In The News

Abhisit’s Big Test

April 14, 2009

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is under the microscope this week for his handling of the volatile protests waging in the streets of Bangkok since March 26, and more recently in the seaside town of Pattaya, where Asian leaders were evacuated from a summit meeting. Fueled by nightly video broadcasts by fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the red-shirted protesters are proving to be Abhisit’s first real test in his 4-month-old administration.

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While his actions on Friday were swift, in the past 48 hours, Abhisit has taken soft yet steady measures in responding to the red-shirted protesters. For example, when red protesters blocked a Din Daeng intersection, it took the military six hours yesterday to remove a gas tanker, the result of careful and incremental negotiations. Watching the live coverage it seemed obvious the military could have nipped the incident in the bud in a matter of minutes – but there would likely have been deaths, not to mention the possibility of the tanker exploding accidentally by a stray bullet or by purposeful detonation, meaning possibly hundreds of deaths in the nearby densely-packed Din Daeng apartment complex. In the end, no one was seriously injured, the truck was removed, Din Daeng residents applauded the military and cursed the red shirts – a strategic win for Abhisit and the military.

It seemed apparent yesterday that Abhisit instructed the military to implement a carefully considered plan. Starting in the early morning hours they began to clear, one by one, the small groups of protesters blocking major intersections, all the while moving in closer with each cleared intersection to Government House, stopping just before the Maksawan Bridge – the last barrier of red protesters. As mobs of red shirt protesters pulled back from their positions toward Government House, they set fire to commandeered buses, breaking windows – all broadcast live on TV and shown repeatedly.

However, Abhisit’s strategy paid off just before noon on Tuesday. After red leaders had a frank discussion with officials, they called off the protest and announced to all that buses provided by the government would take them to the bus terminals so they could return to their provinces. Live coverage showed the remaining estimated gathering of 2,000-3,000 protesters walking through military lines to be checked for weapons and their ID cards as they left the site.

In the short term, there is of course no guarantee that Bangkok won’t endure urban guerilla attacks by disgruntled individuals unwilling to give up the fight. They, however, may be viewed as criminals rather than legitimate protesters. Of greater concern are the protesters – both red and yellow – who earnestly desire democratic reforms; it is their convictions, their struggle, that will shape the future of Thailand.

In nightly broadcasts Thaksin is urging all Thais to pursue “true democracy”, and he defined Thailand’s current political crisis as a battle between ordinary citizens against an elite bureaucratic polity that orchestrated his downfall and that has subjugated the common man for decades. Yet neither Thaksin nor anyone else seems willing to actually define what they mean by the terms democracy, rule of law, or political reform. The records of the Thaksin administration (2001-2006) and the Democrat administration of Chuan Leekpai, (1997-2001), or of Abhisit (December, 2008 – to date), nevertheless illustrate a glaring ideological divide based on diametrically opposing definitions of democracy and the rule of law.

There are as many definitions of democracy as there are nations practicing a democratic form of government, but stripped to fundamentals, democracy is all about the degree to which citizens are able to control their elected leaders and public policy. Rule of law is all about the degree to which public policy is transparent and politicians, bureaucrats, and ordinary citizens are all held equally accountable for their actions. Political reform is all about measures to enable citizens to improve control, transparency, and accountability.

The public record demonstrates that Thaksin, his political supporters, and the conservative bureaucratic polity (both civilian and military) favor “electoral democracy”, wherein a political party formulates a campaign platform, and if they form a government they have the right to implement it carte blanch without further reference to citizen input. The party’s MPs rubber-stamp the details, and bureaucrats implement them without question. If citizens are not satisfied, they are welcome to elect another party to lead the government: democracy is solely about elections.

Liberal democrats, such as Chuan and Abhisit, (but by no means all members of the Democrat Party), as well as progressive bureaucratic and military elites, on the other hand, favor participatory democracy, wherein campaign platforms are merely broad policy outlines; how a policy is defined in detail, including how it will be implemented and monitored, requires further input from elected representatives, experts, and citizens who may be impacted by the policy. Elections are but one important process in a democracy; public participation is essential for a liberal democracy, for without it there can be no transparency or accountability.

Politicians, such as Thaksin, demonstrate through their policies and actions how they define rule of law. The executive branch (that is, the Prime Minister) has the sole right to interpret the meaning or intent of the constitution as well as the right to determine whether or not any law or decree, or any action by anyone in the government or society is valid or constitutional. This was the legal norm in Thailand prior to enactment of the 1997 Constitution, and remains the preferred definition for members of the conservative bureaucratic polity, as well. Reformers, liberal democrats, and progressive bureaucrats, on the other hand, believe that only an independent judiciary has the authority of judicial review as mandated by both the 1997 and 2007 constitutions.

Thaksin did seek during his administration to reign in the power of the bureaucratic polity. However, he chose to ignore key elements of the 1997 Constitution that were designed to place control over the bureaucracy in the hands of citizens and the courts preferring instead to usurp the bureaucratic polity’s power into his own hands by placing cronies and family members in charge of key agencies.

In sharp contrast, the Chuan administration made valiant efforts to implement the 1997 constitutional reforms, although many were watered down at the insistence of more conservative coalition partners, who of course subsequently shifted their allegiance after 2001 to Thaksin’s right–wing, autocratic Thai Rak Thai Party.

In the longer term, if Thailand is able to recover from the instability Thaksin invoked over the past two weeks through his broadcasts, there may be an opportunity to see whether or not Abhisit is the liberal democrat that he claims to be. A key test will be whether or not the Abhisit cabinet submits for parliamentary consideration a set of legislation mandated by the 2007 Constitution to enhance citizen participation. These include acts on public participation in policy and planning formulation (Article 87), on effective citizen initiation of laws and referendum (Article 163), and on civic participation in local governance (Article 287).

In April 2008, the King Prajadhipok’s Institute (KPI) established a Legislative Working Group (LWG) to coordinate the drafting of these three laws and to conduct public hearings to gather the input of citizens, academics, politicians, and bureaucrats. As currently drafted, these three bills are designed to significantly increase citizen control, transparency, and accountability at the expense of both self-serving politicians and the conservative bureaucratic polity.

Heated debates during hearings organized by KPI on the three bills highlight the significant philosophical differences between proponents of electoral democracy and participatory democracy, and between old-guard politicians and their conservative bureaucratic polity bedfellows and progressive, reform-oriented politicians and bureaucrats. The questions are: Will Abhisit have the opportunity and then the fortitude to place these bills on the legislative agenda to prompt public debate on who supports true democracy? And, will the parliamentary debate, if it ever happens, enable ordinary citizens to conclude whether they deem an autocratic electoral democracy or participatory democracy to be the better definition for Thailand?

Read more late-breaking blog posts on this issue here and here.

James Klein is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Thailand. He can be reached at jklein@asiafound.org.

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One comment on this post:

  1. [...] response and effective communication. As my colleague, Dr. James Klein, has argued in a recent In Asia post, Prime Minister Abhisit’s use of “soft yet steady measures” helped avoid [...]

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