Wednesday, September 20, 2006

In Contest Between Democracy and Autocracy, So Far It's Not a Thai

Trite though it is, when I read about the bloodless coup that yesterday removed Thailand's pime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, from power, I wondered if his second name was Thai for Sinatra. If so, the billionaire has probably belatedly realized that, in politics, you can't always do things your way.

By some accounts, Thaksin, a former police official who made a fortune in telecommunications, had seen his landslide election victories as license for doing anything he wanted, abusing human rights, and bungling a conflict with a Muslim insurgency. On top of his autocratic impulses, the deposed prime minister also felt no hesitation about using his power to add to his fortune or to skirt financial disclosure laws.

Though perhaps Thaksin is a bad man, it's hard not to feel sqeamish about this coup--or any coup. I'm always wary of people who claim to act in extra-constitutional ways in order to save constitutional democracy. (I note too, that the coup leaders have said that they will take one year to draft a new constitution.)

But the most disturbing thing I've read about this coup is a statement from a Thai professor. Referring to the seventeen previous Thai coups that have occurred since 1932, Somjai Phagapasvivat said, "This coup will be different from the previous coups. Before, it was done in the interests of the military. This time, it was a necessary pre-emptive strike given the violent polarization of Thai society."

Several thoughts about this statement:
1. When is a coup legitimate? Is it ever legitimate? And if a coup can ever be legitimate, is "polarization" a sufficient justification? After all, polarization, is just another word for difference of opinion. That's supposed to happen in a democratic state.

I realize that in less mature democracies, the ability to challenge the kind of incipient autocracy of which Thaksin was allegedly guilty may not be strong. But was it necessary for a military which had refrained from coup-making for fifteen years and had operated under the current constitution for nine years to once more harm democratic development by interposing its will on the political process?

2. More disturbing was Somjai Phagapasvivat's use of the term "necessary pre-emptive strike" to justify the coup. Pre-emption is always undertaken on the bases not of what has happened or of what clearly will happen, but of what may happen.

The United States has the attention of the world, from enemies as well as friends. I wonder if one of the unintended consequences of the US war in Iraq, a pre-emptive action designed to prevent the regime of Saddam Hussein from using weapons of mass destruction, is that it has given rhetorical cover for all sorts of pre-emptive actions that may or may not be appropriate.

One final point. Democracy has become the preferred style of governance in the twenty-first century. But in order for democracy to work, there must be a social infrastructure in place.

That infrastructure must incorporate:
  • an understanding of the delicate balance between rights and responsibilities that allow democracies to work
  • a culture of respect for differences of opinion
  • the confidence that grievances can be redressed
  • education as to the functioning of one's government
  • a reasonably informed electorate
I also believe, like John Adams, that the long-term prospects for democracies are buttressed by a culture that is dependent on God and committed to the love of neighbor. But this isn't something that can be or that should be forced on people.

Absent this infrastructure, democracy has no chance of functioning or of being coup-resistant. The lack of such a cultural framework may help to explain why Thailand and other countries are lurching toward democracy so fitfully.

[You might also be interested in reading:
The Promise and the Perils of Democracy
Part One
Part Two
Part Three

Habits of the Heart
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five]

[See this for a profile of Thailand]


Icepick said...

Mark, you may find the information at the following link useful.

Mark Daniels said...

Thanks for the link. The information in the post dovetails with much of what I've read about the deposed PM, not a real nice guy.