The latest round of political conflict in Thailand has lasted more than five months. The conflict erupted in October with the proposal of a controversial blanket amnesty bill. Several other issues were later included as protest causes. Members of the leading opposition party, the pro-establishment Democrats, including then Party Secretary-General Suthep Thaugsuban, resigned to lead the protest, using whistles and the Thai national flag as its symbols. Later named the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), they have been portrayed by the New York Times as a political movement which campaigns for “less democracy” because of their rejection of majoritarian rule and their plan to reform the country by establishing an appointed people’s council for 18 months to re-organize the rules of Thai politics. The PDRC also made a bold move in obstructing voters from casting their ballots in the 2 February 2014 general election. Their obstruction contributed to the Constitutional Court’s decision to nullify the electoral results. Acting Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of the de facto leader of the Pheu Thai Party ex-PM Thaksin Shinawatra, is now facing allegations of corruption and abuse of power. These allegations threaten her caretaker position.
Everything seems to be leading to a political vacuum. Violence has increased in frequency in the past couple of months with more than 20 people killed and more than 700 injured, according to the Erawan Emergency Centre. The pro-Thaksin red shirts have at the same time shown their strong support for the government by organizing rallies every other week.
Prachatai talked to Prajak Kongkirati
, a young promising political scientist from Thammasat University, on the anti-democratic movement and the prospects for a peaceful solution to this conflict.
What do you think of the PDRC movement? Are they pro or against democracy?
It is not that all civic movements are democratic, or for democracy. One of the problems in Thai society is that the term “civic movement” has been romanticized. However, there are lessons from other countries that civic movements do not always have to be democratic. Anti-democracy groups may utilize the space for civic movements to campaign against democracy or to limit democracy. So in case of the PDRC, we may say that they are against democracy.
Elected governments around the world are being questioned. As can be seen around the world, representative democracy seems not to satisfy the voters enough. There are allegations that elected governments are controlled by interest groups and the elite in many countries. In other words, the issue facing Thailand right now on the problems of elected government is a global issue.
However, we should resort to even more democratic means to tackle this issue. If the problem is that the current government is not democratic, we should make it more democratic.
While the PDRC is saying that this government is a tyranny of the majority that suppresses the minority, the PDRC is planning to formally establish a tyranny of the minority. This will become a bigger problem. Why don’t they use an even more legitimate way to fight the government? If they just destroy the elected government and give power to an elite group, this is not a useful change, but just another example of sewer politics.
The demands of the PDRC are not legitimate and the movement now is not adhering to democratic principles. For example, the demand for the current caretaker government give way to the establishment of an appointed people’s assembly is definitely illegitimate. When they attack Thaksin and the current government for not being legitimate, it is partly true. However, the origin of any government must be legitimate, namely by winning an election which people across the country have participated in.
A more substantial problem created by the PDRC is the 2 February 2014 general election which the protesters obstructed. This shows that the PDRC is destroying the democratic system by obstructing others trying to exercise their right to vote. This example makes clear how undemocratic the PDRC is.
Well, some PDRC proposals are legitimate and some should even be promoted, for example, the demand to have provincial governors elected. This proposal has been made by academics for so long. There are some details in the PDRC demands which are convincing and democratic. However the bigger goal of the fight is far from democratic.
How can the PDRC explicitly express that they are not pro-democracy? What do you make of this phenomenon?
This is quite a new and very interesting phenomenon. The PDRC is the first movement in Thai political history which comes to the point of anti-democracy. They are not only against a political party, but the democratic system and parliamentary politics as a whole. This is manifested in their rejection of elections as a means for politicians to take power. We have seen political movements which protested only against a certain government or certain policies or projects, but there were none which explicitly protested against the democratic system and said “I don’t want elections.” The Assembly of the Poor, for example, who have long been protesting against government policies, accepted representative politics, but complained that the representatives never respect the poor. When they were protesting, they urged the government to solve their problems, but they were not trying to overthrow the government, nor obstruct elections.
The People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which is spoken of as a predecessor and twin brother of the PDRC, did not in the end reject elections nor the whole democratic system. Some of the PAD co-leaders set up a political party, New Politics, to contest general elections. Also, during the general election of 2011, the PAD launched a No Vote campaign. That means they accepted elections, but not any political party. The PDRC, however, went further. They obstructed people from casting their votes, they obstructed officials from transporting ballot boxes to the South. The result was that the election in the restive Deep South could not be held. Even though the region has been plagued with violence for several years, the separatists have never caused difficulties during general elections.
Several independent state agencies have been moving forward to meet the PDRC’s demands. At which point will the PDRC be satisfied?
They will be satisfied when they can seize state power, establish sovereignty and have the power to re-organize Thai politics, in order to empower the minority more than today. This is their goal.
This kind of attempt has taken place at least three times after the 2006 coup. The attempt needs cooperation from the military, the judges, and the independent state agencies. The model is to dissolve political parties, ban politicians from politics and remove prime ministers. This model led to the Democrats being able to form a coalition government in 2008. Eventually, however, all attempts ended at the ballot box. At the end of the day, they had to face elections again. The question is, will this latest attempt end differently from past attempts?
The PDRC movement is very short-sighted. They don’t foresee that even though they can seize power, they can’t rule the country. You can't administer because you’re illegitimate. Moreover, you will have to face one of the strongest Thai political movements in Thai political history, namely the red shirts, which is composed of several million supporters. How can you govern them? Needless to say elections will one day come again like after the 2006 coup. Thai politics has to return to elections. At that time, during the elections in 2007, voters in the North East and the North cast their votes under martial law. But the Democrats still lost that election. You can see that the Democrats were given every advantage, but still lost the election. It is to be regretted that the establishment is not aware of this cycle, that at the end they cannot escape having elections. The situation is even worse when the Democrats have not reformed themselves, or improve themselves. The party will surely lose the election again and again and that Thaksin’s party will win again and again. Then will they organize a protest to overthrow Thaksin’s party again?
