Thailand: Democratic Audit 2014

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Thailand used to be a beacon of democracy in South-East Asia. Its democratic system was never perfect, but decades of struggle by social movements had limited the powers of the military and un-democratic elites. However, today, Thailand has slipped backwards, nestling comfortably with the various despotic regimes of ASEAN, with only the Philippines and Indonesia having some degree of freedom and democracy.

The state of democracy in Thailand has reached a critical low. The reasons for this sorry state of affairs are both historical and current. This Democratic Audit looks at a number of factors which are fundamental to a thriving democracy. Below is a short summary. To read the full audit please go to:

The audit considers the following 9 factors:

1. The right of citizens to choose the government of their own preference in free and fair elections.

The democratic clock has now been turned back to the dark days of the dictatorship in the 1970s. The main obstacle to democracy is the military. The only glimpse of hope is the continued resistance of the red shirts. In the meantime, all those responsible for the shrinkage of the democratic space: the NGO leaders, middle class academics, mainstream media and conservative elites, are all clamouring to advise Yingluk and Pua Thai to compromise with the anti-democratic thugs.

2. Freedom of expression.

The lèse majesté law in Thailand represents a gross attack on the freedom of speech, freedom of expression and academic freedom. It is a fundamental attack on democracy carried out by the military and all the political elites, including Taksin and Pua Thai.

3. Basic standards of justice for all citizens and measures to prevent state crimes.

Thailand’s judiciary only serve the authoritarian ruling elites. They are also protected by a draconian “contempt of court” law, preventing transparency and accountability in the judicial system. There is no jury system and Thailand locks up political prisoners who dare to express anti-establishment views. Standard practices in jails are mainly designed to reduce the humanity of prisoners. Meanwhile there is a culture of impunity for all state criminals.

4. The integrity of public institutions.

The integrity of public institutions in Thailand has always been poor, with a lack of accountability, transparency and justice. But in the last few years since the 2006 coup d’état, the integrity of public institutions has sunk to an all-time low with almost no institutions enjoying any public confidence or respect.

5. The strength of pro-democratic social movements and citizen participation.

The creation and expansion of the red shirt movement was an historic occasion in Thai social movement history. Despite the fact that the red shirts are a pro-democracy mass movement, they have a number of serious weaknesses. The main weakness is that the political leadership is unelected and dominated by supporters of Taksin and Yingluk’s Pua Thai Party. In Thailand, the social movement for democracy has not arisen from the urban middle classes or the NGOs. In fact the opposite is true because the urban middle classes or the NGOs have become an obstacle to democracy.

6. Respect for the dignity of all citizens, gender rights, racism and self-determination for minorities.

The participation of women in Thai society is reasonably high compared to some other Asian countries. However, as with most countries throughout the world, Thai women are still second-class citizens, subjected to a sexist ideology, subjected to domestic violence and expected to take a dominant role in caring for family members. Abortion is illegal. GLBT rights are non-existent, although the status of GLBT people is not illegal. Thailand is an extremely racist society where derogatory words are used for people of other ethnicities on a day to day basis without any challenges. For over a century the Muslim Malay population in the South have been subjected to authoritarian measures by a Thai state with a vicious colonialist attitude. The poor state of dignity and respect for people of all genders or ethnicities is to an important extent the result of a weak left-wing current in Thai politics. Such a current could act as an opposite poll to the conservative nationalism, racism and sexism of those in power.

7. Trade union and labour rights.

Trade union and labour rights are limited, both by repressive laws and actions of the state, but also by the political weakness of the labour movement itself. Migrant workers have even less rights that Thai nationals and they are prevented from joining trade unions or receiving some benefits.

8. Economic equality.

Thai society is a very unequal society. According to the World Bank, in 2010, the poorest 10% of the population had a 2.8% share of total wealth, whereas the top 10% controlled 31%. The Gini Coefficient stood at 39.4 compared to 32.9 for Japan or 26.8 for Finland. A well-functioning democracy requires a good degree of economic equality and social stability in the lives of citizens. This is important for human dignity, quality of life and also for full citizen participation in politics.

9. Corruption.

Corruption, defined as the use of public position to amass wealth in an immoral manner, is engrained in Thai elite society, which makes it also pervasive among lower ranking government officials. Corruption goes hand in hand with the abuse of power and the conflict of interest among those who hold public office. “Corruption” has become a much devalued word due to the fact that the anti-democrats use the term selectively to merely attack their political opponents, while choosing to ignore the pervasive corruption among all sections of the rich and powerful. Corruption can only be reduced or abolished through increased democracy and public participation in politics.

On all the 9 major “democratic indices” outlined above, Thailand is suffering from an increased democratic deficit. Top down “reform” by the very people who are responsible for this deficit will never solve the problem. The answer lies with the pro-democracy social movements.