Rule of Law – what does it mean?

I feel I need to go back to this SOAS presentation by Peter Leyland before saying anything about Thaksin’s court verdict or anything else.

Imo, this quote goes straight to the heart of the matter:

…the rule of law is not the question of having the rule, but adhering to the rule and recognising it…

At this point it’s obvious that all major players in local politics have very very different views on what the rule of law is and what adhering to the rule of law actually means. Typical example – the coup makers said it was a coup for democracy. Discuss…

Let’s see, however, where these differing views are coming from.

First, the middle classes, elites, intelligentsia, pro-democracy coup makers, yellows, Democrats, mainstream media, The Nation, Bangkok Post etc. I admit that I’m in this group for the purpose of this discussion.

For them the “rule of law” meant principles of 1997 Constitution as it addressed their inspirations after 1992 Suchinda’s fiasco and disillusionment with money/rural politics as captured in Anek’s “Tale of two democracies”.

They expected politicians to be educated and capable (qualities they value in their circles), they expected politicians to represent people and be dedicated to national interests (as they see them), they also expected politicians to be honest, with strict rules against electoral cheating, enriching themselves, or working for special interests.

“Honesty” in those parts of Thai society has a rather interesting meaning – you are honest as long as you don’t get caught and publicly embarrassed, what people don’t know doesn’t hurt them. Same attitudes as towards sex industry or maintaining mia nois – be very discreet and you should be a fine, upstanding and moral member of the society.

So, these parts of Thai society thought that 1997 paper would provide them with all these clean and dedicated public servants they can held accountable to the electorate.

Well, they got the rule, but this is where “adhere and recognize” part comes in.

Actual politicians had very different ideas. Though at the time they were described and dismissed as old style dinosaurs, they were very much alive and kicking, and hungry. They saw politics as a way to power that they couldn’t reach by traditional means within traditional hierarchy – connections, education, manners, service, achievements, all that didn’t matter much during elections in rural areas that held keys to Bangkok.

Eventually “professional political parties” were born – lean, mean, designed to win. They realized the opportunities before 1997 constitution came into effect and they didn’t share any of its inspirations. Thaksin and his TRT took it to the whole new level, at least one step ahead of constitutional writers. Direct vote buying was out, selling themselves was in. Do whatever is necessary to win voter’s loyalty, feed and clothe them, sweet talk them and make generous promises, give some money if necessary. There was full support from HQs in Bangkok with “populist programs” to show that TRT really cared. Then they actually delivered.

Wasn’t it just grand? Wasn’t it just perfect democracy – leaders who were loved and who kept their promises?

Not according to Bangkok intelligentsia.

Let’s see what “rule of law” meant to these politicians – they surely have their own set of rules, otherwise their political machine would grind to a halt as they’d squabble and distrust each other.

I’d dare to say that their rules are rooted entirely in a patronage system. You are supposed to show deference to those above you and you should look after and protect those below. Don’t take more than is allowed by those above and spread gratitude generously to those below. Keep everybody satisfied and don’t rock the boat, thus the society will live in harmony and happiness.

It’s easy to see that all those 1997 inspired institutions like independent senate or counter corruption commission made absolutely no sense to this social group. By their rules there’s no such thing as corruption in the first place. Since all relationships are personal, for any transgression to be registered it must be offensive to someone personally, not to so some abstract “public interest” or let alone an anti-corruption body that is not even a part of their system.

There was zero tolerance for separation of powers, too. All powers needed to be co-opted into the same system and made work under the same rules. There was no place for the opposition either. The only purpose of having the opposition was to make the government look better.

The thing was that Thaksin managed to fully implement this system while outwardly adhering to the constitution but not to its principles. Bangkok intelligentsia was outraged. They had “UN is not my father and democracy is not my goal” proclamations, they had “my government will work for those who vote for me” policy statements that went completely against their fundamental beliefs, their fundamental democratic principles.

On corruption – as I said, the “yellow” side is pretty liberal when it comes to honesty, they didn’t really mind Thaksin helping AIS or Ipstar, what ticked them off, however, was the brassiness of it. One thing is to quietly take some money for yourself, it’s quite another to come out and say you need thieves to run the country and you need fraudsters to run the election commission.

They couldn’t accept taking natural human weaknesses and making them into new standards of governing. That’s not what they expected of their shiny new, 1997 inspired political system. Suddenly there was a gap in values that was growing wider and wider, see Thai Thai Thaksin for more on this.

Then the country had April elections, and that’s when another social group made themselves heard. I’ll call them “progressives”. For them it wasn’t Thaksin’s trying to solve his personal problems by dissolving the parliament, it was Democrat boycott that was offensive.

