August - September 2008
Till debt do us part?

That bumpy ride called democracy

BANGKOK — Anti-government protesters make up a sea of yellow and the other side, red. Look familiar? To Filipinos, yes: Yellow, after all, is the Pinoy color of protest, bringing back the angry-turned-euphoric days of the civilian-led revolt against the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in February 1986. Red, meanwhile, was favored by the Marcos loyalists.

The political divisions in the Thai political drama are quite different from 1986 Philippines, not least because the anti-government groups actually want to go back to a time of fewer elective positions in government and argue that democracy has not worked in this country. But several other scenes unfolding here trigger memory buttons for Filipinos, who consider themselves veterans in the culture of protest.

In late August, the yellow crowds in the Thai capital, wanting to chase the elected prime minister and government out of power, occupied and blocked symbols of state power after months of rallies that had begun in May. As emotions ran high, so did talk of “people power,” a phrase coined from the Philippines’ Edsa Revolution (version 1.0), as well as “direct participation in democracy,” and “the people’s voice.”

Over and over, newspapers, radio and television here use two words: prachathipathai (“democracy” in Thai) and prachachon (“the people”). Democracy and the people — they were mantras of Filipinos, too.

COPS keep tight watch across the United Nations complex in old Bangkok, near where the PAD protesters are camped out. [photo by Johanna Son]

Many of the same questions arise: Who, exactly, are “the people”? Where lies the line between mob power and genuine popular revolt? Does democracy play out when elected leaders elected are booted out by protesters, who in effect overturn this nationwide mandate? At what point does unpopularity merit the ouster of a leader, instead of waiting for the next poll?

For sure Thailand comes from a very different perspective and history, and simplistic comparisons do not work, even with a neighboring nation that has undergone similar experiences. Yet the current political turmoil in Bangkok can prompt even a non-Filipino to revisit the Philippines’ own journey to democracy, one that has been long, bumpy, and remains unfinished. It also makes one try to recall the universal democratic values that people — whatever culture or region they come from — aspire for.

Word power play

It’s confusing enough that here in the Thai capital, both the pros and the antis claim to be democratic and to represent the views of the people of this country of 66 million.

Location map of Thailand courtesy of Wikipedia

Consider the names of the groups involved in this political battle: “People Power Party” (PPP), which cobbled together a government after the December 2007 polls and nominated Samak Sundaravej as prime minister. “People’s Alliance for Democracy” (PAD) is the group that has been leading the protests against Samak, who it accuses of being a mere proxy of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra (now in exile in Britain and seeking political asylum there to escape corruption charges).

Last Sept. 9, the Constitutional Court ruled that Samak had to leave the prime ministership because he had violated a constitutional bar on private employment and conflict-of-interest provisions when he continued to host cooking shows while in office. But PAD may not be satisfied until PPP itself lets go of the reins of government.

“New politics” is even what PAD leaders call their proposal to have 70 percent of Parliament — the fulcrum of popular representation in just about any system — appointed instead of elected. To political analysts, this is the most worrisome aspect of the protests cloaked in the garb of popular action: PAD protesters are presenting a formula for regression of democracy on the argument that voters (mainly out of Bangkok and supportive of Thaksin’s populist moves) did not know any better and were deceived into backing the current government.

At the same time, many of those drawn to the protest rallies appear to have joined in not because of what they are for, but because of what they are against: the not-exactly-charming or progressive Samak.

The crisis has brought out the deep fissures in Thai society, one that many now acknowledge openly. “It seems everybody is divided,” says an environmental activist. “Really, it’s very individual. Even within one organization, there are different views. Even families are divided.”

At one point, many just wanted the tensions to end — whichever way, whatever the implications — if only to get the protesters off the streets. Yet even now that Samak’s stint in office is over, it’s unclear what will happen next. Says Van, who works at a local administrative court: “I don’t think the crisis is finished. It is just toned down, but it will be back again, I believe.”

Some Thais say they are uncomfortable feeling like there are only two sides to choose from — the thinking that “if you’re not with me, then you’re against me” — when they don’t identify with the political motives on either side.

They are also concerned over adding more cracks in a society that has heretofore put value on a united exterior, as well as fears of violence, fears of unknown political territory ahead, apart from the usual concerns about the impact on the economy. Indeed, these are far from normal days in a society where conflict in daily life is usually dealt with more subtly, without overflowing clearly into the open.

A messy democracy

For Filipinos, of course, noise is part of politics and of our democracy. It is a democracy that has been messy as well, and one sometimes wonders why a poor country would cherish it so much when it has yet to deliver on most of its promises.

A VIEW of the PAD-occupied Makhawan bridge, with the banner accusing the government of destroying the country. (This was taken just before the Constitutional Court ruled against Samak, but the protesters remain.) [photo by Johanna Son]

Some would say the Philippines is a battle-hardened nation — one that, like many other countries, decided at several junctures in its history that foreign rule and local despots were unacceptable, and in more recent decades, that civilian rule is to be held supreme at all costs. Yes, Filipinos blocked Edsa in February 1986 to protect the coup leaders at Camp Aguinaldo. But the citizens’ move was part of a popular revolt, long brewing before the military decided to switch sides, to make sure Marcos’s rule ended. In the late ‘80s and again in recent years, Filipinos also made it clear that the military should stay in the barracks and not toy with the idea that it can have a role in the political arena.

