Thursday, January 24, 2008

Why Zhang Xizhen is so wrong

A report in the printed edition of The Nation today quotes an "expert in Thai politics" from an international school in China as saying

".....Thailand should not aim to become a fully fledged democracy but rather an "authoritarian democracy" like Singapore, Malaysia and China...."

Zhang Xizhen also goes on to say....

"There should be no full democracy for Thailand, because after 1992 some said that Thailand could be called a democracy, but it didn't work well,"

"Unfortunately, the people, either common people or politicians, have no conscience. That's why there are many kinds of electoral fraud, assassinations and vote buying."

TN states: "The Singaporean or Malaysian model offers stability while being free of political abuse, Zhang claimed."

Let's put aside both the fact that Zhang may have been misquoted and the cons of representative democracy. I still find myself in full disagreement with Zhang. In fact I find his comments preposterous.

Firstly, I don't believe in "authoritarian democracy" anymore than I believe in a "cold sun" or a "shallow ocean". "Authoritarianism" - in the sense that Zhang uses the term - and "democracy" are mutually exclusive (as opposed to right wing democracy, which is viable and different). Neither Singapore or China are democratic in the popular understanding of the term.

His quote on 1992 I find equally absurd. Zhang seems to imply that one tragic setback implies democracy is not viable. In fact, every country that struggles towards a mature democracy has suffered setbacks. The first British working class who demanded the vote suffered everything from kangaroo courts to broken windows and violent murder in their struggle to win suffrage. The Philippines had to go through decades of uprisings, civil unrest and martial law to get to where they are now and of course the struggle of Nigeria is being broadcast to the world.

All these countries are at different stages of democratic development, but the path seems to be the same for all of them.

In greatly simplified terms we have:

1) Elitist rule, followed by .......

2) Some division of power to the upper class bourgeois.

3) Some power passed to the middle classes.

4) Universal suffrage marked by an unstable corrupt government.

5) A semi stabilised but often inefficient and corrupt government.

6) Slow steps to transparency, sparked by greater awareness amongst the electorate leading to greater power sharing and independent checking bodies.

Each of these stages are punctured or often initiated by struggle and set backs. They may be peaceful, violent or extremely violent. The struggle may be en masse, individual or seditious (such as the Thai military's popular tactic of visiting the wives and children of suspected communists in their homes). We all have suffered or will suffer our own versions of Thailand's Black May, even England. It just happened a long time ago for us because we our democracy is older.

I don't think there is any example of a democratic country that has not seen a pattern of behaviour similar to the above before becoming mature.

So why then, does professor Zhang cite one example of such an event - not to overlook the truly tragic nature of the event and the terrible loss of life that occurred - as evidence that democracy will not work in Thailand?

I also find it remarkable that Zang states: "either common people or politicians, have no conscience". Whilst sentiment towards the later may be universal, I think that declaring Thailand's common people as "having no conscience" is not only untrue, it's remarkably insulting. Thailand's common people may not be fully aware of the behaviour of politicians however this is not due to a lack of conscience. It is due to manipulation, media controls, certain parts of Thai culture and in some cases lack of education. That last point is nothing to do with stupidity of lack of conscience.

Let's look at his last claim again:

"The Singaporean or Malaysian model offers stability while being free of political abuse, Zhang claimed."

Free of political abuse? Not according to the Asia Sentinel or anyone else with rudimentary knowledge of Malaysian politics. Singapore is often cited as an example of a happy, undemocratic society, but in my opinion this is because it is the exception to the rule. Whilst there may be some degree of truth in this, human rights such as media freedoms and civil rights are curbed in the nation state.

Quite how Zhang arrives at the conclusion that less democracy equals less abuses is beyond me. Perhaps his line of reason is that if people don't have to vote, politicians don' have to waste their precious money trying to buy votes.

Perhaps the biggest shocker for me was the penultimate detail supplied by reporter Pravit:

"He said legislation like the Internal Security Act, passed by the junta-appointed parliament late last year, would play a "very important role" maintaining "stability"."

Yes, I'm sure it will. This is after all, one of the reasons why there were protests outside NLA offices when teh bill was being approved. The ISOC passes massive powers to the military and restricts a lot of freedoms for everyone else.

And finally:

Human rights, he said, should be controlled by the government.

Perhaps Zhang is not aware of Samak's human rights record.


hobby said...

The case against Professor Zhang would be easier to make if 'fully fledged democracy' was seen to be demonstrably more successful on the whole than 'authoritarian (non)democracy'.

I personally have doubts about whether that case can be made (without comparing apples with oranges).

Anonymous said...

"the struggle of Nigeria is being broadcast to the world"

Err - Kenya? I suppose these bleckfellas all look alike to the BNP.

Red and White said...

Sorry I meant Kenya. My apologies.