Abhisit talks to foreigners about democracy

23 09 2009

[Update: For another, angrier critique of the Columbia speech, see Thailand Jumped the Shark.]

Also available as มาร์คเจื้อยแจ้วประชาธิปไตยกับคนต่างชาติ

In New York, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has made a series of speeches. PPT wouldn’t expect speeches on such occasions to be deep or challenging for the venues and audiences tend to lend themselves to niceties, platitudes and pleadings on behalf of the country and/or the government. Abhisit’s New York speeches fall into this category. They can be downloaded here.

Earlier in his period as prime minister, perhaps reflecting his inexperience, but also the challenges he received from more knowledgeable audiences, Abhisit tended to be more forthcoming. But this also resulted in problems when he was shown to be making patently false claims. For PPT’s posts on this, search for “Oxford” and see here and here.

There is also a difference in the way Abhisit talks with foreigners and how he talks to Thais. For the latter, the political context makes more sense, so they can see the compromised positions and double standards more easily.

Abhisit has learned to better manage himself and his speeches thus lack the controversy of the earlier outings. Perhaps the closest Abhisit comes to anything substantive is in his speech at Columbia University, where the topic was “Post-Crisis Thailand : Building a New Democratic Society.”

There is nothing particularly astonishing in the words as presented. At the same time, we think there are aspects of the speech that deserve highlighting and critique. We also think there are things left unmentioned that deserve to be considered.

The first thing to note is that Abhisit is in “calm, damage control, mode.” By this we mean that the image of Thailand has taken a battering in recent years and he sees himself as being about restoring confidence in both the politics and economics of the country by appearing to be calm and in control. Of course, anyone who follows Thailand’s newspapers knows that this is an image but not the reality.

Taking up his theme of economic and political crisis, he talks of “post-crisis.” Abhisit is trying to say that the country has been through the crises and is rebuilding. Partly true, but the economy remains fragile and the political crisis remains in mid-course.

Of the political crisis, Abhisit claims: “My Government came in nine months ago and since then we have managed to gain back confidence from our friends. The fact that I can be here speaking to you today can very well testify that the situation is in good order and not to be of concern.” It seems Abhisit means foreign governments and investors. However, his claim is shaky indeed. Sources inside the U.S. government say they expect more political conflict and investors remain exceptionally wary.

Abhisit adds: “After nine months in office, my Government has proved to the Thai people that we are a Government that represents people of all colors. For those who do not see things eye to eye with the Government and feel that their voices can be better heard on the streets, we fully respect their right to assembly and right to freedom of expression. What we as Government will make sure is that these rights are exercised in a peaceful and responsible manner with full respect to the rule of law and does not affect other people’s rights to carry out their daily activities.”

As PPT has shown in its regular posts, this is a false claim. The government relies on the law, but these are laws drawn up by undemocratic governments. Certainly, at the ASEAN meeting in Phuket in July one of these coup-era laws was used to prevent any assembly by anyone (apart from troops and police). In addition, these laws are applied in a partisan manner. This was vividly demonstrated just last weekend. The point is that claims to the rule of law are often little more than an authoritarian regime hiding behind claims to legal legitimacy.

And, of course, no mention of lese majeste, political opponents jailed, extensive censorship, a judicial system that is politicized, and an increasingly well-funded military that backs his government.

Abhisit also reverts to arguments of yore when he argues that there may be multiple coups, serial constitutions, and revolving door governments, but this doesn’t undermine the basic strengths of Thailand. Indeed, he says that these events demonstrate the resiliency of democracy in the country. Abhisit keeps saying that democracy, after 75 years, is still being learned and that it is all an evolutionary process. He doesn’t broach the topic of why democracy hasn’t become rooted in a soil deprived of nutrients by authoritarian institutions like the monarchy and military.

He also admits that the fact that more people are now politically engaged is part of the crisis, but he believes that increased participation is an opportunity with in the crisis. However, he is quick to add – several times – that democracy is not about voting alone. This is a line that the current government feels bound to make given their own lack of electoral legitimacy and the fear many in the Democrat Party and their supporters and backers have that elections support their enemies.

Arguing that the people’s voice needs to be heard all the time, and not just in elections, and that minority views need to be considered sounds reasonable enough. But when the real equation is that the voters’ voice will not be heard and that the voice of voter will be ignored in favor of a vociferous minority, Abhisit’s high-sounding claims mean nothing.

What is missing, apart from the name of Thaksin Shinawatra, is any strong claim for the monarchy. Yes, there is a statement about the sufficiency economy, but this is put in reassuring terms about not being backward looking and meaning moderation related to external and internal demand. By not saying much about the monarchy, Abhisit is acknowledging that the monarchy’s claims to protect the nation and to be the foundation of a stable Thailand have been sullied by their role in the 2006 coup and since. Foreigners no longer simply accept the “good king” and “good coup” arguments.

We’ll end here and leave it to readers to take in Abhisit’s definition of what a post-crisis Thai democracy might look like. All we’ll say is that it lacks a lot of the political detail of democracy and includes a lot on economic development.

If Thaksin was seen as drawing inspiration from Singapore and Lee Kuan Yew, it seems that Abhisit has also seen the advantages of limited democracy and economic “freedom.” The government is currently working out how best to limit democracy.



4 responses

23 09 2009
New: Protecting “the institution” « Political Prisoners in Thailand

[…] Take Action New: Abhisit talks to foreigners about democracy […]

25 09 2009
มาร์คเจื้อยแจ้วประชาธิปไตยกับคนต่างชาติ « Liberal Thai

[…] chapter 11 Abhisit talks to foreigners about democracy September 23, 2009 ที่มา – Political Prisoners in Thailand แปลและเรียบเรียง – แชพเตอร์ […]

26 09 2009
New: TIME on Abhisit « Political Prisoners in Thailand

[…] No questions raised here. What are the fundamentals (perhaps the ideas mentioned in Abhisit’s Columbia speech)? The fact is that Abhisit has worked with others to ensure that the rule of majority has been […]

1 10 2009
New: Using the law for political gain « Political Prisoners in Thailand

[…] of his repeated calls for the rule of law to be important in Thailand. For example, in hisspeech at Columbia University, Abhisit twice mentioned “rule of law” in the context of institutions that promote […]

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