Thailand must follow democratic path or risk further chaos

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 January, 2014, 3:15am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 January, 2014, 3:15am

There would seem to be only two ways out of Thailand's political stalemate: reconciliation or revolution. The Bangkok elites and middle classes seeking Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's replacement by an appointed council refuse to end their protests, and the opposition Democrat Party, closely aligned to their movement, will not take part in elections called for February 2. Violence is increasingly becoming part of the demonstrations, prompting Yingluck to impose a state of emergency that gives security forces sweeping powers. With compromise rejected, the only outcomes would appear to be another coup or upheaval.

Right-thinking Thais obviously don't want that. They know that their country's future lies in free and fair elections and the need for reforms to occur democratically. They are well aware that the 18 military coups and violence since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932 are bad for society, the economy and development. Yet the divisions are wide and run deep, along geographical, cultural, ethnic and wealth lines.

Old elites who have tried unsuccessfully for two decades to gain power through the ballot box are driving the protests on the pretext that they are about ending endemic corruption, cronyism and nepotism. They accuse Yingluck of being a proxy for her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who governed from 2001 to 2006 until removed in a coup; he lives in exile in Dubai to avoid jail for a corruption conviction and has nurtured a winning electoral base through support from the majority rural poor in the north and northeast. The role of the protests is, in effect, to give legitimacy to what would be an undemocratic power grab. A perceived arrogance of power and disregard for constitutional checks and balances sparked the protests. They will end only with all sides being willing to compromise. The legitimate social and political rights of the rural poor have to be respected and the concerns of the urban elites and middle classes addressed. Thais need a new social contract that comes about by agreement and reform, not undemocratic means.