The “death of democracy” has not left much of a vacuum in Thailand. It was more like the death of somebody’s old uncle, whose name had been familiar in the household for many years, but who died, where he had always lived, in some far-off town the family never quite got around to visiting — although they had always meant to, or at least that’s what they said.
If there is one profound reality in Thai politics it is the fact that this country has absolutely no democratic tradition, and any attempt to introduce one is going to meet violent opposition. The people who need democracy don’t even know what the word means; the people who know what it means don’t need it and they don’t mind saying so. If the National Peace and Order Maintaining Council (NCPO) requires that democracy in Thailand become a fact instead of just a pleasant word, then the Council is in for rough sledding too, which is the reason why it’s not on their agenda.
This is the basis of the current “misunderstanding” between Washington and Bangkok. If the Thai people were as concerned about democracy as is President Obama, this country would right now be in the throes of a violent civil war. What happened in Bangkok during May 2014 was more than enough to touch off armed conflict in many countries of the world, but democracy has never been a reality in Thailand, and for that reason it goes largely unmourned; especially in Bangkok, which strongly supported the return of a military government in order to replace the democratically elected Yingluck Shinawatra.
On May 22, an un-elected military government issued a Decree-Law, assuming all executive and legislative powers, and Thailand passed officially into the hands of the military.
It requires little guesswork, however, to see what this trend means for the for the future of democracy in South East Asia. The outlook is dreary at best, and as the pressure from Washington mounts the reaction will mount just as fast.
Even so, after all these months of tension, all the space devoted in newspapers to the NCPO’s efforts to restore peace, a visitor to Bangkok arrives with a feeling that there is bound to be some evidence that the whole thing was a bust — that it was all a put-up job, because the Armed Forces did exactly what they said they were going to do all along.
When the Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai Party won Thailand’s last election, the military called it a “fraud,” and following protests in the capitol, they took over the government, annulled what was undeniably as honest and as fraudulent election in Thailand’s history, and installed a four-man junta that is a military dictatorship no matter which way you look at it.
Yet life goes on in Bangkok as if nothing had happened. The evening streets are full of pretty girls and slick-haired men in business suits, the western tourists walk the streets with an air of unspoken adventure, noodle vendors serve their customers on the tables and chairs that clutter the pavement along Sukhumvitt Road, and the soft rustle of money changing hands as another prostitutes bar fine has been successfully negotiated, and the all the bars sound as if their frenzied Sang-Som-swilling patrons have abandoned all hope of ever seeing another dawn.
This is Bangkok, democracy or no democracy, dictators or no dictators. The city is full of people, in fact, who say that what happened is precisely nothing at all. They point out that the people in power now are those who have always been in power and that those faces on the outside, looking in, are the same faces that have been there for as long as anyone in Thailand can remember. It is foolish, they say, to talk about the Junta “seizing the reins,” because the Junta is nothing more than a dress-uniform version of the same power bloc that has held the reins for centuries.
It is only in times of crisis that it puts on the jackboots and goes into the street with truncheons. In times of peace it wears mufti and busies itself with other, less militant pursuits — primarily that of maintaining itself in the style to which it has long been accustomed. It is as old as the Incas and every bit as ruthless with opposition. Its counterpart in the U.S. has been labelled The Power Elite. In Thailand it is called the Forty Families, an all-powerful aristocracy that makes its North American cousin look weak and tame by comparison.
One Bangkok-based American businessman explained. “You just can’t have democracy here. The people don’t understand it. Thaksin was the same way: he went out to the rice fields and sat down with the common people — I saw him myself, with his feet propped up on the rail and the top of his hose showing — why, they thought he was crazy. It was absolutely incomprehensible, even to the people he was trying to make friends with. If you want to get anywhere here, you have to make people respect you.”
However sad a commentary that may be on a lot of things — American businessmen included — it is sadder still because there is a lot of truth in it. From the beginning of their history the Thai people have been conditioned to understand that these are the only two kinds of human beings in this world — the Ins and the Outs, and a vast gulf in between.
