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22 May 2010

Democracy Dreaming

As a Thai, the event that currently occupies my mind most is the protests in Bangkok which only recently escalated to violence resulting in deaths and injuries to both the security forces and the protestors. Like most events in eccentric Thailand, things cannot be taken at face value, however with the constraints of an editorial I am forced to reduce the societal conflict in Thailand to conflicts in the very definition of ‘democracy’.The protestors in Red, predominantly poor, rural admirers of the deposed prime minister, are fighting for ballot box democracy. For once, their votes translate into policies – albeit populist – that directly benefit them. In a sense, they are also demanding a democracy that re-distributes resources more equitably. In previous episodes, protestors in yellow were out on the streets and are predominantly urban-based middle-classes protesting against the very same prime minister because of his perceived corruption, unaccountability and increased autocratic practices. I see them fighting for checks and balances democracy, that they saw compromised and dismantled by the previous government.
Viewing this from the comforts of Australia, where both ‘democracies’ are taken for granted due to our centuries old democratic lineage (many basic rights won in generations of violent conflicts and wars it must be noted), these seemed minor issues – but for many aspiring democracies worldwide, these are fundamental issues that affect their citizen’s livelihoods. And while both of these ingredients of democracy are critical – and as I’d like to avoid writing a political editorial, another key ingredient I would like to highlight is ‘participative democracy’.

That both groups of Thai antagonists had to resort to the extremes of prolonged street protests probably reflect the lack of other participative avenues to resolve their differences and/or the willingness of (overall self-serving) politicians to provide for and utilize such avenues. Reflecting on this, I am bound to see ‘participation’ as the most meaningful and relevant at an everyday scale. The notion of one-person-one-vote may sound egalitarian, but in practice it can often be tokenism (and the two extremes of no choice offered by totalitarian regimes or little choice offered in many mature democracies – what is the substantive difference between ‘center-left’ and ‘center-right’?).

Checks and balances is a critical mechanism to ensure that government power is not abused, but – at least in a functioning system – it is effectively the roles of different branches of government and the bureaucracy. Participation, on the other hand, could potentially empower the citizen, build social capacity and cohesion to – at the very least – help shape and determine the direction development that directly affects them takes. At a broader level, it could also involve the citizen in the very function of governance, such as proposing laws and also ensuring transparency. Of course, a ‘right balance’ will need to be established and too much participation/democracy can lead to ungovernable polities (as occasionally experienced in the state of California).



I will argue that participation has much more relevance in developing societies where the proportion of the socio-economically disadvantaged is substantial and the resource distribution is poor. Rich countries lecture developing countries on ‘good governance’ ,which is an undisputable fact. However, as implied above, this is a broader scale systemic issue and will take time, generations even, to achieve. On the contrary, grassroots empowerment can be achieved – and, in fact, has been carried out through local and NGO initiatives worldwide – in a much more shorter time span and yields enormous localized benefits. Of course, this often requires collaborating with and appeasing influential, often shady local figures which, in turn, help legitimizes their rule.

This is a dilemma or ‘trade off’ often faced in aids and development – a dilemma that arguably ripened in Thai democratic evolution where those now sophisticated shady figures usurped, through modern marketing techniques, perceptions of good governance while applying more refined means of corruption and conflict of interests pitted against an older elite that prefer incremental, stable democratic evolution. These managed manipulations of democracy by the elites on both sides occur independent of policies and projects that encourage robust participation such as in the slum/squatter upgrading Baan Mankong project and the Chumchon Porpiang (‘Sufficiency Village’) funding for projects nationwide – arguably the formalized lineage of the long and rich tradition of NGO advocacy in the country. What will result in this ‘democratic’ tussle (with parallels with the many struggles that are occurring worldwide in varying stages of evolution) remains to be seen – but it is hoped that the participative seeds take root and becomes a sustained tradition that also has eventual positive impacts upscale, politically.

This leads me to reflect on our mature democratic tradition – assumed to be based on rigorous rational practices/debates – and enormous relative wealth. Our voters are much better educated and informed on the complexities of the multitudes of global and local issues that affect them. Each election cycle, they are presented with clear choices but, voting as mortgagors and consumers, seem to lack the will and appetite for needed change, reducing democracy into choices between ‘economic managers’. To say that privileged, mature democracies have failed in their moral obligation for broader global social and environmental issues is now probably clichéd. Democracy is, in essence, anthropocentric and enshrines the rights of individuals. As society develops and become wealthier, those rights and ‘entitlements’ expand and become more costly socially and environmentally. Capitalism further blurs and problematizes the line between civic and individual rights/benefits while the nation-state highlights and reinforces national and global conflicts of interests.

We are stuck in this system (that overall favors selfishness over altruism) and perhaps only disruptive events of enormous global magnitude (such as the more severe predictions resulting from climate change) will force us to adapt our ways. Or perhaps innovations in the very practices of democracy may emerge within those societies struggling and fighting to define and/or form consensus on it in the present context of accelerated global environmental degradation (for democracies emerged in Europe and America in very different historical contexts). As my fellow countrymen are at loggerheads over ‘democracy’, I refuse to yield to the many commentators who state that only an ‘enlightened’ totalitarian regime can save us from the consequences of our developmental excesses. It could be just me as a hopeless optimist.

