Friday, September 29, 2006

Swadee Khrab General: Some Answers Questioned

A soldier gives a group of Thai girls some water after they danced to entertain the soldiers occupying the area around parliament in Bangkok, Thailand, Monday, Sept. 25, 2006. The tanks and soldiers who led Thailand's military coup have become a tourist attraction with hundreds of people arriving daily to pose for pictures with them, and vendors selling toys and drinks in a carnival-like atmosphere. (AP Photo/Ed Wray)

As tanks rolled down the streets of Bangkok, democracy rolled back 15 years. But did it? The anti-Thaksin paper Nation claimed “It was a necessary evil, if you look at it. There were no other options to end this political cul-de-sac.” But are they correct?

Last April I spent a month in Bangkok at the height of the political stalemate that gripped Thailand and the time the opposition boycotted polls. Even though the capital got ready to welcome leaders from the world to celebrate 60 years of their revered King’s accession to the thrown, it was clear that they were heading into murky waters of instability in the future. A chat with a tuk tuk driver or a hotel receptionist in Bangkok gave the same result – they lost faith in Thaksin.

Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai (TRT – Thais Love Thais) party swept into power with a landslide in 2001. The nation (both the country and the paper) was in love with the self-made media savvy billionaire. This ex-policeman turned businessman turned politician made his money from interests in telecommunication. He promised to run the Asian “tiger economy” like he ran his company. Unfortunately that is not how you run a country. As we see from the troubles in boardrooms across the world, entrepreneurs who build empires often cannot see the difference between company and self. Thaksin, many people claimed, made that crucial mistake. He bent rules to fit him. He appointed friends and family to important positions in the government, judiciary and even in the army. And then he committed the most cardinal of sins. He became arrogant. Drunk by his power he forgot he had a country of 70 million who put him where he was. In five years he went from the future of the Thai to its past. Thais it seems did not “Rak” him anymore.

However there is an interesting point to note. By all accounts TRT particularly and Thaksin personally remained hugely popular in the impoverished rural Thailand. Even many of his detractors accept that if free and fair polls are to be held today TRT will do better than well in many provinces, specially the upcountry areas. Thaksin’s loss of popularity it seems in mostly rooted in the middle class Bangkok, and not in the rest of the country. So can we deduce that the middle class “intelligentsia” overthrew a popular and democratically elected leader? Did people who were singing praises for him a few years back now made it inevitable for the Army to take charge?

Someone had once claimed “leave no answer unquestioned.” In that spirit, will the answer Nation newspaper gave, – “necessary evil… no other option”, hold? Coup d’etat leader General Sonthi’s contention was that if they did not send in battle tanks to the Government House, Thaksin would have done so himself. Did he not order Sonthi’s removal? Did he not declare emergency?

Even an amateur Thailand watcher will tell you the deciding factor in any political action in that country is the Monarch. Though having only constitutional powers like that of the Queen of England, King Bhumibol Adulyadej has unyielding sway over his people. It is believed that leading up to the election in April and subsequently, his Majesty was displeased with where politics was heading. In a nation that reads a lot into his action, he appointed to his Privy Council ex-generals that Thaksin had crossed. That itself should have been a hint enough for the astute Prime Minister to tone down his rhetoric. But he was deluded with the empty victory he won in April, and fell pry to his own political game. It seemed that he checkmated himself. There was nowhere to go. The Opposition, smelling blood, dug in their heels and ensured that TRT did not have the opportunity to show their strength through an election.

Next few months will be quite interesting to a political aficionado looking at Thailand. Here we have a democratically elected successful leader overthrown in a popular move by the Army swearing loyalty a heredity ruler in the name of people power. It does not get more ironic than this.

Every tale should have a lesson. Are there any for us in Bangladesh to take? Some of the similarities are uncanny. Both nations have a history of military rulers. Democracies in both countries were established in earnest in the early 1990s. Both TRT and BNP can claim a landslide mandate to govern. And in 5 years both have become a millstone around the neck of democracy. Due to corruption, nepotism and inefficiency both lost their moral justification to rule.

Does this mean we might see tanks in the streets of Dhaka? Some scenarios do lend itself to that possibility. Say Justice KM Hasan does not relinquish his constitutional duty to lead the caretaker government. The Leader of the Opposition has already asked her supporters to land up in Dhaka with whatever tools they can muster. What option does the President have but to call on the Armed Forces to maintain peace? Or say elections do take place and BNP wins, AL will surely cry havoc and let loose the dogs of war. Or say the other way around. AL wins and like the current government, believes the votes were cast in support of them instead of being against their adversary.

Any astute commentator will tell you what private opinion polls show, Bangladesh is sick and tired of both the main political parties and their empty promises. As a New Market trader reasoned “they are two sides of the same fish.” We are aching for an alternative. And if the valiant men in green want to walk into Sangsad Bhaban, I strongly believe they will be greeted as liberators with a thunderous ovation.

This brings me to the central question that needs to be posed. Will promotion of democracy be a justification for the suspension of the Constitution? It seems our experiments with democracy have not yielded the results we were expecting. Holding free and fair elections every five years does not mean anything as long as the people we have voted for do not go into Parliament and debate why the power crisis will take 5 years to resolve. Or why we must pay Tk 100 for a kg of onions, or why Quami madrassa will get the same recognition as a graduate degree. As long as there cannot be floor crossing in the Sangsad, or Parliamentary Party meetings, or free party office-bearer elections, can we truly say we have democracy in practice? Till our Judiciary, our bureaucracy, our army, our business, our media, our civil society are above political bickering and influence, how can we say that we have a democracy to protect? It is simple maths that if you take two steps forward and a step back –you are still a step forward. Thank you General Sonthi, or as they would say in Thailand, Khrob kuan khrab, you might just have shown us new marching steps.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Though George Bush may think differently, democracy is only a form of government, not a panacea of all evils. Parvez Musharaf, despite all the international disapprovals, have done well for Pakistan, and even Bush is very keen to keep him in office and alive.

Though the concept of a benevolent dictator is out of fashion in our flawed time, it is not entirely meaningless. I was surprised to see how popular Mussolini still is in Italy, despite all the stories that we hear from outside. In a world which was ruled by powerful and popular monarchs only 100 years ago, it is naive to think that democracy is the only option and the universal solution.