Answer To Critics Of “What Is Democracy?”
My recent article, What is Democracy?, sparked a heap of responses. Going through them all, it was noticeable that many Americans and Australians condemned my reasons for supporting the coup. Foreigners living here, and people from Europe, supported my ideas. So, I thought it would be instructive to discuss some more background on the coup and explain in more detail why it was a good thing for Thailand.
Many Americans and Australians stated that while they did not like the Thaksin government, he was democratically elected and therefore he should not have been ousted. A noble sentiment, but we are living in the real world here, a world where rampant corruption was the norm throughout the Thaksin regime.
One American wrote that it looked like I was saying that the people of Bangkok decided to oust Thaksin, and that the people in Esarn were just dumb buffalos whose votes and ideas didn’t count.
Well, he was almost right. The fact is Thaksin used his huge wealth to buy the vote. When you buy a vote, or get your brother to influence vote counting, or rig a voting machine to win an election, is the winner really a democratically elected leader? Or is he a usurper? Do bought votes count as democracy? Are sheer numbers the litmus test of democracy? Is this what those critics meant?
It’s interesting to compare our democratic institutions today to the Romans of 2,000 years ago. At first, they only allowed land-owning Roman citizens to vote. Later on, they allowed any Roman citizen to vote, even those living in distant countries who had never seen Rome: People who had no idea what their vote was worth determined the election results. Eventually, this brought about the total destruction of their democracy and ushered in rule by tyrants.
For hundreds of years Pax Romana ruled a huge empire. They built peace and prosperity almost everywhere they went. Even the savage British were eventually tamed and learned to live as the Romans did. Our British democracy, until recently, was a direct descendant of the ideas left by the Romans. The USA also used many of those ideals to build what was the best democracy the world has ever seen.
Then along came Bush, Blair, and Thaksin. Each of these leaders has ridden roughshod over democratic institutions and replaced them with their own demagogic, autocratic rule instead.
My American and Australian critics pointed out that a coup was not the ‘correct’ way to resolve the problem Thailand faced under Thaksin. However, none of them offered any alternatives. So, I ask you, just what is the correct way to get rid of a tyrant? Should we ask him politely to go? Or should we let him buy yet another term in office and create more havoc?
I explained the reasons for the coup in my first submission, but it looks like my critics were too blinded by their own preconceptions to read and understand what was happening in Thailand. They judged the coup by the standards set in their own countries. I’m back this time to point out the vast differences between our respective political systems.
What really led to Thaksin’s downfall was his unbridled corruption, and his threat to the monarchy. This clip by the coup leader briefly explains what prompted the army to step into the breach.
Now let’s examine the background and build up to the coup: link
Democracy, Thai Style
First, you have to understand that Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, much like Britain. The King is revered and respected throughout the Kingdom. It was obvious Thaksin was going to have problems as far back as 3 or 4 years ago when the King started dressing him down in his annual speech to the nation for his behavior. I would sit riveted to the TV watching Thaksin, Chavalit, and the other TRT-ites squirming and trying not to show their discomfort as the King ripped into them. That must have been the toughest task Thaksin ever undertook, standing there poker-faced as he took the King’s criticism. And Thaksin deserved every minute of it.
One of my critics stated that the King hated Thaksin and this is why he approved of the coup. Nothing could be further from the truth. The King understands very well how democracy works, and he has worked hard to foster it throughout his reign. Democracy is more than a vote. It is working together to benefit society as a whole. The King has worked throughout his reign to foster a better society. He rarely, if ever, did anything political. But he saw clearly what was going on long before his subjects did. He only took Thaksin to task because Thaksin was causing serious problems for the Thais. Among other things, Thaksin was killing Thai citizens indiscriminately, and using his power to enrich himself.
Did Thaksin listen to the King and take heed? No! So what did he expect? Like his American counterpart, he thought he could do whatever he liked.
One thing he did do after the King told him to was to drop his cowardly multi-million baht lawsuit against a poor woman reporter who had the integrity and the balls to tell the truth about his business dealings. She wrote that Thaksin was blatantly using his position to increase his company’s income, despite having publicly divested himself of his business interests…to his chauffer and his maid.
The King loves his people and they love him. So he was hurt and very worried when he saw how easily Thaksin issued orders to kill those he disapproved of, including the Muslims down south. Thaksin hurt the King, and that was a bad mistake.
Instead of using the time-honored Thai method of discussion and conciliation to resolve problems, Thaksin tried to bulldoze them away. The world watched askance as he killed people for no good reason. Instead of arresting alleged drug dealers, he allowed the police to summarily execute them. Instead of trying to resolve the Muslim crisis down south, he told the army to eliminate them. Did he stop to think for a moment that the parents of those young men might feel angry and perhaps support the very insurgency he was trying to eliminate? Stupid question.
Are you, my American and Australian critics, starting to see why the King was worried?
The Last Resort
Unfortunately for the Americans, they don’t have a King, unless you count the current King, George Bush. Here is a man who has run roughshod over more than 200 years of democracy, declared that neither the Constitution nor the law apply to him, and he has rammed extremely dangerous laws through a lame-duck Congress. These new laws enable him to do whatever he likes without recourse to the people who elected him. The latest travesty is the law enabling American ‘security forces’ to arrest anyone, including Americans, anywhere in the world for alleged terror activities. There is no need to prove the allegations in a court of law. You, yes you, could be picked up on the streets of Bangkok without warning, arrested, and flown to a secret concentration camp for internment and interrogation just because GWB says so. Georgie boy’s new laws allow your interrogators to use extreme interrogation methods, and you will not have any way of ever getting released unless George himself decrees. Is that what democracy in the USA stands for these days? Is that what my critics support?
