23 September 2010

Article: Toppling democracy

Thongchai Winichakul, "Toppling democracy" ("Journal of Contemporary Asia", 38 [1], February 2008: pp. 11-37).

The full text of the article can be read free of charge here:


Abstract: "Thailand's 2006 royalist coup is best understood by reference to the historical context of democratisation. The dominant historiography of Thai democratisation is either a simplistic liberal view of anti-military democracy or a royalist one that is ultimately anti-democratic. This article offers a serial history of democratisation that allows us to see the long duration of layered historical processes. As democratisation is fundamentally a break from the centralised absolute monarchy, the monarchy and the monarchists, despite their up and down political fortunes, have probably played the most significant role in shaping Thai democracy since 1932. Despite that, their role and place in history has been overlooked due to the perception that they are 'above politics.' This article argues that, since 1973 in particular, the monarchists have assumed the status of the superior realm in Thai politics that claims the high moral ground above politicians and normal politics. With distaste for electoral politics, and in tacit collaboration with the so-called people's sector, activists and intellectuals, they have undermined electoral democracy in the name of 'clean politics' versus the corruption of politicians. The 2006 coup that toppled democracy was the latest effort of the monarchists to take control of the democratisation process."

Excerpts: "The fight against corruption and money politics seems indisputably a good cause. It should contribute to democracy with no harm whatsoever. In the context of Thai democratisation of the past thirty years, however, the repercussions and consequences of clean politics against elected politicians significantly contributed to the coup in 2006. [...] To understand the effects of the discourse of clean politics on democratisation, I shall elaborate its four constitutive discourses and point out how each of them has ramified to become anti-democratic. They are (i) politicians are extremely corrupt; (ii) politicians come to power by vote-buying; (iii) an election does not equal democracy; and (iv) democracy means a moral, ethical rule. [...] If a 'communist threat' was the usual reason for many military coups during the Cold War, corruption has been the usual reason for coups after the end of the communist threat in Thailand since the early 1980s. [...]

"From the 1980s, people have believed that vote-buying is rampant at every level of election. It is considered a political pandemic. [...] Given the distrust of politicians and parliament's assumed lack of legitimacy due to vote-buying, Thailand's democracy has been seriously undermined. The public as well as many intellectuals question the legitimacy of the election as a trustworthy means to democracy. [...] While these public intellectuals may support civic movements or people's power, the supporters of clean politics adopted the rhetoric to undermine the electoral and parliamentary system. During the political crisis in 2006, the royalists and the anti-Thaksin activists alike often called the Thaksin government an 'electocracy' and his rule 'monetocracy.' After the coup, as critics of the coup insisted on electoral legitimacy in democracy, the coup defenders and apologists, including the royalist activists, military leaders and many leading intellectuals, kept repeating that the staging of an election does not equal democracy. [...]

"The distrust of elections in fact goes a long way back and is deeper than the rhetoric above. It is rooted in the nationalistic conservatism that distrusts democracy for being alien to Thai culture which honours hierarchical relations and venerates the monarchy as the highest authority in the land. [...] These conservatives often remind us that a constitution, thereby democracy as well, is merely a Western object. It is not necessarily good for Thai political culture. [...] In 2005 and 2006, the anti-Thaksin movement called for the return of power to the monarchy, arguing that it fits Thai political culture, unlike electoral democracy, which is an alien political system. [...] Not only could politicians and elections not be trusted, but democracy itself is also suspect. This is the ideological basis for the royalist distaste of elections. It is compatible with the anti-electocracy discourse of liberal intellectuals, thanks to their shared distrust of the existing 'democracy.'"

Thongchai Winichakul is Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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