THAILAND: Street protest is democratic process

In a May 28 interview published in the Bangkok Post newspaper, Kyoto University professor Yoshifumi Tamada expresses concerns over the stability of Thailand’s democracy. Tamada is evidently unsettled by the recent anti-government protests and popular boycott of the April 2 election, which he is quoted as saying amounts to a “constitutional coup”. Tamada holds the conventional view that the Thai Rak Thai party depends solely upon Thaksin Shinawatra for its survival. He is quoted as saying that the party’s collapse may lead to “government of instability” as in the past, for want of a “strong party that can command a clear majority in parliament”. There are likely to be many persons in conservative academic and business circles sharing similarly confused and unhappy views about what has happened recently in Thailand. 

If a party is so entirely dependant upon a single person, its demise can only be a gain, not a loss, for democracy. To claim that national stability depends upon a party with a clear majority is to associate a strong state with a strong leader. Democracy is the opposite of this. Democracy does not depend upon rule by a solitary person. In fact, it depends upon distrust of rule by a solitary person. It depends upon the creating of institutions that deny any single person the reigns of power, through constant checks and balances.  

The hundreds of thousands who took to the street to protest against Thaksin had, and perhaps continue to have, a legitimate fear that Thailand was fast being taken over by an elected tyrant. This is an increasingly common problem in the world today. There are many countries in Asia where authoritarianism is secured by way of a vote. Singapore is perhaps the most striking example. Sri Lanka is another country which at present is slipping back towards dictatorship through ballot. Even in developed democracies such as the United States and United Kingdom there are serious concerns that elected leaders are devising and bending laws and institutions in order to strengthen themselves and subvert the very electoral process that brought them to power.

This is a risk inherent to any democracy, against which the public and judiciary must remain constantly vigilant. It is often pointed out that Hitler came to power in Germany by majority vote, and then scrupulously manipulated the law to defeat its very purpose. At the end of the second world war, the tragic lessons learned were used to build in many new safeguards against a future dictator, including by way of a constitutional court. Popular awareness at the consequences of unrestrained executive power was also greatly heightened. 

In Thailand too the lessons of dictatorship have been understood and learned. The 1997 Constitution was an important step away from the country’s long history of authoritarian rule. It rightly emphasises the building of institutions as the foundation for democracy, for all citizens. But the constitution and its institutions, like its society, must be improved and adapted to address new problems and changes as they emerge. This is the responsibility of the country’s politicians and its judiciary equally.   

It is especially heartening that the courts in Thailand have played a very assertive role in declaring the April election illegal. When a respected judiciary takes responsibility to address legal problems in a time of crisis, it holds out the prospect that society can be transformed peacefully. When national stability is understood also to be in the hands of independent functioning courts, not simply in the hands of an individual or political party, a genuine democracy is possible. The further development of legal intellect in this direction will contribute greatly to future wellbeing in Thailand. Likewise, the removal of any individual or political party to whom national stability is mistakenly attributed is a service for its democracy.  

Peaceful street protest is part of democratic process, not something outside of it. To argue that the only correct way to remove an elected autocrat is through another election is to misunderstand democratic process, and how it can be subverted through apparently legal and technically correct means. People in Thailand have in recent months had the capacity to recognise a serious threat to their democracy and take early enough steps to prevent it from being realised. They have set a good example not only for their own society but also for many other countries in Asia, for which they deserve recognition.  

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-132-2006
Countries : Thailand,
Issues : Democracy,