THAILAND: A TIME FOR UNITY
BANGKOK: The October 1973 events in Thailand have led to results which surprised everyone concerned. A secure military dictatorship lost. Three of its notorious, ruthless leaders were also on the losing end, at least for the time being. Much credit is due to Thailand’s brave young people, especially vocational students, and to student bodies and leaders who efficiently organised a week-long peaceful demonstration, not only in Bangkok, but in almost all the provinces.
The people had grown to hate the government more and more during the past years. The stupidity and extreme arrogance of the dictators were also important factors in their downfall. This could not have happened without a rift, however instantaneous, in the army high command. But the decisive spark that caused the conflagration was, in fact, the product of Lady Luck.
Student leaders had made a compromise agreement with the government which would have resulted in an insignificant change in the Thai political scene, leaving the dictators still firmly in power. The King had advised the students to disperse and go home. Suddenly the police started to charge a small crowd outside the Royal Palace, using batons and tear gas. The rest is history.
The new government, despite good intentions, popular support, and loyalty pledged by the armed forces and police, does not regard itself as anything other than a caretaker government. Several of its cabinet ministers openly, willingly, and intimately cooperated in the past dictatorial junta. The legislative assembly, an appointed body whose members are mostly high-ranking army officers close to the previous government, remains with its power and responsibilities unchanged.
The Thai people’s freedom, recently won at the cost of young lives, appears at present to be founded on very flimsy ground.
On the asset side, the October events have awoken Thai people to the realisation that there is power and reasonable safety in numbers; united, they need not tolerate subservience to any oppressor. Public opinion and public concern for civil rights and freedom have found an outlet. In the face of daily revelations of scandalous sins committed by dictators and their entourage, the army is lying low and the police are licking their deep wounds. Despite quarrels among their leaders, the youth and student movements remain political forces and enjoy great prestige. Intellectuals, mostly young university lecturers, who gave support to students and worked behind the scenes in October, have come forward with creative ideas and actions. In the words of one of these: “Thailand now breathes in the fresh and pure air of liberty; optimsm, although cautious, is in the atmosphere.”
To convert this optimism into reality, the Thai people and government must identify numerous problems and swiftly overcome them.
Since 1932, Thailand has had a succession of short-lived constitutions, all of them drafted, debated, deliberated, amended, and approved by a small number of officials, and thrust upon the population willy-nilly. Hence the apathy of the population. The difference this time is that the people have demanded their constitution, and have won promises from the authorities at the cost of many lives.
The committee of eighteen charged by the government to draft the new constitution consists of two journalists, one of them a woman, three university political scientists, and the rest government legal officers. Therefore, the new constitution threatens to become another official document imposed upon citizens from above, especially if final approval rests with the present Legislative Assembly, as envisaged by the former military government.
The problem is how to promote popular participation in the drafting and approving processes. The people must be brought in to decide upon rules which will govern society.
It is to be hoped that the interim government’s wisdom will lead them to organise a constituent assembly constitutional convention, whose members, by preference popularly elected, represent public opinion in all sectors of society. The present Legislative Assembly should be promptly dissolved.
Previous constitutions usually contained provisions half-heartedly guaranteeing citizens basic rights and liberties. For instance, the press would be free with the crucial proviso that this freedom would be within limits of the law. Subsequently, the government would bring in legislation which imposed such severe limits as to eradicate any trace of freedom. The new constitution must categorically underline basic freedoms without imposing conditions. States of emergency and martial law have in the past been invoked for no valid reason, and their duration has been unlimited. And in a state of emergency, the guarantee of citizens’ freedom becomes a mockery. In the new constitution, the power of the executive to declare emergencies must be controlled by parliament, and the duration of emergency powers strictly limited.
There are those who believe that since the majority of Thai people are illiterate, they are not fit to choose members of Parliament. This belief, however, is not supported by historical facts. On the contrary, people in the northeast, least literate of all regions, have shown the ability to elect members of Parliament of high calibre, especially before World War II.
Of course, elections, must be closely supervised, as large-scale bribery is rife. This should not be tolerated. There should thereforebe no educational qualification rule for the electorate. The minimum voting age should be lowered to eighteen. Of course, parliamentary candidates must be able to read and write.
What is the prospect of a military comeback, as in 1947-48? In the words of a friend: “Exit Syngman Rhee, will Park Chung-hee enter?” This is foremost in the minds of citizens. The present government seems to have kept gunpowder kegs under its seat.
