22 September 2006
In (Doubtful) Praise of Democracy
By Gwynne Dyer
Democracy is fine as long as the voters elect the right people, but
they often get it wrong. The Palestinians elected Hamas, which refuses to
recognise Israel, so the Israelis and their allies overseas have to
persuade them of the error of their ways with bombs, bullets and a
financial blockade. And in Thailand they were going to vote for Thaksin
"They" were the rural poor, still a majority in Thailand, who have
been left behind by the economic miracle of the past twenty years. They
elected the billionaire Thaksin three times in a row because he gave them
cheap health-care and put money in their pockets. The Bangkok middle class
despised him for his populism and his corruption, but the poor were almost
certainly going to elect him again -- so for the first time in fifteen
years, the Thai army rolled its tanks into Bangkok.
So much for Thai democracy -- and the bizarre thing is that the
rest of the world doesn't seem to care. There have been no thunderous
denunciations of the military junta -- sorry, the Administrative Reform
Council -- that now runs Thailand, just murmurs of regret in Washington,
London, Paris and Tokyo that it has come to this. There will be no
sanctions, no boycott of the military regime (which promises to hand back
power to an elected government within a year, but only after rewriting the
constitution), no vigils for democracy.
Thaksin was no advertisement for the wisdom of Thai voters. It was
the poor and the ill-educated who voted for him, and he won their support
with cynically populist policies. He launched a "war on drugs" that saw
three thousand cases of extra-judicial execution -- officially sanctioned
murders, in other words. He took a needlessly hard line on discontent
among Thailand's Muslim minority, concentrated in the southernmost
provinces, that turned disaffection into open insurrection. He even hid the
first outbreak of bird flu in Thailand in an attempt to protect Thai
He gave cash presents to village headmen who could deliver the
local vote. He appointed a large number of his own supporters to the
senate, and then used his majority there to appoint cronies to the higher
courts. He pushed relatives and friends into senior positions in the
police and the military. He abused and undermined the democratic order in
a hundred different ways. He was a southeast Asian Silvio Berlusconi.
However, Thaksin Shinawatra also did things that improved the lot
of the poor: a moratorium on farmer's debts, dollar-a-visit medical care
even for the impoverished northeast of Thailand, village improvement
schemes that actually raised farmers' incomes. He was a liar and a crook,
but a majority of Thais voted for him in election after election. And they
would have voted for him again if the army hadn't intervened.
The middle class people of Bangkok who have been demonstrating
against Thaksin for the past six months are right: you really can't run a
country like this for very long and stay democratic. Either the demagogue
consolidates his power and becomes a de facto dictator, or he is driven out
by people who have (or claim to have) the interests of democracy at heart.
It is a tragedy that Thailand has had a military coup, but it is
not really a surprise. The thing about Thailand, and all the other Asian
countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, and South Korea that
have had non-violent transfers of power to democratically elected
governments in the past twenty years, is that the transfer needs at least a
generation to become irreversible.
Thailand had seventeen military coups between 1932, when the
constitutional monarchy was established, and 1991-92. But it has actually
done better than the Philippines, which had a non-violent "people power"
revolution in 1986 but has since had frequent coup alarms, a
(democratically elected) general in power for six years, and a demagogue
elected by the poor (Joseph Estrada) who was overthrown by the Manila
middle class in the so-called "cell-phone revolution." The Thai military
really will hand power back, whereas in the Philippines they have never
really let it go
Until this week, Thailand seemed to be doing as well as other Asian
countries that first became democratic in the same era. But for all these
countries, and for dozens of others in Africa and Latin America, democracy
is hard not only because it is new, but because the old elites have not
really relinquished their power. They have just consented, grudgingly, to
Thaksin was a democratic disaster, but it was the old elites,
allied to the new urban middle class, who drove him out. They are not
without sin, for it was their neglect of the rural majority that gave
Thaksin his opportunity.
The coup sets the clock back: it will be another fourteen years
before Thailand seems as safely distant from the bad old days as it did
until this week. Even if the soldiers keep their promises, it is a shame
and a defeat for Thailand. But the glass is still half-full, not
half-empty. Asia, apart from China, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Burma and
Pakistan, is still a democratic continent. Twenty-five years ago, nobody
would have predicted that.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 9. ("He gave...Berlusconi";
and "Thailand...let it go")
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles
are published in 45 countries.
GWYNNE DYER has worked as a freelance journalist, columnist, broadcaster and lecturer on international affairs for more than 20 years, but he was originally trained as an historian. Born in Newfoundland, he received degrees from Canadian, American and British universities, finishing with a Ph.D. in Military and Middle Eastern History from the University of London. He served in three navies and held academic appointments at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and Oxford University before launching his twice-weekly column on international affairs, which is published by over 175 papers in some 45 countries.
His first television series, the 7-part documentary 'War', was aired in 45 countries in the mid-80s. One episode, 'The Profession of Arms', was nominated for an Academy Award. His more recent works include the 1994 series 'The Human Race', and 'Protection Force', a three-part series on peacekeepers in Bosnia, both of which won Gemini awards. His award-winning radio documentaries include 'The Gorbachev Revolution', a seven-part series based on Dyer's experiences in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in 1987-90, and 'Millenium', a six-hour series on the emerging global culture.
His current projects include a book and a television documentary on the looming strategic confrontation in Asia and a radio series on the long-range political and demographic implications of extreme climate change.
4 ธ.ค. 49 04:49:32