Rethinking the Bangkok protests

Links: Examples of health-related projects in Brunei. The importance of not losing face in Thai society. The largest Facebook group in Singapore. The bindabaat practice in Laos.

Two posts for Global Voices: Thailand political crisis: Reactions from the region and Thailand: Foreigner who stayed in the airport blockade.

It was the judiciary that ordered Thailand’s unpopular ruling party to be disbanded on Tuesday, but it was the daily protests by the People’s Alliance for Democracy that made the national leadership almost powerless to govern. Today, PAD is both popular and unpopular. It was able to oust the government, but its victory is questioned by many analysts in Bangkok and around the world.

PAD is criticized for using undemocratic tactics to achieve its goals. Despite its insistence that it espouses nonviolence, PAD has been accused of instigating violent acts that have affected innocent civilians and members of the press. By shutting down Bangkok’s two major airports last week, PAD inconvenienced hundreds of thousands of passengers in Thailand and nearby countries.

The airport takeovers have weakened Thailand’s tourist industry. PAD’s daring activities in the past few months have scared local and foreign investors, which has worsened the country’s economic problems.

PAD defends its extralegal actions by citing the futility of demanding institutional reforms under a government it labeled as a proxy of ousted Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra. But PAD’s moral ascendancy to speak on behalf of oppressed Thais is doubted because of its incestuous ties to other sections of the elite, particularly Bangkok’s business bosses, military generals and the royal family.

Others have already discussed the dangerous ideals promoted by PAD. Critics have written about the fascist leanings of PAD and its secret financiers. Meanwhile, it is also important to point out the relevance of the Bangkok protests to ongoing and future political actions in the country and in different parts of the world.

If PAD were a genuine radical group, would the media still describe the airport takeover as irresponsible and unwise? If this happened in Myanmar, would we still condemn the actions of the anti-government protesters? Or would we focus more on the wrongdoings committed by the junta? If PAD’s effective street tactics were adopted by insurgents in Iraq, what would be our reaction?

People power uprisings will always be bothersome, especially to disinterested individuals and groups. We have to review our attitude toward PAD. Are we angry at PAD because it rejects free elections? Are we against PAD’s support for a military takeover? Or is our anger directed mainly at the annoying street protests and airport takeover?

It is crucial to distinguish the undemocratic philosophy of PAD and the group’s right to use extralegal means to fight what it believes to be a despotic government. Failure to highlight the validity of mass assemblies and provocative collective actions today would probably lead us to reject similar political practices in the future, even if they are organized by genuine radical groups.

Another factor that has contributed to the unpopularity of PAD is the use of unflattering names by the academe and media to describe the group. PAD’s political identity is somewhat ambiguous. The group has been called fascist, royalist, cultist, elitist, anti-poor, terrorist and anarchist. These labels are correct and at the same time wrong.

PAD is more than just an urban-based movement that worships the king. It has a constituency that sincerely believes in justice, empowerment and democracy. For many years, it has demonstrated an impressive record of mobilizing the middle class through peaceful means. And do groups with devoted and disciplined followers always have to be described as cults?

This is the dilemma. There seems to be no precise term to accurately describe the politics of PAD. The available terms are often used by the West to describe extremist political movements. Using these inadequate terms to identify PAD does not often allow the public to properly understand the crisis in Thailand. This kind of dilemma was noted by a European scholar who said that “we lack the very language to articulate our ‘unfreedom.’”

PAD may be unworthy to lead the democracy movement in Thailand, but that does not mean that the issues it raised against the government were false. There is corruption, poverty and injustice in Thai society. Electoral fraud is a valid issue. Bribery, cronyism and abuse of power are rampant.

Unfortunately, these problems are not properly understood by the reading public in the world. Their information about the Bangkok protests has been obscured by our uncritical and simplistic use of labels to identify the political forces in Thailand. Maybe it is more convenient to describe PAD as fascist and royalist than to elaborate on the many problems afflicting Thailand.

PAD may be irrational for advocating a refined form of dictatorship. On the other hand, we should recognize that our practice of naming things in Thailand according to what we think they are is also not completely rational.

Related entries:

Bangkok protesters
People Power
In other words

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