters have been trying to remove a prime minister who was elected only two years ago—and their goal is not another election.

“We don't want new elections because we will lose anyway,” one protester told Reuters. “We want (the prime minister’s family) to leave the country.” If they succeeded in driving Yingluck from power, they would skip the whole business of elections and hand the country over to an appointed “People’s Council” made up of “good men”.  

These good men would naturally agree with protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban that the majority of the Thai people are too ignorant and flighty to be trusted with the vote. “From a Western point of view, “democracy” is an elected government serving as the people’s representative,” he told the Guardian. “Unfortunately, elections in Thailand do not represent people’s (real) choices because their votes are bought.”

They are “bought” not by bribes but by government spending on free health care and anti-poverty programmes. In most democracies this is seen as part of the normal political process, but Suthep and his supporters, who include a high proportion of the country’s professional and middle classes, especially in the capital, regard it as illegitimate.

The current government has destroyed “the virtues and ethics of the people,” Suthep says, but with time and hard work the unelected People’s Council could make them moral again and “put the country on the path to perfect democracy.” We can even imagine that the poor might eventually become enlightened enough to be trusted with the vote again.

There is a conflict between the interests of the rich and the poor in most countries. In democracies it normally plays out in the electoral competition of right- and left-wing parties, and some compromise (always temporary and contentious) is arrived at via the ballot box. But in Thailand, the rich take to the streets.

They do so because they always lose the elections. In five elections since 2001, the winner every time has been Thaksin Shinawatra or somebody chosen by him. Thaksin is a man of humble origins who built the country’s largest mobile phone provider and then went into politics. He proved to be unbeatable.

His record in power has not been above reproach. He was careless of human rights, particularly in his war on drug dealers (he used death squads), and his family fortune benefited to some degree from his influence on government policy. But he wasn’t really in it for the money— he was already mega-rich before he went into politics— and he knew exactly what the poor needed. To the horror of relatively wealthy Bangkok and the south, he gave it to them.

He set up programs like village-managed micro-credit development funds and low-interest agricultural loans. He created a universal healthcare system and provided low-cost access to anti-HIV medications. Yet between 2001 and the coup that overthrew him in 2006, the GDP grew by 30 percent, public sector debt fell from 57 percent of GDP to 41 percent, and foreign exchange reserves doubled . He even managed to balance the budget.

Income in the north-east, the poorest part of the country, rose by 41 percent. Poverty nationwide dropped from 21 percent to 11 percent, and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS declined. Thaksin even allowed the 2.3 million migrant workers in the country to register and qualify for health cover.

From the point of view of the opposition Democratic Party, all this was just “buying the people’s votes.” When Thaksin won the 2005 election with an increased majority, it conspired with the military to overthrow him. He was then tried on corruption charges, but fled the country before the inevitable verdict and has since lived in exile, mostly in Dubai. But his party, reformed and renamed, goes on winning every time there is an election.

That’s why his 46-year-old sister is now the prime minister. She probably does do what he says most of the time, but there’s no crime in that: the voters who put her there were really voting for Thaksin. And if the current insurrection in Bangkok overthrows her, they will vote for whoever else represents Thaksin next time there is an election. The right in Thailand should really grow up and get over it.

Comments (11) Add New Comment
" They are “bought” not by bribes but by government spending on free health care and anti-poverty programmes."

Your article and point are fatally flawed by your incorrect assertion above. Thaksinite votes are openly bought for money. 500 baht is the going rate and everyone in the country knows it. Some people in the last election complained openly that they only got 400.
When votes are a commodity they basically have no meaning. Yinluck's electoral victory was a farce; it was bought and paid for by her fugitive brother.
The protesters do not see her as having been a democratically elected leader to begin with. Legitimacy isn't something you can buy in a real democracy.
Rating: -58
Mickey Z
This article is right correctly to the point, correctly to the heart of the elite Bangkok who always think that they are better than the rural people.

