Old wine in a new bottle

By Patipat Kittichokwattana

11 June 2019, more than 2 months from general election, Thailand officially have a new (but same old) prime minister. Although remain the same but we are somewhat grateful because this is the most critical power transition from military junta to a more democratic governance under parliamentary system. We have never expected a full democracy because it derived from uncommon constitution. We can obviously see some dictator leftover especially in the transitory provision section that allow the appointed senators to vote for prime minister, as an example. Unless, we shall review the lost decade phenomena.

After 1992 middle class uprising and promulgation of the so-called 1997 people’s constitution, it entailed a stronger government to accomplish policies and eventually manipulation of power structure. The new government satisfied rural people with grassroot development and resources redistribution policies.  But it was growing suspicious in the eyes of conservatives. Until 2005, the occurrence of conflict of interest and abuses of power evoked the mass demonstrations. The political tension was drastically escalated and struggled in prolonged political crises. Consequently, Thailand suffered a series of political unrest, coup d’état, authoritarian regime, new constitution draft, general election, and installed a new government, repeatedly.

Since the new millennium, there were 5 political unrest that spurred by yellow shirt in 2005, 2008, and 2013, while the red shirt in 2009 and 2010. It was approximately every 4 years chaos. Military coup d’état in 2006 and 2014 in which consequent on 2 constitutions abolishing. Totally 4 provincial government offices and 2 shopping complexes arson. Government house and airport seizure. Sadly, more than 2,800 injuries and 100 died in 2008 and 2010 riot control operations. Moreover, economic performance declined due to decreasing in domestic consumption and investment and doubled worsening by ceasing of foreign investment and tourism. Thailand political-economic was perceived negatively in global perspective.

Thailand political conflict widely known as fights between yellow and red shirts. Some said these were ideological collision between autocrat-commoner, capitalist-socialist, royalist-republican, central-peripheral, to name a few. Marc Saxer[1] point to the resistance to change during transition period. It unveiled incompatibility between old elites in the central and new middle class from the local. The old perceived rapid expansion of the new as threats to power structure in which might harm their interest. Coupled with the conservative middle class who unwilling to admit emerging majority of the new and fear of losing role in political order. They jointly tackled down the new as to protect their values.

However, the emerging middle-class successfully step on the political sphere. They established tight relationship with big business, local elites, local middle class, and vast majority of poor rural. Simultaneously, it invoked class consciousness of the marginal population. They started to call for participatory political, rearrange power, resources redistribution, and bargaining a new social contract. Unfortunately, while political-economic had increasing complexities, government found unable to manage proper transformation. Despite democratic mechanisms were expected to deliver better resolution, it seems unsatisfied by red and yellow. It finally reached the dead-end and came another crisis.

Lose-lose situation forced Thai to hopelessly conceded necessity of military power to compel peace. Like previous coup, military junta publicly proposed to establish political order and handle political reformation. However, it’s important to note that Thai conflict dilemma is the crises between old and new political, social, and economic order. While traditional ideologies such as “good ruler” and “Thainess democracy” are being contested, modern form such as “pluralist society” and “electoral majority” are not accepted yet. Moreover, top down and exclusive decision-making are no longer work in this complex situation. By no means, we were heading for 2019 general election.

After 15 hours long debate, General Prayuth Chan-ocha easily gained all votes from his hand-picked senators and won more than half votes from allied members of parliament. He has finally been selected to be the next prime minister. But his government may certainly face more difficulties since no decisively win. Rough roads lie ahead. This is the most challenge for immature 87-year old democracy to deliver political stability as well as reconcile social incompatibility. And, importantly, handle peaceful transformation to a new social contract that rely on inclusive participation and rule of law.

Deliberative democracy may need to tackle Thailand political crisis, someone dream about.


[Photo Credit: www.scmp.com]

[1] Marc Saxer. (2014). In the vertigo of change: How to resolve Thailand’s transformation crisis. Bangkok: Openworld.

Patipat Kittichokwattana, PhD candidate at College of Law, Government and International Studies, Universiti Utara Malaysia.