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Bangkok, May 2010 Bangkok, May 2010
Perspectives on a Divided Thailand

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14 - Thailand's Rocky Path towards a Full-Fledged Democracy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 October 2015

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Summary

INTRODUCTION

The events on the streets of Bangkok during March–May 2010, or rather during 2006–10, must have made many people, foreigners and Thais alike, wonder what went wrong with Thailand — a country once known in the West as Southeast Asia's “beacon of democracy”. It would be naïve to try to answer this using the coup d’état that ousted an elected, but highly corrupt, prime minister in 2006 as the starting point of all that has seemingly led Thailand astray, or to argue that only elections could reignite the country's democratic fire.

Most democratic societies around the world have gone through sometimes traumatic democratization processes of their own. Thailand is no exception, as it goes through another tumultuous chapter in the story of its democratic development, a story that began nearly eight decades ago.

MOVING TOWARDS LIBERAL DEMOCRACY

During the latter half of the twentieth century, Thailand had a fair share of intermittent coups, military or authoritarian governments, short-lived yet democratically elected coalition administrations, and revolts against dictatorial regimes. The Black May public uprising in 1992 ushered in a period of serious political reform and led to the 1997 constitution, generally known as the “People's Constitution” because of its drafters’ extensive direct engagement with the public.

The 1997 constitution recognized more rights and freedoms than any previous Thai constitution. It was designed to create greater transparency, with a strong system of checks and balances and provisions to open the political process to greater public participation, especially on the part of civil society organizations. Its provisions also aimed at creating stronger political institutions and decentralizing administrative power. They were poised to make far-reaching reforms in the quality of Thailand's democracy, especially by ending the cycle of corrupt politicians’ exploitation of the state for personal interests.

With the adoption of the 1997 constitution, Thai society was upbeat, optimistic that liberal democracy had won and that decades of authoritarianism, money politics, and corrupt and unstable coalition governments would be a thing of the past. It witnessed greater political participation on the part of civil society, contributing to the vibrancy of political life, and greater decentralization, following a process that today sees local authorities elected by the people. There was greater openness, and the media could operate with freedom from intimidation. Thailand had really become a “beacon of democracy,” despite its economic troubles in the wake of the Asian Financial Crisis.

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Bangkok, May 2010
Perspectives on a Divided Thailand
, pp. 161 - 170
Publisher: ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute
Print publication year: 2012

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