BANGKOK – There were thousands of people filling the Royal Plaza in front of Thammasat University. While the university’s infamous political opera held the stage, the academics and the public were exchanging views on how to put an end to the corrupt crony capitalism of the majority elected government under the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.
Former Democrat MP Suthep Thaugsuban speaks on stage as tens of thousands of people attend an anti government rally in Bangkok. Demotix/George Henton. All rights reserved.
My phones kept ringing. Although I was not participating in the rally, I was a part of the Thammasat Speakers' Union (TSU), which was to host an English debating session for 250 students nationwide. Believing that debating provides fundamental skills for fostering a democratic society such as critical thinking, persuasion and teamwork, our slogan had been chosen to resonate with the political deadlock taking place at that time: “Make Sense, Not War.”
Everyone asked – ‘To cancel or not to cancel?’
This was in March 2006. It felt like a high tide of Thai democracy when people took to the streets to question and challenge the Government's alleged corruption charges. Not long after, however, the military coup took place that ousted Thaksin. While the involvement of the military was supported by many Bangkok residents and anti-Thaksin campaigners, it also undoubtedly destroyed any hopes of fostering a democratic society in Thailand at that time.
Eight years have since gone by. Many things have changed but in most respects everything seems substantially the same.
But what has changed forever is the attitude of Thai people towards street protests. We have become accustomed to it, whether it is spontaneous or politically manipulated. In the name of “civil disobedience”, we have seen the leaders of demonstrations break into government institutions, close down the airport and take over free TV in order to mobilize their supporters, occupying Thailand’s public spaces and putting pressure on the government.
During the past eight years, we have lost count of how many times protests have erupted –not to mention how many lives have been lost and injuries sustained as a consequence.
Indeed, this has become the new norm of “Thai-style” democracy.
Since they started in November 2013, the goal of such protests has morphed from being a mobilisation directed against the Blanket Amnesty Bill, to expelling Thaksin's regime out of Thai politics so that cleansing the country from corruption may begin.
On January 13, 2014, the protesters will stage another “Shut Down Bangkok”action which intends to occupy twenty key areas in the heart of Bangkok to shut down major government institutions. Confidently and fiercely, protest leaders mobilise their supporters to come out to occupy Bangkok. “One more day” of shutting down Bangkok, they say, and we will reform Thailand.
But interestingly, Sanitsuda Ekachai, Editor of the Bangkok Post, did point out that, “the table has now turned.” Suthep Thuagsuban was the former member of the Democrat Party, and was involved in the government operation to crack down on the red-shirts movement in 2010. He it is who has now become the leader of the demonstrations.
The momentum of this protest owes much to the advent of social media. Thanks to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, the level of public participation has rapidly escalated and intensified, especially amongst the urban populace in Bangkok. News feeds are overflowing with pictures and comments full of political enthusiasm and overt patriotism. This is not to mention the commercialization of protesters’ gadgets such as whistles, t-shirts and headbands in the colours of Thai flags: red, white and blue.
Rightly or wrongly, finally the people of my generation are now all for public participation, talking about "Thailand's future," and debating the meaning of democracy. Politics has indeed become a part of our every day lives. Isn't this what democracy is meant to be?
While social media might help to disseminate information and enables many more people to participate in the democratic process of 'checks and balances', it has also generated hate speech amongst Thai people.
Indeed, the levels to which hate speech has stooped in this country have passed the point of no return.
Stark dichotomies between “us” vs “them,” “educated” vs “uneducated,” and “urban” vs “rural” dominate political discourse in Thailand. While the government's supporters, who are mostly based in the North and Northeastern region of Thailand are labelled as “poor,” “uneducated” and “stupid,” the protesters mostly coming from Democrat Party supporters in Bangkok and the South present themselves as the more sophisticated and educated urban middle class.
As if these formulations aren't racist enough, every day there are new terms and new satirical smears attacking political opponents, generating and exacerbating hatred and enemy images amongst Thais. Quotes are taken out of context, misinformation and disinformation is spread far and wide and violence has been instigated.
How have things gone this far?
Eighty years since the political revolution in Thailand, what has not changed is the bleakest of hopes in parliamentary-style democracy amongst some groups of Thai people. But blatant arguments such as, “Thai people are not ready for fully-fledged democracy,” “the majority of Thai people are not educated enough for elections” or “Thai politicians are so corrupt that we can't survive the tyranny of majority rule” are rampant and becoming ever more entrenched.
The political polarization is so extreme that the Government has even been driven to dissolve parliament and call for a general election on February 2, 2014, - an election in which the opposition party, the Democrat Party, refuses to participate.
Many of those who are demonstrating believe that regardless of how many general elections take place, the Phua Thai Party will win. So they are now talking about the alternatives to general election.
What alternatives? Another military intervention?
Suthep's proposal of an elusive “people’s parliament” or “people’s council” simply isn't feasible. Nor is it acceptable either. The protesters’ dream of a scenario where only the most noble will “elect” from those who are “eligible” the leaders to rule Thailand, is nothing but self-serving and self-selecting personal aggrandizement.
With so much talk in the air, sadly there is no 'dialogue' in Thailand. No one is listening to anyone else. Each side is only listening to their own voices magnified, and reiterating the rhetoric of their own leaders.
At the end of the day, the debate about Thailand’s political future has to be grounded in the principle of one person, one vote, respect for the rules of law and for the parliamentary system. No election is flawless, but without this there is no hope for democracy. The alternative must be a dead end.
In any proper debate, you are judged according to three criteria: matter, manner and method. If the past eight years of political theatre in Thailand are anything to go by – the message is very very simple: Thailand has completely lost the plot.