Power of the People Fights Democracy in Thai Protests
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Power of the People Fights Democracy in Thai Protests
By SETH MYDANS
Published: September 11, 2008
(A version of this article appeared in print on September 12, 2008, on page A12 of the New York edition.)
BANGKOK — It looks a lot like a “people power” revolution, the kind of brave and joyous pro-democracy uprising that has toppled dictators from the Philippines to Serbia.
For more than two weeks, thousands of people have camped on the grounds of the prime minister’s office, cheering and clapping as speakers with microphones have stood on the back of a truck and called for the downfall of the government.
But in fact the protest is more like a counterrevolution by the Thai establishment against the rising electoral power of the mostly rural poor.
The government the protest seeks to bring down, whatever its faults, was democratically elected with a huge majority. The new order the protest proposes would roll back democracy by replacing an elected Parliament with one that is mostly appointed, keeping power in the hands of the country’s royalist, bureaucratic, military elite.
“This is a very weird situation where a reactionary movement is mobilizing people by using conservative ideology mixed with leftist language,” said Prajak Kongkeerati, a leading political scientist at Thammasat University.
In the vision of the protesters, power would run top-down, as it does in the hierarchy of traditional Thai society.
The confrontation reflects a dynamic that is visible throughout the region: an underclass that is growing in power and an entrenched establishment that is pushing back.
The government, for its part, is hardly democratic, pursuing autocratic policies and seeking to neutralize the checks and balances of the Constitution. It is the friendly successor to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup in 2006 after a six-year tenure during which he worked to centralize power in his own hands while cracking down on the free press and on independent organizations.
Whichever way the confrontation ends, analysts say, democracy is unlikely to be the winner.
Although Thailand has in recent years been seen as a beacon of democracy in Asia, the system has always been tenuous, plagued by coups and corruption.
Since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, its governments have been unstable and mostly short-lived coalitions, scrapping and replacing their constitutions 17 times. They have been subject to two corrective forces particular to Thailand: repeated intervention by the military and by the monarchy.
There have been 18 coups since 1932, and Thai commentators say conditions are ripe for a coup now. The army chief, Gen. Anupong Paochinda, has promised that this will not happen, but promises like this have been broken in the past.
If the situation becomes critical, many Thais hope King Bhumibol Adulyadej will step in as he has several times over the years to defuse confrontations. The king stands above the fray of politics, but he is deeply revered and his word is the authority of last resort in a country that has still not found its political footing.
Calling themselves the People’s Alliance for Democracy, or P.A.D., protesters have occupied the grounds of the prime minister’s office since Aug. 26, forcing him to move the business of government elsewhere.
In a strange twist unrelated to the protest, the prime minister, Samak Sundaravej, was removed from office on Tuesday after a court ruled that he had violated the Constitution by accepting payments to appear on a television cooking show while in office. His party is now divided over whether to re-nominate him as prime minister — an outcome that would be sure to incense the protesters.
In any case, the protests show no sign of easing at the moment. They go beyond a challenge to one government and are rooted in social and political divides that have only hardened in the past three years of political tension. It is a story of haves and have-nots, with the haves rising up against the poorer classes.
Traditionally in Thailand, governments have pursued policies that reflect the country’s hierarchical culture, favoring the urban elite.
“We can say that every government has a policy platform that has an urban bias,” Mr. Prajak, the political scientist, said. “So when elections come, they court the support of the rural vote. But when they are in power, they formulate policy that favors the urban and industrial sector.”
Because of this, he said, “we have an unequal growth between the agricultural sector and the industrial sector.
“This gives us the very high gap in income distribution.”
Mr. Thaksin tapped into this disparity, placing the poor at the center of his governing strategy with populist policies like low-cost health care and debt relief. Poor and rural voters found their voice in voting for him, creating an overwhelming electoral base that gave him and his allies increasing economic and political power that some saw as a challenge to the monarchy.
The People’s Alliance is a self-contradictory mix of royalist elites, generals and business professionals with some liberal democrats, students and trade unionists, united only by their opposition to the pro-Thaksin government.
But at its core, the People’s Alliance would move Thailand away from the basic democratic principle of one person one vote, Mr. Prajak said. “Many Thai elite don’t believe in that,” he said.
The People’s Alliance would return the country to a 20-year-old model of “semi-democracy,” in which the bureaucracy and the military have a role in politics and business professionals share a voice with elected representatives, Mr. Prajak said.
In their resistance to democracy, the protesters are squarely in a political camp that has roots deep in Thai history, said Thongchai Winichakul, a professor of Southeast Asian history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“The P.A.D. is a variation of the deep-rooted hierarchical society,” he said. “In a nutshell, it’s a kind of distrust of the people.”
He added: “You can find this idea beginning in the late 19th century, when King Chulalongkorn said Thai people do not want democracy, that Thai people trust the king.
“Throughout all the years that kind of idea remained,” Mr. Thongchai said. “People are not ready.”