At last, I hear rumblings of dissent in the streets of America. However, it may be too little too late. By the time the demonstrations build up enough momentum to force him to resign, it may be the end of his term already. Before the Americans start pointing accusing fingers at Thailand, they should examine their own political system first. Are they going to accept the same two-party system at the next elections? The Republicans are spending untold millions, no, make that billions of taxpayers’ money to put into place mechanisms to ensure they win the next election too. Does the world really need another Republican Presidency? I, for one, shudder at the thought. I have always felt that politics should be about the man, not the party. The Americans have lost sight of this simple idea.
Here in Thailand, we were lucky the coup toppled our usurper. Everyone in Thailand knew that two large demonstrations were scheduled on the day of the coup. Everyone knew that if the Thaksin supporters and the anti-Thaksin demonstrators met there would be a bloodbath worse than the 1973 and October 1976 massacres combined (link). Did we need or want that? Would the American people have sat back and shrugged their shoulders and let it happen if the same thing happened in the USA? I don’t think so.
Who knows? It may come to that in America too if the ‘security forces’ start to lock up too many American citizens under the new ‘anti terror laws’ for no discernable reason.
Coups are Bad for Business?
The Americans who criticized me also said that a coup is bad for business. They have imposed trade sanctions in protest. Jeez. What a laugh! Did you know that the Republicans also sent a large sum of money (rumored to be more than $US10 million) to the coup leaders to support them? The Republicans are very good at two-faced dealings, aren’t they?
Thailand has been the recipient of US trade sanctions in the past. The sanctions last a short while before the Americans are banging at our doors again, desperate to restore their lucrative business. Trade sanctions don’t work. In fact, they could even work in our favor. When Thais lose business like this they don’t sit around on their hands crying about what they have lost. Instead, they get out there, with the full support of the government Department of Export Promotion (DEP), to find new markets.
The emerging markets in China and South America are a fertile source of new trade. Venezuela is a good example. George hates Hugo Chavez, calling him a dictator. But Hugo was democratically elected. He has instituted sweeping social reform programs that are directly benefiting the poor. Their economy is growing fast. Of course, the old-guard hate him for usurping their power.
George doesn’t like Hugo because he is not in George’s pocket. He can’t control him, so he vilifies him instead. When Hugo offered New York oil at $50 a barrel to help alleviate their troubles, troubles directly attributable to George Bush, the President refused. Of course he would. Undercutting the oil price like that would severely hurt his good friends in the Saudi and American oil business. So New Yorkers continued to pay more than $20 a barrel extra because George said so. They weren’t even given any choice.
And if coups are so bad for business, why did the financial markets not take a dive? Why did the Thai baht stay so strong? Perhaps the rest of the world didn’t find the idea of a coup as repellent as the Americans.
Building a Better Democracy
As I pointed out in my first article, democracy in America has evolved to fit the American people. Democracy in Thailand is in its infancy. We are still searching for what fits us best. It took the Americans 200 years to arrive at a workable democracy, not counting the current Bush presidency. The Thais have been at it less than 90 years.
Back in the 19th and 20th Centuries, America experienced various political upheavals as it groped its way to a workable democracy. Pork barrel politics was, and still is, a problem. Vested interests have taken over American democracy yet again, and I foresee a huge social upheaval in the near future if the USA is to get back to a stable and fair form of democratic government. Vested interest politics seem to be more noticeably rampant under Republican administrations.
Democracy is far from a perfect form of government, but it is better than anything else man has tried. Thailand is well on the way to a true democracy, despite the recent coup. However, we still have many obstacles to overcome. The biggest problem is the entrenched social structure. The rich have a vested interest in keeping the population poor and uneducated. Before we can have a good workable democracy we need to have a populace able to understand what that means. The emerging middle class is well educated, lives mostly in Bangkok, and they were the prime movers behind Thaksin’s ouster. The reader who said the people in Esarn don’t count was right. Very few of them understand what their vote means.
Even my wife was a staunch Thaksin supporter. I could not discuss politics with her without risking long days of bad moods and argument, so I refrained. I haven’t even asked her yet what she thinks of the current situation, and she hasn’t volunteered an opinion. I’m not even sure she has one. She has more immediate concerns and politics are a long way down the line. The same goes for most people in Esarn. They took Thaksin’s red voting cards (100 baht notes), and got him elected by sheer weight of numbers. How many really understood the issues?
As one US political pundit said on NBC this morning, the American people are not the least interested in which political party wins. They want a government that cares about what the people want.
Same same in Thailand. Thaksin was raping the economy and the Thai people for his own aggrandizement. He was greedy. Despite being so rich, it wasn’t enough for him. Being Chinese, this is understandable. But that doesn’t mean
that we had to accept it. Our children and grand children will be paying for his unbridled greed. A coup was the only sensible solution to the situation. We don’t have a mechanism to impeach our Prime Minister. But we do have the army, and in the last resort they are the protectors of the Kingdom. That is their job and they have done it admirably. I’ll say it again. The majority of Thais support the coup.
Those of you who do not live here cannot possibly understand why a coup was a sensible and needed solution to an untenable situation. So, before you criticize Thailand please come here, talk to the people, get to know how the political system here works, and you will soon see that judging Thailand by your own standards is unworkable and unproductive.
Finally, let’s not forget that American democracy was founded on a revolution. So what gives you the right to criticize Thailand?
I think Mr. Holt's email inbox will be busy over the next couple of days!