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Thai conservatives risk chaos in pursuit of power

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Thailand's National Reform Council members attend a session to consider the draft of a new Thai constitution in Bangkok on Sept. 6, 2015.   © Reuters

Thailand's conservatives, the real power behind the country's military-backed government, have neutralized the political opposition and consolidated their authority behind a facade of constitutional reform. But they should beware. New proposals to entrench their position permanently risk conflict and perhaps chaos. The people cannot forever be denied a role.

     For centuries, the Kingdom of Thailand was ruled by an aristocratic class with royal blood and by commoners with royally bestowed ranks and titles. That period ended with the abolition of absolute monarchy in June 1932, when civil servants and military officers emerged as a new aristocratic class.

     The indispensable servant of incoming governments, sometimes forming the government itself, this administrative and military caste has become a permanent feature of Thailand's political landscape. It is these people who form the backbone of the military-backed administration that took power in May 2014.

     Thailand's political structure can be characterized as a bureaucracy with a military spearhead, supported by an entourage of place seekers and hangers on such as academics, media personalities, white-collar workers and professionals.

     These modern aristocrats are conservative in their thinking, their perceptions and their behavior. They seek order and stability in society: these are their top priorities in the affairs of the state. They perceive themselves as the natural leaders and rightful protectors of national institutions, especially the three main pillars of Thai society -- the nation, the Buddhist religion and the monarchy. They adhere to a belief in the unique characteristics of Thailand, reflexively embodied in what they call the "Thainess" of traditional values, of discipline, and of authority relationships. Most importantly, they sit at the apex of the system.

     These people are oblivious to other stakeholders. They dislike conflict and confrontation -- indeed, any differences of opinion that might create a state of instability and undermine their view of the normal state of society. They love the authority they have, and the discretion it conveys to use power as they see fit, and they shy away from concepts of transparency and accountability. They resist or ignore claims of wider access to information, advancing the over-riding requirements of state security as their justification.

     For approximately three decades until 2014, these aristocrats had to serve political masters -- the people's representatives, who ruled on the basis of a majority in the national legislature. Hard pressed by social and political movements, and by organizations agitating for accountability and transparency, they were asked to serve and not to command and control. For the first time, the modern aristocracy found itself sandwiched between a professional political class and the masses. 

Elitism returns

Now the aristocrats are back in power and basking in the sun. The political class has been comprehensively sidelined; ridiculed, blamed for multiple failures of governance, accused of an inability to reconcile opposing social forces locked in prolonged conflict, and held responsible for economic stagnation and social dislocation. The people's movements are exhausted, physically and financially, by drawn out protests and rallies. Most are in check, neutralized by charges against their leaders; some have been checkmated by administrative measures.

     Comprehensive reforms of political and social structures are being canvassed; a new constitution is proposed that will supposedly lay a firm foundation for democracy to take root and more forward in a sustainable manner. The signs suggest, however, that these reforms will not be about sharing of power, a more equitable distribution of wealth or access to equal opportunities.

     The reform of Thailand is about the consolidation and perpetuation of the power of the modern aristocratic class. But the conservatives are making a mockery of participatory democracy. And they are fooling themselves as well as the people when they assert that this vision can succeed.

     The latest proposal is that they should hold onto power through a new body, analogous to the politburos that so effectively concentrate power in communist-ruled countries. Thailand's version will be called the National Strategy Committee, and the role of modern autocrats will be both prominent and long lasting.

     Ambition can beget misjudgment. It can also lead to adverse reactions, and to eventual failure. The conservatives are willing to take the risk, believing that their brand of governance is an improvement on the intermittently chaotic character of the representative government that Thailand has so far experienced.

     Yet Thailand has come a long way in the making of a democratic polity. Conflicts, confrontations and divisiveness are not justifications for any particular group to have a permanent hold on power. The people have been empowered and aided by modern information technology, and they have tasted and experienced their sovereign rights. They are by right the ultimate arbitrators of the life of democratic Thailand, and they will eventually assert their rights.

     The modern aristocrats think otherwise. But their attempts to dominate the political class and civil society will lead to further conflict and confrontation. They need to think again. The path may be bumpy, but the process of democratization must be allowed to take its course if Thailand is ever to emerge as a democratically stable and progressive country.

Kasit Piromya, a former Thai foreign minister and a senior member of the Democrat party, is a member of the National Reform Steering Assembly; he writes in a personal capacity.

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