Thailand Not Invited to Democracy Bash

By Marwaan Macan-Markar – ISP

BANGKOK, Sep 12 (IPS) – Thailand’s fall from grace as a promising democracy is expected to be confirmed at an international meeting in November in Bamako, the capital of Mali. Bangkok has not been invited to attend a gathering of the world’s democracies in the African nation, according to Freedom House, a Washington D.C.-based watchdog.

This will be the first time that Thailand will be denied a place at the ministerial meeting of the Community of Democracies, a global group of the world’s oldest and newest democracies that was formed in Poland in 2000. Bangkok had secured a seat at the previous gatherings of countries upholding democratic tradition. They were held in Warsaw, in Seoul, in 2002, and in Santiago, in 2005. Such a slap in the face comes as this South-east Asian nation prepares to mark the first anniversary of the coup on Sep. 19, 2006, which drove from power the twice-elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. That was the 18th putsch the military had mounted since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

It also comes as Bangkok’s pro-military elite tries to convince the world that the country deserves to be respected as a functioning and healthy democracy. This view was recently conveyed in response to a request by the European Union (EU) to monitor the next general elections, scheduled for later this year. Thailand does not need such foreign observers, the argument went, since it is not a ‘’failed’’ or ‘’troubled’’ state.

A similar dismissive tone was evident soon after last year’s coup, with the foreign critics being accused of failing to grasp the unique features of a ‘’Thai-style’’ democracy, where military coups were spoken of approvingly and as a welcome intervention to resolve a political deadlock. A wide section of the local media echoed such sentiments, too. Those belittled were foreign governments that had not endorsed the coup and the foreign press that ran critical reportage of the Thai military’s role in politics.

But none of Bangkok’s usual suspects were among the 16 governments that made up the Community of Democracies Convening Group, which determines who should be invited as a participant to Mali. They included Cape Verde, Chile, the Czech Republic, El Salvador, India, Italy, Mali, Mexico, Mongolia, Poland, Portugal, South Korea and South Africa, among others.

The final list for the Bamako gathering from Nov. 14-17 will include 126 countries as active participants and 20 with observer status. Thailand is among countries like Fiji, Singapore, Qatar, Venezuela, Bangladesh and Tunisia, ‘’all of whom participated in or observed the last meeting in Santiago’’ but were not invited this year, states Freedom House.

‘’Their exclusion is consistent with the recommendations of the experts panel and underscores the Convening Group’s determination to keep out those governments which have failed to uphold democracy and human rights commitments of the group,’’ it adds.

The inaugural meeting of the Community in Poland adopted a declaration that its members, including Thailand, agreed to uphold as ‘’core democratic principles and practices.’’ They included the right of people to choose a government through a free and fair election, the right to freedom of expression, assembly and the press, and the right to be free from arbitrary arrest, detention and torture.

Thailand’s failure to make headway on this international front hardly surprises domestic critics who have refused to back the military’s attempts to shape the country’s political destiny. They are part of the local consensus that says the country has made little progress in strengthening its democracy, despite the pledge of the coup leaders last year that the putsch was needed to help restore the country’s democratic culture.

The junta had Thaksin in mind when the promise of restoration was made. In the months leading up to the coup, the former premier was the target of regular street protests in Bangkok, drawing tens of thousands of anti-Thaksin demonstrators who called for his ouster. He was accused of corruption, nepotism and abuse of power.

Thaksin, who currently lives in exile, won two successive elections with thumping majorities. He gained a wide following among the country’s rural voters due to a series of pro-poor initiatives he launched, among which was a universal health care scheme.

‘’Thaksin could have been thrown out of office through democratic means,’’ Jon Ungpakorn, a former member of the Thai senate, told IPS. ‘’Democracy is not healthier in Thailand today, a year after the coup.’’

He added that the level of abuse between the ruling establishment and the public hardly differed as well. ‘’There is not much difference in the way they treat the public, because Thaksin and the present group in power are the same. The abuse is along the same lines.’’

Others, such as Worapol Promigabutr, describe Thailand today as a ‘’semi-democracy’’ than a country in sound political health. ‘’The past year has offered a crucial and cruel lesson to the Thai public that the bureaucratic-oligarchic ideology among the military is so strong, so self-centred,’’ says the associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Bangkok’s Thammasat University.

Such an ideology has been at the centre of a network of powerful people who have ruled the country since 1932, he said in an interview. ‘’What the coup showed is that even a very democratic constitution like the 1997 Thai constitution cannot prevent (such forces).’’

The junta and the pro-military political establishment have shown little qualm in viewing the past year in different light. For one, Bangkok appears in no mood to lift the martial law enforced in nearly half of the country’s provinces ahead of the general elections. A majority of these provinces are in Thailand’s north and north-east, where Thaksin is popular. That was reflected in the outcome of a mid-August referendum to approve a constitution drafted by a committee appointed by the junta. Although the charter was passed, large sections of voters from the north and north-east delivered a resounding ‘no’ vote.

To deal with such opposition, the military revealed it would pump money into these poorer regions to win their approval — a charge the military made against Thaksin to justify his ouster. The army is reported to have allocated 10 billion baht (309 million US dollars) from its own budget for programmes to eradicate poverty, says ‘The Nation,’ an English-language daily.

‘’People care about themselves first. Poverty is a root cause of all problems. Once it is eradicated, people will think beyond themselves. If we can fix it, people are likely to swing to us,’’ Gen. Montri Sangkhasap, the army chief-of-staff, was quoted as having told the same paper.

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