“DEMOCRACY” has become a much debated and misunderstood word these days in Thailand.

Nearly all partisans and parties — “yellow shirts”, “red shirts”, the Army, the police, the business chambers, the academics, and the diplomats — declare it as their cause celebre. They digress, however, on what it means, and for what ends they claim it.

Street battles in Bangkok since last Saturday between police forces and anti-government rallyists have so far killed four persons and injured about a hundred.

On one side are the “yellow shirts” led by former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban, subject of an arrest warrant for his role in the police crackdown that killed 91 “red shirts” in 2010. Suthep, former prime minister Abhisit, and their fellow Democrat Party members had resigned their posts in parliament ahead of the rallies that started 33 days ago.

Suthep and his “People’s Democratic Reform Committee” had issued a 48-hour ultimatum ending today for Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to step down and dissolve Parliament so his “People’s Council” of handpicked “good” leaders could take over and later conduct direct elections.

Suthep has directed the rallyists to seize control of government offices and exhorted civil servants not to report for work. Today, Tuesday, he said the “yellow shirts” will complete their takeover of the Government House (office of the prime minister), the Parliament, and the Metropolitan Police Bureau.

Suthep’s declared ultimate goal: “to rid Thailand of the Thaksin regime” and install a “perfect democracy” under an “ideal” constitutional monarchy.

Yingluck is, of course, the younger sister of former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who had been sentenced by the courts to serve time in jail for corruption. He is, however, on exile in some undisclosed location but is accused by the yellow shirts to be the power behind his kid sister’s government.

On the other side are the “red shirts” led by the Pheu Thai party aligned with Yingluck and Thaksin that commands numerical majority in Parliament. Thaksin is seen to be the chief beneficiary of an amnesty bill that Yingluck had pushed Parliament to pass, but which the lawmakers eventually voted down, on account of the “yellow shirts” rallies.

Press reports say it was Thaksin’s idea to marshall about 70,000 “red shirts” to troop to Bangkok for a pro-government rally on Saturday at a sports stadium, stoking the fires of tension even more. On Sunday though, after the street skirmishes had started, the “red shirts” ended their rally.

Caught in the crossfire of this confusing discourse on “democracy” are six free-to-air television stations where Suthep’s forces had mounted rallies and compelled network managers to follow their wishes: broadcast Suthep’s statements and news about the protest rallies BUT deny air time to the statements of Yingluck and news from the government.

The leading English-language newspapers of Thailand — The Bangkok Post and The Nation — offer fresh, incisive perspectives on the situation.

Stay informed, read on.

PDRC shows its ugly side
Editorial of The Bangkok Post, 3 Dec 2013

THE SERIAL assaults on Sunday by the misnamed People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) on broadcasters was a direct threat to freedom of the press.

The group led and sponsored intimidating visits to all the major TV stations. Accompanied in each case by groups of supporters, PDRC leaders demanded the broadcasters cease their programmes and carry only the propaganda of Blue Sky TV, the Democrat Party’s station and mouthpiece for the current anti-government movement.

These visits and demands were unwelcome and unacceptable. They recall the mob of red-shirt thugs who assaulted and disrupted this newspaper and other media outlets in the last days of the May 2010 violence.

The attempts on Sunday to intimidate broadcasters showed the very ugliest side of the group led by the politician Suthep Thaugsuban. Attempts to censor TV news coverage have no place in society, especially not when backed by physical threats from mobs.

Let us be clear on the PDRC’s stance.

The group did not demand balanced media coverage. It did not raise the obvious and valid point that TV broadcasters bow too frequently and too timidly to government demands. It did not ask for a fair hearing by the top TV stations. All of the above, and more, are legitimate complaints about TV news and broadcasting in general, which is often unprofessional in its coverage.
The mob visitors, however, demanded that the stations air only their statements, programmes and speeches.

