November rain for democracy in Thailand

November rain for democracy in Thailand
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban (centre) addressing reporters outside a Bangkok government complex where anti-government protesters gathered last Wednesday.

Seldom before in Thailand's decades-long "democratic development" has so much been won - and then lost - so resolutely and in so short a time.

In the course of a single month, Thailand's people took the country as close to a truly democratic moment as it has seen in over 20 years, only to see its leaders squander it indefinitely.

It began almost unnoticed on the eve of Nov 1, when small numbers of peaceful protesters came out against a government-sponsored amnesty Bill. Designed to ensure that no one - particularly officials and security forces - would be held accountable for Thailand's 2006 coup d'etat, over 90 protest-related deaths in 2010, and other political offences since 2004 - the tragically flawed Bill begged the response it received.

That opposition MP Suthep Thaugsuban resigned to lead the demonstrations, made them more politicised but no less legitimate. And while the protests remained small by post-2008 standards, diverse and disparate "Yellow" (conservative, pro-monarchy) groups reunited and were joined by erstwhile "inactive" business leaders, medical professionals, and civil servants.

Even more notable were the voices of Thailand's "Red" (progressive, pro-elections) groups, many of whose members paid with their lives, livelihoods or liberty during the 2010 street violence, and who voted en masse for the ruling Puea Thai party the following year.

Ironically, what brought all of these Thais together, as much as the amnesty Bill itself, was the man who stood to gain more than any other from its passage: former and still de facto premier Thaksin Shinawatra. Brother of current Prime Minister Yingluck and living in self-imposed exile since being convicted of corruption in 2009, he could return to Thailand a free man and recover some 46 billion baht (S$1.8 billion) in confiscated wealth. The Yellows, responsible for the coup that ousted him, hate him; the Reds, responsible for putting his nominee in power, felt betrayed.

Exactly a week later, in the briefest of triumphs not only for the unlikely bedfellows on streets but for democracy itself, the Prime Minister withdrew the Bill.

And in that single, simple decision, an elected premier did what had never been done in modern Thai history: without overt prompting by the monarchy or military, she recognised the democratic legitimacy of peaceful political dissent, bowed to the will of the dissidents, and implicitly acknowledged that blanket impunity for violence and anti-democratic behaviour is not acceptable. The moment was as unprecedented as it was understated.

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