- By Paul BonicelliPaul J. Bonicelli is Professor of Government at Regent University, and served as the Assistant Administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean of the United States Agency for International Development.
No political force is acquitting itself very admirably in the current turmoil in Thailand, but at least the government is trying to preserve the system and institutions of democracy while the opposition wants to destroy them. Helpful commentary from the U.S. government has been woefully lacking. Barack Obama’s administration should be speaking out for the preservation of democracy and decrying the threats of violence and actual violence being done to it.
For several weeks now, the opposition to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s elected government (now a caretaker government since she has scheduled new elections for Feb. 2) has been building from peaceful protest to incidents of violence. One policeman is dead, and about 40 civilians have died in shootings and a bomb blast today, Jan. 17. Very alarming, too, is the opposition’s demands that the prime minister resign and that in her place a "people’s council" should be installed so that "reform can come before elections."
Since 2001, the Pheu Thai Party of Yingluck and her brother (former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who lives in self-imposed exile to avoid a prison term he says was meted out to him for political purposes after a military coup brought him down in 2006) have been winning at the polls. They win on the strength of the rural and poor vote located mostly in the north and the northeast. The opposition, which is close to the royal family, is made up of the wealthier classes in the big cities and in the tourism-rich south. So for 14 years Thai democracy has been roiled by this regional and class split. While some in Bangkok want to see Thais preserve democracy and avoid another coup, they are not numerous enough to overcome the massive protests that have been plaguing the capital’s major institutions such as the customs offices and the stock exchange.
There is a pattern here: Via democracy, the majority of voters have been electing the Pheu Thai Party because it represents the interests of the poor and the rural and gives them state subsidies. The opposition Democrat Party cannot win at the polls, accuses Pheu Thai of corruption and vote-buying, and tries to provoke chaos in order to justify a military coup. Pheu Thai says it is doing democracy; the Democrat Party says it is trying to fix democracy. Last time Thais faced this dilemma, the military stepped in; currently, the military says it will not oust Yingluck and will preserve law and order. Who knows how long that stance will hold.
As I noted earlier, there are no beacons of democracy and liberal order here. The king, ailing and aging, does not appear willing or able to do much to restore order and defend his prime minister. The military is holding the line for now, but it certainly has a bad track record of ousting governments. The Democrats apparently want to destroy democracy with unelected interim councils in order to save it, but only because they cannot win a fair ballot (and probably resent those in charge whom they see as unfit to govern the natural elite). And Pheu Thai clearly buys votes.
But vote-buying, while distasteful and potentially damaging to a country’s economy and the spirit of democracy, is a rather common occurrence among democracies and is a far cry from violent protest and demands for some kind of Thai version of a "Committee of Public Safety" (there is no good track record on that approach).
The future could be quite bleak: another coup or a long-lasting stalemate of protests and harm to the economy as in the late 2000s. None of this is good for democracy. The U.S. government should be speaking out on this matter, urging restraint on the military, applauding Yingluck’s government for not releasing her own violent protesters (they have a bad track record too), and insisting that the United States will not look kindly on the use of violence to change governments.
One can surmise that the root cause of this conflict is the centuries-old hostilities and tensions between the haves and the have-nots, and such is not easily or quickly cured. So restraint on the part of the majority and patience on the part of the minority are sorely needed. Each side should seek earnestly to work together for the good of Thailand and recognize how much damage is done to all when the tourist and investment economy is harmed by political turmoil.