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Democracy deficit

Latest bombings in Thailand point to older unresolved questions. Less democracy is not the answer.

By: |
August 13, 2016 12:34:58 am

Less than a week after Thailand adopted a new constitution, giving the country’s military sweeping powers to guide the country’s destiny, notice has been served that the promise of stability held out by praetorianism is an illusion. Thursday and Friday saw four people killed in bombings at the upmarket resort of Hua Hin, Phuket, and the provinces of Trang and Surat Thani — evidence that the new, military-led Thailand is unlikely to be very different from the old civilian-ruled one. The Thai government has said it has no idea, as yet, who carried out the bombings, but both Islamist insurgents in the country’s south, and anti-regime political dissidents, have carried out similar attacks in the past. For some years now, such attacks have fuelled the anxieties of the Thai élite, as well as significant sections of the population. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, now 84, has reigned for 74 years, keeping society together but his controversial successor-designate, crown prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, does not enjoy the same legitimacy across factions. The ethnic-religious insurgency in the south, and the rise of peasant-based political populism constitute threats to the cultural order on which the state has been built.

The new constitution, adopted by a majority of 61 per cent, in a referendum which saw a relatively low turnout of 59 per cent, is intended to hold together the country in the face of these complex threats. It gives the military the right to nominate all 250 members of the country’s upper house of parliament — up from half in the old constitution — and, in addition, to pass legislation without parliament’s consent. Put simply, this means the army has control of Thailand’s political life. The new constitution was passed under controversial circumstances, including the arrests of pro-democracy activists, while the media was barred from publishing what the government called “false information”.

Less democracy isn’t the answer to the problems Thailand faces. The country has had 19 military coups and 20 constitutions since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932 — all pointing to the real problem, which is the élite’s failure to embrace genuine democratisation. Two years ago, when the military staged its last coup, it acted to depose populist Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra; in 2006, it had deposed her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra. The truth is that the narrow élite consensus holding the country together needs broadening. The failure to do so will, tragically, engender more violence — and do nothing to heal the schisms the country’s élite fear could end up tearing it apart.

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First published on: 13-08-2016 at 12:34:58 am
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