BANGKOK-Over the past century, Thailand has endured colonial aggression, two world wars and neighboring civil wars on every one of its borders. It has survived extreme nationalism, home-grown fascism, aggressive communism, and stifling dictatorship. It has persevered through 18 military coups, survived economic collapse, withstood periods of widespread starvation and navigated a ubiquitous regional drug trade. And after all that, Thailand has emerged as the region’s second-largest economy, with the broadest-based prosperity in its history.
But where do we find ourselves? For the third time in four years, a coalition of urban elites and their allies have taken to the streets wearing bright yellow shirts to force from office a leader that was elected by an overwhelming plurality of the electorate. It’s the equivalent of having the Tea Party allies of Sarah Palin march on Washington, bar entry to federal buildings, paralyze the work of Congress and insist that the 2012 election of Barack Obama be vacated and turned over to a small council of unelected elites. It might just lead to civil war.
It has taken 180 years, but the lesson of Alexis de Tocqueville has finally come to Thailand. Tocqueville was a French citizen who toured America in the 1830s. In his classic work, “Democracy in America,” he tells the story of a mob that destroyed the printing presses of a newspaper that came out against U.S. efforts in the War of 1812. For their protection, the paper’s editors were brought to the local jail-only to have the mob break in and kill one of the journalists as the police stood by. When the mob leaders were brought to trial, they were acquitted by a jury of their peers. Reflecting on the incident, Tocqueville argued that the greatest threat the United States faced was “tyranny of the majority.”
Until the 21st Century, Thailand had turned Tocqueville’s insight on its head. The populace was ruled for a century by a tyranny of the minority, made up of Bangkok-based royalists, military leaders, judges, and moneyed elite who dominated the government and paid no attention to the ethnically Lao, Khmer, Shan and Chinese citizens who comprised the majority of Thailand’s population in the rural north and northeast. French colonialists once called it a “Lilliputian oligarchy dominating subject peoples.”
In 2001, those subject peoples woke when Thaksin Shinawatra – born outside the northern capital of Chiang Mai – became the first leader to be elected Prime Minister by promising to improve the lives of the rural poor while amassing their votes to win a majority in Parliament. Thailand saw the privileged pushed aside, often harshly, in favor of programs that lifted four million Thais out of poverty.
It was too much for the Bangkok elite, which adopted the yellow colors of royalty and took to the streets in 2005 and 2006, leading to a military coup and Thaksin’s exile. Thaksin supporters then donned red shirts and protested as the yellow shirts toppled three successive pro-Thaksin governments and are now working to unseat the current government, led by Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra. The violence began in November when Yingluck tried to force through Parliament a bill granting Thaksin amnesty. A snap election called by her in February to dampen the crisis was boycotted by the opposition party as yellow shirts blocked polling stations. Although Yingluck won, she is powerless.
Thus far, the military has stayed out of the fray. While 21 demonstrators have been killed and hundreds injured since November, the violence has been contained, as one resident here tells me, “because the red shirts have been restrained.” But if Yingluck is forced out of office, “there is going to be a civil war.” As journalist David Pilling writes this week, “For the first time in decades, there have even been murmurings about the possibility of splitting the country in two, with the poorer northeast ceding from a generally richer and more urban south centered in Bangkok.”
The problem is that more democracy is not the answer. To yellow shirts, the concept of “one person, one vote,” is the problem, not the solution. It consigns them to minority status in a country where red shirts hold more than 60 percent of the population-at least, until pro-yellow political leaders can create a platform that appeals to voters in the north, something the Bangkok elite has never done. Until then, yellow shirts believe they will always be subject to the prejudices and potential abuse of the majority.
America had this very debate at the dawn of its democracy. What America’s founders realized is that even though the new Constitution articulated checks and balances to protect the minority from the will of the majority, it didn’t go far enough. After the Constitution was ratified and the new Congress met, the first five months were spent defining a Bill of Rights that defined, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse.”
In the 223 years since, those rights-including the freedoms of speech, of religion, and of a free press-have provided the foundation upon which America has expanded protections to more and more people. A Bill of Rights is precisely the protection that Thailand needs most today, because it will create a framework that protects the fundamental rights of every Thai citizen regardless of who governs.
But how to bring it about? Maybe it falls to the one institution in Thailand that still commands respect-the monarchy. The last time the country feared civil war, when military troops battled democratic protesters in 1992, Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej summoned the leaders of both sides to the palace. In front of a televised audience, he made both men get on their knees, which made a strong impression on the nation. The King then urged them to find a peaceful resolution, which hastened the nation’s transition to democracy.
The king is 86 years old now and his been in frail health. He hasn’t spoken on the current crisis. But just imagine if a beloved king, in one of his last public acts, summoned both sides to the palace; reminded them of the long journey Thailand has traveled in the 69 years of his rule; and then insisted that they define-together-the essential liberties of Thai citizenship. Imagine if other members of the royal family-the Crown Prince and Crown Princess, whose supporters line up on opposite sides-then helped lead the effort to create a Bill of Rights. It would give both sides a cause to rally around.
The primary author of America’s Bill of Rights, James Madison, once wrote that “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Only time will tell if Bangkok, Thailand’s “City of Angels,” will give in to Lilliputian solutions or summon the bold thinking that is worthy of a great nation.