Emerging facets of Thai polity | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 27, 2010 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, March 27, 2010

Emerging facets of Thai polity


Protesters parading Thai thoroughfares.

OUR not-very-distant neighbour Thailand is once again passing through politically exciting times. The streets of Bangkok are witnessing significant movements of thousands of charged up people who, being ardent supporters of the deposed premier, are demanding the stepping down of the present premier and also the dissolution of the House. Such angry protestations have surprised many who are used to a projection of the Thais as being very placid and polite people.
The question is, are the roots of discontent in an apparently silky environment surfacing? Are the demonstrations pointing to the suspected class divide and the concomitant bitterness in a society where protest and defiance of authority was quite uncommon and certainly not socially appreciated?
It may, therefore, be interesting to try to understand why a country having a comparatively stable economy and constitutional mechanisms in place has not succeeded in stopping angry and intimidating protestations of large segments of the population.
The current protests surfaced two weeks after Thailand's apex court confiscated deposed premier Thaksin's assets worth $1.4 billion. Thaksin was toppled in a 2006 coup. Prior to that he was accused of hiding most of his fortune as part of a dishonest scheme to conceal conflicts of interest, which were outlawed under the constitution. The National Counter-Corruption Commission (NCCC) duly conducted its investigation and passed an 8 -1 judgment against him.
Interestingly, the limitations of the NCCC's effectiveness became increasingly evident after the Constitutional Court failed to uphold the Commission's findings in 2001. The incident was of great national importance as it involved an investigation of claims that Thaksin Shinawatra, before becoming prime minister, had concealed most of his fortune as part of a dishonest scheme to conceal conflicts of interest, which were outlawed under the constitution. It was found that his assets had been registered in the names of his housekeeper, chauffeur, driver, security guard, and business colleagues.
To recollect, the overwhelming win by Prime Minister Thaksin in the January 2005 election, in which he took 370 of the 500 seats in parliament, was equally unsatisfactory. It led to concerns over the further erosion of democracy. It was claimed that Thailand was on the path to turning into a one-party state. The collapse of support for the opposition Democratic Party was greatly assisted by Thaksin's control over a substantial section of the media and by blatant vote buying. It was estimated that some 10 billion baht ($260 million) was spent in bribes to voters during the campaign.
Delving further back into Thai history, one would find that a number of diverse groupings, ranging from monk intellectuals to the Democrat Party in parliament, recognised that Thailand needed to strengthen its internal institutions if it was going to survive and prosper. A radically improved constitution offered a new way forward. The constitutional plan contained measures designed to guarantee democracy and human rights, exclude military influence in the political process, and eliminate corruption in public life. As one commentator put it: "The 1997 constitution represents a revolution in Thai politics. It was a bold attempt at conferring greater power to the Thai people than had ever been granted before."
It is interesting to observe that although Thailand remains a constitutional monarchy, with the king as head of state at the apogee of power (mainly symbolically but also with limited capacity to intervene in certain circumstances), the new constitution modified the electoral system, changed the composition of both houses of parliament, and reformed the structure of the courts. As well as recasting the shape of the main institutions, a prime objective was to provide a basis for stable government, tackle corruption, and protect basic human rights effectively.
It is pertinent to note that in Thailand patron-client relations come to embody a deeply ingrained set of complementary values. In part, these values establish a strong sense of social order in which every individual is ranked according to wealth, power, birth, and status. Each person is expected not only to know his/her place in the hierarchy, but also to adjust his/her behaviour accordingly.
In Thai consciousness, the king is at the very pinnacle of society (also at the peak of the constitution), and he has sometimes used his unquestioned authority to intervene on the political stage in times of crises or controversy with immediate impact. In an important sense, the stability of society relies on never questioning the authority of those further up the hierarchy. Once in a post, rather than insisting on performing statutory obligations to investigate and prosecute ministers and officials, the person in question might be naturally inclined to defer to superior authority, deriving from the patronage of the government or prime minister.
It is relevant to note that the failure to act decisively and punish the PM for manifest breach of the rules severely undermined the credibility of the constitutional watchdog and, therefore, of the constitution itself.
The 1997 Thai constitution, with its multiple watchdog bodies, has not been able to eliminate ubiquitous corruption and, as such, the abuse of power by the prime minister, ministers, politicians, and officials continued, and basic human rights were breached.
The constitution, which was set in place, resulted from a process of popular consultation and has many positive features. The administrative courts and the ombudsman scheme have established an independent and robust system of administrative remedies. However, it was a serious mistake to assume that a politically neutral senate without any party allegiances could be created, which could operate beyond normal politics. A great deal was constructed on what proved to be a very shaky foundation.
The present round of protests has been organised and spearheaded by the "Red Shirts," who are Thailand's rural poor and have benefited from Thaksin's populist policies. They are pitted against the "Yellow Shirts," who are urbane and have elitist support. The latter accuse deposed Thaksin of corruption and irreverence to Thai traditions.
Discerning observers are of the considered view that cleaning Thai politics is a daunting task because the constitutional mechanisms have not desirably succeeded in addressing the real basis for money politics in Thailand. Party groupings have tended to coalesce around powerful individuals. The democratic process, in such circumstances, has little to offer while optimists may have to wait for political parties with genuine commitment to structural reform.
Muhammad Nurul Huda is a columnist for The Daily Star.

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