You are the man.
Rating: +13
a Thai
Carlos, do some research instead of repeating the same old tired line of argument that's outlived its expiry date. Start with this article.
Rating: +6
Hey, Carlos: All political parties in Thai elections distribute money. Every study clearly shows that the Thaksin party has won the last 4 or 5 elections by sizable margins not because of small cah payments but because there are millions of Thai citizens (esp. the ones with darker skintone unlike the Bangkok mid-level to rich white skintoned Thai-Chinese)who support the Thaksin party and the present government. Thai rightwing royalists not only hate all things democratic, they despise democracy itself. They want all the power and to rule over "subjects" not "citizens". But they are vastly out-numbered which is why they constantly lose national elections.
Rating: +18
Andrew Spooner
The "they buy votes" line is basically the standard cop-out by Democrat Party-supporters who have failed to answer the questions that Thailand's electorate asks them.

This then leads to the Democrats becoming completely unelectable, unaccountable and then, finally, a ranting, heaving mob on the streets demanding an end to democracy because, irrationally, they believe the other side are better at buying votes than they are.

This "vote buying" line should become the Godwin's law of Thai political debate. As soon as you accuse people of engaging in it you lose the argument.
Rating: +10
I Chandler
"He even managed to balance the budget...He created a universal healthcare system - From the point of view of the opposition Democratic Party, all this was just “buying the people’s votes.”

Reminds one of Romney's comments last year about "47 Percent" who believe they are "entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it..."

"He proved to be unbeatable."

When the Kennedy brothers looked unbeatable, Bush,Hoover and company conspired to overthrow them:

The leaders of the DRE, received $51,000 a month from the CIA, according to a memo found in the JFK Library in Boston:

"The main thing that distinguishes the opposition is its profound dislike for democracy ".

That organization, with a nice sounding name - National Endowment for Democracy also has a profound dislike for democracy ".
Rating: +5

I've read the comments and advise regarding my post with some amusement. Actually the anti democracy/class struggle drone should be the Goodwin's Law of Thai politics.
Yingluck's government has tried to rule by a dictatorial majority based on an election that wouldn't hold up as legitimate in the west. The corruption, nepotism, white and overt lies and incompetence of this administration are the issues the people in the street are protesting. Saying that the Democrats are or were the same is irrelevant and deserves another vote for Goodwin's Law.
I might have added that I've lived in Thailand for the last 25 years, in the North among those of "darker skin tones" that Mr. Somchai claims are the oppressed. Most would be surprised to learn that they are involved in a class struggle, but do look foreword to elections and that payoff.
Rating: -7
CarloS, here is some food for thought. Exit polls are very accurate. With the latest election, polls had Yingluck winning between 309 and 311 seats. She ends up winning 265. Someones were stuffing ballot boxes big time. The Dems need a platform other than get rid of Thaksin...
Rating: +3
Nong Moo
I think the article simplifies the conflict greatly. While the vote buying charge is used perhaps too often, there is truth to it. Also describing the yellow shirts as the right and the red shirts as the left, doesn't really work. Thailand's politics are unique to its culture and religion. You can't really port in western analogs neatly. Finally, while the yellow shirts include the wealthy for sure, the vast majority, while better off than the rural poor, would not be characterized as rich by most people in the west. This is largely a conflict between the countryside and the urban capital. We've seen such a conflict before in south east asia and reporters from the west should tred carefully. Let the Thai's sort this out, we don't need to add fuel to the flame or, worse, encourage western military intervention.
Rating: -2
I really wish this writer would do his research."They are “bought” not by bribes but by government spending on free health care and anti-poverty programmes." -Versus- A lawyer I met there gave me a succinct synopsis of the process: “It’s what happens when gangsters become politicians.”
Rating: -5
Carlos, this article (from two anti-Thaksin academics in the Bangkok Post no less!) explains why your vote-buying claims are unfounded:

In fact, the election was judged free and fair by neutral observers.
Rating: +2
Add new comment
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.