Democracy & Thailand, Does the Shoe Fit?
An analysis of western style democracy and social construction of Thai political culture. Why democracy can't take root in Thailand -- how to succeed?
AN ANALYSIS OF WESTERN STYLE DEMOCRACY AND SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF THAI POLITICAL CULTURE
In his 1994 State of the Union address, US President Bill Clinton used the Democratic Peace Theory to advocate the promotion of democracy abroad as a pillar of his foreign policy. Seemingly logical, given the historically peaceful patterns of mature democracies, this theory has surprisingly failed with newly democratizing countries, which have shown high volatility and violence.
A good example is the case of Thailand, often cited as a model for the development of democracy in Asia, where repeated cycles of new coups and constitutions have regularly dashed the hopes of foreign observers. Because Thailand, on the surface, looks so very westernized, it has remained a mystery as to why a Western system of democracy cannot last in this country. As a close political ally from whom Thailand has borrowed many cultural habits, the USA has been particularly perplexed. Perhaps the best way to analyse this phenomenon is to compare the social construction of Western and Thai political cultures and consider whether a Western democratic system is appropriate to Thailand.
The combined effect of Americans’ paradigmatic ideas (hegemonic responsibility, rule of law, liberty, public participation, welfare, active debate, definitive morality, heroic role) paints a picture of an aggressive culture that believes strongly in their dogma. This contrasts with an Eastern philosophy that, by comparison, emphasizes the role of the people rather than the structure of ideas; and the non-self and giving-in to society, rather than individual rights and freedoms.
What Thais want from government is quite similar to what the citizens of Western nations want, and that is: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness or property. The most important difference is in the level of debate, and the view of self in relation to others.
This relation between self and society translates into expectations of self and government. When there are political problems, the Westerner is more likely to debate the laws in public forums, and to address the process of government. Thais, by contrast, because of their role-based locus, prefer to simply change the leaders of the government, but they do wish a coup to be the last resort. To the Thais, a coup is the leading edge of transitional periods in times of a dead-end. To the US, the coup is the trouble. In Thailand, a land of conflict avoidance, a changing of the guard is the simplest solution: change the people and you change the problem.
It is understandable that Westerners were horrified at the military coup of September 2006 and the tearing up of the constitution in Thailand, especially since the idea of constitutionality has existed in the Western idea of government since the time of Aristotle. The Western black & white morality leads to the view that a government is either a democracy or it isn’t. Many Thais, however, find it easier to accept a Thai style democracy, and a Thai style coup that caters to the unique nature of the country and its people.
Thai activists have questioned how some of the corrupt regimes in the past could have remained in power and sustained their popularity. On the contrary, Westerners were greatly surprised by the ostensible show of support for the coup from vast numbers of the voting Thai public, for Western understanding of democracy is based on rule by the majority.
In recent years, bureaucratic reform in Thailand may have aided in abetting rampant corruption. Because of the global market economy, businesslike values have shifted the agenda from public service towards efficiency under public private partnerships. As a result, close linkages between the government and business sectors in Thailand have allowed for unfair official practice, and the lack of accountability has been fertile ground for government corruption.
Not all Western systems are appropriate for implementation in Thailand, either because of the barriers presented by the inherent Thai culture, or because of the learning curve required to incorporate them positively into the overall system. Analyses and adjustments need to be made, with the overriding goal of benefiting the country for the long term.
Dichotomies between Western and Eastern social constructs can explain opposing views of events. Westerners proudly proclaim the rationality of their thought, believing this to be their leverage in dealing with what they view as the one true reality. According to Rene Descartes, the real is the rational, so that the more rational we become, the more in touch with reality.
On a religious level, according to Western Christian rules, truth is what God said; but according to Eastern Buddhist principles, truth is from experience. When there are problems, Westerners go towards them (do something); Easterners escape them (do nothing). Westerners set up systems and then start the job; Easterners start the job, and then set up systems.
Concerning debate and public participation: Western citizens are considered equal and expected to speak up, with peace resulting only when they are heard; Eastern citizens exist in hierarchies and are expected to keep their opinions to themselves, with peace resulting only when the ruler manages correctly.
Given the above, what type of leadership is appropriate for an emerging democracy? For Thailand? Leadership qualities are most successful when they match cultural norms, and these norms may not be the same from one Asian country to the next, or even from one Southeast Asian country to the next. If, because of time constraints for managing foreign policy with so many countries, the US insists on using the cookie cutter approach to all nations, problems will ensue.
One of the most valued commodities for US citizens is freedom, so the US may not understand when Thais give priority to order over freedom. Thais tend to utilize rote learning and repetitive functions in education and industry, because this feels safe and secure to them. They partake of new fashion trends voraciously because when doing the things that truly matter to them, they pursue the historical, sure route. Thai history is full of governmental bodies that have been managed by bureaucrats who rose according to seniority and connections rather than skill and innovation.
When foreign support and interventions put in place people and technologies that are drastically different from what the Thais are used to, they become defenseless against the potential pitfalls of the new entities. Whereas Americans have processes that they can turn to, Thais do not know how to repair and renovate systems once they have taken root. So we see that the US, with adjustable systems, can have strict doctrines, while Thailand, with fixed systems, can have fluid persuasions.
In the past, whenever there has been an impasse in the political sphere, the people have turned to their monarch, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, to provide wise counsel, neutral mediation, or an unassailable solution. But His Majesty seems to have his eyes focused on a longer-term vision than the situational ethics of his subjects, and has taken great care to get involved as sparingly as possible. His respect for the efforts to create a workable democratic system, shone through in April of 2006, when he exhorted the chiefs of the nation’s top courts to take personal responsibility for resolving the political crisis within the rule of law.
Since then, many groups in Thailand considered it their personal duty to the King to leave no stone unturned in fixing the increasingly volatile political situation. This may explain why, after months of efforts by a plethora of increasingly vocal groups, the people were exhausted. The issue of what to do with one person, whether to support him or replace him, divided families, friends, and business associates in argument contrary to the core Thai values of peace and neutrality.
In Thailand, a country like no other, a coup like no other can release a citizenry from the yoke of thought and discussion. It restored a semblance of quietude. Thais gave food and flowers to the soldiers, not because they believed in military action, but because they were freed from debate. They appreciated the return to the non-story: the mai-mee-leuang, the mai-pen-rai. Whereas for Westerners, a coup represents anarchy; to the Thais this one represented a rescue from chaos.
For democracy to gain a foothold in a country like Thailand, where there is a desire for the fruits of democracy, there must be specific, countrywide education of the values and vision of this alien form of government. Thai people must realize that there is a necessary culture behind the system, which includes open communication, free debate, and a respect for people of all classes and persuasions.
The people need to either learn new characteristics and new ways of doing things, or give up on the idea of democracy. Otherwise, there will always be a deep schism between culture and government, and the treasures of the country will be lost in that crevice.