Thailand: The consequences of a disloyal opposition by Lam Chi Tun @ Columbia University
On the 10th of February, around 400 protestors gathered near the Democracy Monument in Bangkok to protest against the military junta currently ruling Thailand. They called on the military rulers to fulfill their promise of holding democratic elections in November this year, and urged the junta to not delay the elections any longer. Earlier this year, another demonstration occurred on the 27th January.
The two protests this year ended peacefully, but this was not always the case. The political crisis from 2013-2014 saw violence in the streets that resulted in several deaths and injuries, and led to the coup of May 2014 that placed the current military government in power. It was the 19th coup in Thailand since the introduction of the country’s first democratic government in 1932.
Thailand’s political scene has seen back and forth demonstrations by two opposing factions, the “red shirts” and the “yellow shirts”, both of which were guilty of staging disruptive public protests. In a textbook case of the people-elite divide, the “red shirts” were predominantly poorer people from Thailand’s rural North, while the “yellow shirts” mainly consist of royalists and urban dwellers.
This divide was intensified when former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was swept into office in a landslide victory in 2001, backed by the large rural population who supported his platform of generous social and welfare policies for the poor. Thaksin’s opponents accuse him of being a populist engaging in mass clientalism, manipulating the poor and buying their votes with favourable social policies while enriching himself through corrupt practices. They turned up in yellow (the colour of Thai royalty) to protest against Thaksin’s government in 2006 and called for a royally appointed Prime Minister to replace Thaksin. Thaksin was then overthrown by a military coup later that year. Thaksin supporters would subsequently turn up in red shirts in their counter-protests.
Due to Thaksin’s immense popularity among the large rural population, parties that ran on the same platform as Thaksin won the 2007 and 2011 elections. However, after each of these elections, the “yellow shirts” behaved as a disloyal opposition—an opposition that refuses to adhere to the rules of democracy nor accept the rule of legitimately elected rulers. They sought to “reform” the system into one where the Prime Minister is appointed by the king rather than elected by the people.
In the 2013-2014 political crisis, the “yellow shirts”, led by the main opposition party, occupied the streets of Bangkok and fought against the police attempting to reclaim the public spaces. Even though the then Prime Minister relented and called for a snap election, the opposition boycotted the election and disrupted the voting that took place.
In a democracy, the military should be neutral party that does not interfere with politics. Yet, the “yellow shirts” actively tries to get the military involved by inciting public unrest. They succeeded in 2006 and in 2014. Further exacerbating the issue is the fact that the military itself does not seem to want to be neutral; military leaders refused to step in when the “yellow shirts” forcefully occupied Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport in 2008, but cracked down on the “red shirts” holding demonstrations in 2010.
The opposition resorted to public demonstrations to depose of democratically elected pro-Thaksin governments, instead of attempting to win over voters so that they can gain power legitimately in future elections. Their actions undermine the legitimacy of the democratic regime.
However, the “red shirts” are no angels either. During their 2010 demonstration, they were armed with guns, grenades, and petrol bombs. The violent nature of these pendulum mobilisations between the two sides traumatised the nation, and it gave the military an excuse to step in and wrest power from the civilian government.
The current military government has been accused of stifling dissent and cracking down on civil liberties such as the right to free speech. In 2016, the junta drafted a new constitution that grants the military the power to appoint all 250 members of the senate, with 6 seats reserved for military personnel. Critics argue that the new constitution, the 20th in Thailand’s history, is merely a way for the military to consolidate power while giving Thailand the semblance of a democracy. The military, on their part, claimed that the new constitution better ensures political stability.
The constitution was eventually put it to a referendum, where it was passed with 61% of the vote and a 54% voter turnout. However, before the referendum, criticism of the draft constitution was outlawed, and those who spoke out against it were arrested and detained—a blatant violation of democratic principles. Yet, despite the low voter turnout, there are still many who support the constitution and the military. With the political violence of the past years still a fresh memory, it appears that some Thais are willing to sacrifice democracy for the hope of a more stable political scene.
The situation in Thailand shows us what happens when the opposition refuses to play by the rules. When the opposition refuses to accept the results of democratically held elections and resorts to demonstrations to remove the elected rulers, the resulting instability and chaos leads to the people becoming more and more accepting of non-democratic practices. The intentional incitation of public unrest by disloyal oppositions gives the military an excuse to restrict civil liberties and institutionalise undemocratic principles. The backsliding of democracy in Thailand serves as a warning of the dangers of a disloyal opposition.
Acemoglu, Daron and James Robinson. Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Chapter 1.
Acemoglu and Robinson discusses how interactions between the people and the elite gives rise to different forms of government.
Müller, Jan Werner. What is Populism?. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. Chapter 2.
Müller discusses the tactics used by populists in power, among which includes mass clientalism.
Linz, Juan J. & Alfred Stepan. The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1989. Chapter 2.
Linz and Stepan talks about what constitutes a disloyal opposition.
Bermeo, Nancy. 2003. Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2003. Chapter 3.
Bermeo’s case study of Brazil shows how the military can use the excuse of public unrest due to pendulum mobilisations to step in and remove the civilian government from power, similar to what has transpired in Thailand.