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A ‘Colorless’ Thailand?

March 30, 2011

In 1947, Winston Churchill said “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all others that have been tried.” When Churchill made this remark, Thailand was in the throes of developing a strong dictatorial state headed by the military. But after six decades of impressive economic advancement and social mobility, it should not be surprising that an overwhelming majority of Thai people now agree with Mr. Churchill: 93 percent of those surveyed in a newly released poll of the Thai electorate by The Asia Foundation responded that democracy is the best form of government. Inherent in any democratic society is a people’s ability to express themselves freely. The survey indicates that 91 percent of Thais believe they can freely express their political opinion, and an overwhelming 97 percent feel that they are united by common values.

Such findings should perhaps not come as a surprise when one looks at Thailand over the span of more than six decades since Churchill made his now-famous statement. Many Thais have experienced significant economic advancement and social mobility, particularly over the past 30 years. In 1978, when I first went to Thailand, the average Thai earned $540 per year. In 2010, Thailand’s per-capita income was $4,800, a 9-fold increase in just over three decades. Compulsory education in the late 1970s was four years. With rapid economic growth came educational attainment, and today, compulsory education is 12 years. This, coupled with the revolution in information technology, has led to the creation of a more aware citizenry, particularly in rural areas. Consequently, Thais have become understandably more demanding of their rights and want a greater say in what they believe their government should or should not do.

But politics is complicated in Thailand, especially since the removal by military coup of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in September 2006. Since his removal, the ensuing political struggle in Thailand has been characterized as a nation divided between the anti-government Red-Shirt movement, which is said to be backed mainly by the rural working poor and lower middle class, and the Yellow-Shirt People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which is said to draw its support from the urban middle class. However, the Foundation’s survey suggests that Thais are not as politically divided as the media and pundits believe. Perhaps the most surprising statistic in the survey is that 76 percent of Thais professed being neither Red nor Yellow. If the country is divided, it is divided evenly among a small percentage of the population – 12 percent identified themselves as Red and 12 percent identified themselves as Yellow. In essence, three out of every four Thais purport themselves to be “colorless.”

If Thailand is not divided, it is most definitely at a political impasse. Perhaps a more apt description of Thailand’s political difficulties is the failure of democratic institutions to bridge the differences between a new capitalist class that has won the backing of the rural poor with populist policies, and an urban, established elite that is seeking to maintain its traditional claim on power. While a military coup does not represent the best way to resolve the country’s political problems, one cannot necessarily rule out the military taking control over the country yet again. However, the military might think twice – survey findings indicate that 76 percent of Thais reject “a strong, unelected leader even when democracy may not be working.”

It is expected that Thailand’s current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva will dissolve parliament in early May, and that elections will be held approximately 45 days after parliament’s dissolution. At this juncture, it appears that neither of Thailand’s two major political parties, Abhisit’s Democrat Party or the pro-Thaksin Puea Thai Party, will receive a parliamentary majority. Consequently, it will be the country’s minor political parties that will play a crucial role in forming the next government. Such parties are led by opportunistic politicians, and who they support may depend on which major political party can offer the best deal. However, minor political parties may elect to continue supporting the Democrat Party out of concern that to do otherwise would irritate the military and other members of Thailand’s establishment.

So, what happens if in the next election the major party that receives the second largest number of votes is capable of cobbling together a coalition to form a government?  Is Thailand back to square one with major protests by either Reds or Yellows crying foul and the great majority of Thais remaining captive to the voices on the margins who have been most vocal?  The survey found that while 71 percent of the Thai electorate was interested in politics, only 25 percent felt it had a lot or some influence over national government decisions.

But in order for democracy to strengthen, there needs to be political reform that makes Thai people feel they have ownership in the affairs of the nation and a genuine stake in the political, economic, and social life of their country. Decentralization was a key focus in the survey: 61 percent say it would improve governance and mitigate tension and conflict. However, for political reform to evolve in Thailand, it must constructively address the inequities, injustice, and double standards of a political system that an increasing number of Thais find unacceptable.

John J. Brandon, who lived in Thailand for three years (1978-1981) and continues to travel there regularly, is The Asia Foundation’s director of International Relations Programs in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jbrandon@asiafound-dc.org.

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