Thursday, September 18, 2008

Democracy on the Line

In Thailand and many other countries in the region and the world, democracy is either under threat or fighting an uphill battle against entrenched interests. The border problems Cambodia has been having with Thailand in regards to the ancient Preah Vihear Temple is strictly a sideshow to the crisis unfolding in Bangkok.

First a little background on the border conflict. The border was originally demarcated at the turn of the last century on the line of an escarpment that generally provides a natural separation between the two countries. The land rises very gently on the Thai side then drops steeply when it hits Cambodia. The temple sits at the top of the escarpment overlooking the Cambodian plain.

Geography would logically put the temple in Thailand, especially since it’s easily accessed from there and that, in fact, that was the original intention in drawing the line. Historically, however, it is most definitely a Khmer temple and for some reason, not fully documented it seems, the temple was placed in Cambodia. In 1962 Cambodia went to the International Court to settle the matter, Thailand made no objection and the temple was awarded to Cambodia.

Though the border has been settled in international law for 46 years, when the two countries got together to ask for World Heritage designation, Thai politics intervened. It makes sense for the two countries to apply together since most visitors come from Thailand as it is currently very difficult to access from Cambodia, requiring a difficult 2 mile hike up the face of the escarpment. A road is planned from the Cambodian side but considering the country’s needs doesn’t take a high priority.

Protesters against the Thai government took the agreement between the two countries as a giveaway of Thai land and demonstrated at the site – the temple literally sits a few meters from the border – upon which Cambodia shut the border to Thai visitors and that’s where it’s stood now for a couple of months.

Though the Thai protesters at the temple and in Bangkok seeking to topple the government are part of a movement called People’s Alliance for Democracy, they want to truncate democracy by having most seats in Thailand’s parliament chosen by appointment. The reason is clear enough: the current government would once again win a majority in a free and fair election. The reason for that success is also not up for question.

The People’s Power Party now in control is a reconstitution of Taksin Shinawatra’s political legacy. He was ousted in a bloodless military coup two years ago but his power lives on because he was the first Thai political leader to consider the needs of the poor. His opponents insist that he was cynically using them but meanwhile he provided free health care and development money for rural needs, something no other Thai government ever considered doing.

Taksin, Thailand’s richest person, is now in exile in England, on the run from corruption charges - some probably true, others mostly trumped up. The impetus for his original ouster revolved around the sale of his communications company to a state-owned Singapore investment company. Just prior to the sale he had the law changed to exempt the nearly $2 billion sale from taxes.

In the normally fractured state of Thai politics, he was the first prime minister to win an outright majority of the vote. As part of his election campaign, he vowed to stamp out drugs - Thailand had, and still has, a serious meth problem.
In one of his first acts in office he solidified his popularity amongst Thais rich and poor by ordering the police to off – literally - a lot of drug dealers. Twenty-five hundred “drug dealers” were summarily executed within about two weeks. With no opportunity to prove their innocence, it’s hard to imagine that at least 10% to 20% weren’t either completely innocent – many probably placed on police blacklists for personal reasons - or guilty of strictly minor offences.

Thai protesters, derived from the Bangkok elite, were intent on ousting the new PM Samak Sundaravej, seemingly for no other reason than that he sought to continue the populist policies of his mentor, Taksin. In the latest twist the Supreme Court kicked him out of office for conflict of interest because he received a very small amount of money from a cooking show he hosts on TV. Once again a desperate ploy to remove a popularly elected government.

This is very similar to what’s now in happening in Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, where entrenched elites have gone to great lengths to thwart the will of the people.

Evo Morales, first indigenous president in a country with an overwhelming indigenous majority, former president of the country’s Coca Growers Association, recently won a referendum on his leadership by 2 to 1. His socialist, redistributive program, however, doesn’t sit well with the mostly white citizens of the country’s Eastern and Northern provinces where most of the country’s natural gas deposits lie.

They want autonomy in order to keep a large percent of resource receipts and have practically threatened revolution. Several people died recently in clashes between pro and anti-government demonstrators. Their position is exceedingly shaky considering Morales’s impressive democratic mandate. It’s not hard to understand why an entrenched elite would want to maintain its power and privileges but it’s nonetheless difficult for me to grasp how they could feel so little compassion, have such limited sense of fairness, have so little respect for fellow citizens.

A recent summit of nine South American leaders stood solidly behind his government. He has no intention of backing down. South American society has always seemed to have a rough, violent edge to it, possibly how the white population has been able to maintain its repressive thumb over the less privileged for so long, so it won’t be an easy battle.

Fortunately, the people are fighting back. The process is not always pretty. Outcomes will not always, or even often, satisfy the neo-con democracy-touting crowd, but it’s long past time that politics reflected the needs of all citizens. The thwarters of democracy who fight to go backwards are missing the point: society cannot advance unless resources and benefits are shared by all.

Soon even Americans may get the message that throwing money at the wealthy, giving them free reign to manipulate markets and government, is not in their best interests. Witness the current financial meltdowns which are a direct result of conservative policies: a losing proposition for all. And yet, as of this post, about half the American people are poised to vote for McCain who pledges to continue the neo-cons’ rotten politics. How bad does it have to get before the Americans learn where their true interests lie?

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