One of the striking aspects of the formation of the People’s Alliance for Democracy a decade and more ago was the involvement of “civil society,” and particularly the leadership of several NGOs. The link between anti-democratic movements and those who were then leading NGOs and managing the national NGO bureaucracy has not been seriously challenged.
Of course, civil society everywhere is reflective of the society in which it exists, meaning that the calls to develop civil society or to listen to civil society are rather blunt and politically naive as civil society includes some very nasty groups indeed. In Thailand, some of the space of civil society has been filled by noxious rightists and fascists.
Over the past 20-30 years, there has been a kind of competition for control of NGOs, with royalists like Prawase Wasi seeking to domesticate NGOs after the elite feared that many of the early NGOs were falling under the control of returnees from the jungle after the defeat of the Communist Party of Thailand.
More recently, as Sanitsuda Ekachai at the Bangkok Post points out, when Thaksin Shinawatra “was looking for innovative policies to launch his Thai Rak Thai Party, he looked for inspiration from activists leading social movements…”.
As is well known, he “was not disappointed.” He was delivered ideas on universal health care and community funds that “became his landmark policy successes…”.
Sanitsuda points out that, now, self-appointed premier and the country’s dictator, General Prayuth Chan-ocha is moving down this path. It is no accident that The Dictator has turned to “civil society movements” for an “innovative policy product to win the hearts and minds of people on the ground,” and that this coincides with his hiring of former Thaksin minister Somkid Jatusripitak.
She says that The Dictator has “apparent support from many civic groups” as he grabbed Prawase’s idea for his “Pracharath (citizens and state) policy drive…”.
In campaign mode, The Dictator declared that he would “strengthen the grassroots economy to bridge inequality while civil society leader Dr Prawase Wasi, the owner of the Pracharath development concept, lectured on what it takes to rescue the nation from the ‘black hole’ well beyond a massive one-time financial injection.”
Sanitsuda points out that The Dictator’s event saw “[h]igh-minded phrases such as holistic development, livelihood rights, people’s participation, bottom-up planning, environmental conservation, green farming and community banks fill… the air.”
Noting that so-called grassroots and civic groups “have been pushing every government” for many years to address what they have determined are the “people’s real needs,” Sanitsuda says that the groups are dealing with the military dictatorship and hoping it will deliver.
In most parts of the world, and in Thailand for most of its modern period, only a looney would think that the military would deliver for the “grassroots.” But in the Thailand where elections are “undemocratic” and where universal health care is “populist,” these self-proclaimed representatives of the people, none of them ever elected to anything, say that “[w]ith strong military blessing, many activists hope it might be possible to make community groups part and parcel of community fund management to strengthen the local economy, transparency and grassroots democracy.”
Yes, these NGO and civil society leaders think that a military dictatorship can deliver “transparency and grassroots democracy.” They can only think this by ignoring the real world and the people at the grassroots.
Sanitsuda notes that these “leaders” “risk of being attacked as coup cheerleaders.” That’s true, but many of them did cheer the coups in 2006 and 2014, so they’d hardly be worried about supporting the military dictatorship.
We agree with her that “having Dr Prawase, the respected [sic.] development guru and reformer [sic.], on its side is the best legitimacy it [the junta] could ever have hoped for.” However, it is also a fact that Prawase has joined each of the anti-democratic cabals in recent years. His views are royalist to the core.
None of these self-proclaimed representatives seems to worry too much about working with a military junta that is, every day, working against the grassroots, kicking people off their land, throwing them out of forests, supporting cowboy capitalists doing mining and timber deals, proclaiming the rights of elites, using double standards in courts and repressing every person who wants to vote.