And yet the messiness of democratic processes has meant that elections may put in power rogues and the corrupt, and do not, on their own, translate into good governance, or tear down undemocratic structures like oligarchies or reduce the gap between rich and poor.

These truths hit home even more clearly when one has been living overseas for some years.

A question asked of me from time to time is: The Philippines is known for its capable workers, has some great minds in international diplomatic, political, and activist circles, so why is your country like that? “Like that” could mean many things at any one point, a situation where corruption charges against people close to the president remain unresolved, or one where the economy is bad shape.

Then again, we are among the world’s largest exporters of human labor due largely to our perpetually sorry economy. Pinoys sing in probably most of the world’s hotels and lounges (Thailand included), work as seafarers in most of the world’s ships, clean houses across the globe, and send home record remittances each year. Our continued push for outmigration is far larger and steadier than many of our Philippines’ neighbors, and there is no indication of that changing anytime soon.

The challenge remains very much how to make our system of democracy, warts and all, deliver the economic goods.

Dealing with political tensions

What Pinoy-style democracy has consistently provided is space. In general, any group feeling strongly about a cause is able to go to the streets to voice out either its support or protest. Violence has occurred in the past, but this has not deterred many from speaking out. To some, photos and reports of groups shouting slogans and carrying insult-and-humor-filled banners, are just gulo, evidence of disorder. But the rowdiness, the open anger mixed with fiesta make for normal political culture in the Philippines — until the next rally to release frustrations and bring pressure on the government.

By contrast, Thailand is not exactly a society that is used to rallies left and right or easily finds ways to let its stresses out (even if it is the land of great massage places). Media reports and academic papers often describe it as a hierarchical society, having social structures that for a long time have seen the voice of Bangkok-based elite and middle class, determine political fates. It is this same bias, analysts say, that drive groups like PAD to argue that the rural voters who brought to power people like Thaksin and Samak did not know any better when they chose these figures, and that this now has to corrected through means outside the normal democratic electoral process. A key PAD leader, publisher and businessman Sondhi Limthongkul, was quoted as saying in the International Herald Tribune that Thai elections lead to “a very shabby democracy.”

THE ornate arches that dot Rajadamnoern Nok Avenue in old Bangkok contrast with the PAD rally site. [photo by Johanna Son]

In a commentary in the English-language The Nation newspaper, journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk asked why in recent weeks “the views of ordinary people — especially the rural poor — have been conspicuously absent from media reports.” He also asked, “What has happened to the opinions of the 70 percent of the population who are not members of the middle class and elite?”

Some Thais say it is not easy to see beyond the personalities involved and note that in a democratic process, the means to remove elected leaders is the ballot. Van also echoes others in saying, “My fear is that though Samak may be gone, some others can be chased out the same way. I can’t really give you any solution because it has been like this for ages — people, power, and money. We can’t escape.”

So far, the usual possible scripts have not played out, including the military stepping in. In recent weeks, many have also expressed the hope that the King would intervene as he has in the past, and bring some order and stability back.

The green activist says the present situation could be a threshold of sorts, offering a chance for Thai society to try to find a way to deal with these stresses. He points to the fact that non-violence has so far been stated and affirmed as a norm and standard by all sides, especially after a violent confrontation on Sept. 2 that resulted in one death.

The activist says he would not like to see another coup in a country that has already had 18 since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. “Maybe, maybe there is a little opening here for some kind of change,” he says. “We’ve never had real, deep change. All the changes have been just at the surface. Other countries have had revolutions, colonization, and other pressures that result in a change of structure. For us, it’s been the same for a long time.”

He adds that the crisis is not really about Samak or Thaksin, or the corruption or electoral charges against them. “This is about class,” says the activist, noting the conclusion by groups like PAD that the rural vote for populist leaders carries less weight than that of the Bangkok-based elite. “(And) we haven’t really had a way to deal with such tensions.”

The road ahead

Every crisis is also an opportunity, it is said. In the Philippines, economic ruin, corruption, and human-rights violations simmered for decades, leading to conflicts of different sorts and degrees until the middle class and the poorer sections of society, in cities or rural areas, reached a critical point of agreement about the kind of country they wanted, after kicking out the dictator. Today, 22 years after the return of democratic rule, we Filipinos are still asking how far we have come in this journey called democracy.

As for the Thais, some are hoping that greater space is created, the better for wider acceptance of the idea of one person having an equal political voice (including in votes) as the other. This, after all, is a core norm that is among the strongest pillars of democratic rule anywhere and works for both the powerful and the voiceless alike.

It’s now September, a month in which both the Philippines and Thailand experienced a crucial event in their respective histories. Sept. 11, 1972 marked Marcos’s declaration of martial law. In Thailand, the second anniversary of the latest military coup against ex-prime minister Thaksin is today, Sept. 16.

Again, two different events in two very different contexts happening in these Southeast Asian neighbors. But in their own ways, these are our reminders that democracy — or attempts at it — makes for a rocky, circuitous process, and sometimes, a very painful one.

Johanna Son is a Filipino journalist based in Bangkok and is director of Inter Press Service Asia-Pacific.