Seven governments, two constitutions, one military coup, and a partridge in a pear tree. Well, not a partridge in a pear tree, but the first three have all been defining features in recent Thai politics.
The country is seized by political division. One faction, the yellowshirts, are united by their disdain for the former Prime Minister Thatskin Shinawatra—who was unseated by coup in September 2006. The membership of this group is eclectic, but it seems to be composed mostly of urban and middle-class of the Thai population. The other faction, the redshirts, are strong supporters of Thatskin. They rally around his former party in Thai politics. And instead of hailing from the cities, particularly Bangkok, they come instead from the more rural districts of Thailand.
The two factions are completely polarized. And over the past two and a half years the rift has widened. After Thatskin was deposed by coup in 2006, the military rewrote the constitution, banned Thatskin’s party, and organized a new anti-Thatskin government. But an election was held in 2007, and Thatskin’s supporters brought a new pro-Thatskin party to power, the PPP. The PPP tried to undo the work of the coup, and bring Thatskin back from exile. But the yellowshirts and their cadre blocked the efforts. Tensions escalated, and the Government House, the seat of rule in Thailand, was captured by yellowshirt protesters. Next, the PPP Prime Minister was forced by the Thai Supreme Court to relinquish his ministry for the high crime of appearing on a cooking TV show. And if these defeats to the pro-Thatskin party were not enough, the yellowshirts paralyzed international traffic in Thailand by blockading the airport in November of last year, followed soon after by another Thai Supreme Court case that banished the PPP party in whole.
With the PPP gone, the yellowshirt party assumed power. But their coalition was weak. And over the pasta several days the redshirts took to the streets to protest their rival government, bringing havoc to the streets of Bangkok, and sabotaging the East Asia Summit scheduled for the weekend.
Arrests, counter-arrests, rolling protests in the tens of thousands, and violence that is taking a general form—the state of Thailand looks to be in serious trouble. Long heralded a representative of democracy in Asia, and a developing country in particular, Thailand is quick earning a reputation as a basket-case country.
Question is: what are the lessons of the Thai experience? Is democracy the culprit? Or should blame instead be assigned elsewhere?
Defenders will say that Thailand is a special case. The country has had 17 constitutions since 1932—an extraordinary number. Even France, which is ridiculed for its fifth republic since the French Revolution, does not even come close to that amount. Thailand is inherently unstable, and blame for the current crisis lies with history rather than the democracy.
The point is a good one. But the occasion now is different. The turmoil is Thailand is civil in nature; the politics have truly factionalized the country. Where before Thailand changed constitutions due to military intervention or because lawyers and scholars wanted to introduce legal innovations, this time the populace is starkly divided. Factionalism is a famous byproduct of democracy. Some of the most famous writers on politics, from Plato and Aristotle, to Hobbes and Burke, all denounce it. It may be a moral government, but it is also self-destructive. And it often rends societies, rather than strengthens them. In the past this has caused democracies to do terrible and stupid things. And for that reason it was long considered one of the worst forms of government, not the best.
Many of those faults can be perceived in Thailand. Thatskin pushed his reforms hard, and he was answered vociferously by his domestic enemies. The divide in Thailand is so sharp, it has become manifest by the distinction in colored shirts. Steps that otherwise would be unthinkable have been readily employed. Arrests of politicians en masse. Trials of ex-Prime Ministers in abstentia. Courts disbanding entire political parties. Even when communist parties worked to monopolize their control of eastern European governments, the maneuvers were not so flagrant.
The experience of Thailand is new, but the story is old. In modern times democracies have proven they are the most capable form of government. Nevertheless, they are not infallible. The example of Thailand reveals the old rule that they also can degnerate into mobocracy with fierce and savage speed. And when they do, they become prey to the intrigues of their neighbors. Watch what happens to Thailand next.