Their, “progressive” set of values and their rules and meaning of law was something different from the previous two groups. For them democracy is a naturally occurring phenomenon, what was said in 1997 constitution was not an ideal or a standard to strive for, it was something they assumed was already provided and included in the deal. Democracy is too big and important for them to become a victim of abuse, and nothing whatsoever could tarnish the value of elections. The “rules” is what the majority decides via elections, not what intelligentsia thought about some ten years earlier. If majority wants Thaksin, so be it – that’s “democracy”.

Thaksin, of course, loved it, Bangkok intelligentsia didn’t. PAD talked about checks and balances, rule of law etc. Progressives ignored all these things and simply said – elections decide everything, if Thaksin is “bad”, it’s voters job to oust him, not intelligentsia’s, and if their “checks and balances” system can’t help they should just shut up and vote for someone else. In a democracy voters are the ultimate judge, they said. Urban minority has no right to demand resignation of an elected Prime Minister, the country belongs to everybody, not just Bangkokians.

So here we have another set of values – rule of majority that tramps all other legal or moral principles.

This group grew significantly after the coup, which was clearly against their valued will of the majority.

To the “yellow” group, however, will of majority in a country like Thailand does not guarantee justice or fairness in any shape or form. They said Thaksin had to be removed to upheld the values of 1997 constitution, values that hold true regardless of what the majority thinks. They’ve managed to transfer these values to 2007 version, actually strengthening independent bodies, separation of powers, and demanding more accountability from the politicians. In their view 1997 constitution lives on.

Progressives are not going to accept this “military” constitution no matter what it says, however.

Nothing short of a reversal of a nearly four year old coup and prosecution of the coup makers is going to satisfy them. In reality there are very very few of them, anyone responsible for doing anything in this country realizes that it’s just not going to happen no matter what, but the progressives have aligned themselves with the red shirts, relatively new arrival on the scene.

Red replaced original black as a color of protest as thousands of Thaksin supporters breathed a new life in a dying anti-coup movement. So, what are the rules and values of Thaksin fans? Even though by now they have been “educated” of their rights and demands and ammart and double standards and so on, I’d still say they just miss good old times under Thaksin. Allegations of corruption are meaningless to them as they belong to the same, Thaksin built political system, though it doesn’t mean they don’t know what corruption is – they just don’t think it’s bad unless it affects you, me, or them personally. They don’t believe in its absolute, abstract evil.

With progressives shaping most of their ideology they learned to believe in value of the voice of the majority first and foremost. They reject any independent bodies as agents of the elites, they don’t see them as protectors of any kind of principles. I suspect they don’t believe these principles even exist as they’ve been taught that it’s the ammart trying to exert control over the will of the people. They don’t see the value, or the need, for the opposition, it has been grouped with ammart and destined for destruction. They believe the current governing coalition is based on ammart’s coercion rather than free will and assume that its members will happily join them should they “win” the elections, and by “win” they mean get more votes than Democrats, not to win over 50%.

To end “double standards” and restore the “rule of law” they want to overthrow the government and purge the independent bodies, judiciary and media of all ammart influence.

There are other, marginal groups in red movement, too, like republicans, communists, anti-royalists, and outright lunatics, but I don’t think they deserve any serious attention, they just hitching on the wagon and have very little influence.

So here we are – yellows with their 1997 legacy, Thaksin and politicians with their patronage based rules, progressives with their believe in the will of the majority, and red shirts with love for Thaksin and hatred of the elites.

There is simply no way all of these groups can agree on a particular version of the “rule of law” and willingly adhere to it.

The “yellow” offered solution is to enforce their set, hoping that it would eventually convince progressives and newly enlightened rural folks as offering almost exactly what they want. Meanwhile Abhisit is trying to convey to the politicians that these rules are not as bad as they look and old days of raping and pillaging are over.

So far it seems to be working, except some red hardliners are digging deeper and deeper and become more and more radicalized, and politicians still feeling uneasy about diminished possibilities. On the other hand there no other plausible alternatives. Perhaps after the election some new deal would present itself, but that is going to be a long wait as Democrats are only consolidating their power, not losing it.

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4 Responses

  1. There is a simple solution, you know it, but you are also afraid of it. (and so are the Democrats):
    Let the people decide what they want

    Give each adult one vote, and let them decide who they want to represent them, and then let parliament set the laws of the land
    Military ti stay out of politics, and be under the control of the people/government.

    Simply really.

  2. […] Rule of Law – what does it mean? […]

  3. Democracy is not possible in Thailand because there is no political equality. The middle-classes, coup supporters, wealthy, yellow shirts, pro-democrats, etc believe that people with little or no education should not have as much say in politics as highly educated people.

    Since this second group makes up the bulk of the Thai population (and electorate) they should stop talking about democracy and just install a military government.

  4. I understand from Tumbler’s blog that “uneducated” do not trust themselves, too.

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