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Editorial

What Bangkok teaches

/ 09:42 PM January 18, 2014

The similarities are uncanny, and the lessons equally sad.

A Southeast Asian country with a popular leader whose corruption-tainted rule was ended by widespread protests from the urban and middle classes, eventually backstopped by the military. The Philippines ousting President Joseph Estrada in Edsa 2? Not quite. It’s Bangkok ousting Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a 2006 coup—initially hailed as a prodemocratic move, except that today, his younger sister sits as duly-elected prime minister. Now besieged by mounting protests, Yingluck Shinawatra has called for a snap election, which the so-called democratic opposition has vowed to boycott. How can Thailand’s version of “people power” have such distrust of the people themselves?

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The central figure in the debate is Thaksin. Elected prime minister in 2001 and faced with street rallies triggered by charges of corruption, he would dissolve parliament, submit to a new election—and win. He was eventually ousted in 2006 by the democrats with a little help from the courts (which set aside his electoral victory by invoking election rules) and the military (which staged a bloodless coup).

Thailand went about drafting a new constitution in 2007 and, in the first election after the coup, chose a Thaksin ally as prime minister. But with fresh protests by the same Thaksin critics, the courts once again obliged and unseated the new PM on a strict finding of conflict of interest. Eventually, the democrats succeeded in getting one of their own, Abhisit Vejjajiva, who today faces criminal charges for the death of a cab driver during the 2010 crackdown on violent protest actions by Thaksin’s followers.

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The latest tension has been simmering since last year. Thaksin’s followers in parliament had earlier proposed to make their Senate fully elective, a democratic reform purportedly to rectify the postcoup constitution that made half the Senate appointive. In November 2013, the Thai Constitutional Court rejected this proposal and, early this year, Thailand’s anticorruption agency followed suit and ruled that the legislators had acted illegally in proposing the amendment.

The Thaksin faction also proposed an amnesty bill covering political offenders since the 2006 coup (excluding the leaders, it emphasized), but the democrats rejected it. Their threat to “shut down” Bangkok by paralyzing key offices in the city has forced Yingluck to dissolve the lower house of parliament and call for a fresh election on Feb. 2. But the anti-Thaksin forces have, in addition to their boycott, called for an unelected “people’s council” to oversee reforms.

Thus the first irony: of democrats who disdain parliamentary elections and prefer unelected councils and half-elected senates. But perhaps the Thais are not alone. How many Filipinos today will see their elected congressmen and senators as the embodiment of the popular will that was intended by the Constitution? How many will see them today as opportunistic, thieving “trapo” (an expression of contempt for traditional politicians)?

To the credit of Bangkok’s democrats, they explode the mystique of elections as the best guarantor of the public good. Their discredit: They propose to disregard electoral democracy rather than strengthen and perfect it.

And now the second irony: that instead of pushing democratic goals forward through elections, Bangkok’s democrats have pursued these through the unelected courts. A BBC report has noted: “In few other countries have a handful of judges played such a decisive role in reshaping politics as those sitting in Thailand’s Constitutional Court.” The BBC should have qualified it: “In few other countries apart from the Philippines….”

In both Bangkok and Manila, unelected judges play to the gallery, courting public approval with populist verdicts couched in legalese. Not only do they abdicate their duty of “decision according to law,” but by acting as if they were the channel of the people’s voice, they also pick and choose whose voice they want to channel at a given moment. The trouble is, judges react to whatever voice is louder or closer to their ears, or which speaks in the language they understand best. This court-based democracy is prone to manipulation by the most articulate elites or, worse, the best-organized conspiracies.

Thais—and Filipinos—will be better off making their democracy work, and resisting the temptation to take shortcuts through military coups and, yes, people power.

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TAGS: bangkok, editorial, opinion, Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, Unrest, Yingluck Shinawatra
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