“Power equals law” (Thai Rath, 20 July 2007)
In a radio interview at the end of July, the interim prime minister of Thailand criticized anti-government protestors who fought with police outside the house of a privy councilor in Bangkok, the man whom they accuse of masterminding last year’s military coup. General Surayud Chulanont (on the tortoise in cartoon above) told listeners that it was not right for the demonstrators to have gone there, and that all citizens ought to work together for the country. Everyone should cooperate and think about maintaining the image of Thailand abroad, he said.
Appeals to imagined harmony and supposed common interests have long featured in official rhetoric in Thailand, as in other countries historically dominated by small and relatively enclosed ruling groups. However, since the Sept. 19 takeover they have been reiterated with tiresome frequency by a regime that from the start professed to have assumed power “to heal conflicts within the mass population which was stirred into factional divisions to the extent of disintegrating national unity and constituting a severe social crisis.”
In these and other similar pronouncements the generals betray their deeply conservative and regressive agenda. It is an agenda that is antithetical to the rule of law and human rights, upon which the abrogated Constitution had been written and which in recent years have obtained growing credence throughout the country.
In his classic essay on conservatism, Friedrich Hayek identifies two of its defining characteristics as a fear of uncontrolled social forces and a fondness for authority. “The conservative feels safe and content,” Hayek writes, “only if he is assured that some higher wisdom watches and supervises change, only if he knows that some authority is charged with keeping the change ‘orderly’.” For a conservative, he continues, who wields power is more important than how:
“In the last resort, the conservative position rests on the belief that in any society there are recognizably superior persons whose inherited standards and values and position ought to be protected and who should have a greater influence on public affairs than others.”
Here, in a sentence, is a synopsis of the thinking that dominated government in Thailand for most of the last century. It is in every respect a manner of thinking deeply inimical to genuine constitutional rule. It is also hostile to the building of institutions through which notions of legal and social equity may be expressed, as it depends ultimately upon hierarchy, not equality, and personages, not principles.
The 2006 coup struck down the country’s only genuinely democratic Constitution. To its proponents, if this was necessary to rid the country of an unworthy prime minister and replace him with a man of superior integrity and credentials, then so be it. For them, the coup was a triumph of good men over bad, a victory of superior men over inferior institutions.
While the interim government has repeatedly mouthed its concern for the rule of law and human rights, in reality it is diametrically opposed to them. By virtue of its elitist and militarist makeup, its adherence to order, its insistence upon authority, and above all, its intolerance of legitimate dissent, it is a revivalist conservative administration of the highest order.
What are the consequences for Thailand?
A society that denies conflict — that counters each serious crisis with a coup, or whose leaders pretend to uphold a fictional order where everyone is in agreement — is not on the road to recovery; it is on the road to nowhere. Appeals for consensus are cause for alarm, not festivity. They are the rallying cries of despots, not democrats.
By contrast, a peaceable society is built through acknowledgement that different people and groups have different views and interests, and that these can coexist and problems be addressed rationally, through public debate and non-violent disagreement. It is tolerant, even encouraging, of protest and discord. It directs its energy towards adapting government so as to solve disputes with minimal disturbance and use of force.
The conservatives that have again gained control in Thailand have no interest in such a society, as it would only further threaten their already diminished authority. The sustained and virulent backlash against the organizers and participants of the relatively small gathering outside the privy councilor’s house, and monotonous appeals for national unity, speak to their anxieties and true designs.
Constitutional monarchy without constitutionalism; order without coherent law, and democracy without politics, these are the policy priorities in Thailand today. Not the rule of law and human rights, but their antithesis; and as a consequence, not peace and harmony, but more of their antithesis too.