By PAVIN CHACHAVALPONGPUN
What does Thailand’s protracted political crisis tell its neighboring countries? What are the lessons to be learned from the Thai experiences? And what is the most vital message for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), of which Thailand is a member, as the organisation moves toward a greater regional integration?
The current political stalemate in Thailand is the work of two competing networks; one that supports former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the other the old establishment.
Thaksin is represented by the red-shirt movement which comprises the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), the poor in far-flung regions and underprivileged Thais. The old establishment is supported by Bangkok elite, part of the military and big business. Its notable agent is the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), whose members choose to wear yellow shirts that symbolise the king’s color.
The battle between the two political networks has been ferocious. The Pattaya incident and the Bangkok inferno signalled that at least one side of the network was willing to engage in a warlike fight to undermine its opponent. In the process, leaders of both networks claimed to act for democracy. But their brands of democracy have so far failed to untie the political deadlock.
The deep turmoil in Thailand reveals certain realities which have long existed in the region. Yet, leaders in the region have pretended not to see them. This time, as Thailand found itself on the brink of becoming a failed state, a few lessons could be learned by its neighboring countries.
First, continued crisis and escalating violence imply that democracy has remained a fragile commodity. A decade ago, Thailand was praised for its rapid economic development and progressive democratisation. Today, its political domain is transformed into a battlefield between two powerful forces possessing two different ideologies.
The Thai case shows that an elected government with excessive power, living on corruption and lack of respect for human rights, can be vulnerable; that traditional power-holders must face up to modern-day reality whereby the voice of the majority is the true voice of democracy; that the military has to be depoliticised for the sake of democracy; and that violent means employed to serve political purposes only further alienate democracy.
The rise of the red-shirt movement has the potential to lead a new opinion in certain Southeast Asian states where democratic rights have been taken away from the people. Not every member of the red shirts supports Thaksin. Some have participated in the rallies genuinely for the return of real democracy to the majority of Thais.
Second, although the power struggle is a part of Thailand’s democratic evolution and this proves that the country has come a long way since the political transition in 1932, its political drama does not necessarily encourage positive changes in certain parts of the region. It could send out the wrong message.
The message, for example, that anti-government activities must not be tolerated. The message that stability is more precious than changes, or even more than democratic rights, and that challenge in all forms to the ruling regime must not be allowed. And that Western democracy is not really compatible with Asian societies, as defended by Asian leaders for generations.
In other words, the Thai conflict could have compelled illegitimate regimes elsewhere, including Burma, to tighten their grip of power for fear of public disobedience and uncontrollable situations.
Third, Asean has been led to believe that the sole major obstacle to regional integration stems from the widening gap between the more and the less economically developed members. Unless Asean closes this economic gap, regional integration will remain largely elusive.
Yet, Asean leaders have overlooked the fact that a widening political gap, in terms of different levels of democratic development, has also affected the process of regionalism. The Thai political unrest has already delayed Asean gatherings. The political storm has held back the Thai leadership in Asean. The organisation has been operating on autopilot since last year. The slow response to the global financial crisis proved this point.
However, this is not Thailand’s problem alone. The gap in the levels of democratisation in the region has so far tarnished the good works Asean has achieved in other areas.
This existing political gap has produced different mentalities and attitudes among Asean leaders as they look ahead into the future. Some are enthusiastic about Asean’s newborn regionalism. Some are using Asean as merely a symbol of their pretentious embrace of international norms and practices.
Both Thailand and Asean have a long way to go until they meet their needed objectives. Crisis in Thailand can be used to remind its neighbours that true democratisation is an extremely arduous process. But its postponement would only make this exercise even more excruciating and troublesome.
The author is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. This commentary is his personal view.