Democracy, in the Thai context or any other, is quite different from that practiced in Athens. There, a comparatively small number of citizens were able to gather together regularly and debate the policies of the day and to vote for who should be made responsible for the particular offices required by the state. It is impossible for a modern democratic state to act in this way, since there are just too many people to gather regularly and to state their opinion. There is also the issue of expert opinion: under the Athenian model, the voices of all men (who were citizens – no women were permitted and no more than perhaps ten percent of the population overall might qualify for citizenship) were equal and that opinion would carry the day which garnered the most votes. This assumes that not just all votes are equal but that all opinions are equal and this is, clearly, not the case. Where there is the need to deal with complex issues, there is a need for knowledge and judgment that is not just above average but which is enormously beyond the scope of the average citizen to be able to achieve. Indeed, it would not be rational for all citizens to try to obtain such a degree of knowledge and expertise because the demand for such labour is limited. There must be, then, the recognition that some voices in some cases are privileged above others in terms of making the case for a particular policy (although voting need not change for this reason).
The modern democracy, then, has required a form of representation and a recognition of the need for expert opinion. From here, there is a clear link with Plato’s criticism of democracy: that the common citizen is so uneducated and unqualified to participate in the debate that the rule of the people in fact becomes the rule of the mob. He terms this the ochlocracy, the rule of the mob easily-turned to any ill-considered policy by the force of a powerful orator or, perhaps, through having their vote bought by a wealthy would-be oligarch (Rancière, 2007, 12). This is very much the position outlined by the so-called People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD, the ‘yellow shirts’), at least prior to its open acknowledgment of fascism. Their argument, repeated on a very regular basis and finding traction with many of the urban elite of Bangkok, is that the rural Thais are not only unable to distinguish their own best interests (which should be aligned with the best interests of the state) but that their poverty makes them particularly vulnerable to vote-buying (it might be noted that vote-buying has been prevalent in Thailand for decades, in those relatively brief periods in which military juntas have not assumed complete control. Consequently, the PAD proposed the disenfranchisement of the majority of the rural poor (perhaps 70 per cent of the population) and the breaking of the link between geographical location and political representation: that is, in place of people voting for a representative based on where they live, those qualified to vote would vote for a representative of the work that they did. Hence, there would be one or more representatives for the army, for civil servants, for medical doctors and so forth. Presumably, these occupation-representatives would be privileged in debate when the issues involved their particular area of expertise, if any.
This version of democracy is rejected by the Union for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD, the ‘red-shirts’), partly because of the disenfranchisement of so many of their supporters but partly because of it makes no account of the fact that, in Thailand, most actual power is wielded by unaccountable individuals and institutions whose role is largely untouched by elections. In this situation, the establishment interests will accept elections as the dominant mode of democracy when their representatives are voted in but reject them as illegitimate when the winners of the election challenge the status and power of the establishment, as was evident in the aftermath of the 2006 election. The UDD’s position is that similar to the definition proposed by Dunn: “What we mean by democracy is not that we govern ourselves. When we speak or think of ourselves as living in a democracy, what we have in mind is something quite different. It is that our own state, and the government which does so much to organize our lives, draws its legitimacy from us, and that we have a reasonable chance of being able to compel each of them to continue to do so. They draw it, today, from holding regular elections, in which every adult citizen can vote freely and without fear, in which their votes have at least a reasonably equal weight, and in which any uncriminalized political opinion can compete freely for them (Dunn, 2006, 19-20).”
Clearly, this principle has been violated in a variety of ways in recent years. For example, following the 2006 coup, the junta introduced its own constitution and held a referendum on it under conditions of martial law, thereby inspiring fear in the minds of the voters. Similarly, the court decisions to dissolve Thai Rak Thai, People’s Power Party and other parties (and ban hundreds of leaders from political activities for five years) through the power of this new constitution meant that voters felt they were not able to vote for the people for whom they might like to vote. The use of draconian censorship laws and the threat of lese majeste convictions (not to mention powerful ongoing taboos) under the Democrat-led coalition further constricts the ability of people to debate policies and parties and reduces the real level of democracy. Finally, there is the discourse of the amartayatipatai, the rule by Thailand by traditional, aristocratic elites whose power must not be challenged under law and whom it has even been impossible to name until very recently.
In order for there to be democracy, according to the UDD, there should be the removal of those constraints which prevent existing elections being meaningful (i.e. fear of violence, censorship and criminalization of political dissidence) and the addition to the democratic decision the right to determine who wields the real power in the state – that is, to cause institutions such as the army, the bureaucracy, the judiciary and others to swear loyalty to parliament as the will and voice of the people. For the great majority of UDD supporters, there is nothing incompatible here with the continued reign of the constitutional monarchy.
These changes, representing the movement to a more genuine or meaningful form of democracy, will not come about spontaneously without outside action. Hannah Arendt (2006) wrote of the need not just for an equitable constitution to provide rights and protections for all sections of society but also of the need for ‘councils’ to discuss these issues of the day – that is, civil society being able to meet together in the secure knowledge that they were able to speak freely without fear of prosecution or persecution, which is a situation far removed from Thailand in 2010.
Arendt, Hannah, On Revolution (London: Penguin Books, 2006).
Dunn, John, Setting the People Free: The Story of Democracy (London: Atlantic Books, 2006).
Ranciere, Jacques, On the Shores of Politics (London and New York: Verso, 2007), translated by Liz Heron.
I will write about direct action tomorrow or as soon as I work out what it is I want to say.