Voranai: Democracy’s Destructive Path to Victory

A woman personifying the Goddess of Liberty leads the people forward holding the revolutionary flag that became today's French flag in 'Liberty Leading the People.' Eugène Delacroix, 1830.
A woman personifying the Goddess of Liberty leads the people forward holding the revolutionary flag that became today's French flag in 'Liberty Leading the People.' Eugène Delacroix, 1830.

Voranai VanijakaHistory speaks for itself, if one is open-minded enough to listen.

There’s a conventional path to indoctrinate a society with a new political ideology. Whether that ideology is fascism, communism or any other -ism. Democracy is no different. The path is through death and destruction.

Pick a democratic country out of a hat, trace its history and find wars and deaths, the destruction of old traditions and institutions. Then, eventually, the triumph of democracy.

In 1914, Germany stood a mighty empire ruled by an absolute monarch, then came World War I. Four years later, German absolutism was destroyed. But democracy did not yet triumph, instead fascism became en vogue. Again, Germany in 1941 stood a mighty nation, this time with a fascist leader in charge, then came World War II. Four years later, German fascism was destroyed. Democracy rose, at least in West Germany, but not from the free will of the German people at the time. It was imposed upon by the victorious allied powers.

At the start of World War II, Japan stood a mighty empire, with a fascist military regime in charge and a god-like emperor to rally around. Four years later, that was destroyed, and it was the Americans who authored a new democratic constitution, without needing the consent of the Japanese people at the time. But the victor does not need the consent of the defeated, it defeats the purpose of being victorious.

The two nations today are among the most prosperous democracies on earth. There are no more kaisers or fuhrers in Germany, and while the Japanese imperial family is revered, it doesn’t hold much power and prestige over the hearts and minds of the people as before.

England and France? Magna Carta. Glorious Revolution. Bastille stormed. Kings beheaded.

A cake-loving queen and a fascist parliamentarian. Centuries of ups and downs: Wars fought, destruction wrought and here they are today, champions of democracy. America overthrew the English king. Canada, Australia and New Zealand are byproducts of England’s democratic evolution. Across the world, tradition and institution were destroyed by colonial powers to start anew.

Along the way, the path to democracy is littered with tens, if not hundreds, of millions of lives. This is not to argue whether those wars were moral as we aim to understand historical evolution, not to justify it. As such, do not let facts offend personal feelings. History has proven that the conventional path for a new political system to triumph, democracy included, is for old institutions to be destroyed and old beliefs torn down.

Today, democracy stands a flawed political system vulnerable to abuse, manipulation and corruption. Still however, it is the best political system man has ever created, as it is the system most compatible with the ideals of human rights.

What then of Thailand? Never been colonized, therefore tradition and institution are very much unimpaired. There was a democratic revolution in 1932, with no death and minimal destruction, while traditions and institutions largely remained intact. Furthermore, through the past decades, traditions and institutions have been reinforced and strengthened.

As so happened in histories across the world, when absolutism is brought down, fascism and democracy squabble for supremacy, oftentimes this has also involved communism, and to a lesser extent, anarchism. If the past 85 years in Thailand have proven anything, it is that fascism has been slapping democracy around like a red-headed stepchild. Red-headed because democracy is a foreign concept, not a native one.

Today, Thailand stands a country ruled by a military junta. Look into history, and we see a long list of military strongmen in charge. Meanwhile, champions of democracy like Pridi Banomyong or Puay Ungpakorn are men who passed away in foreign countries, in exile. Men whose names are revered by some and vilified by others. Names little taught in schools and considered controversial in the official historical narrative.

Key to the success of the military is the narrative that it is the champion and defender of the monarchy, a Hindu-Buddhist Theravada tradition with power and prestige over the hearts and minds of the people. Unlike in other countries, there has been no destructive event in history to destroy this tradition and institution.

Does this mean we should pave a destructive path littered with death in order to bring down the old system and replace it with democracy? Of course not. But the danger of death and destruction comes when we have hardcore extremists on one side blindly yelling “democracy,” at their counterparts on the opposing side blindly yelling “Love, Love.”

If historical fact and present reality aren’t compatible with personal bias and tribal allegiance, then we need to put our emotions in check to instead embrace the truth.

The truth is Thailand is in a unique and complex situation. Neither old nor new systems can force each other out without death and destruction. Therefore, new ideals and old traditions must find a formula for compatibility in the interests of the nation’s future.

Key to this compatibility is for the military to take a step back and stay inside their barracks, unless called upon by a democratically elected government to defend not only the institution, but also democracy and the people.

Again, pick a democracy and we will see a destructive path in history. Pick Thailand, or any other country today, and let’s not allow death and destruction to pave the road to democracy. History exists so we can learn from it, not repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

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Voranai Vanijaka is the 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.