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Getting Back on Track in Thailand

April 14, 2009

Thailand was once Asia’s rising star, and its 1997 constitution was the standard for democratic development that other Asian nations sought to emulate. However, over the past eight years the country has become increasingly polarized, and its institutions politicized, beginning when Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai party ran for office in 2001 on a populist platform that appealed directly to the urban poor and rural mass, completely bypassing traditional power-brokers in the military, bureaucracy, and business. Unfortunately, the current Democrat-led coalition government, which assumed office through normal parliamentary procedures last year, also lacks democratic legitimacy; as it came to power not through popular elections, but because of the court-ordered dissolution of other political parties, and the banning of those party’s most popular politicians.

Although the political conflict in Thailand has been personalized to a large extent, there are real issues that underlie the growing contentious political divide. Ongoing division has manifested itself into serious and violent outbursts, including November’s siege of the international airport by pro-Democrat protestors and last Friday’s attack on a major gathering of Asian leaders in Pattaya. There are several opportunities for Thai citizens to end this counterproductive cycle and restore democracy in Thailand.

One way to reduce political tension is decentralization. If people have control over and pay for their own local services, there will be no reason for conflict with other provinces, while democracy and accountability will be enhanced. Political decentralization could also help resolve the separatist conflict in the South.

Another way to reduce tension and improve democratic representation is to allow voters to vote where they live. Currently, many people who live in Bangkok are counted for representation in their home village or town. This means not only do they have to travel back to their home provinces to vote, but that their home towns are over-represented in national government and Bangkok is under-represented. If representation and voting were based on where people really live, Bangkok residents would not feel under-represented, and everyone would enjoy better representation and improved political accountability.

Third, for a country faced with little external threat, Thailand’s army is probably too big, and it is certainly too powerful. To reduce the threat the army poses to a democratic civilian government, the army should be reduced. This can be accomplished through legislation, and also by reducing the financial resources available to the army.

Right now, the conflict in the South is used to justify the large army, and the large military budget. In addition, senior officers posted to the south have opportunities to increase their income through extra-legal means. Consequently, resolving the conflict in the South will weaken the power of the army and make future coups less likely.

Fourth, to re-establish the democratic legitimacy of the Constitution, Thailand should consider conducting another participatory constitution-drafting process, similar to the one in 1997 in Thailand, or more recently in Nepal. After completion of the draft, the new charter can be endorsed through a fair national referendum. Concerns raised about clauses in earlier constitutions can be addressed in a national dialogue.

Although this process may be long and complicated, it is only by encouraging substantive participation from all sectors of society and regions of the country that people will feel they have had an adequate opportunity to contribute. The extra effort will be worthwhile, as the people will feel ownership of the process, and the new Constitution is likely to be accepted by all as the legitimate expression of the consensus of the Thai people.

And last, but not least, the most important step required to heal the political divide and re-establish Thailand’s democratic credentials would be fresh elections that everyone agreed accurately and fairly reflected the will of the people. Opinions differ as to whether these elections are so important that they should be held first, as soon as possible; or whether they should be postponed until other necessary reforms have been enacted. If the second approach is adopted, elections should be scheduled as soon as possible, to reassure voters and reduce political tension.

To help ensure that the elections are, and are perceived to be, fair, there needs to be comprehensive and credible observation by both international and local observers, and voter education should be conducted to discourage vote-buying and other electoral malpractice. Finally, to reduce political polarization, public education campaigns should be conducted to encourage political tolerance and awareness.

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

Tim Meisburger is The Asia Foundation’s Regional Director for Elections and Political Processes. Based in Bangkok, Mr. Meisburger has supported democracy programming across Asia, including in Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Thailand, Philippines, Japan, Cambodia, East Timor, and Indonesia. He can be reached at tmeisburger@asiafound.org.

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