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Prachatai : Tony Blair in Thailand: What we can learn

Taken from article called “Tony Blair in Thailand: What we can learn” by Titipol Phakdeewanich that was published by prachatai.com on 28/08/2013.

Much has now been written in an attempt to make sense of the dramatic confrontation that we witnessed in parliament last week, which resulted in the sadly not unprecedented scenario of having police on the floor of the House. Thailand likely senses that the political drama between the government and the opposition will almost inevitably continue, and realistically, why should the country expect otherwise? Their respective positions are already well established, and we now see a demonstration of what amounts to a zero-sum game, too often favoured by Thai political strategists.

Whilst the rules-of-the-game established through various interpretations of parliamentary democracy around the world are intended to discourage such unbecoming scenes, it has not yet been possible to prevent such examples from recurring in Thailand. This does not at all mean that Thailand should be resigned to the mentality of fatalism, as it can still learn to manage more effectively and challenge the underlying reasons for the recent events in parliament.

There is a more than unfortunate irony in the continued inability of Thailand’s political representatives to debate convincingly such fundamental reforms as the terms of democracy itself. Recent events are rather indicative of the health of the system as it is today, and so this problem is especially significant now.

Could it even be possible that we are now witnessing an unconscious cry-for-help from the Thai political class? Is this their way of demonstrating to Mr Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister, just how needed he might be in Thailand at this time? Although Mr Blair is due to visit next week as part of a foreign delegation to assist Thailand with its stalled reconciliation process, he may also have the skills needed to help the country’s politicians after their faltering attempts in the crucial debates over Senate reform.

It is true that most of the political opposition and many others across the country are now unsympathetic to the idea of bringing Mr Blair to Thailand. Yet his premiership saw a historic accomplishment in ending over thirty years of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, and a near equivalent to the challenge of the Thai reconciliation process in attempting to heal profound societal divisions. Although an immediate significant breakthrough seems unlikely, the approach that Mr Blair brings to the table may well prove instructive.

At the time of his ascendancy in British politics, Mr Blair was recognised for his ability to perceive before others could the political opportunity to bring together a variety of antagonists. He arguably achieved this not only in Northern Ireland, but also over British constitutional reform, the modernisation of his own Labour Party, and in shifting the British political spectrum towards his way of thinking.

The Senate reform debates so far reveal one overriding concern of the opposition, as their argument has focused on a reading of Thai political history as power in the grip of a small, yet powerful group in the political arena. Their fear seems to be that if the amendment to the constitution passed with the introduction of an all-elected Senate, the Pheu Thai party would inevitably wield unrestrained power over House and Senate.

Whilst it is unsurprising that they take this position, and its exponents clearly have every right to voice their concerns, a number of representatives in the House have resorted to the questionable tactic of hyperbolic fear-mongering to make their point. As a consequence, this approach has inevitably conveyed a message of distrust in the ability of the Thai people as a whole, to think sufficiently rationally or tactically, when it comes to voting.

The tone of the debate in the House explicitly reflected the concern that the Pheu Thai party, and by implication former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, would achieve absolute control of both the House and Senate. Thaksin’s detractors apparently fear that the political arena has become his fiefdom, supposedly because the Pheu Thai Party can expect to secure forever its support in the North and Northeast of Thailand, where most of the Thai population live.

But for a country to be continually obsessed over the intentions of one man in exile, is to miss the point when we observe the way society operates. In acting to challenge the everyday inequalities found all around them, Thai people would learn more about why they find themselves in a situation where power brokers wield inordinate power.

The stalling tactics used during the debates are a form of gamesmanship. Yet this approach also reveals how unsustainable it is to rely on a strategy that goes against both the essential tenets of democratic representation, and the imperative to modernise and reform. After all, resistance to progress is the refuge of those who are losing the argument.

We only have to ask Mr Blair’s primary political opponents from within the British Conservative Party – who lost power for over a decade – for an answer as to why they took so long to respond positively to his challenge. The question may be asked whether the Thai opposition will persist with their existing approach.

In his autobiography, Mr Blair acknowledged the inherent problem of an appointment-based system:

“The danger with appointment is cronyism, placemenship, patronage and so on, but that can be countered by a different system of nomination…”

When Mr Blair was Prime Minister, the British government introduced the House of Lords Act 1999, which sought to phase out the hereditary nature of the upper house through the introduction of a majority of appointees. This historic step forwards in the reform of the House of Lords was not the end of the question, as the debate continues.

We should also consider the words of Thomas Jefferson, an early US President and cosignatory of the US Constitution:

“I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome direction, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”

Continually finding one reason or another to deny the fullest democratic representation of the people is not the way to support an emerging democracy. This only serves to justify a resistance to reform that encourages the opportunism of vested interests and further delay what will be, for Thailand, a difficult yet necessary learning experience.

Titipol Phakdeewanich is a visiting fellow at the Centre for the Study of Globalisation and Regionalisation at the University of Warwick. He is based at Ubon Ratchathani University

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