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Why Thai politics is no longer normal

When a social order is threatened, politics becomes about defining friend and enemy. Then you wage a rule-less war for complete victory.
History is a pile of friend/enemy wars and, as monstrous as it sounds, this is how change sometimes happens. In the process, old social orders survive by reform or they tumble, and new orders rise. It is never pretty, and often bloody.
So it has been since former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a coup in 2006.
The street battles and rising death toll in Bangkok signal that fundamentalist antagonists are now waging war over who defines democracy.
The red shirts want a new social order. The Democrat Party-led governing coalition, backed so far by the military, wants to restore a social order that is now in ashes. Each sees the other as the enemy.
The violent actions of both sides are born of this dangerous logic of friend/enemy and do not tell us much about what they stand for, what kind of Thailand they wish to build.
Some history
After the 1991 coup and its bloody aftermath in May 1992, a politically liberal reform movement emerged. Elites recognised that the semi-democracy of the 1980s was of an age gone by. The movement resulted in the celebrated 1997 ‘People’s Constitution’ which enshrined the liberal doctrine at the heart of the Thai state. Henceforth, executive power (coming from a democratic mandate) would be scrutinised by a variety of liberal checks and balances, an electoral commission, and constitutional and administrative courts.
No one expected a smooth path to liberal democracy. The military’s corporate interests remained and networks around the monarchy continued to wield power. Corruption was pervasive. The project was to be gradual and generational.
Then the project came unstuck. When the liberally-oriented Democrat Party ruled during the Asian economic crisis of 1997-2000, it failed to offer anything except implementation of an International Monetary Fund austerity programme. Such liberal feebleness paved the way for Thaksin and his brand of authoritarian populism and popular pro-poor policies.
During his term as prime minister (2001-06), Thaksin tore up the aspirational liberal settlement. His disregard for human rights and the institutions of checks and balances is well documented as is his electoral support which won him office in 2001 and 2005. Liberalism and democracy parted ways.
The yellow-shirt movement against Thaksin that arose in 2005-06 was a mixture of the liberal middle-class elements, rural poor and unionists opposed to privatisation programmes. There were also elite conservative elements who feared Thaksin was pushing them from their pedestal as powerbrokers. They viewed Thaksin as a threat to the social order and, importantly, to the monarchy.
Since 2006, liberals have loosely joined with conservative elements in the state and the yellow shirts to defeat Thaksin and his supporters. Together, they brought down an elected pro-Thaksin government in late 2008. They are driven by a flawed logic of gradually returning Thailand to something like the liberal settlement of 1997 with all its compromises. Some anti-Thaksin elements have called for a ‘new politics’ that does away with full electoral democracy.
The current government, led by Abhisit Vejjajiva, recognises there are genuine grievances among the red shirts and has offered a series of pro-poor policies since taking office in late 2008. Thai liberalism has moved towards a form of social liberalism that recognises the importance of equal opportunity. But perhaps, as in all revolutionary situations, this is too little, too late. And now, associated with scores of deaths as a consequence of the crackdown now under way, what future does the government have?
A red shirts’ win for what social order?
The red shirts are a diverse movement of middle-layer farmers, left-wing activists, rural poor, working-class urban elements and middle-class professionals. Importantly, Thaksin and his political networks play a role, too. Frustrated with a failed, year-long campaign to bring down the government, they moved to the endgame on the streets of Bangkok. Some red shirts have also embraced a paramilitary solution.
They pledge to return the 1997 constitution, deal with the bureaucratic and aristocratic elements of the state, and make democracy ‘edible’. They support market capitalism and want a better deal for the ‘commoner’. Their programme is attractive, but fatally flawed.
Like liberals who have failed to come to terms with the non-democratic nature of conservative institutions in Thailand, the red-shirt leadership refuses to publicly account for the authoritarian slide under Thaksin.
They have mobilised a powerful myth of a democratic oasis at the centre of which stands the Thaksin era. But apart from calling for an immediate election to enable the victory of Pheu Thai, the pro-Thaksin opposition party, no one knows what a red-shirted democracy would look like.
Thai politics is obviously no longer in a normal phase. It’s as if a textbook struggle between liberalism and democracy is taking place, except that real people are being killed.
Michael Connors teaches politics at La Trobe University. He is the author of Democracy and National Identity in Thailand.
http:// www.theage.com.au/opinion/politics/why-thai-politics-is-no-longer-normal-20100518-vc3b.html