Bangkok bomb may sig­nify step to­ward democ­racy

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries.

There were two bombs on Mon­day.

The one in Bri­tain killed at least 22 peo­ple and in­jured 120 as they came out of a con­cert at Manch­ester Arena. It was car­ried out by a sui­cide bomber named Sal­man Abedi and claimed by ISIL. The other was in Thai­land, and in­jured 22 peo­ple at a mil­i­tary-linked hospi­tal in Bangkok; no­body has claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity yet. But what hap­pened af­ter­wards was very dif­fer­ent.

In Manch­ester they just kept calm and car­ried on. The Scot­tish band Sim­ple Minds went ahead with their sched­uled con­cert at Bridge­wa­ter Hall in Manch­ester on Tues­day night, and 80 per cent of the peo­ple who had bought tick­ets showed up for the show. Lead singer Jim Kerr told the au­di­ence they would all have “felt cow­ardly” if they didn’t play, they had a minute’s si­lence for the vic­tims, and then they rocked.

The re­sponse was sim­i­lar all over the coun­try. Flags were at half-mast ev­ery­where, and they even tem­po­rar­ily halted the cam­paign­ing for the na­tional elec­tion due on June 8, but no­body sug­gested that the elec­tion should be can­celled. That would be not just be craven; it would be ridicu­lous.

It was dif­fer­ent in Thai­land. No­body died in the Bangkok at­tack, and the bomb was clearly not in­tended to kill peo­ple. It was timed to mark the third an­niver­sary of the most re­cent mil­i­tary coup, and the like­li­est per­pe­tra­tors were a side­lined fac­tion in the army.

But the leader of the mil­i­tary junta, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, went com­pletely over the top. When he seized power in 2014, he promised elec­tions in 2015. Us­ing var­i­ous pre­texts, he has pushed them down to 2018, but he is now hav­ing sec­ond thoughts about the whole idea. “I want ev­ery­one to think,” Prayuth said. “If the coun­try is still like this, with bombs, weapons, and con­flicts among peo­ple ... can we hold an elec­tion?”

Of course they can hold elec­tions. Why would the oc­ca­sional bomb stop that? As for “con­flicts among peo­ple,” those are in­evitable in any so­ci­ety, and elec­tions are the way you set­tle them (at least tem­po­rar­ily) with­out vi­o­lence. Prayut is just ner­vous about hold­ing an elec­tion be­cause it might em­bolden all the sup­port­ers of democ­racy who have been fright­ened into si­lence.

He re­ally shouldn’t be ner­vous, be­cause he has rigged the game pretty thor­oughly. The new con­sti­tu­tion, rat­i­fied last month, makes it prac­ti­cally cer­tain that the mil­i­tary will choose ev­ery gov­ern­ment even if there are free elec­tions.

Thai­land has been trapped in a cy­cle of civil un­rest and mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion since the first left-wing, pop­ulist gov­ern­ment was elected in 2001 un­der the lead­er­ship of Thaksin Shi­nawa­tra.

The elite and the ur­ban mid­dle class were ap­palled by his di­ver­sion of gov­ern­ment re­sources from their own in­ter­ests to those of the ru­ral ma­jor­ity and the ur­ban poor, and they sought mil­i­tary help.

The first mil­i­tary coup came in 2006, but when the soldiers tried to le­git­imize the gov­ern­ment by hold­ing elec­tions un­der a new mil­i­tary-writ­ten con­sti­tu­tion, Thaksin’s party won again. He went into vol­un­tary ex­ile af­ter that, but his party, un­der var­i­ous names and var­i­ous lead­ers, just kept on win­ning the elec­tions.

The party, now called Pheu Thai and led by Thaksin’s younger sis­ter, was driven from power again by the mil­i­tary coup of 2014.

Now Prayut Chan-o-cha and his fel­low gen­er­als are try­ing once again to de­vise a con­sti­tu­tion that would keep the “wrong” peo­ple from win­ning elec­tions. In the­ory it looks pretty Thaksin-proof, but Prayut is clearly get­ting cold feet about test­ing it in prac­tice.

Mon­day’s bomb in Bangkok may in­di­cate in­creas­ing di­vi­sions in the army. Even some of the soldiers must be hav­ing doubts about the mil­i­tary’s abil­ity to keep per­ma­nent con­trol of the coun­try’s pol­i­tics, and also about the au­to­cratic ways of the new (and widely un­pop­u­lar) king.

The next turn in the long saga of Thai­land’s quest for a gen­uine democ­racy may not be far off.

GWYNNE DYER

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