Appeal of Authoritarianism Underscores Thailand’s Democratic Dilemma

A protest stage Jan. 28, 2014, in Bangkok. Photo: Johan Fantenberg / Flickr

BANGKOK — As anti-politician sentiments continue to spread, some warn the nation is becoming addicted to the military junta’s unchecked powers. This, they say is a proof that the debate over preferred political system for Thailand is far from settled.

We talked to an array of politicos from across the spectrum and political thinkers to get there measure of how we got here.

Addicted to Unaccountable Powers

Given the 12 “successful” coups during the past eight decades of modern Thai politics, deputy Democrat Party leader Nipit Intarasombat warned that Thais are at risk of growing accustomed to unchecked military powers.


“Hatred toward politicians will definitely have repercussions for the revival of a democratic system,” Nipit said, adding that when an elected government returns to power, it will invariably be compared to unelected regimes that employed absolute power to solve things.

“They may conclude that a dictatorial system is better than a democratic system,” he said. “This is worrying.”

‘Hatred toward politicians will definitely have repercussions for the revival of a democratic system’

Nipit added the public has been fed propaganda for over two years now about the virtues of unelected governance, while information critical of the junta is hard to find in the mainstream mass media.

“This information is penetrating deep. People believe the country is damaged because of politicians and prefer another system of governance. In the long run, people will realize that the current system is more damaging in the long run, however, because it cannot be scrutinized,” Nipit said.

A prominent coup supporter played down such fear, however.

“I wouldn’t have supported the National Council for Peace and Order if politicians weren’t extremely horrible,” said Tul Sittisomwong, a well-known leader of the now inactive “multi-color” movement, referring to the May 2014 coup makers who ousted the Pheu Thai government.

“The coup was a consequence,” Tul said, insisting that bad government induces coups, and not the other way around.

Tul said now that it’s expected that the future elected government will have to share power with the junta who will be appointing members of the senate, plus a possible PM coming not from elected MP, politicians will have 5 years to “improve” themselves.

Tul said he’s not naive to the point of believing that the junta, led by Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who also made himself prime minister, is squeaky clean, but he will put up with them as long as they don’t turn too ugly.


The Disillusioned

Another former Democrat MP, Thankoon Jitissara, was partly responsible for paving the coup’s way yet is critical of the coup makers. He was among leaders of the People’s Committee for Absolute Democracy with the King as Head of State, aka PCAD or PDRC, who set the stage for the eventual May 2014 coup.

Claiming to have gone up on PCAD stages virtually every day, sometimes to address the crowd for up to two hours when the movement besieged Bangkok in a failed bid to directly take over the Yingluck Shinawatra administration from October 2013 to May 2014, Thankoon said his support for the ouster of Yingluck did not extend to unchecked power for Prayuth.

“No one can say whether the junta is corrupt or not because they cannot be scrutinized,” Thankoon said.

He worries people could become used to this.

“We Thais like instant goods,” he said. “Even our type of ‘democracy’ is now ready-made [by the junta].”

The now-unemployed former MP is well-aware of the rise of anti-politician sentiments, however. When Thankoon tried to join a group recording birthday wishes for Her Majesty the Queen earlier this month, an army-controlled TV channel told him he couldn’t – because he was a politician.

“Politicians are seen as self-serving and corrupt,” Thankoon said. “It’s highly likely that anti-politician sentiments have added immunity to the dictatorship,” he said.

In reality, those in power are now politicians as well, Thankoon said, and the belief by some that soldiers don’t engage in corruption is a new ideological “disease.”


Nation Stuck Forever ‘Developing?’

Thammasat University political scientist Kasian Tejapira warned that acceptance of dictatorship reflects Thai citizens’ inability to utilize democratic processes effectively. Kasian said such citizens instead become impotent and doomed to “self-inflicted immaturity.”

By accepting a system of governance by a supposedly morally superior class and not the people themselves, Kasian said the public becomes inactive in the political process.

“They have no role in the passing of legislation that’s prone to curb political freedom and allow others to draw a line as to how much freedom they ought to have,” Kasian said. “How then can these people scrutinize politicians who were not elected?”


Unsettled Debate

Chaturon Chaisang, a former Deputy PM and former Education Minister under the former Pheu Thai government said the whole phenomenon reflects a deeper question confronting Thai society.

He stressed that society has yet to achieve a genuine consensus on what political system it desires.

“There may be anti-politician sentiments in some countries and the denouncing of politicians, but they are settled when it comes to the system,” he said.

‘We should tackle this with more democracy, not with more authoritarianism’

Like Nipit and Thankoon, he agrees that politicians face unfair comparison with an unelected military regime, but says they need to embrace political reform from within.

“We have to make political parties more acceptable. There are some who believe that people are not capable of governing themselves,” Chaturon said.

Chulalongkorn University political scientist Naruemon Thabchumpon believes society’s current response to its problematic politician class is simply wrong.

“Yes, politicians have a low level of good governance and a winner-takes-all mentality. But the way society addresses the issue is wrong. We placed hope in autocratic powers and in the belief that good people can govern [without scrutiny],” Naruemon said.

She believes the solution is greater scrutiny of the powers that be, not less.


“And no matter how well-intended you claim to be, you have a problem when it comes to legitimacy, and how you obtained power. The solution is to make politics more inclusive, not less. We should tackle this with more democracy, not with more authoritarianism. The solution is in fostering political parties that are truly linked to the people.”

In the end, Democrat Party veteran Nipit said, Thais will have to decide whether they want a democratic system or an authoritarian system, as they can’t have it both ways.

“If we don’t want a democratic system,” he said. “We’ll need another to replace it.”