Teach­ing democ­racy stud­ies in Thai­land

The Myanmar Times - - News - NIGEL GOULD-DAVIES news­room@mm­times.com

SOON af­ter the May 2014 coup I joined the faculty of Mahi­dol Uni­ver­sity and was asked to teach a course on “Democ­racy as a Po­lit­i­cal Sys­tem”. I won­dered at what seemed a poi­soned chal­ice. A col­league told me, only half-jok­ing, to keep a wad of cash for a sud­den es­cape. The sub­ject was not new, but the set­ting was. How do you teach democ­racy in a coun­try that has just sus­pended it?

The an­swer is sim­ple – the same way that you should teach democ­racy any­where: by giv­ing them the crit­i­cal tools to think about the is­sues, by get­ting them to en­gage with un­fa­mil­iar points of view and by en­cour­ag­ing them to de­velop their own per­spec­tive.

In this spirit we ex­plore the ar­gu­ments used for and against democ­racy through­out his­tory – only in the past few decades have the for­mer gained the up­per hand. We look at the strengths and weak­nesses of democ­racy as a form of govern­ment. We con­sider the am­bi­gu­i­ties, even con­tra­dic­tions, of the easy for­mu­la­tion “rule by the peo­ple”. We ex­am­ine the var­i­ous de­signs of demo­cratic sys­tems that have tried to put this prin­ci­ple into prac­tice, and we com­pare their per­for­mance.

We con­sider how and why coun­tries be­come demo­cratic. Is democ­racy a del­i­cate “hot­house plant” that only thrives in a par­tic­u­lar so­cial or cul­tural soil, or is it a “hardy shoot” sus­tained by hu­man as­pi­ra­tions that are univer­sal in na­ture?

We end by con­sid­er­ing the fu­ture of democ­racy. En­dur­ing ten­sions be­tween its prin­ci­ples and prac­tice make democ­racy an un­fin­ished jour­ney, es­pe­cially in an era of trans­for­ma­tive change. Are glob­al­i­sa­tion and democ­racy com­pat­i­ble? Will the rev­o­lu­tion of vir­tual me­dia in­vig­o­rate or weaken pop­u­lar rule? What of the ris­ing chal­lenge from non-demo­cratic states?

All these ques­tions are more com­plex than the shrill sim­plic­i­ties of pun­dits and sound­bites ad­mit. None has an easy an­swer, and few an­swers are fi­nal. No less im­por­tant is to dis­cuss them in a demo­cratic spirit. Con­sider an ar­gu­ment on its mer­its and not be­cause of who ex­presses it. By all means hold strong views, but lis­ten re­spect­fully to oth­ers. Tell some­one why you dis­agree: Don’t tell them they are wrong.

What I do not do is share my views, at least not in the class­room. That is not the place for them: My job is to il­lu­mi­nate, not ad­vo­cate. Oc­ca­sion­ally a stu­dent will press me to say what I “re­ally” be­lieve, per­haps hop­ing they will get a bet­ter grade if they re­peat this in the exam. I re­ply that a well-ar­gued case will earn more credit than a poorly ar­gued one, whether or not I hap­pen to sup­port its con­clu­sions.

None of this should de­tract from the cases of stu­dents and ed­u­ca­tors who have been de­tained for ex­press­ing peace­ful po­lit­i­cal views. But it is pos­si­ble to cre­ate space for real dis­cus­sion of demo­cratic ideas and prac­tice in a way that can ben­e­fit, and even bring to­gether, sup­port­ers, op­po­nents and the un­de­cided alike. Those who value democ­racy should re­mind them­selves why they be­lieve what they do. Ortho­doxy be­comes com­pla­cent if it is not tested and kept sharp by con­tact with crit­i­cism. Worse, it can lead to di­dac­tic con­de­scen­sion to­ward those who dis­agree.

A new aca­demic year has be­gun at Mahi­dol, and en­rol­ment in our democ­racy course has dou­bled. Af­ter the re­cent Thai con­sti­tu­tional ref­er­en­dum and the Brexit vote, and in the midst of a US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion cam­paign un­like any other, ques­tions of why democ­racy should be val­ued, how well it is work­ing and what its fu­ture might look like are be­ing posed more widely and ur­gently than ever.

There is no bet­ter time to study democ­racy – and not only in Thai­land.

Nigel Gould-Davies teaches at Mahi­dol Uni­ver­sity In­ter­na­tional Col­lege. He holds a PhD from Har­vard Uni­ver­sity and is an as­so­ci­ate fel­low of the Royal In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs.

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