from Asia Unbound

Thailand’s Political Crisis—Not so Unique

December 19, 2013

An anti-government protester holds a placard as she gathers with others during a rally at a major business district in Bangkok on December 19, 2013. (Athit Perawongmetha/Courtesy Reuters)
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As Thailand heads into the new year, which will mark four months of political crisis, one of the most persistent—and dangerous—concepts in Thai politics remains this idea that Thailand is somehow unique. According to this popular theory, Thailand’s history, politics, and potential political solutions are completely unique, untethered from the experiences of any other developing nations. This Thailand-as-unique narrative clearly comes across in the rhetoric of the anti-government protest movement and its quest for rule by a few good men, in the weakness of studies of comparative politics in the kingdom, and in the denunciation of foreign academics and journalists who write about Thailand.

Overall, the Thailand-as-unique narrative can be seen in the general reluctance of many Thai opinion leaders on both red and yellow sides to admit that many of the country’s problems do bear a strong resemblance to those of many of Thailand’s neighbors. (New Mandala had a fine short summary of the anger expressed against foreign journalists in Thailand.)

Thai politics contain some unique aspects. The country is a constitutional monarchy that does not really function like a constitutional monarchy, and one where the limitations of the monarch are not really clearly defined. It has had more military coups than almost any other middle-income nation, and it retains a “coup culture” (the term of Australian National University professor Nicholas Farrelly) that has largely vanished from most other middle-income developing nations.

But in many ways, Thailand is not so unique, and there are lessons to be learned from other democratizing nations—once Thai opinion leaders get beyond the idea of Thai uniqueness. Many countries have made a gradual transition to democracy only to find that some segments of the middle class and elite dislike the shift in power engendered by democratization, and look to extra constitutional means of subverting democracy. In countries like Spain, for instance, remnants of the military/bureaucratic/business elite repeatedly tried to bring down elected governments in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But as King Juan Carlos and other top military leaders repeatedly stymied coups and other interventions, it became accepted that coups were no longer feasible in Spain, and most elites reconciled themselves to democratic politics.

The Thai army’s reluctance, during this round of political protests, to consider an extra constitutional intervention, bodes well for a future in which resorting to coups as a means of subverting democracy is no longer acceptable in Thailand as well.

Similarly, other countries in the region have made a gradual transition toward building trusted formal institutions of conflict mediation and away from having disputes mediated by informal institutions gathered around one or two top leaders, as was common in Suharto’s Indonesia and has been the case with Thailand’s network monarchy for years. Indonesia slowly has built a more stable and trusted court system, and more trusted institutions designed to monitor elections and address potential electoral fraud. Poorer than Thailand, and in many ways far more divided and harder to govern, Indonesia nonetheless has created reasonably stable formal institutions, allowing politics to be channeled through a system, and no longer through the hands of a small handful of men and women.

Right now Thailand’s political future seems grim, and January almost surely will bring more violence in Bangkok; yesterday someone firebombed the home of prominent anti-government protest leader and former Democrat Party spokeswoman Chitpas Bhirombhakdi. But if Thai opinion leaders can move beyond their myopia, and admit that Thailand is not actually so special, they can see that, in the long term, there are many other examples to offer them hope.

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