Can We Talk About Thai-Style ‘Democracy?’

Soldiers stand guard at Bangkok's Democracy Monument on May 22, 2014, hours after the army staged the 12th successful coup d'etat in modern Thai history.
Soldiers stand guard at Bangkok's Democracy Monument on May 22, 2014, hours after the army staged the 12th successful coup d'etat in modern Thai history.

Re•tention: Pravit RojanaphrukIs Thai-style “democracy” like fusion food or something that has mutated to the point of no longer deserving to be called democracy? At what point is Thai democracy no longer democracy?

Contributing to this conundrum, junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha uttered the following last week: “Our nation cannot afford further conflict. We certainly must have democracy but it is Thai-style democracy. We must not break rules ….”

The remarks were made by Prayuth, as prime minister, in a speech marking National Children’s Day.

The key word according to Prayuth seems to be “conflict” – that Thai-style democracy should be free of conflicts.

There are two ways to avoid conflicts in politics and society.

The first is to ensure that all Thais think alike. This is not only unnatural but impossible.

Second, pretend no conflict exists either through denial or suppression of differing opinions that challenge the dominant discourse.

In reality, both options cannot genuinely bring about a conflict-free society, not to mention democracy. There is not conflict-free society because differing political perspectives are a natural part of any pluralistic society in the tens of millions.

Like cuttlefish – which despite the name are not fish but molluscs – a conflict-free, Thai-style democracy would be a misnomer. It would rather be a dictatorial government that detests and suppresses differing opinions to mask conflict – or at least paint camouflage over it.

Thai-style democracy is therefore an oxymoron put to use as a euphemism for Thai-style dictatorship.

Instead of yearning for a conflict-free political system, Thais should double their efforts to learn to coexist with political conflicts and resolve conflicts in a peaceful manner. That requires no killing those who think differently, no suppression of the others through censorship and fear and no more military coup.

There can be no democracy if people evade conflicts, as conflict resolution is an integral part of a free and democratic society. Conflicts is part of a free society.

Prayuth is not the first to use the term Thai-style democracy, and the notion has been around for quite some time. Other characteristics of Thai-style democracy includes:

Belief that military intervention is a legitimate political mechanism to correct the excesses and abuses of elected politicians. The 12 “successful” coups in 85 years since the end of absolute monarchy and introduction of a parliamentary system averages to one every seven years. Note that the coup prior to that of 2014 occurred in 2006, thus the statistics bears out.

A Thai-style democracy lacks the perseverance, the “long game” necessary to allow political conflicts to resolve themselves naturally, without inviting military interventions. A politician or political movement you don’t like? Give it time; the pendulum will swing the other way.

A large portion of the Thai press are guilty of enabling this attitude by being coup apologists. They always tell their the readers that thought they may dislike military coups, they are a necessary evil to break political impasse and resolve conflict.

Nearly four years after the 2014 coup, only a fool would think – or liar claim – there’s no more political conflict in Thailand. The present semblance of normalcy and accord was achieved through censorship, suppression and banning political gatherings.

What’s more, the notion of a Thai-style democracy depends on disenfranchising the poor and disadvantaged, because it assumes they are incapable of making sound electoral decisions and therefore unworthy of their votes. Some people genuinely believe only those with university degrees deserve to vote.

Thai-style democracy also means a belief that certain fundamental freedoms will be not recognized. The draconian lese majeste law, which effectively forbids any meaningful discussion of the monarchy, is a case in point.

There’s another side to the coin that is Thai-style democracy, though. There are those who oppose military coups but think elections are another way of awarding the spoils and power to one side or the other.

They are electoral supremacists who think that once a government is elected, the opposition and anyone unhappy with the outcome must accept whatever the elected government does without resistance and await their chance in the next general election. They do their part, intentionally or not, in ensuring some continue to support the notion of Thai-style democracy.