World·Analysis

Thailand, Philippines witnessing reversals of people power: Patrick Brown

Developments in Thailand and the Philippines demonstrate how, in many countries, democratic progress is being reversed

In many countries the rise of democracy can also lead to the rise of the demagogue

Thai government workers attend a rally in Bangkok on Thursday aimed at encouraging people to vote in Sunday's constitutional referendum. Placards read, 'Vote in the Referendum Aug. 7' and 'Come together on the referendum to strengthen democracy.' The penalty for campaigning against the proposed constitution, though, is 10 years in prison, (Associated Press)

I've seen my share of people power in action, and often I liked what I saw.

It was heartening, 30 years ago, to surge with a huge crowd through the streets of Manila and climb over the gates of the presidential palace to witness the end of  Ferdinand Marcos's 21-year stranglehold over the Philippines.

Six years on, in 1992, on the streets of Bangkok with protestors under fire from the army, it seemed to be Thailand's turn for a new dawn when the junta led by General Suchinda Kraprayoon caved in under pressure from the people, with a helping hand from the king.

In between, I'd seen popular revolts succeed in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania.

Each victory for people power gave more currency to the notion that the rise of democracy was unstoppable.

One of the most widely read books of 1992, The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama, proclaimed, "What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such … that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."
Prayuth Chan-ocha, the head of Thailand's military government, answer reporters' questions in Bangkok on June 6. He says if Sunday's referendum does not approve the proposed constitution, he will simply write a new one. (Associated Press)

Sadly, Fukuyama overestimated the strength of what seemed to be a democratic tide and ignored the fact that tides not only rise, but fall as well.

In many countries democratic progress is being reversed.

This weekend Thailand is holding a referendum on a new constitution that will consolidate the rule of the latest military junta.

In addition to harassing critics and detaining them for "attitude adjustment," the regime has passed a new law against campaigning against the proposed constitution, with a penalty of 10 years in prison.

The junta's leader, Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former general who has appointed himself prime minister, says if the proposed constitution is not approved, he will simply write a new one.

The army insists its increasingly authoritarian rule is necessary to restore democracy and preserve stability as the reign of King Bhumibol, on the throne since 1946, draws to a close.

A model for politically ambitious tycoons

At the centre of Thailand's crisis is Thaksin Shinawatra, a former leader whose early career could serve as a model for billionaire tycoons with political ambitions around the world.

He used his enormous fortune to build an image as a strong leader with an almost magical ability to solve complicated problems at a stroke. Populist policies rewarding peasants and the urban poor created a formidable constituency which traditional politicians and parties were unable to match.

Elected in 2001, he tinkered with laws to entrench his power and further enrich his companies until the military forced him into exile in 2006.

Complicated by struggles over the succession to the 88-year-old monarch, who is apparently close to death, Thailand's political life has been dominated for a decade by an epic battle between Shinawatra's supporters and his enemies, with democracy a distant memory.

Police in Philippines get a licence to kill

A shirtless Filipino man arrives at a police station on June 8 after being apprehended during a crackdown in Manila. Newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte, a swaggering populist who promised to solve the problems of drugs and crime by giving the police a licence to kill, has done just that. (Associated Press)
In the Philippines, where the power of the people to sweep away dictatorship was so heartening, the people used their hard-won right to vote in June to elect a man of breathtaking vulgarity, narcissism and casual violence as president for the next six years.

Rodrigo Duterte, a swaggering populist who promised to solve the problems of drugs and crime by giving the police a licence to kill, has done just that. More than 500 people, many of them with little proven connection to crime, have already been killed.

Duterte campaigned as an outsider, mobilizing popular resentment against elite political families thought to ignore the needs and concerns of ordinary people. It was an echo of the 1998 campaign by Joseph Estrada, a venal and empty-headed movie star who won in a landslide and served as president for three years before being removed for corruption.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivers his first state of the nation address on July 25. Since his election in June on a tough-on-crime platform, more than 500 people, many of them with little proven connection to crime, have been killed. (Associated Press)

People power revolutions spring up when rage against rulers becomes stronger than fear of repression.

A different kind of people power can lead to electoral insurgency, a revolt against the system expressed as a vote for a radical demagogue with sweeping promises of change. 

The second man to be elected president of the United States, John Adams, wrote that "democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide."

If Fukuyama was overly optimistic, Adams perhaps erred on the side of pessimism. After all, the United States has elected 42 successors to him and still claims to be the world's greatest democracy.

And yet, in the race to be the 45th president, Donald Trump is waging a populist campaign fueled by anger, which threatens his country's democracy as much as Shinawatra and Duterte do theirs.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Patrick Brown

Eye on Asia

Former CBC correspondent Patrick Brown has reported from world capitals and dusty backwaters for over 30 years, with a particular emphasis on Asia, having been based at different times in Bangkok, Delhi and, most recently, Beijing. He now splits his time between Canada and China as an independent documentary-maker. Follow Patrick Brown on Twitter: @truthfromfacts

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