Civil Society Against Democracy
From the Series: The Wheel of Crisis in Thailand
Once the leading force against military dictatorship, Thai civil society organizations have turned themselves into anti-democratic forces. This astonishing turn started with the anti-Thaksin campaign, culminating in support of the 2006 military coup that deposed Thaksin. What are the reasons for the anti-democratic turn? I will answer this question through the case of several specific civil society organizations in the rural northeastern region of Thailand known as Isan.
Early in his tenure as prime minister, the relationship between Thaksin and Isan civil society organizations was strong. This was largely due to the political context of the early 2000s. Dissatisfied with the previous Democrat government, which treated rural protest with contempt, Isan farmers took revenge by supporting Thaksin, their main political rival in the 2001 elections. Thaksin moved to take advantage of the situation. He held a meeting with the leaders of the Assembly of the Poor (APO) and, after the meeting, leaders of civil society publicly supported him (Pasuk and Baker 2004, 82). However, when Thaksin became prime minister, he did not honor the promises he made with the APO and instead adopted more hostile policies towards civil society (Somchai 2006, 220–23). This marked the beginning of an enduring conflict between both sides.
Subsequently, Thaksin implemented a number of policies meant to help rural people, including a moratorium on rural debt and a revolving fund of one million baht for every village. Thaksin’s rural policies had a significant impact on civil society: among other things, they created tensions between civil society organizations and their constituencies. Since such policies were very popular among villagers, they drew farmers away from civil society organizations. Almost all of the farmers who worked closely with civil society supported Thaksin strongly. Civil society organizations tried in vain to persuade farmers to oppose him. For farmers, it would have been madness to move against a prime minister who helped them more than any ever had (field notes, June 27, 2006). As a result, it became very difficult for activists to mobilize farmers against Thaksin. For civil society organizations, the situation at first was irritating, then angering.
An illustrative case was that of the Small Scale Farmers’ Assembly of Isan (SSFAI) which recruited hundreds of thousands of farmers to campaign on debt issues. However, except in the early period of the Thaksin government, the Assembly failed to organize a single significant protest against the government (field notes, June 27, 2006). For Yang Wongkraso, a leader of the Assembly, it was a very frustrating situation because the organization formally commanded a larger number of farmers than at any point in its history. Nevertheless, it was unable to effectively pressure the government because of the popularity of Thaksin among its members (Yang Wongkraso, interview, August 10, 2005).
Thaksin’s rural policies not only cut into civil society’s rural support but also contradicted its rural development strategies. While Thaksin encouraged farmers to participate in the market economy, activists urged farmers to reject commercialized farming and to instead rely on the subsistence economy program, as they had done in the past. These activists believed that farmers would be able to return to self-reliance because the village had its own culture and way of development (Somchai 2006, 62–66). They bitterly criticized Thaksin on the grounds that he had poisoned community values with a culture of money, further destroying the unique culture of village. Furthermore, they also viewed Thaksin’s rural policies as vote buying in disguise (field notes, January 12, 2007).
Nonetheless, when the anti-Thaksin protests began in late 2005, civil society organizations were reluctant to form formal alliances with those they perceived as elites in Bangkok. In the early period of the campaign against Thaksin, a high-ranking army officer contacted leaders of civil society and asked them to help the army and elites remove Thaksin from power. It took time before civil society organizations finally decided to join the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a conservative- and royalist-dominated movement. In discussions with them, they justified their decision to make these alliances with conservatives and royalists on tactical grounds. According to one leader of the Alternative Agriculture Network of Isan (AANI), civil society activists decided to join the PAD because they were not strong enough to mount a meaningful struggle against Thaksin on their own. Others participated in the PAD protests because it offered them a chance to convey their demands to a wider audience (field notes, April 2, 2006). Civil society organizations agreed to join the PAD under the condition that the protest remain within a constitutional framework; that is, that it call for Thaksin’s resignation rather than seeking a coup (Pye and Schaffar 2008, 42).
However, in the course of the struggle, many organizations gradually adopted a more anti-democratic stand. When a conservative-royalist faction within the PAD called for the king to intervene and replace Thaksin with an interim prime minister, many of the same activists who had struggled against the military now eagerly supported the new undemocratic actions (field notes, April 2, 2006). By late 2006, these activists had thrown their support behind the military coup, albeit with the view that the coup was an unfortunate but necessary solution to an ongoing, irresolvable crisis (Pye and Schaffar 2008, 56).
Many civil society activists continued their support for the country’s turn away from democracy after the 2006 coup. Cooptation of the idea of civil society itself by elites played a key role in this shift. This began with a new model of civil society called prachakhom, an attempt to reconcile relations between civil society, the state, the military, and business elites in the late 1990s. According to this model, instead of confronting the state and elites as before, civil society organizations should form partnerships with them (Somchai 2006, 7). On one hand, civil society organizations entered into partnerships because they realized that they were too weak to pressure the state and economic elites to comply with their demands. On the other hand, as funding from foreign donors dried up, they used partnerships as a way to access new sources of funding. Partnership between elites and civil society organizations gradually formed before the 2006 coup and consolidated after that coup. At present, most civil society organizations are funded by the elite-controlled “public organizations,” such as the Community Organizations Development Institute (CODI) and the Office of the Thai Health Promotion Fund (OTHPF). To secure funding, civil society organizations now follow the same politically correct line as these two agencies; that is, ending Thaksin’s political influence via the abolishment of electoral democracy.
Somchai Phatharathananunth. 2006. Civil Society and Democratization. Denmark: NIAS.
Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker. 2004. Thaksin: The Business of Politics in Thailand. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.
Pye, Oliver, and Wolfram Schaffar. 2008. “The 2006 Anti-Thaksin Movement in Thailand: An Analysis.” Journal of Contemporary Asia 38, no. 1: 38–61.