Anti-government demonstrators took to Bangkok’s streets 10 days ago, ostensibly to protest Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s bid to push through an amnesty bill that would cancel corruption charges against her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, and allow him to come home. Ousted in a September 2006 coup, Thaksin has been in exile for years. The bill easily passed the lower House, angering and galvanizing a legion of Thaksin haters. The Senate, however, rejected the law and the government dropped efforts to pass it. That should have sent protestersback home. But it hasn’t.
Thaksin is lionized by many Thais, but he is anathema to an almost equal number of detractors. And so former Democrat Party member of Parliament SuthepThaugsuban and his protesters have remained on the streets, insisting they will not quit until the “illegitimate” Yingluck, a woman they say is merely her brother’s puppet, resigns and “Thaksinism” is eradicated.
But Thailand is supposed to be a democracy. Didn’t Yingluck and her Pheu Thai Party win 265 seats in the 500-seat Parliament in the 2011 election? Didn’t they almost sweep Thaksin’s strongholds in the North and Northeast? Didn’t they win about 15 million votes versus the Democrat Party’s approximately 11 million? Yes, yes and yes. Then in what universe can such a government “lack legitimacy?”
“Democracy is not the issue,” Bangkok Post columnist VoranaiVanijaka tells me. “This is a rebellion. Suthep would be the first to admit it.”
For Suthep and like-minded folks in his People’s Democratic Reform Committee, Yingluck and her government are illegitimate in a way similar to how Barack Obama’s government is “illegitimate” to the Tea Party and other right-wing Republicans. Yes, Obama was duly elected—twice. But, to wing nuts, he is an imposter who was not born in the United States, a Muslim, a communist, does not share “American values” and so forth. They don’t like the decision that Americans rendered at the ballot box, so they demonize the president, trying to nullify the election results and render him “illegitimate.”
In Thailand, the demon is Thaksin, a savvy billionaire who figured out a dozen years ago that the way to catapult himself to Government House was to position himself as a populist and push programs that would endear himto ordinary Thais. Part of his appeal has been that he has promised “stuff” to the masses in much the same way Bill O’Reilly and others on the right say Obama won by giving “stuff” to Americans. Thaksin may be a Thai citizen—there’s no birther issue here—but as with Obama, his critics paint him as a corrupt, unscrupulous, power-mad pol leading his nation to ruin.
So, say anti-government activists, it doesn’t matter that Yingluck/Thaksin won the election. As PanitanWattanayagorn, a Chulalongkorn University professor and erstwhile Democrat Party spokesman puts it to me: “[Critics of the protesters] are caught up with one kind of legitimacy—election legitimacy. But there are other kinds of legitimacy like governance legitimacy.” In other words, Yingluck and Thaksin have prosecuted policies that are supposedly undemocratic and unconstitutional. The pair can’t be allowed to conduct business as usual just because they won an election—any more than Obama can be allowed to govern America, and push through “unconstitutional” and “socialist” schemes like Obamacare, just because he won two national elections (including a 332-vote electoral landslide in 2012).
Inconveniently, if Yingluck stepped down and called fresh elections tomorrow, she— and Pheu Thai—would win again. And again. That’s why Suthep has declared that it would not be enough for the prime minister to resign and call new elections. He wants all trace of the Shinawatra machine gone. He wants Yingluck to quit, dissolve Parliament and be replaced temporarily by an unelected people’s council and an interim prime minister more acceptable to protesters. That would be followed by some kind of reform that would make it impossible for the Shinawatras to ever win again.
If this doesn’t sound like democracy, it isn’t. But apparently, that’s not the point.
“You have to throw away this definition of what democracy is supposed to be,” Voranai tells me. “This is not about democracy and rule of law, blah, blah, blah. This is a fight. This is a fight for who’s going to run this country. They (protesters) fear the monopolization of power by the Shinawatra family. This is a fight for the future. They’ll worry about democracy when the fight is over.”
Suthep wants to “suspend democracy for the moment; redraw the electoral landscape. When he’s rid the country of Thaksin he will bring back democracy,” Voranai explains.
But what about the one-person-one-vote principle? Well, that’s just one part of democracy. TV has had a parade of Thai politicians and pundits arguing that other aspects of democracy are just as important, such as “transparency,” “accountability” and “good government.” Some Thais have told me over the years that ordinary people “aren’t ready for democracy” and are not smart enough to vote for the right candidates. That sounds remarkably like some GOP politicians, or Ann Coulter, suggesting Americans are too stupid and too venal to make the “right” decisions at the ballot box.
“There seems to be a belief that many in the majority of U.S. voters are stupid,” says Voranai. “Same here in Thailand. We talk about the failure of Thai education…how do you expect the people to be well-equipped to vote? They may well vote for stuff. And the elite are not well-educated either. They want something too; everybody wants something.”
For now, the protests are on a timeout. The beloved King BhumibolAdulyadej’s birthday is Thursday—he will be 86—and nobody wants to disrespect him and beseen fighting in the streets on Dec. 5. But no one knows what will happen after that. Political bigwigs will make a pilgrimage to the king’s palace in HuaHin to pay their respects. They may well hash out a deal there to end the crisis. But don’t look for it to be built around some high-falutin’ concept of one-man-one vote democracy.