Thailand’s Vicious Circle

The opposition succeeds in ousting yet another government — which is likely to be replaced by one much like it.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

THAILAND’S People’s Alliance for Democracy made clear long ago that it stands not for democracy or the Thai people but against them. On Tuesday, it claimed another victory in its campaign to replace the democratic system with a royalist autocracy and to substitute the judgment of the military and an allied elite for that of the people. Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, whose party won a fair democratic election last December, was forced from office by a questionable court ruling even as thousands of members of the “people’s alliance” barricaded two of Thailand’s airports, stranding hundreds of thousands of travelers. Mr. Wongsawat had been in power only two months; his predecessor was ousted in September by an equally curious and convenient court ruling, not long after alliance members occupied the prime minister’s offices.

The anti-democratic movement has evolved a simple tactic: use force to paralyze the government, the capital city, or the country (via its vital airports), then wait for the military, the courts, or King Bhumibol Adulyadej to intervene. In addition to forcing the past two prime ministers from office, the strategy prompted a military coup in 2006 and an earlier intervention by the king. Yet the larger objective of the alliance remains unrealized and probably unattainable. Thailand’s elite would like to destroy the populist political movement of exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and disenfranchise the mostly poor and rural voters who have repeatedly empowered him or his surrogates in democratic elections.


The latest coup seems no more likely to accomplish that goal than the previous ones. Supporters of Mr. Thaksin, anticipating that their party would be banned (for the second time), already had formed a new one. They say they are ready to elect another Thaksin supporter as prime minister. If a new general election is held, as the army commander recently suggested, there’s no reason to expect the outcome to be different from the previous three elections: a victory for Mr. Thaksin. The only long-term result of the Alliance for Democracy’s campaign is the weakening of the Thai economy and a growing incidence of violence. Seven people were killed in bomb attacks and street battles during the latest siege.

Like traditional elites elsewhere in the developing world, Thailand’s onetime governing class has been discomfited as democracy and globalization have brought long-excluded populations into the political system. Populism doesn’t usually produce good government, and populists don’t always respect the rule of law. But Thailand’s “alliance for democracy” is offering the rest of the world a vivid demonstration of why force cannot succeed in undoing the populists’ advance.



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