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Lessons in democracy from the streets of Bangkok

Publication Date : 09-12-2013


Whether or not the massive nationwide anti-government protests, particularly on the streets of Bangkok, will lead to any meaningful changes in our political culture and system remains to be seen.

One thing is clear though: the marathon demonstrations have brought forth striking literary works inspired by the largest political event in Thailand's history. Whatever you call it - "street poetry" "protest art" or the "music of grievances" - this new genre of popular art has sprung spontaneously from the dusty concrete footpaths and the emotional depths of protesters, supporters and bystanders.

And powerful quotations from philosophers and thinkers of politics and democracy from ancient Greece to the genius of modern eras were invoked to justify their "right to rebel" against what they perceive to be an unjust government. Social media has been the best instrument to share with millions around the country and help galvanise the overwhelming support from the country's agitated electorate.

Arrogance of power

The very first issue of grievance articulated day in and day out on the pavement of Rajdamneon Avenue is the arrogance of power. Hundreds of thousands of multitude from all walks of life and all corners of the country, armed only "with a pair of sport shoes and a pure heart", converged for one and the same reason, ie. the abuse of power by the majority over the limits of the laws and the bounds of decency which have been social norms and cultural traits of the Thai society. This is what Thomas Jefferson called "elective despotism".

When the majority in the two Houses of Parliament dragged every controversial issue through the legislative process against the protest of the minority, sometimes submitting different documents from what have been passed by the other body, often times allowing others to slip voting cards in their absence, many times shunning many members from expressing their opinion on the ground that "the sense of the majority seem to be overwhelming already," the resulting legislative products would be flawed both in their substance and in their procedural integrity. The Thai Constitutional Court handed down its majority opinion on 20 November, calling the House' s procedure in an effort to amend the Constitution "illegal".

Prior to the Constitutional Court's ruling, hundreds of thousands of people were already on the streets of Bangkok and at provincial halls around the country protesting against an Amnesty Bill aiming at whitewashing all criminal acts committed since Sept 19, 2006 coup against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra all the way to May 10, 2013. It would have been a sweeping amnesty for all sorts of crimes.

It was argued that the Bill would have undermined the rule of law, reversing verdicts of other courts, including the conviction against Thaksin himself and the confiscation of his "ill-gotten wealth".

This was perceived to be an act of injustice. And we heard the Oxford-educated Korn Chatikavanij, a Democrat MP of Bangkok and former minister of finance under the Abhisit Government, invoking Thomas Jefferson on the Rajdamneon stage in front of tens of thousands of people: "When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty." The crowd roared and applauded approvingly.

Facebook, Line and other forms of social media during the month-long protests certainly helped raised a higher level of political awareness and sophistication of the people in Bangkok and around the country. They shared photos, poems, articles from newspapers and video clips of powerful and persuasive speakers relevant to the controversial acts or omissions of the government. One reached all the way to the Greek sage from 5th Century BC, Plato. He was quoted as admonishing people who remain uninterested and silent on political issues, known as Thai cheuy, "One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics, is that you end up being governed by your inferiors." That certainly sounds a bit condescending, but such is the nature of Thai politics at the moment.

The urban and rural divide has been an Achilles heel of Thai politics all along. And the general impression of the Bangkok middle class is that the politicos in charge of the country now are full of country bumpkins and inferior than themselves. Such a condescending attitude can understandably create a strong sense of resentment from the provincial folks. Coming from a rural village myself, I can appreciate that resentment. Urbane, well-educated and taxpaying, the people of Bangkok detest the populist projects doled out by the Pheu Thai government, fraught with corruption and waste. The controversial money-losing rice price guarantee project is a good example of misconceived and mismanaged populist initiative aimed at winning rural support. The rating agency Moody's and IMF itself have issued warnings that the scheme would become a large black hole of debt and corruption if it is not abandoned soon. To date over 450 billion baht (US$14 billion) is considered irrecoverable. And the National Counter Corruption Commission is set to rule about corruption practices in the entire scheme.

Even the authority of Albert Einstein was invoked to inspire the crowd to cling to their seats on the surface of Rajdamneon. They would hear Dr Trairong Suwankiri, another fiery orator from the Democrat camp, quoting the giant of modern physics: "The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything." That statement certainly strikes a responsive chord among the "silent majority" who have harboured tremendous grievances but would not dare to articulate it out for fear of being despised, not knowing who the next person is, affiliated with, or entertaining any political persuasion. They have been described as being "lonely in the crowd", full of frustrations, brimming with anger and agitated by all the misguided policies that would in the long run ruin the country's economy. The large crowd on the streets has given them enough courage to come out, feeling liberated, wanting to join and articulate their pent up sentiments in the faceless but powerful waves of their fellow citizens.

The organisers and leaders of the demonstrations on Rajdamneon and in every corner of the country realise very well that the larger number matters to the international community. The dividing line between an ordinary political protest and a general uprising is very thin. It is the size of the crowd that makes the difference. A couple of thousands on the streets you could be a group of rebels. Four or five hundred thousand to a million and over, and you would be considered an expression of People's Power. They also realise that a large number of humanity on the streets means more than just a normal power play. They cannot be accused of being undemocratic, not accepting the democratic process, defiant against the parliamentary majority. A large number of people on the streets in any capital of the world has its own weight, its own logic and its own legitimacy.

Thus, the teaching of John Locke on the right of revolution has also been referred to on the campuses of Thammasat and other academic institutions. When there is no power on earth to adjudicate between the people, the fount of sovereignty, and the supreme legislature which has gone astray, "the people have no other remedy in this, as in all other cases where they have no Judge on Earth, but to appeal to Heaven."

Right to revolt

This clause, to appeal to Heaven, has been interpreted, since the writing of the Second Treatise on Civil Government in 1690, as the right to revolt against unjust and tyrannical government. And the bloodless and peaceful Glorious Revolution of 1688 was a modality of non-violent resistance that Locke tried to explain and justify.

Millions of Thais also hope that their resistance would be peaceful and glorious. And they fervently believe in their just cause to raise their hands to the Heaven on High and appeal for justice and a reprieve from the transgression of power that was theirs originally, but "reposed" in the wrong hands. They expect the international community to sympathise with them and, in the final analysis, would not regard them as "undemocratic and unconstitutional, rejecting the majority rule", but would consider them as merely exercising their right of forfeiting the trust back from a government which has manifestly abused it.

So, going forward, let the world not be surprised by the ever large number of people coming on to the streets of Bangkok. They are no longer lonely in the crowd. They sense the solidarity. They are convinced of the righteousness of their cause. They know the number matters to the international community.

Surin Pitsuwan is a Tun Abdul Razak Fellow at the University of Oxford's Centre for Islamic Studies.


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