Voranai: How Thailand Lost Its Democracy

Demonstrators rally in 2015 at Democracy Monument on the ninth anniversary of the 2006 coup which removed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from power.

Voranai Vanijaka

People’s power is a wonderful and dangerous thing. In 2010, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, or UDD, marched against the Democrat Party-led coalition government.

The reason given was that the government came into power illegitimately, through a parliamentary coup d’etat. Throw in the Supreme Court’s verdict to seize 46 billion baht of Thaksin Shinawatra’s assets, and that was the final straw. Therefore, the UDD marched and demanded dissolution of the government.

And they won.

The government agreed to new elections. Here’s a chance for the people to vote out the so-called illegitimates and vote in the government of their choosing.

Between November 2013 and May 2014, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, or PDRC, also took to the streets. They marched against the democratically elected Pheu Thai government. The reason given was corruption over the government’s rice-pledging scheme.

And they won.

The government offered a new round of elections. Here’s a chance for the people to vote out the so-called cheaters and vote in the government of their choosing.

If both the UDD and the PDRC had stopped there, they would have done Thailand’s fledgling democracy a huge favor. They would have shown the country and the world the potency of the power of the people in a democracy. How the people can unite and impact changes through the democratic process.

Of course – it was unfortunate that between the start of the two protests to when each respective governments bowed to new elections – laws were broken, property destroyed, violence committed and lives lost. All said and done however, both the UDD and the PDRC won, and won by the power of the people. So why then is Thailand currently under a military dictatorship? It is because both the UDD and the PDRC said “no” to democracy.

The UDD refused to disband and continued to protest because its leaders feared they would have to face trial for laws broken. The PDRC refused to disband and continued to protest because its leaders knew another round of elections would yield the same result, victory for a Thaksin Shinawatra nominee party.

But democracy could still be saved. On May 19, 2010, the military moved in to disband the UDD. The death toll of the entire tragic ordeal from since the start of the protest is 87 deaths. Of which, 79 were civilians and eight were soldiers.When the smoke cleared and order restored, three things should have happened.

First, protest leaders who instigated violence and law breaking should have faced justice.

Second, military personnel who used excessive force that led to unnecessary deaths and casualties should have faced justice.

Third, a new round of elections.

Only one of the three happened, elections. Be that as it may, the democratic process pushed on, battered and bruised though it may be.

In the 2014 protest, we faced a similar situation, but with a drastically different result. On May 22, the military once again moved in to restore order. But this time, instead of restoring the rule of law on behalf of the democratically elected government, the military took over the country in a coup d’etat.

Bitter and sarcastic though it may be, the question then is: Why not? If the people on both sides of the political factions said “no” to democracy, for whatever reason, then why not? Why not a coup d’etat? Why not a military dictatorship? If self-interest and factionalism are placed above democracy as the national aspiration, then why not?

The world is not all sunshine and rainbows; it is what we make of it. We live under a military dictatorship, because the people are blinded by political factionalism and consumed by tribal allegiance. Where self-interest and partisanship are championed at the expense of national progress.

We didn’t lose democracy. We gave it away.

The superstitious among us may say we are caught in some sort of a karmic cycle. We first won democracy through a coup d’etat in 1932. We lost democracy through a coup d’etat in 2014. Altogether, in the past 85 years since 1932, there have been 20 coup d’etats, both successful and failed. Get out a calculator, and we have one coup d’etat every 4.25 years. They’re almost as frequent as the Olympics or World Cup.

But Thailand is a fortunate nation. Somehow we always find ourselves back to some semblance of democracy. We will again have elections and democracy, once the power-that-be is done consolidating power. It will be a semi-, quasi- or fractional-democracy at first, but at least it’s a step forward, after a big tumble backward.

The question then is, how to break the cycle of coup d’etats? No one person has all the answers, but one thing is for certain. If we the people don’t make democracy a national pursuit. If we don’t make freedom, liberty and human rights our national identity. Then surely we would end up giving democracy away again. Bear in mind that there are many in this country who still prefer the absolutism of a totalitarian regime.

There is no mystical karmic cycle, just foolishness in repeating the same pattern, while making offerings to holy shrines and mythical gods and spirits, praying for a different result. People’s power is a wonderful and dangerous thing. The consequence of our action is exactly as we deserve.

Thailand is, and will be, what we make of it.

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Voranai Vanijaka is the former editor-in-chief of GQ Magazine Thailand. He teaches Global Media Studies at Thammasat University. From 2008 to May 2014, he wrote the Sunday Column on politics and society for the Bangkok Post.