During the political disturbances in Thailand in March–May 2010, media attention was naturally focused on the legitimacy of the Abhisit government and the rights and expectations of disappointed voters. Over many decades democracy has been regularly thwarted by the military establishment and by business interests working hand-in-hand with the bureaucracy and regime of the day. Elected officials as well as military officers and bureaucrats have business interests, often managed through members of their immediate families. When a new constitution was promulgated in 1997, “good governance”, translated into Thai as thammarat, became the catch-cry of advocates of political reform. Alas, the moral force signalled in that formulation by the Buddhist keyword Dhamma (thamma), best understood in this context as “righteousness”, has been inadequate to the task of transforming the political system in ways envisioned by those who drafted the new constitution. Authoritarian, liberal, and communitarian strands of thammarat/good governance have stubbornly competed with one another in a way that was visible in the speeches, negotiations and media commentary in early 2010.
What was missing from media and academic commentary on the 2010 round of the Thai political crisis, apart from the occasional comparison between Thailand and military despotism in Myanmar, was the regional context. Since decolonization after the Second World War, democracy, however conjured by voters, academics, protestors, or ruling elites, has been a problem in mainland Southeast Asia. Despite the prevalence of one-party governments put in office by the popular vote, the distinction between democracy and elections is often not made. Governments, especially authoritarian ones, favour elections, because political leaders can claim popular legitimacy from the electoral process. But participatory democracy is undermined if elections are not free and competitive. Votebuying — candidates handing out cash and other inducements to voters — is a recurrent issue, leading to the widespread belief that elections are fixed. Most importantly, whereas the ambient ethos of the political culture in a participatory democracy needs to be tolerant of dissent, in the region those already in power strive to limit dissent and manipulate democracy to ensure not just their longevity in office, but permanency of rule.
In Myanmar the armed forces have governed for nearly fifty years with no end in sight to military rule even on the most distant horizon.