Thailand Gives Up on Democracy

By Greg Sheridan

Has Thailand lost the knack of democracy altogether? Another government, this time of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, has effectively been forced out of office by street protests.

We have seen this roadshow now for a decade - Red Shirts backing the various governments associated with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra; Yellow Shirts supporting the Democrat Party, aligned with parts of the military, allegedly close to some sections of the palace, determined that the Thaksin network should not rule Thailand.

Truly, some things never change. The old adage that in Thailand governments are made in the countryside and destroyed in Bangkok is proven true again.

Thaksin's forces have very strong support in the north and northeast and among Thailand's poor. The Democrats are strong in the less heavily populated south, and Bangkok is split.

The protesters who have forced Yingluck to call early elections disdain democracy. They want an unelected People's Council and a prime minister chosen by the king, who incidentally has no wish to play such a role.

This demand indicates a substantial portion of Thais have lost faith in democracy.

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But the proposal is so unlikely to succeed that the only plausible strategy behind it is that its promoters may wish to cause so much unrest that the military intervenes and appoints an interim government.

In Thailand such a development is always a possibility, but the military must be loath to do this. What good can it do? It would severely hurt its reputation, there would be the prospect of desperate conflict with pro-Thaksin street demonstrators, and its end would be an election the Thaksin forces would likely win anyway.

Yingluck, however, is also in a desperately difficult position.

She has called an election but elections in the past decade have not resolved Thailand's irrationally intense conflicts.

Opposition MPs resigned en masse from parliament on Sunday and the Prime Minister will not be able to hold credible elections if the opposition boycotts them.

The best hope is some negotiated, messy compromise, but professor Andrew Walker of the Australian National University argues that the conflict also reflects Thailand's structural economic problem as a nation which cannot break out of the middle-income trap.

Some 40 per cent of Thais still work in agriculture, a largely impoverished sector. Thailand's poor are still very numerous.

Yet economic development in its cities, especially Bangkok, has produced a globalised, affluent, notionally liberal middle class and elite.

The supreme irony is that many notional liberals now dislike democracy, because the impoverished rural sector favours Thaksin's economic populism, notwithstanding the corruption associated with the Thaksin governments.

Thaksin has benefited from this conflict between the poor rural hinterland and the urban elite.

However, his populist measures did nothing to change this conflict or to propel rural Thailand into developed-economy standards of living.

Nonetheless, when Thaksin was in power, Thailand's economy did very well.

But his opponents find him completely unacceptable and charge that, while living in exile to avoid the consequences of a corruption conviction, he still effectively runs the government through his sister and her ministers.

Both sides of Thai politics have contributed to this chronic conflict, which could still all too easily turn deadly.

Greg Sheridan is the Foreign Editor of the Australian.
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