Sidh Sintusingha
Architects for Peace, May 2010



3 comments:

Tulio José Mateo said...

Democracy will find its way, and maybe it will provide an "enlightened". I think, however, these demonstrations are widely important to get an overall directive in which the up-coming democracy should start.

Anonymous said...

(continued from above by Sidh)

And it may seem that the current government's one year plus of pro-poor policies is not mitigating the situation. This is a big structural problem and requires time - time which Thaksin cannot afford to give it must be noted, hence the original Red demand to dissolve parliament in 15 days (and the government’s offer to reduce their term by a year was not acceptable). What this says is that Thai society must not let one man monopolize the poor - whether in the media or in actual content. Then there's the question of the "poor". Somtow, in his excellent article (http://www.somtow.org/2010/05/dont-blame-dan-rivers.html), argues that this is rather the problem of the "rise of the middle class". Thailand is a 'middle-income' country and abject poverty actually occurs in a small minority of the population (less than 9% below poverty line). The majority Thais already have access to basic housing, education, health-care and job opportunities. It is the urban-rural poor to lower-middle class's lack of QUALITY opportunities that is in question. It is this very gap that has been exploited by Mr.Thaksin and radicalized into a "peasant" vs "bourgeoisie" narrative. It is this gap that must be bridged and it is the urgent job for both the government bureaucracies and civil society in order to guarantee societal reconciliation.

There are other factors, whether a robust nationwide 'grassroots' movement to strengthen communities through public participation that I have witnessed with my PhD students in Thailand in the past few months, that also give me cause for optimism. On the other hand, the road ahead will certainly not be smooth - in fact, it will be arduous due to the reasons outlined by the pundits (not to mention the economy at risk from both internal and external factors). On the other hand, I believe that there's a good chance that it will not be that bad either.
http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1975217-2,00.html

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703559004575255931796184648.html#articleTabs%3Darticle

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/opinion/thailands-bitter-divisions-widened-by-bloodshed/story-e6frg6zo-1225868873337

Anonymous said...

A more ‘politicized’ update on Thai politics.
(by author: Sidh)

After the conclusion of two months of political unrest that resulted in numerous deaths and damage to buildings in Bangkok’s shopping district, many international and local pundits paint a scary scenario and that the color conflicts between poor Red Rural Thais (led by a billionaire former prime minister) and rich Yellow Urban Thais will implode into an extended civil war (see links at the end). Any attempt at reconciliation is futile and too late. I am (or have to be) optimistic and believe it's not too late - it never is unless everyone gives up on the whole country. I also argue that there are some factors in country's favor:

Many commentators are not aware of how decentralized Thailand already is and the country already has at least 2 tiers of elected administrative bodies (four for Bangkok with the most tiers). The current war is fought on the top, national government level scale and will require corporate business money to sustain. The government has already frozen the suspect sources of Big Money and investigations are ongoing. If there are convictions and punishments, it will send out the correct signal that the rule of law is in serious operation. Of course, if enforcement is lax (as the police, as an institution, is known to be sympathetic to the Red interests), and funding flows, the Red 'resistance' will quickly rebound. Thais knows that protests in Thailand is rarely spontaneous and, at the national scale of recent Red protests, is very expensive to organize and maintain. Here, it must be noted that the violence up until the very last days of the protest has been geographically limited to a few square kilometers of Bangkok – the rest of the city and country was unaffected. Moreover, it is even more costly to fund an armed militia.

Decentralization manifests in the resilience provided by the elected subdistrict (Tambon), the lowest functioning tier of democracy (there are 7,255 subdistricts). They have a degree of autonomy to manage their own budgets and affair and thus it is often in their interests to keep the peace (unless corporate overrides, of course).

And we must keep in mind that not all the Reds support the violent approach - otherwise it will be way, way more serious (or the downfall of the Thai State as we know it would have already occurred). Like the three southernmost provinces of Thailand, if the majority of Thai Muslims support separation, it will be over decades ago. Millions of people in north and northeast will vote Thaksin's (the deposed prime minister) party in any election, but they won't take up arms to burn every government building and associated opposing businesses (as advocated by the Red leadership at numerous rallies) - otherwise the rest of the country (safe for administrative buildings in three provincial capitals) won't have come through rather intact. In other words, I dare suggest that arsonists and vandals were only paid to rampage in the capital (and not random rampaging as specific buildings were targeted it must be noted). While there will be anger at the government's crackdown of the protest and the very unfortunate deaths (71 protesters and 11 soldiers and police over the two months) and injuries, I am certain that many Red protesters and sympathizers are as shocked and saddened as anyone by the riots and burning. We have to factor in the fact that at Ratchaprasong, the number of protesters was estimated at 3,000-4,000. This is markedly down from the 80,000-100,000 at the peak on a weekend in March at the previous protest site. The previous deadly violence on April 10 between security forces and armed militia supporting Red protesters may have already sorted out the 'moderates' from the 'hard core' Reds.

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