The unmistakable if unstated end to the demand was “or else”, backed by force of numbers. Worse, four of the six threatened programming executives bowed to it.

Channels 3, 5, 7 and Thai PBS spliced into Blue Sky TV’s protest coverage, to carry a speech by Mr Suthep from beginning to end, exactly as the PDRC had ordered. At Channel 9, producers carried the Blue Sky feed for 10 minutes, then cut away and resumed scheduled programming.

Only Channel 11 refused to alter its schedule for the PDRC leader’s speech. Earlier in the day, Channel 11 received a visit from the former Democrat MP Thaworn Senneam, now a leading member of the PDRC. Backed by a mob of hundreds, he told officials they must carry the afternoon speech of Mr Suthep — and apparently thought he had intimidated the Channel 11 staff. But Channel 11 resisted and continued with its normal broadcasting.

Unfortunately, its refusal to concede to the PDRC demand was not because it values press freedom, but because Channel 11 is a government mouthpiece. It is not where you go for fair coverage. Yet the PDRC’s “visit” and threats to Channel 11 are unacceptable.

For the past two months, virtually every party and person with a stake in Thai politics has proudly claimed to represent true “democracy”. There may be plenty of room for discussion on what it entails. One thing, however, is clear. No country, no regime, no loyal opposition is democratic if it demands or supports attacks on freedom of the press. No society can claim to be democratic unless it has a free press.

The PDRC cannot claim to be democratic while also trying to control the media. A democratic nation has a wide variety of media. In no way is the coverage on Blue Sky TV superior. Freedom of the press is the most reliable way to keep the nation informed.

Related editorial:
Protest claims its first deaths, The Bangkok Post Editorial, 2 Dec 2013

Democracy or mob rule?
Editorial of The Nation, December 3, 2013

SUTHEP Thaugsuban’s goal of a “people’s assembly” under the monarchy undermines our democratic foundations
A bad democracy, according to Aristotle, is a democracy true to its name, where the demos (people) exercise the kratos (power). A good democracy, the Greek philosopher said, comes as close as possible to the ideal regime of the politeia (politics), and contrives to distance the people.

In other words, when people exercise power without a clear political platform, the result tends to be chaos and anarchy. Thus any political community needs a clear platform through which “people power” is harnessed and ordered.

The protest led by seasoned politician Suthep Thaugsuban has once again exercised “people power” in street battles. Until he has a clear platform for what he calls “perfect democracy”, this country will remain in turmoil.

Protest is a powerful and effective way for people to express their will in a democratic system, but it quickly becomes dangerous when used as an instrument to change
an elected government.

It is a sign of a healthy democracy to see people on the streets expressing their demands, but there is no point in them seizing and occupying state buildings and government offices. Such a move might partially paralyse the Yingluck administration, but it could also paralyse the country’s wider operations too.

Under the prevailing democratic norm, Thailand has clear rules governing a change in leaders. The government has the power to dissolve Parliament and call a new election. Then, any opposition with a strong enough policy platform has the chance of winning and forming a new government. Or the courts can rule a government guilty of wrongdoing and order it to step down, paving the way for a fresh election.

In contrast, Suthep’s goal — a “people’s assembly” that will ensure “perfect democracy” under the monarchy — seems undemocratic.

Though the term itself might sound democratic, it is in fact problematic. Suthep has suggested that the people’s assembly be selected by a committee. But who would have the power to appoint its members — and by what authority?

The protesters, even if they numbered in the millions, could never be an authentic source of authority, never mind the sovereign power in the nation. The fact is that no single group of protesters could ever accurately represent the will of our 65-million-strong population. There might be, let’s say, a few million who agree with Suthep’s campaign, but what about the rest? How would a “people’s assembly” treat them? How would it accommodate their will and demands?

The democracy that this country understands and aspires to is premised on a universal agreement not only about its ends, but also about its means, meaning and values. In a good democracy, the means justify the ends, not the other way around.

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