Thailand’s New Crisis

An opposition movement claiming to defend democracy does its best to destroy it.

Saturday, September 6, 2008; Page A16

THE GOOD news about democracy is that as elected government has spread and deepened its roots around the world during the past two decades, poor people and neglected ethnic groups in many countries have gained power. In countries such as Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico, government policies have shifted to accommodate the newly enfranchised, and their lives have improved. The downside is that the expansion of the political system has, in a few countries, touched off cultural or class warfare that has undermined the new freedom. In some cases, such as Venezuela and Bolivia, populists claiming to represent a poor or indigenous majority have won elections, then sought to entrench themselves in power and eliminate competition from the old elite. We’ve had a lot to say about the harm Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales have done to their countries.

But a parallel danger has come from elites who respond to the surging influence of once-excluded populations by trying to check the democracy that empowered them. That is what has happened in Turkey, where a secular establishment has tried using both the military and the courts to overturn the election victories of the moderately Islamist AK Party. And a broadly similar story has unfolded in Thailand, which this week found itself paralyzed by a political crisis for the second time in less than two years.

Thailand’s struggle centers on the movement created by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire tycoon-turned-populist who won two landslide elections by promising economic improvement to poor people in the countryside. To a large extent, Mr. Thaksin delivered, creating health-care programs and providing credit to farmers. He also abused his power at times, leaning on the media and allowing human rights violations by the police and army. Two years ago, a movement backed by traditional political parties and claiming to defend democracy paralyzed Bangkok with demonstrations and eventually provoked a military coup. Predictably, the generals found themselves unable to govern the country, and last December they allowed new elections. Just as predictably, Mr. Thaksin’s party, with a new name and a surrogate leader, once again won.

The Bangkok-based elite is once again trying to bring down the government by force. Thousands are occupying the central government offices; violent clashes on Tuesday forced Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej to declare a state of emergency. The insurgents still style themselves as the “People’s Alliance for Democracy,” but this time some of their leaders are explicit in calling for just the opposite: the restoration of a full monarchy or a military-backed autocracy that would keep Mr. Thaksin’s movement out of power.

Fortunately, Thai military leaders appear to have learned from their last intervention. The current commander in chief has ruled out a coup — though he also refused to enforce the state of emergency and disperse the demonstrators. Mr. Samak has resisted pressure to resign and instead announced a plan for a referendum on his continuance in office. That means the burden for ending the crisis peacefully lies with the opposition. Those among that opposition who genuinely believe in democracy should demonstrate as much by breaking with those who seek to destroy the system.



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