Jul 22, 2014

Thailand needs to build democracy culturally

Reforms for democracy in Thailand have to go beyond politics and reform the Thais culturally.

The inequality hidden in Thai culture is the main obstacle to Thailand towards a genuine democracy, according to Samak Mith.

He said:

The Thai language, for example, serves as a linguistic medium imbued with hierarchical indicators and class-based insinuation. Before addressing someone correctly, you are expected to determine first and foremost the person’s age. Then, the correct prefix can be placed in front of the name. Other linguistic and colloquial additives are used to connote the speaker’s positioning, chosen, preferred, or congenital, in the country’s social pyramid.


As testimony to Thailand’s conservatism, Thai university students still have to wear uniforms until graduation.


The exceptionalism and excessive glorification of the established order in Thailand, in this case the palace, is self-entrenching and carries enormous risk. It has done little to advance democratic education among Thais, resulting in an uneven and superficial understanding of their rights and duties as citizens. Suppressing dissent and instilling a sense of forced reverence – as evidenced in the several cases of arrests and other psychological warfare methods – is not the optimal way to strengthen democracy. The chronic protests that have repeatedly occurred among different groups serve as evidence of a serious breakdown in normal policy and political process.


Given this starting point, many Thais have little faith in political institutions. This, in turn, breeds a culture of protests, extra-parliamentary politics, and the competition to attach oneself to individuals with a view to obtaining impunity. Personality cults and patronage-style governance weaken institutions, creating a cycle of corruption, bad governance, and double-standards, which further undermines public trust in politicians and the democratic process.


At some point, the Thai leadership will need to ask whether this cycle of paternalistic rule is sustainable. Elsewhere around the world, official institutions have learned, willingly or otherwise, to reform and adjust to changing socio-political contexts. The Thai military, like other actors in Thailand, will need to do the same. While it is using the opportunity of the coup to undertake several initiatives, such as stamping out mafia gangs and cleaning up corrupt systems, it will be interesting to see if it can resist the siren call of corruption and vested interests itself.


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