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Thailand's path to democracy already constricted
Publication Date : 26-08-2014
By its very definition, reform to strengthen democracy must be inclusive. Otherwise democracy will never have the chance to take deep root in society. And by "inclusive" we mean that all voices and all demands - whatever their means of peaceful expression - must be tolerated by the powers-that-be.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said last week he did not want to see any street rallies, protests or demonstrations that might give the impression of social confusion or disorder. Rather than protesting, said Prayuth, those with ideas for reform should apply to be members of the National Reform Council. Anyone can apply to be a council member, which Prayuth has declared is the only valid channel for the reform process.
Last week the junta arrested a group of people for campaigning on the street for energy reform. This particular group had initially voiced support for the military coup. Like the junta, it believed that top-down reform would prevent politicians from manipulating the energy sector for their own benefit. The group's members were among the first to back the idea of military intervention to overthrow the elected government, believing the junta would reform the energy sector and bring down costs for consumers.
But, to their disappointment, the junta appointed the same old faces to oversee energy reform. This elite club has played a key and continuous role in managing energy policy over the years, no matter who is in government. In his weekly televised address Prime Minister Prayuth said activists who stage street rallies demanding energy reform know nothing about these issues but are instead spreading false information.
This group of activists will not be the last we see. Rubber farmers are planning rallies to demand assistance to offset falling prices. In the past the farmers have not been afraid to back their demands with strong action, even shutting down transport routes linking the South with the rest of the country. But now, though the price of rubber has fallen below Bt50 per kilogram, they are banned from voicing their demands. Ironically, this group also supported the coup.
Prayuth last week also warned the farmers not to stage any demonstrations demanding a subsidy, since the government has no budget to pay for it. Agriculture, he said, was one area earmarked for reform - which was the job of the reform council, not public forums such as the media and street rallies.
Prayuth is a military commander. He was educated and trained to give and receive instructions as part of a rigid chain of command. As such he is unfamiliar with the relative chaos of an open society, where people cherish the ability to freely voice contrary opinions and demands. Instead he has declared that demands should be made through the "proper channels" - that top-down approach.
This would be fine if the channel the junta had designated were wide enough to funnel the demands and opinions of every party and group into the final decision-making process.
Unfortunately it is not: the reform council only accommodates 250 members and the selection process means it won't be open to all. This is because those tasked with picking people for the job of national reform are unlikely to select anyone whose views, opinions and information differ much from those of the junta and the elite now running the country. And, of course, there is also no guarantee that the government will implement suggestions from the reform council.
For the restoration of democracy to succeed, all voices must be heard, from wherever they come and whatever the view expressed. Suppressing, arresting and imprisoning those who express contrary ideas in public will never produce successful reform.