The strange assumption in Bangkok’s business community — Americans and Thai’s alike — is that President Obama would join them in their endorsement of The System in Thailand “if he could only understand it.” Their most common criticism of the west is that they try to force-feed democracy to a people who had not the faintest idea what democracy is, Afghanistan and Iraq being most commonly mentioned.
‘To the humble, to the forgotten farmer, to the worker, to the voter who has been deprived in many cases of the elementary social, economic and cultural benefits, it is now being attempted to take from him also his only hope — that of gaining the progress and social justice he deserves, to wipe out his liberty to vote with accusations of fraud.
What is more than obvious in Bangkok that the biggest fraud in the whole affair was the military’s attempt to explain and justify the coup. It is hard to find anyone who seriously believes they took over because of “a great electoral fraud which nullified .” The February 2014 election was made invalid by supporters of the minority Democratic party barricaded polling stations preventing people from exercising their constitutional right to vote. A month prior to the election the Democratic party withdrew in an attempt to discredit the validity of the vote, even though it was obvious to anyone that the Democratic Party had absolutely no chance of winning the election. Essentially this left only one party on the ballot paper and Pheu Thai were re-elected.
The Junta has not committed to schedule new elections but they have stated that they will not happen before September 2015, but the only people in Bangkok who seem to believe it are taxi drivers, hotel clerks and a varied assortment of small jobholders who supported the coup of 2006. In the circle most heartily in agreement with the takeover — namely, the wealthy business owners, Bangkok elite and finance community — the betting is against elections next year. “These boys are in to stay,” said the president of a U.S. businessmen’s society. “Once they get the taste of sugar on their tongues they’re not going to give it up.”
“Let’s be smart about it,” he added. “The rich people are running this country. They’re running the country back home. Why not face facts and be thankful for what stability we have? These people are anti-Communist. Let’s recognize the Junta, keep the aid flowing, and get on with it.” He smiled indulgently.
Nearly everybody who wears a tie in Bangkok feels the same way. For the Bangkok elite business is good in Thailand and the vested interests want to keep it that way. Even the taxi driver, who is making a good living because there are enough people on the streets with money in their pockets, does not particularly care who the prime minister is just so long as they don’t upset the economic apple cart.
This is what almost happened. Pheu Thai, the red shirts were far more than just another political party; it posed a genuine threat to a way of life that was established over 700 years before the U.S. was born. To say that the takeover came simply because of this longstanding feud with Pheu Thai is to gloss over the fact that the entire ruling class in Thailand regards Pheu Thai as more dangerous than communism, more dangerous even than a cohort of literate rice farmers.
Pheu Thai, primarily because of its appeal to the millions of voteless, poorly educated citizens, is by long odds still the main threat to Thailand’s status quo. At the moment, the party is still reeling from the jolt of having its election victory annulled and many of its members arrested by the military after the coup. As such, to date they have received next to no media exposure, but even if the public have forgotten them, it will take little to refresh their memory when the date of the next election is set. And when that time comes Pheu Thai will reemerge from out of the political shadows, like a child molester locked inside an orphanage. Pheu Thai propose to represent the interests of the average poor, illiterate Thai citizen, unfortunately for the elite, the poor, illiterate Thai citizen represents a majority, making them a formidable voice at election time. A society with such a disparate allocation of wealth is always going to struggle to run a democracy, but in all honesty as long as the alcohol prices stay low enough, the masses might still be appeased.
This is based on an article written by Hunter S Thompson whilst on a visit to Peru in February 1969. I was struck by how accurately the situation he reported on mirrored the situation in Thailand and I wondered what Dr. Thompson would make of it. I hope what I have done offends neither the people of Thailand nor the memory of Dr. Thompson. Essentially all I have done is substitute the words Peru and Lima, for Thailand and Bangkok, as well as any other conflicting pronouns specific to Peru’s situation in 1968 for the main protagonists of the Thai situation. The circumstances I have endeavored to leave as closely as to how they were originally described by Dr. Thompson.