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Democratic transition in Thailand

By Keith Suter - posted Tuesday, 13 May 2014


Political turmoil continues in Thailand. There is a lot of media interest in the fate of ousted prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the future of the Shinawatra dynasty (her brother Thaksin – who was ousted in 2006 – is now living in exile in the Middle East).

But I think this obsession with personalities is missing the larger context. Banning the Shinawatra dynasty from being prime minister will not solve Thailand's problems. Thailand is in a democratic transition – and history shows us that democratic transitions tend to be messy.

The country's system of absolute monarchy ended in 1932 and then there were decades of military rule. The monarch remains a revered figure in Thai society but is more a figurehead than a chief executive officer. There have been 18 military coups since 1932 and so the king is a symbol of stability and continuity in a period of great unrest.

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The move to a democracy

Thailand's route to democracy has continued via its 1997 constitution which has provided a greater opportunity for poor people to have a say in running the country. Billionaire politician Thaksin Shinawatra realized that this represented a new era and so he created policies to appeal to the rural masses and not just the urban Bangkok elite.

He - and then later his sister - have done very well at winning elections. Government expenditure on the rural sector has moved from about 10 per cent of the total expenditure to 25 per cent. Their supporters wear Red Shirts.

The peasants have caught on that democracy has a lot going for it. That is why the brother and sister have done so well at elections. They are creating policies that appeal to the masses.

Yellow Shirts

Many of the urban elite have been appalled at the way in which the rural peasants now have a say in running the country.

The Yellow Shirt protesters want to scrap the current democracy. Their protests are not a re-run of protests in other countries where the elections have been rigged. The Yellow Shirts are not so much contesting the results (which always favour the Shinawatra dynasty) as wanting to scrap the entire process. They want a return to the old order of a small elite running the country, who would then focus on the priorities of the urban population.

Will the military intervene?

One way of resolving the current deadlock could be for the military - again – to intervene.

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But here there is another lesson from the history of democracy.

A military can run a poor peasant society. The primary tasks are to maintain order and try to ensure that there is enough food to avoid starvation (some military in other countries have not been able to even achieve that).

But Thailand is now a modern developed society. It is a nation of 70 million people which attracts about 22 million tourists each year. This is a sophisticated service economy. The military cannot run hotels and travel agencies.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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