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Clash of values mires Thailand in cycle of coups

Sunday - 6/29/2014, 3:32am  ET

In this photo taken June 13, 2014, Chalad Worachat lies on the ground during a hunger strike outside the Parliament in Bangkok, Thailand. Over the past decades, Chalad has resisted military regimes and dictatorial legislation by staging hunger strikes, five of them. Now the 71-year-old onetime parliamentarian is back on water and honey, despondent that after so many years and so much bloodshed, Thailand has been unable to break out of a vicious cycle of military coups to achieve true democracy. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

DENIS D. GRAY
Associated Press

BANGKOK (AP) -- Over the past decades, Chalad Worachat has resisted military regimes and dictatorial legislation by staging hunger strikes, five of them. Now the 71-year-old onetime parliamentarian is back on water and honey, despondent that after so many years and so much bloodshed, Thailand has been unable to break out of a cycle of military coups to achieve true democracy.

"We are not moving toward full democracy. We're going backward to dictatorship," he said on the 25th day of his sixth fast, which he vows to continue until the latest military regime adopts democratic principles. Sallow-faced and dressed in black, he reclined on a mat spread over a curbside across the street from the Parliament building, now empty.

Chalad has lain there before, sometimes to protest against individuals, at other times to stop moves like a 1983 bill that would have allowed unelected bureaucrats and military officers to become prime minister. But basically he has been fighting the same battle again and again.

"Thais have never learned about democracy, never really compared democracy with dictatorship to see which is better," he says. "They just look at what's in front of them and see a hero, but a hero never lasts long."

A military man has led Thailand for 54 of the 82 years since the Southeast Asian country ended absolute monarchy in 1932. It continues to bounce between coups and fragile democratic governments despite numerous advantages over many of its neighbors normally regarded as conducive to liberal democracy, including a vibrant economy, no rigid class structure and virtually no war on its soil in almost 250 years. This while once power-grabbing militaries have returned to their barracks in South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, the Philippines -- even Myanmar to some extent.

At the heart of the instability is a clash of core values that has been with Thailand's constitutional monarchy from the beginning. The traditional Hindu-Buddhist culture -- emphasizing deference to authority in a hierarchical system, acceptance of one's fate and avoidance of confrontation -- runs against emerging individualism, egalitarianism and rule of law. The old values also breed power brokers who dole out rewards to subordinates whose loyalty flows to them rather than to state institutions.

"Patronage relations dominate all aspects of Thai society and have a crippling effect on democratic institutions and political culture," said Marc Saxer of the Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung, a German foundation promoting democracy. "Never mind the democratic facade, key decisions are made by a network of patrons in the backroom."

For more than a decade, Thai politics has been a bitter struggle between two sides that have both resorted to undemocratic means, leaving genuine democrats within all camps largely marginalized.

On one side are former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his supporters, who have won every Thai election in the 21st century. Thaksin, now living in self-imposed exile in the United Arab Emirates to avoid a prison sentence for corruption, is popular among the rural poor but hated by many wealthier Thais for his winner-take-all methods.

As prime minister, Thaksin gutted agencies designed to curb executive power, stocked key positions with his relatives and attacked the media. The most recent elected government -- led by his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra -- began to crumble late last year after it tried to push through an amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return home.

The main opposition, the Democrat Party, has not won an election in more than 20 years but managed to gain power at times by siding with the traditional order. Yingluck's government was weakened by longtime Democrat leaders who orchestrated massive demonstrations, and by institutions widely regarded as lacking impartiality. Yingluck dissolved the House of Representatives and called for elections, but protesters blocked many polls and the Constitutional Court annulled the voting that did take place.

Coup leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who took over May 22, said late Friday that general elections would be held around October 2015 after an appointed reform council and drafting committee write a long-term constitution. He has warned all groups not to oppose the military.

Even some who disagree with military intervention say that after six months of crippling political deadlock, an economic downturn and sometimes violent street demonstrations, Thailand had no Plan B on offer.

"It's deja vu. Times have changed, but we Thais have not yet found a way acceptable to most people to solve our political problems," said Sainarong Siripen Rasananda, a retired, Cambridge University-educated businessman.

Modern Thailand has gone through an astonishing 18 constitutions, none of which proved the hoped-for magic bullet. The argument goes that as long as traditional values dominate the country's elite, and thus underlie its key institutions, whatever legislated reforms are made are hardly worth the paper they're written on.

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