As we enter the lovely weeks leading up to the anniversary of June 4th, tanks and armored personnel carriers are once again rolling through the streets — this time in the ‘messy democracy’ of Thailand.
The Chinese media have covered the protests rather heavily, with the implicit message frequently being that chaos is the expected outcome when developing countries embrace democracy. Seeing connections being drawn between Thailand and China’s own internal democracy dialogue, Southern Weekly‘s editorial board published a debate, translated below:
Are the Thai riots a disaster brought on by democracy?
by the Southern Weekly Editorial Board
Entering the month of May, the turmoil in Thailand suddenly changed. The government finally decided that it could no longer tolerate the “Red Shirts” who have been persistently demonstrating for two months, demanding the resignation of the current prime minister. With armored vehicles rolling through the streets of Bangkok, the conflict finally intensified. The streets ran with blood, and several hundred people have already been killed and injured. Commenting on the chaos in Thailand, some compatriots naturally sum things up by saying “all of this was brought on by democracy.” Is it really that simple?
In favor: One could say that Thailand is a typical example of how democracy is unsuccessful in developing countries. To attain power, every political group fights for the stage and frequently engages in overly dramatic street politics, during which bloody violence is not uncommon. The example of Thailand shows that while a democratic system can be good, it is not necessarily suitable for every country. Moreover, under some situations, democracy is exactly what causes social unrest.
Against: The Thai case was not caused by any fault of democracy, but rather by some people who destroyed the country’s democratic underpinnings. This round of political unrest began in 2006 when the military staged a coup d’etat and overthrew the democratically elected administration of Thaksin Shinawatra. Afterwards, the democratically elected prime ministers Somchai Wongsawat and Samak Sundaravej – both from Thanksin’s camp – were forced from office by the “Yellow Shirt” movement and replaced by Abhisit Vejjajiva. This naturally led to the dissatisfaction of the pro-Thanksin “Red Shirts.” If election results are not respected, then a democracy ceases to be a democracy. The people’s use of non-democratic methods becomes inevitable.
In favor: The vote of the majority becomes the violence of the minority. Those who’re unwilling to play act shamelessly. Order is entirely obliterated, not to mention economic and social development. Doesn’t this show that democracy is not necessarily suitable for a country like Thailand?
Against: A modern democratic system is not just about voting — the decision of the majority is just the part we can easily see. If the rules of democracy are to have any authority, a country must have the complete set of powerful democratic foundations and institutions: a constitutional government presided over by an independent court system, and – most important – the rule of law. These systems require practice and exploration; citizens’ democratic habits must also be cultivated. You shouldn’t expect that a country will be able to explore this complete set of democratic rules and practices under an authoritarian or autocratic system.
In favor: For Thailand, a developing country in the midst of a transformation, democracy is not a cure-all. Development is the only unassailable course of action. A country should boldly adopt whatever system encourages development, whether democratic or not. If we’re always fighting about democracy and society is unstable, how can a country develop?
Against: Democracy has never been able to solve every problem. The key point of democracy is that it gives every social interest group a fair stage to play the game. Everyone plays by the same civilized rules, and the law – not any one person – is the highest judge. We all play openly, not in the dark. Seeing South Korean and Taiwanese representatives frequently argue and fight, some people say that democracy is too chaotic. But actually, this might be the political transformation that developing countries require. Indeed, even though playing the game openly is no longer elegant, it is sure better than having any type of secret politics. Sunshine is the best disinfectant. For we don’t know what’s growing in a corner hidden from sunlight.
Concluding thoughts: Behind the political conflict in Thailand is a divide between 70 percent of the population, making up rural residents and the cities’ poor, and the remaining 30 percent, comprised of the middle class, intellectuals, and the aristocracy. Thailand has already used a democratic system for many years. Thais who are used to this system are unlikely to return to the ways of the past. Therefore, each side has no choice but to work hard to establish the authority of the rule of law. Of course, this road is destined to be difficult.