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Supporters of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra gather under a giant portrait of King Bhumibol Adulyadej in Bangkok on March 13. (Sakchai Lalit/Sakchai Lalit/AP)
Supporters of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra gather under a giant portrait of King Bhumibol Adulyadej in Bangkok on March 13. (Sakchai Lalit/Sakchai Lalit/AP)

Globe Essay

Thai democracy on its sickbed Add to ...

Demonstrators in the streets of Bangkok have been taking Thailand one agonizing step further toward the end of its long, often gallant struggle for democracy. If freedom comes to an end in the Land of the Free - that is what the country's name means - this will mark its demise in most of Southeast Asia 35 years after the end of the Vietnam war. Communist China is eagerly waiting to pick up the pieces.

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The red-shirted demonstrators, joined by some well-meaning orange-robed Buddhist monks, are not really for democracy. They are for the return to power of an exiled Sino-Thai kleptomaniac, Thaksin Shinawatra, who tore the country apart politically and economically when he was in power from 2001 to 2006, and will wreak more damage it if he comes back.

In the last analysis, only one man can save Thailand, and he is dying in a Bangkok hospital of heart and other problems. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 82, has been revered by his people since he ascended the throne in 1946.

In 1973, he made Thai democracy possible by ousting a misruling clique of selfish generals during Thailand's first, genuine pro-democracy protests. In 1992, he put his country on what seemed like a lasting democratic path - and cemented his role as political mediator of last resort - by getting rid of another self-centred military junta during even greater popular protests. There is a desperate need for Bhumibol playing this crucial role one last time.

UNDERMINING THE MONARCHY

Mr. Thaksin and his followers, although most of them may not realize it, are anti-royalist.

While robbing the government of at least $1.4-billion while he was prime minister - the sum determined in an unanimous order for repayment from Thailand's supreme court ordering him to pay it back (he was allowed to keep another $900-million) - Mr. Thaksin insidiously sought to undermine the monarchy.

The King's even-handedness is especially needed because his heir apparent, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, shows none of his father's attributes and is widely distrusted. As monarch, he would likely make matters worse.

Since 1932, when absolute monarchy (as portrayed in Anna and the King of Siam ) gave way to constitutional monarchy after the first of many coups, Thailand's politics has zigzagged all over the place. The 116 "promoters" of the coup were mostly young civilian and military bureaucrats from comfortable families, who divided into what amounted to a neo-fascist camp led by Thailand's first strongman, Marshal Pibul Songgram, and a neo-Communist camp led by the mysterious Pridi Phanomyang.

Despite Pibul's anti-Chinese "Thailand for the Thais" reforms - he changed the country's name from Siam - and Pridi's revolutionary rhetoric, there was little to encourage meaningful democracy. Pibul collaborated with the Japanese occupiers during the Second World War, but, thanks to diplomat M.R. Seni Pramoj's refusal to deliver Thailand's declaration of war on the United States, Washington supported Thai aspirations for democracy after the war. The British sharply dissented; secret co-operation between Lord Louis Mountbatten and the scheming Pridi almost brought about a popular Thai revolt, which would have been very likely to result in a Communist takeover. As the first postwar prime minister, Mr. Seni intervened by making public the harsh terms of a proposed peace treaty that would have effectively, if briefly, made Thailand a British colony.

This history shows why democracy has had such trouble sinking deep roots in Thailand.

Thais greatly value their personal freedoms, which can be traced back to the 13th century and their own version of Magna Carta. But they have difficulty bringing together the three elements that bind Thailand: their land, their religion (Theravada Buddhism) and their monarchy.

Repeatedly, generals have been able to seize power. The worst such coup was in 1976; soldiers brutally beat students, and Mr. Seni, again prime minister, was overthrown. But within a year, enlightened generals ousted their regressive comrades and restored the bright shining dream of democracy.

Something similar needs to happen again. Westerners rightly view military coups as bad news. But some Thai generals who put their country above personal spoils. The army overthrew Mr. Thaksin in 2006, not to retake power but to stop him from stealing the country blind while throwing out scraps to impressionable villagers, which had enabled him to win the first majority in the Thai parliament.

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