Thai-Style Democracy: following Chinese footsteps to a facade of legitimacy

In the 4th Central Committee Plenum in 2014, Xi Jinping promulgated the Four Comprehensives slogan, which lists the Socialist Rule of Law with Chinese Characteristics as central to Chinese Communist Party ideology.

This cautious embrace of the rule of law, a western concept affirmed by the United Nations as interlinked with democracy and human rights, was welcomed by politicians and academics alike. The rule of law is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “the authority and influence of law in society, especially when viewed as a constraint on individual and institutional behavior.”

Essentially, the concept entails that no one is above the law. 

However, as the reality often reveals itself to be, China’s seeming adoption of liberal values was disappointing. The Chinese word for the rule of law (Fahzi) can be translated to both rule of law and rule by law; it increasingly looked as if China means to adhere to the latter. As later clarified by state media, rule of law– at least that with Chinese characteristics– is to be advanced by rule of the party. Indeed, the party remains above the law. 

This China Model seemed to have found a place in Thailand.

Four years after Xi Jinping’s promulgation, General Prayuth Chan-o-Cha revived the concept of “Thai-Style Democracy” that should be “free of conflict” ahead of the 2018 elections. Thailand’s inclination to support the China Model comes as little surprise given the shared values between the two Asian countries, and China’s endorsement of the 2014 coup that turned Thailand into a diplomatic pariah among the West.

Thai-Chinese relations retain prominence today, as the US – a long-time ally of Thailand, faces its own crisis with the coronavirus. This is exemplified through Thailand’s recent highly controversial vote to purchase two Chinese submarines during the height of the coronavirus crisis, sparking vociferous outcry among netizens.

While ambiguous in meaning like the Socialist Rule of Law, Thai-Style Democracy’s emphasis on strong state and collectivity over individualism is just another case in point of Thailand’s emphasis on values the Chinese Communist Party also espouses. Benjamin Zawacki, the author of Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the U.S. and a Rising China, notes the role that authoritarian capitalism plays in both countries. Furthermore, collectivity is evinced through the 12th value of Thais that Prayuth mandated children to recite in schools: “working towards the common good rather than personal gain.” 

While not surprising, the government’s full embrace of a concept by which a party remains above the law is worrisome. This is especially so given today’s volatile political climate, where Thais – especially the younger generation – become increasingly frustrated with an economy battered by the coronavirus, the cycle of coups and amnesty given to coupmakers, and the impunity of the rich as seen in the case of the Red Bull scion. 

If the protests in Hong Kong and the repression brought by the National Security Law serves as an example, increasing similarity of the Thai government’s values to that of China will not bode well for the current student protests. Thus a revisit of the implications of Prayuth’s “Thai-Style Democracy” is crucial. 

Prayuth had stated that “Thai-Style Democracy” should be free from conflict, another nod to collectivity. This, however, failed to account for the schism that deeply divided Thai society along the red and yellow coloured lines. His idea of conflict-free society does not acknowledge that differing opinions is the hallmark of a healthy democracy.

It seems, then, that Thai-Style Democracy, according to Prayuth, only takes the western concept by name – much like the Socialist Rule of Law – in the same way “democratic coup” is an oxymoron. It obfuscates the true nature of Thailand’s governing system, which is effectively a euphemism for dictatorship and authoritarian rule that prohibits divergent thought.

In his system, the upper house, wholly selected by the junta, has a hand in selecting a prime minister. The widely-used anti-sedition law, section 116 of the Thai Criminal Code, has no clear limits (quite like Article 50 of the Chinese Constitution, which provides no limit on “state interests” that citizens are not allowed to damage). In this vein, is a clear democratic deficit in the true, universalist essence of the word. Indeed, calling the current system a democracy is a misnomer. 

Instead of defining the phrase as a society with no conflict, Prayuth should focus on true reconciliation. There must be open and honest conversations about our society. The importance of democracy should be instilled in schools. This is in contrast to half-hearted reconciliation committees, army generals who call the new generation who think differently about their society “nation-haters”, or having children recite the “12 core values of Thais.”

Perhaps children should be taught to think and realise why the values are important, rather than telling them that it is. 

This so-called Thai-Style democratic system has claimed many casualties, the first among which are our rights. Like the modifier “Chinese Characteristics,” “Thai-Style” aims to excise the liberal Western narrative to make it more palatable towards the party elite. This rebranding and weaponisation of western concepts of the rule of law and democracy quite ironically defeats the original purpose of the values in its entirety. By allowing for limited democracy and no right to dissent, Prayuth’s discourse actively rejects the UN’s understanding of the rule of law; “Thai-Style Democracy” became merely an instrument to legitimise and further Party interests much like that of the CCP.

Yet “Thai-Style Democracy”, a phrase that comes with its own profound history, should not necessarily be shunned. It is, after all, a relativist term that allows a democracy fit for Thais, generally understood as one with the monarchy as its head of state. But it should be the Thai people, not the elite, that must decide what democracy is fit for them.

Contrary to its current meaning, “Thai-Style Democracy” can mean acknowledgement of its somber history where coups are the status quo. It can mean rejection of the phrase as a justification for dictatorships and the rule of men. It can mean the celebration of all facets of Thai thought and respect for fellow Thais. Rather than consigning the phrase to the dustbin of history, it must be reinvented to capture the true spirit of democracy. This is the reckoning Thais face today: what do we want Thai-Style Democracy to be, one with the rule of law or one ruled by law?

By Ploy Jantarasombat

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