The responsibility for maintaining and defending democratic rules lies partly with the administration, partly with citizens. In our tradition, King Bhumibol is the supreme commander of the armed forces. The Prime Minister must be the supreme master of the civil service and armed forces. To help him, a senior cabinet member could be appointed with the specific task of watching out for military coups, using diplomacy and subtlety, as well as firmness. The belief that the Minister of Defence must be a secure military man must go. A civilian minister of defence is in keeping with democratic principles. A retired general, if suitable, would qualify as a civilian. In our country, women are renowned in all walks of life for efficiency and competence. A female minister of defence might indeed be most valuable. Key service commanders should be appointed upon merit, combining military aptitude with the right attitude for serving a democratic government. Crucial garrisons, such as those of the First Region Army, well known for their role in every coup d’état, should be moved out of Bangkok to a safer distance.
There are other precautionary measures to be taken in this connection. None of the measures will be foolproof, but taken together and given attentive vigilance, they will go a long way towards protecting democratic rule, especially if citizens will also take collective action for the same purpose.
Citizens should form a national association in defence of democratic and civil rights, with branches all over the country, perhaps under Royal patronage. The association would be a non-party political body supported by leaders of all emergent political parties. Its main objective would be to promote and defend democratic rule. Members would pledge, individually and collectively, to work to prevent armed coups d’état, and organise peaceful, but firm, resistance to dictatorship should that unhappy state of government exist. The association would vigilantly ensure that elections to parliament and local councils will be free and fair. Another aspect of association activities would be to protect citizens’ rights against abuses of authority, similar to concepts of the UK National Council for Civil Liberties. This concept of collective action is being discussed among intellectuals, students, and responsible citizens. Obviously, the association could be effective only if it enjoys large membership and vast popular support.
The People for Democracy group, formed in Bangkok from the original group of One Hundred signatories who demanded a new constitution, could be the nucleus of the association. Student bodies, trade unions, co-operatives, taxi-drivers’ groups, and others can be expected to provide an initial large membership for the association.
It is not my intention in this short article to discuss all the problems of democracy in Thailand. However, there are social, economic, and administrative issues highly relevant to the political objective.
In 1947, the army succeeded in toppling a civilian government, mainly because postwar economic difficulties were acute and not dealt with by the government to the satisfaction of the people. In 1973, the majority of people were against the military government, principally because it failed to curb inflation and prevent rice shortages. The interim government should now take these economic problems most seriously and endeavour to satisfy public opinion. Of highest priority are measures on rice production, distribution, stock control, and trading.
The military government has left a legacy of corrupt and inefficient administration. They deliberately discriminated between favourites and the rest of the civil and armed services. Favourites were those who actively supported dictatorial rule and those who were being lured into their camp. They were given special privileges in the form of lucrative posts, company directorships, membership in the Legislative Assembly, use of government cars, and other benefits adding up to some five or six times their official salaries. The general level of civil service salary was kept low. Thus morale in the administration was equally low. Furthermore, leaders regularly looked for opportunities for bribes and kickbacks provided by large public works contracts. Their principle was “eat and let eat.” Occasionally, however, personal interests clashed dramatically. This system, if not drastically reformed, will persist and ruin the chances of an efficient democratic government.
Overall rate of growth in the gross domestic product (GDP) may have been good; but disparity between rich and poor has increased considerably. Although dictators frequently paid lip-service to the poor, they never had the political will to attack poverty. This growing gap is inimical to orderly democratic government. Rural development and urban slum clearance must be undertaken vigorously, speedily, and, I personally hope, with the help of the great energy, zeal, and potential of the student volunteer movement.
The military government knew no way of dealing with insurgents, other than using force with dreadful weapons. The result has been negative; insurgency has become more widespread and intensive. The problem was aggravated by the foolish mistake of branding all insurgents as Communists. In reality, some are Communists, some Muslim nationalists, hill tribes, common criminals, and ordinary citizens taking revenge upon oppressive officials.
This mistake facilitated the merging and coordination of a variety of groups to fight the common enemy, the government. The new government is in a very good position to reverse the policy. Attempts should be made to declare a truce and bring different leaders to conference tables, where talks should be conducted in a spirit of national reconciliation. The time to prevent civil war is now.
Article in the Far Eastern Economic Review
3 December 1973.