However, people who are behind the anti-government protests may have foreseen this. That means they will be more prepared than the 2006 coup makers. They may have reviewed their mistakes. “The coup makers were too soft,” is what the PAD said. If they have really concluded that the failure of the coup makers was being too soft, that means they will act differently from this time, namely, be more dictatorial and draft a new constitution which will be more dictatorial. This is very worrying.
They have to overcome the global trend toward majoritarian democracy. They want to redesign a new political order that will allow minority voters to take power. This has to do with lots of tricks and “magic”.
What are the factors that led the PDRC to this point?
This movement is composed of four main groups which contribute to the prolonged and powerful protest we see today.
The first group are the protesters. Most of them are ex-PAD supporters, who are the urban middle class, and voters from the Democrats’ stronghold in the South. They are minority vote in elections.
The second group are the protest leaders who are Democrat politicians, the Democrats who have always lost general elections. The demands of the first two groups meet. It is a combination of politicians who always lost and voters who always lost. The Democrats surely want to change the rules of the game, otherwise they will always be the losers. They therefore have the motivation to go for broke. If they win, they will be able to re-organize the Thai political order.
The third group is the violent wing, composed of the guards, and popcorn gunmen, for example.
The fourth group is the elite, or people who are behind Suthep. It is a huge network which is composed of the old establishment, technocrats, presidents of university councils, judges, independent state agencies, and a group of businessmen.
The 1997 Constitution led to a dramatic change in the Thai political order. It contributed to the rise of Thaksin and the rise of mass support for Thaksin. Majoritarian democracy reduced the power of the elite. The elite then wish to change the current political order in order to revive their power. What’s more, Thai politics is now at the most crucial transitional period since the forced change from absolute monarchy to democracy in 1932. The Democrat’s only concern is to win elections. For the protesters, their concerns vary from anti-corruption, anti-Thaksinism, anti-abuse of power. But for the elite, their bet is higher than that. They, especially during this fragile period, want to re-organize the Thai political order to guarantee their status and their interests no matter who comes to power.
Since this mission sounds very difficult to achieve, do you think violence will be involved?
Certainly yes. They have to seize sovereign power. The “Men of the State”, the council of old men, they know that the movement alone cannot change anything.
Where are they now in the mission? Are they close to the goal?
I think they have come half way. This mission is like pushing a rock up a mountain. It’s an attempt to change the political order by undemocratic means. This is impossible. To achieve this, they will have to violate so many rules and do so many unusual things. They are really resisting the natural order. They will have to also think how not to have other countries boycott them if they succeed. Also, how not to have the red shirts rise up against them.
People’s movements alone cannot overthrow a government, as can be seen from other countries. They must be someone to finish the game. In Thailand the military has been the one who finishes the game.
Assume that we believe the PDRC claim that this is the last round of war. Then the PDRC will have to do everything to complete its mission. I anticipate more violence which will lead to chaos or a situation out of control.
Violence is a way to pressure the military to stage a coup d’état. The situation needs to look as out of the control of the government as possible. Anyway, violence can be caused by several groups. There are so many ‘experts’ in violence in this country.
Why is the transitional period even more threatening to the establishment?
Because the political cosmology is changing. This is not only about a change of government, but a change in the structure of Thai politics, both within the electoral system and outside the political system. There are several more institutions in Thai politics. During the transitional period, the relationship between each institution is changing too.
To make it simpler, apart from the threats from the lower class, there are conflicts within the establishment. This has happened before during the reign of King Rama IV, and the transition from absolute monarchy during the reign of King Rama VII. The situation has been stable for so long, but it will be changing again soon.
There are some elite groups who have been unsuccessful in adjusting to majoritarian rule. The only way for them is to ‘bonsai’ democracy.
Thaksin, who is supported by the majority, is also gambling on the new political cosmology. Thaksin used to be a businessman. Although he came to power legitimately, he is ready to make a deal with the establishment. Yingluck is not so different from Thaksin. She is ready to compromise and trade off, rather than sticking to democratic principles.
Do we still have a way out of this crisis without violence?
The government would have to strictly enforce the law. Currently, the law is loosely enforced and the government has little control over the situation. The government knows that whenever there is a clash, it will be a reason for the army to stage a coup d’état.
The establishment who is pushing a rock up a mountain has wagered their entire stake. It’s hard for them to go back. Institutions and independent state agencies have used up all their credit on this movement. To wager their entire stake means they are in a decisive mode. They hope only for victory, and don’t have any way out.
The government should learn a lesson from other countries, such as Latin American countries, which have faced protests by violent anti-democracy right-wing groups. The government must separate the violent groups from the peaceful groups.
The volunteer guards, the popcorn gunmen are the violent groups which mean that this movement is not peaceful. The movement strategy is to divide up the work. They claimed that they are peaceful. “Do you see that the protesters are calm, cute and peaceful?” But at the same time they allow the popcorn gunmen to use violence against others. This is going to be a big task for the government since the popcorn group seemed to be well-trained.
One solution which has a dim prospect of success is negotiation. The government has to set up a negotiation table and bring the PDRC in. However, Suthep has never agreed to negotiate and never signalled that he wants to negotiate because he believes in the power of the establishment behind him.
Regarding the proposal to have a middle man, I’d like to ask if there is any ‘middle man’ left in this country. I don’t think there is. Anyone acceptable to only one side is not a middle man. That is instead going to lead to more conflict. Moreover, the middle man model is not in line with the constitution so it is not legitimate in the first place. So, the middle man model is not a solution, it instead adds more fuel to the conflict.