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Sunday August 31, 2008

Thai democracy a work in progress

The protest siege of Bangkok’s Government House may end today, but its long-term implications will remain.

EVERY country seems to have its own brand of democracy, since being democratic is supposed to be such a wonderful thing.

So after the communist former East Germany’s experiment with a “German Democratic Republic”, North Korea’s “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” and assorted efforts by various African, Asian and Latin American despots, Thailand now boasts a streetwise “participatory democracy” with all the attributes of growing instability.

Losing steam: Thai anti-government protestors shouting slogans as they hold a siege of the Government House in Bangkok yesterday. Over the past two years, protesters have increasingly lost wide public support as their rationale became less clear. — AFP

The idea is still very much under construction, of course, although the actions have been speaking louder than any words to describe them. The anti-government protests currently in season insist that Prime Minister Samak Sundavarej is merely a puppet of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, and so deserves to be toppled.

But just as surely as more sentiment than thinking has been unleashed against the Samak government, the fact that the government had been elected freely and without controversy seems to be forgotten. Equally out of mind is the crucial matter of who would take over if the government were to fall.

Protest leaders on their own, or collectively in the instigating group People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), are in no position to form a government because they lack a structure, a mandate, any experience and a genuine motivation to govern.

The Democratic Party, although the largest in opposition, is also unable to take power because it lacks the authority to step in as does the palace itself. Thus if Samak’s government falls, the Thai army will most probably take over, however much the generals may want to stay away.

And then the irony would be complete. A protest movement has grown so twisted as to come full circle and bite its own tail: while arguing for democracy, its actions belie their actual consequence of losing whatever democratic prospects there are.

It all seemed to start innocently enough two years ago when public dismay at premier Thaksin’s questionable deals saw daily protests rising to a crescendo. Thaksin left the country in September 2006 to attend a UN summit in New York, and the army moved in to take over.

Then army chief and coup leader Gen Sonthi Boonyaratkalin said this was a temporary measure, as fresh elections would be held within a year. The anti-Thaksin protesters felt vindicated, but apparently nobody told them not to make a habit of protests as an undemocratic means of changing the government.

One of the PAD leaders, businessman and Thaksin foe Sondhi Limthongkul, now says that he wants the protests to achieve a new participatory democracy for Thailand.

Apparently this takes the form of more people participating in bringing Bangkok’s public transport to a standstill and near-riots in several places.

Following Friday’s violent protests, the palace has become concerned with Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn directing the formation of medical teams to prepare for more casualties. Samak himself may be losing his newfound cool in reportedly seeking to declare an emergency that army chief Gen Anupong Paochinda has rejected.

Samak himself has said he was not in favour of advice from security chiefs favouring a state of emergency. Meanwhile, talk of dissolving Parliament as an option can only encourage the protesters.

Over the past two years, protesters have increasingly lost wide public support as their rationale became less clear. For months now, their actions in disrupting public transport in an already chaotic Bangkok have become even less popular.

The royal yellow worn by many protesters has become something of an anachronism, especially when pro-Thaksin groups have been doing the same. More crucially, the palace is more likely to feel embarrassed than proud by the king’s subjects continuing to make unreasonable protests.

Friday appears to have been a climax for protesters after their action spread to Hat Yai, Krabi and Phuket where protests forced the closure of airports. Hundreds of railway workers also stopped work, forcing cancellations of dozens of trains.

Since becoming prime minister in February this year, Samak has been showing himself to be more independent of Thaksin than originally thought. With Thaksin now out of sight and out of the country altogether after jumping bail, the PAD’s attempts to cast Samak as a Thaksin stooge has become even less credible.

All of this makes it difficult for protest leaders to force the ouster of another government through protest action alone. Short of spilling blood by over-reacting, the authorities are likely to continue maintaining the status quo through the governing coalition.

Typically, the protesters had hoped to use physical over-reaction by the authorities to help promote their cause. The Samak government in particular is not familiar with a more nuanced approach against a determined opposition, and the police themselves seem prone to over-react.

Yet surprisingly, the government’s response has been relatively low profile. That may be out of character for a blustery Samak, but it could be working: a tired-out protest movement with little substance may see the siege of Government House wither away from today.

Thailand has had 17 Constitutions over the past 76 years, with about as many undemocratic changes of government as other democracies have had elections. The people now have to decide whether street protests should rank with coups as another accepted means of political change.

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