Published on December 24, 2007
Do not waste your time reading the tea leaves. The answer is of course not. Indeed, the greatly awaited polls will not help, but rather reinforce the continuation of the same crisis that we have had all along but have been afraid to admit: the lack of respect for civic values and institutions. We think only constitutions and elections can bring about democracy, no matter how they look or how they come about.
An additional factor contributing to the dilemma is the role of media perpetuating the notion that good politics must be the so-called "karnmuang ning" (stable politics).
A case in point was when the NGO Coordinating Committee on Development laid siege to the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), trying to stop the assembly from passing new laws, especially the proposed Internal Security Bill. It was a desperate attempt by the coalition of civil society organisations and grass-roots groups to stop laws which in their view threatened human security.
On the surface, these skirmishes might be perceived as a nuisance. But such protests are nothing new in Thailand. For many they represent the democratic atmosphere inside the country - at least the groups are able to protest and voice their opposition.
However, the issue here does not concern the demonstrations or the dissatisfaction expressed, but rather the lack of respect the power wielders and NLA members have for the civil society groups. They continue to deny space for them and ignore their input, as well as the role they play in the checks and balances system, particularly since the October 1973 uprising, when they mushroomed. After the coup, they have been constantly on the front line. Indeed, they were much better and more skilful in bringing public attention to bear on important societal ills and political gaffes.
The recent decision by the Supreme Administrative Court on the status of PTT Plc following the lawsuit filed by the Consumers Foundation demonstrated that public and state rights must be clearly defined before a decision is made. In fact, all doomsday scenarios on Thai stocks could have been avoided easily if top PTT administrators had been honest and protective of the national and public interest. Their compliance later on was an afterthought, part of the spin of a public-relations campaign, and did not come out of a genuine consideration for the public good.
As pitiful as it may seem, the Surayud government was unable to lay a new political foundation, even though the circumstances in which it took power were conducive for a radical transformation. After all, the purge of Thaksin Shinawatra was the ultimate political expression by the military after 15 years of inertia. When Surayud was named prime minister, there were sighs of relief and great hope. As it turned out, this was short-lived. The Thai public has realised too late that a good image and reputation has nothing to do with political common sense and effectiveness.
As long as civil society representatives are not fully recognised or given appropriate space, rational responses and due respect, the prevailing political culture will not change. Karnmuang ning will turn into "karnmuang namkram" (filthy politics). It has to be reiterated here that without the civil society groups, karnmuang namkram will prevail.
Under Thaksin, some civil society groups were manipulated and led by the nose, which tarnished their organisations tremendously. Others were cowed. What is most disturbing has been the media's reaction towards these groups' engagement on public issues including the democratisation process. The media have yet to appreciate civil society groups as a positive force in bringing about democratic change.
Media discourse and analysis on Thai politics is generally narrow in scope and shallow in interpretation. Analysts tend to be personality driven and don't factor in a holistic outlook of Thai society and its political structure. Good personal relations among various political leaders and personalities mean good politics.
Personal animosity often translates into political conflict. Therefore, the media often views any element beyond personality as a "third force" that endangers the political playing field. That helps explain why Thai politics has been portrayed as a bifurcation - the angel versus the devil, anti-Thaksin or pro-Thaksin. In recent years, anti-monarchy or pro-monarchy has quickly become a new template of our political discourse.
Therefore, the empowerment and participation of civil society groups - which ironically have expanded under the new, but much-despised constitution - quite often has been portrayed negatively by mainstream media. Their activities as public watchdogs often overlap, if not clash, with those of the media, especially among editorial writers and columnists, as the former has done a far better job. They do not have a false consciousness. Strange as it may seem, the media and the country's power wielders have something in common - they have to accept the civil society groups as political and social actors, who play a pivotal role in the democratic development of Thailand.
It is essential that the future new government create genuine opportunities for consultation with these non-state actors about legislation and policies that will affect the public at large. Lessons from past wrongdoings are plentiful and they can be used to prevent the aforementioned recurrences. Thailand needs a different political dynamic.