Monday, June 23, 2008

Why PAD street protests threaten Thai democracy

Friday in Bangkok, street protesters moved to surround Government House. In a Bangkok Post article, Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak condemned the protesters and provided an overview of the dangers the movement poses to Thai democracy. The street is not an acceptable alternative to institutional democracy in the view of Professor Pongsudhirak:
The anti-government People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) is going for the jugular. Now in its fourth week of street protests, PAD laid siege to Government House over the weekend, declaring victory but refusing to go home. It now intends to prevent the People Power party-led government of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej from returning to its seat of power, as if such an act is sufficient for government resignation en masse.

Every step along the way since it retook the streets several weeks ago, PAD has provoked heavy-handed government responses in order to create the conditions for an extra-constitutional, extra-parliamentary intervention. PAD has grossly distorted and manipulated news and events to its own ends, launching character assassinations and criticism of anyone who posits opposing and contrarian views, all in the name of ''rescuing the nation''.
Bringing the legislative branch of government to a standstill is probably not a good way to replenish a democracy. Let us recall the role street demonstrations played in bringing the National Socialists to power in Germany in the early 1930s. The German comparison is my own. In the article, Profeessor Pongsudhirak compares the PAD led street campaign to tactics of the movement's professed archrival, former Prime Minister Thaksin:
In so doing, PAD has ironically morphed into the very object of condemnation on which it initially built its reputation. [. . . ]

PAD is now hijacking Thai democracy in the same fashion that Mr Thaksin's authoritarian tendencies and political party machine monopolised it. The extremist movement tolerates no dissent. It is either PAD's way or the wrong way, which ranges from pro-Thaksin accusations and lack of loyalty to the throne to questions of patriotism.
Time, writes the professor, is not on the side of the PAD movement:
To be sure, PAD is in a hurry to topple the Samak government because street demonstrations are expensive and at risk of exhaustion. If PAD cannot quickly force the issue and seal the game by pressuring Mr Samak to resign or by inviting outside intervention, it risks fizzling out.
Thai Prime Minister Samak, a man with a mouth as big as his nose, plays into PAD's hands every time he opens it:
For the government's part, Mr Samak and his key lieutenants have been just as belligerent and defiant in return, fanning PAD's flames. The brinkmanship game between PAD and the Samak government has now reached a crescendo.

Something will soon have to give. PAD would have to back off or Mr Samak would have to budge by resigning, alone or along with his ministers. Otherwise the escalating face-off between the two sides will increase pressure for outside intervention from the military. As it now appears that PAD has political and financial backing from the highest corridors of power, the street demonstrations will continue far beyond PAD's eventful but indecisive ''D-Day'' on May 20.
In the Kingdom of Thailand, reference to "the highest corridors of power" is often a veiled reference to the Privy Council.

According to Professor Pongsudhirak, the protests are proving effective:
And PAD's street noises are having their intended impact on Mr Samak. His tenure appears increasingly untenable. Few doubt that he could withstand PAD's maelstrom much longer without resorting to a hard-line response, which would spell his demise in any event. The endgame of his downfall is being played out against Mr Samak's will.

Yet what really plagues the Samak government is less PAD than growing economic hardships and standard-of-living issues. Many of the street demonstrators, numbering in five digits in peak periods, are disaffected by rising energy and food prices, and the lack of effective policy responses. As a result, PAD has gained some foot soldiers from the farm sector and state enterprise unions. Some of the non-PAD protesters have also staged their own shows separate from PAD. Several large mobs have occupied areas near Government House. The air of anarchy and inevitable confrontation is palpable.
Pongsudhirak considers the question of the the potential for a coup, and the role of the military:
This precarious environment has called the military's role into question. Mr Samak is seen as close to Army chief Anupong Paochinda, who still insists on staying out of the fray. But his colleagues in the regional commands and elsewhere, especially the First Army Region with jurisdiction over Bangkok, are playing their cards closer to their chests.

In view of their lacklustre coup the last time, the army is unlikely to come out again unless there is unmanageable violence in the streets which the government and the police cannot handle. Such a military intervention could come in two related ways.

First, the army could simply impose limited martial law through the Samak cabinet's emergency decree in the affected areas of Bangkok. The other would be another outright seizure of power, resetting the democratic game all over again.

This is what PAD apparently has been egging the army to do. But even if violence spirals out of control, it will be confined to a few areas of Bangkok. A coup would be unnecessary. Gen Anupong is not seen as pro-coup but his immediate subordinates in key commands may have other ideas. Accordingly, Gen Anupong's role and the First Army Region commander's movements should be watched if violence flares and degenerates.

Mr Samak has himself to blame for not being more competent on policy fronts and for exacerbating the tit-for-tat battle between his government and PAD. His position is now shaky, and PAD will keep gnawing at his personal credibility and his administration's eroding legitimacy. His term will be shortened correspondingly. It will serve as a bad precedent and a blow to Thailand's topsy-turvy democracy.

Mr Samak's government deserves scrutiny in parliament and through constitutional channels and mechanisms, but not through PAD's rabid and reckless, rights-over-responsibilities street campaign. Indeed, PAD's success would be Thailand's setback.

A weak democratically elected leader tries to lead a country at a time of rising food and fuel prices? The democracy is confronted by an increasingly radicalized minority determined to undermine the sanctity of parliament and settle old scores in the streets? A visit to exhibits housed in the restored Reichstag in Berlin provide a reminder of where such actions at such times can lead a country.

6 comments:

  1. A visit to exhibits housed in the restored Reichstag in Berlin provide a reminder of where such actions at such times can lead a country.

    Samak's probably in a better position to do it than Sondhi, who at least has someone like Chamlong to constrain him, and it's unlikely the middle classes will be the ones taking up arms.

    Actually, lately Samak's been treading softly, but judging by his past actions (& recent comments regarding things like Burma, Tak Bai, 1973 etc), I'd say Samak could be just the man - all he needs to do is drum up some thuggish support amongst the mindless mobs, and he could be all set to cement himself in history - he's got the right look too :-)

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  2. Hobby,

    Although I cannot approve of many statements made by Samak, at least he seems to be playing by the rules, such as they are.

    With regards to PAD, I see actions and these speak louder than anything Samak has recently said.

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  3. 'Playing by the rules' by choice, I wonder?

    I'd say he's only started playing by the rules because of the PAD, and before they came back he was intent on changing the rules to suit his party and it's benefactor.

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  4. "The German comparison is my own"

    I see you carefully avoided the word "Nazi" to avoid Godwin's law?

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  5. I'd say he's only started playing by the rules because of the PAD, and before they came back he was intent on changing the rules to suit his party and it's benefactor.

    Does this change the fact that he is playing by the rules?

    What about PAD are they justified to not play by the rules because the enemy here is Thaksin?

    Basically, hobby, your points seem to be less and less about the actual body and meat of the argument. You're venturing into the realm of human mind reading and judgment. Is he evil? This action suggests he's guilty. He's evil because his intentions are evil!

    Jotman, about the comparison with Nazi Germany, I sincerely beg to differ. There is not scapegoat, there is no mass movement like the sort the National Socialists had.

    The danger of authoritarianism is always present and imminent for Thailand, but nothing as dastardly as the Nazi's I am sure.

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  6. aa: It's good that he is playing by the rules.
    (I just happen to think that the PAD protests are a factor in making him play by the rules)

    What do you mean by saying that PAD are not playing by the rules?

    If they are not playing by the rules, then surely it's up to the government to enforce the rules.

    So either they have not broken the rules, or the government has not enforced the rules - are you complaining about how the government has handled the situation?

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