This article is republished with the permission of The Straits Times, which printed the original on 3 December 2013
Seldom before in Thailand’s decades-long “democratic development” has so much been won–and then lost–so resolutely and in so short a time. In the course of a single month, Thailand’s people took the country as close to a truly democratic moment as it has seen in over 20 years, only to see its leaders squander it indefinitely.
It began almost unnoticed on the eve of 1 November, when small numbers of peaceful protesters came out against a government-sponsored amnesty bill. Designed to ensure that no one–particularly officials and security forces–would be held accountable for Thailand’s 2006 coup d’etat, over 90 protest-related deaths in 2010, and other political offenses since 2004–the tragically flawed bill begged the response it received.
That opposition MP Suthep Thaungsuban resigned to lead the demonstrations, made them more politicized but no less legitimate. And while the protests remained small by post-2008 standards, diverse and disparate “Yellow” (conservative, pro-monarchy) groups reunited and were joined by erstwhile ‘inactive’ business leaders, medical professionals, and civil servants.
Even more notable were the voices of Thailand’s “Red” (progressive, pro-elections) groups, many of whose members paid with their lives, livelihoods, or liberty during the 2010 street violence, and who voted en masse for the ruling Pheu Thai party the following year.
Ironically, what brought all of these Thais together as much as the amnesty bill itself, was the man who stood to gain more than any other from its passage: former and still de facto Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Brother of the current premier and living in self-imposed exile since being convicted of corruption in 2009, he could return to Thailand a free man and recover some 46 billion Baht ($1.4 billion) in confiscated wealth. The Yellows, responsible for the coup that ousted him, hate him; the Reds, responsible for putting his nominee in power, felt betrayed.
Exactly a week later, in the briefest of triumphs not only for the unlikely bedfellows on streets but for democracy itself, the Prime Minister withdrew the bill. And in that single, simple decision, an elected premier did what had never been done in modern Thai history: without overt prompting by the monarchy or military, she recognized the democratic legitimacy of peaceful political dissent, bowed to the will of the dissidents, and implicitly acknowledged that blanket impunity for violence and anti-democratic behavior is not acceptable. The moment was as unprecedented as it was understated.
But it was only a moment. Three weeks and three decisions later, Thailand’s democratic development is firmly in retreat.
First, back-footed, the ruling Pheu Thai party announced that it would not accept an upcoming ruling of Thailand’s Constitutional Court in relation to its attempt to amend the Constitution. Despite the opposition’s recent success in favorably politicizing a Court that actually saved Thaksin’s premiership in 2001, a majority of the country’s legislators is not justified in such a blatant and preemptive dismissal of its highest judicial entity.
Second, though right in deciding that Pheu Thai had ignored or violated procedural requirements in amending the Constitution, the Court delivered on the party’s prediction. On the amendment itself, that Thailand’s Senate be wholly elected and not half-appointed, the ruling was not only inconsistent with democratic principles but actually ran counter to them. It argued that a fully elected Senate would lead to a monopolizing of legislative power by elected officials, where maintaining a half-appointed body would act as desirable “check” against the fully-elected House. In other words, a legislature in which all members represent voters would simply be too democratic.
Third and finally, Suthep shifted the protests’ goal posts by replacing the amnesty bill’s withdrawal with the “end of the Thaksin regime”. Increasing the size, duration, and intensity of the protests to reportedly the largest in Thai history, he called for the “overthrow” of a democratically elected government in favor of one in which Thailand’s monarchy would play a prominent if ill-defined role. And with no apparent sense of irony, Suthep did so under the banner of a newly-formed Civil Movement for Democracy (CMD).
Like its discredited predecessor, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), and the Reds’ equivalent, the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), the CMD is democratic in neither composition nor intent. Its leaders are largely self-appointed and seek power for its spoils and impunity, rather than a people’s mandate.
Which would bring us back to the amnesty bill.
It is difficult to predict how this latest round of political turmoil in Thailand will end, but baring significant bloodshed or the nation’s 19th successful coup–both imminently possible–the damage to democracy is done. There is almost no conceivable outcome in which it emerges even as strong as it was when the month began.
Only four of 314 majority MPs did not vote in favor of the amnesty bill. Though true that leaders need followers, and that both Yellow and Red have them in droves, Thailand was at its most democratic in November when the followers led themselves. For that to one day happen again, Thais must accept that their differences lie far less with one another than within their own color-coded ranks.
Benjamin Zawacki (@benjaminzawacki) is the Senior Legal Advisor for Southeast Asia at the International Commission of Jurists and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed are his own.