Democratic Regression in Thailand: The Ambivalent Role of Civil Society and Political Institutions
- Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs
- ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute
- Volume 36, Number 3, December 2014
- pp. 333-355
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Since late 2005, Thailand has been mired in a deep political crisis that has now gone through two coups: September 2006 and May 2014. The two coups have revealed deep ambiguities in the roles that civil society and political institutions, especially constitutions and constitutional courts, play in the polity. Although one generally expects civil society and constitutional structures to address democratic goals related to enfranchisement, accountability and political rights, what one witnesses in Thailand is something completely different. Civil society and constitutional actors have been driven by partisan interests rather than democratic values. In both the lead-up to the 2006 and 2014 coups, civil society forces mobilized forcefully on the streets of Bangkok to oust democratically-elected governments. In the process, they provided the political space and legitimacy for the military to intervene. Constitutional courts and constitutions have also worked to further anti-democratic ends. The drafting of the 2007 Constitution was an unequivocal effort to weaken political parties and bring back a landscape of institutional fragmentation, with the ultimate goal of preventing Thaksin Shinawatra and his allies from returning to power. The Constitutional Court has also handed down numerous verdicts that reflect political interests rather than the objective application of the rule of law. Thus, Thailand’s democratic polity rests on quicksand: social forces and institutions that are expected to strengthen democracy have shown themselves to be deeply ambivalent about their relationship to democracy.