The Nation‘s interview with coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin gives the junta supremo a chance to air his thoughts on democracy. The General says:
The armed forces’ aim is to reform politics and introduce sustainable solutions. The administrative system should be rectified in line with true democratic rule. We want to place emphasis on having the King as Head of State.
People across the country, including those in rural areas, have thanked the armed forces for staging the coup. Many even told us we were late in intervening.
I understand the coup may have tainted the country’s image internationally. But I believe a little interruption is acceptable in order to enable everyone to move forward once again.
I can say that none of the military leaders want to run the government or get involved in politics. We want to return power to the people as quickly as possible. The transition of power will take place when the people are ready for it. The people should understand what happened and strive to prevent a repeat by introducing charter amendments and adjusting the administrative system.
He continues with the sermon (my emphasis added):
I suspect many Thais still lack a proper understanding of democracy. The people have to understand their rights and their duties. Some have yet to learn about discipline. I think it is important to educate the people about true democratic rule. It is a challenge to enable all 60 million Thais to gain an in-depth understanding of democracy and all its rights, duties and rules. Democracy will thrive once the people learn its true meaning.
Before the whiff of Sonthi’s “democratic reform” filled the air, there was a night, 21 August 2006, when Thai television ran continuous reports on fisticuffs between opponents and supporters of then Caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra . For footage of the commotion, and the scuffles of that day, check out this 8 minute video. At the time, I posted my brief reaction to events on New Mandala and concluded by writing:
As the commentary in tonight’s TV coverage made clear, this has now become a fight over the “meaning” of that democracy. Everybody seems to have an opinion on its limits and its potential. I have yet to hear anybody define “democracy” as fisticuffs in a downtown shopping mall. Let’s all hope that today’s violence does not lead to further escalation.
In response to the fisticuffs of 21 August, General Sonthi also made a comment. He said:
There is a self-limitation in the democratic system. What should do or not depends on the consciousness. I don’t want to see the clashes between Thai people. I prefer seeing them love and unite with each other”
Any conversation about the “meaning” of democracy in Thailand has now, of course, become riddled by new definitions of governance and administration. Sonthi’s stated “self-limitation in the democratic system” has now been drawn out for public scrutiny. The footage of 21 August 2006 – with the cries of “Thaksin get out”, followed later by “we’re taking him to hospital” and “could everybody please go home” – now feels like it comes from a whole other time.
The conversation about democracy – now free of democratic debate and the campaign skirmishes of earlier in the year – has moved on. In the new order, General Sonthi’s contribution to our understanding of the “true meaning” of democracy has to be read closely. Its contradictions and simplifications are manifold, of course. The “self-limitation in the democratic system” that the General spoke of back in August got traction in September. In October there are no elections, just a lecture from the junta supremo.
New Mandala waits, with some anticipation, for the next chapter in the story that supposedly brings everybody closer to “a proper understanding of democracy”.