Will Thailand’s Democracy Re-Emerge? Today’s Nationwide Vote

Posted by Keith on August 19, 2007 at 2:11 am  

Pattaya, Thailand

Today, Sunday, August 19, Thailand is holding a nationwide referendum on a proposed new constitution. While it is expected to pass, regional vote tallies will give Thailand’s currently unelected leaders some insight into the level of resentment many, if not most, Thais still feel about the military coup they staged here on September 19, 2006.

The popular Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra (Thaksin), was in New York last September to address the United Nations. And well should he have been. He had made tremendous strides to eradicate the drug trade from Thailand, he had instituted many basic reforms, and he was presiding over solid economic growth at home.

Thaksin was nearly as popular as the Royal Family here, which is beloved.

Mr. Thaksin was already a very wealthy man when he took office, having made hundreds of millions – perhaps billions – in Thailand’s telecommunications industry.

But as he made last-minute refinements to his speech in New York, the Thai military marched into the seat of government here and declared to the world that Thaksin had engaged in corruption for himself and his family, that the current constitutional system of checks and balances here had failed, and that they would relinquish power to an elected government under a new constitution at the first opportunity.

Nobody particularly believed the corruption accusations. And nobody believed that the military had acted on its own. Numerous powerful interests here seemed behind the coup. Thaksin had clearly upset some people.

Since then, in addition to stupidly hurting the Thai economy by freezing the exchange rate of the Baht (a move the generals quickly undid), the military, and the officials who support it, have thrown nearly every criminal charge imaginable at Thaksin.

Perhaps the most serious accusation is that 2500 alleged drug dealers in Thailand were murdered during Mr. Thaksin’s war on drugs, and that somehow he was responsible. Scanning the papers here, I have seen no direct evidence presented that Prime Minister Thaksin was directly or indirectly linked to these deaths; and there seems to have been little effort to explore the possibility that many of the alleged victims were killed by other drug dealers, or by authorities in the course of their lawful duties. Anti-Thaksin conspiracy theories abound in the national press here, which either voluntarily or through coercion seems generally to support those who undertook the coup.

Charges in connections with many of the drug-related deaths, along with a constantly expanding list of corruption charges, have been brought against Thaksin. The current Thai government is expected to begin extradition proceedings against Thaksin who now resides in London, and who has already retained counsel to fight extradition.

Thaksin, it seems to me, has taken the perfectly reasonable position that he cannot possibly obtain a fair trial in Thailand under the current regime. How would people who violated Thailand’s constitution to remove Thaksin from office be trusted to abide by Thailand’s lesser laws to ensure a fair trial?

Meanwhile, a committee appointed by the leaders of the coup have prepared, and have presented to the people, a new 200-page constitution for their approval. They say the constitution will avoid the alleged abuses that occurred under Prime Minister Thaksin.

Remembering that the U.S. Constitution is only a few pages long, the idea of a 200-page national charter does not strike me as particularly enlightened or practical. But that’s the document about which all Thais will vote today. Few have read it. Fewer still even pretend to understand it.

Many Thais supported the old, simpler, constitution – the one that was ignored by the leaders of the coup. Still, to move the country forward, most Thais will probably support the proposed charter. Certainly the papers here that I’ve seen have assumed the role of virtual cheerleaders for the document.

Wrong Conclusion – and a Remarkable History

Despite this political melodrama, it would be wrong to view Thailand as just another petty kingdom unable to get its act together. Even from my limited perspective here in Pattaya, it is obvious that Thailand is a nation of wonderful, productive and peace-loving people, who have eagerly embraced the 21st century. It is business as usual here despite the histrionics emanating from the generals and their supporters.

Although its political situation is certainly complicated, Thailand remains a nation on the move; and one where an observer can readily believe that democratic traditions will be fully restored (they were not undone at the legislative or local levels) soon.

Thailand has a tradition of overcoming delicate situations. It, for example, has never been occupied by a foreign power, often using guile rather than military strength to protect itself. Even when the Japanese occupied all of Asia during WWII, Thailand exempted itself by signing on as a Japanese ally while quietly helping the Allies defeat them.

Time will tell whether that sort of creativity will propel the people of Thailand past pompous law-breaking generals, past a 200-page constitution, and into a democratic and prosperous future.


2 Comments so far

  1. Tim on August 19, 2007 10:23 am


    I heard you talking on the radio about Asian rim countries’ naval build up. Loved the show (but alarmed about the content).

    Anyway, I was in Thailand while the newspapers were slamming Thaksin (before he was ousted). Newspapers were definitely biased. I never got the feeling that I was hearing the Thaksin side of the allegations.

    I look forward to reading more on your site here…Tim

  2. John on August 25, 2007 6:14 am

    Hi Keith:

    Hope your cracked rip is mending and you are feeling better. Pattaya Beach…I spend a lot of time there when I was in the Air Force…We always stayed at the Dusit Resort.
    Thanks for the history lesson on Thailand, I do enjoy reading your commentaries as well as listening to your radio show on Sunday.


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