History Lessons for Abhisit

History Lessons for Abhisit
Robert Amsterdam

Since coming to power in 2008, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has repeatedly shown his determination to avoid an election at all costs. A hundred lives were lost in Bangkok in April and May, just so Abhisit could spend more time in an office he never could have won for himself without the assistance of the military, the judiciary, and the People’s Alliance for Democracy.

Now that countless non-governmental organizations and independent media outlets have called on Abhisit to show his commitment to “reconciliation” by calling an election that would allow the people to render their own judgment of recent events, a new excuse has been added to the Prime Minister’s lexicon. “The government will hold a general election only when the country has peace and order,” Abhisit reiterated just recently.

By the standard of any democratic country, the fact that a sizable portion of the country’s citizens hate the government with a passion is not a good excuse to deny them a vote and exempt the government from accountability. Peace has never been a precondition for democracy; if anything, democracy is rather more often a precondition for peace. The government’s argument is all the more absurd if we consider that the very reason why Thailand does not have “peace and order” is that Abhisit continues to hold office illegitimately and has unleashed a measure of repression that is unprecedented for a civilian government. What is more, the government probably has a hand in the wave of bombings responsible for the current climate of fear.  Even if we interpret Abhisit’s pronouncement as referring exclusively to Thailand’s “unique” circumstances, the patronizing notion that Thailand is only capable of holding an election in conditions of peace and tranquility flies in the face of the country’s history.

Abhisit would not have studied this at Eton and Oxford, so it may be worth reminding him that Thailand held its first ever elections, in October-November 1933, at a time when the new government was fighting a violent rebellion led by Prince Bowaradej. Back then, the elections did not take place on a single date, as the system that was adopted called for an indirect method of voting – voters elected tambon (subdistrict) representatives, who would in turn meet to elect changwat (provincial) representatives to the National Assembly. As a result, election dates were staggered across a two-month period that overlapped with a violent rebellion actively supported by the upper echelons of Thailand’s old regime – among them, serving parliamentarians and state officials.

Though ultimately defeated, Bowaradej’s rebels pushed the government to the brink of collapse. At one point, in mid-October, they occupied Don Muang airport and threatened Bangkok directly. It was only thanks to the use of heavy artillery that government forces led by then Colonel Luang Phibulsongkram defeated the rebels on the outskirts of Bangkok and then annihilated the remaining forces who had managed to retreat back to their stronghold in Nakorn Rachasima. Weeks of heavy fighting left hundreds of people dead, while King Prajadhipok fled south to Songkhla.

Though the government then led by Col. Phraya Pahol was shaken to the very core by the Boworadej rebellion, it did not use the insurrection as an excuse to delay the election. While turnout was low, the elections took place without incident or disruption, in the face of a possible civil war. In the eight decades since, Thailand has regularly held elections in circumstances of upheaval and deep division. In every instance, the voters have shown themselves to be more mature and more committed to democracy than their own leaders.

Lest he continue to embarrass himself with this anachronistic nonsense, Abhisit would benefit from a remedial crash course in Thai history. In the process, he might also discover that elections are democratic not in spite of active opposition to the government, but because of it.

Thailand’s 2007 Constitution provides that elections be at least every four years. Will Abhisit suspend the constitution and strip the Thai people of their right to vote, if the situation is not deemed peaceful enough in fifteen months time? Is this the Establishment’s end game – engineer enough instability to make a general election seem “impossible”?


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