PAD must not become its own worst enemy
By Tulsathit Taptim
Published on August 27, 2008
Until yesterday, the People’s Alliance for Democracy was a political movement that did the wrong thing for the right reason. The activists had sacrificed their personal comfort, risked their safety and endured condemnation, all purportedly for a clear-cut objective that Thai democracy had to be clean, transparent and accountable. In a single brazen stroke, the group’s leaders threatened to replace an image of martyrs with that of fanatics. And the arguably noble cause of a largely peaceful rebellion is now in danger of being undone.
Yesterday changed things. While we can live with traffic nightmares or disruption of school routines, we cannot call seizing a TV station, intimidating news anchors and paralysing public works a non-violent campaign for democracy. Nor was it a show of civil disobedience, because the much-acclaimed political practice isn’t supposed to harm or terrorise innocent people doing their jobs.
Morally, it was not right. Politically, it was foolish. For once, Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej looked a calm and reasonable leader on TV as he pleaded for the public not to lend support to the rampaging PAD. That is not surprising, because the more belligerence the PAD exhibited, the more sympathy would shift to him. All he needed to do was hold back his usual urge to spew venom. If he can do that he will win this very crucial round.
All this begs the question why. Court cases are proceeding against Thaksin Shinawatra, whose allegedly massive and uncontrolled corruption gave the PAD justification to take to the streets, even if he has fled into exile again. The Samak government’s persistent efforts to change the Constitution have not helped but it has not taken a formal step on those plans. And constitutional charges against incumbent ministers have so far not been hindered by the government’s political influence.
The PAD has crossed the line. While it is acceptable, laudable even, for the movement to serve as a major social force to try to keep politicians in check, yesterday’s aggression cannot be justified. The activists’ leaders, in their campaign against Thaksin and his alleged political nominees, have repeatedly warned of dangerous precedents – doing whatever it takes to protect one’s status quo, or abuse of legitimacy. They have to take a serious look at themselves now.
They have to be careful not to blur the sense of political decency. If the public is to condone the seizure of the National Broadcasting Television, some of whose terrified staff fled through windows, society will be locked in a moral dilemma. What if, say, a newspaper office was besieged like The Nation was a couple of years ago? Or what if there is an eruption of violence like when PAD members were assaulted in Udon Thani recently?
When things calmed down yesterday afternoon, it almost looked like the PAD of old. Colourful umbrellas adorning a human sea of yellow even gave Government House a somewhat festive atmosphere. Female protesters smiled and chatted with reporters. The movement’s logistic personnel were busy as usual preparing food and making sure there were enough toilets. How many of them understand, however, that public perception of their beloved PAD may never be the same after the raid on NBT?
This transition is a pity because the PAD was once a phenomenon and could still be a great social force. The biggest evidence of the movement losing itself is the fact that now, unlike when the PAD camped near Government House during Thaksin’s last days in office, people are asking what its objectives are. This is not to mention the continuous alienation from friends or allies who demonstrate the slightest difference in opinions from its leaders. The “Us or Them” mentality that they once decried Thaksin threatens to take root in their midst.
Thailand’s on-going crisis has clouded the truth that the PAD leaders have achieved beyond imagination. It would be unfair to say we owe them nothing. Thanks largely to the movement, an election was nullified, corruption cases filed against a former PM and his associates, and he is now on the run. And its strong presence has served as a shield for the courts against political pressure.
But history shows us that it all starts this way, that democracy, dictatorship and corruption are divided by very thin lines. Grown out of an ideology, the PAD has reached that dangerous point of maturity where raw impulses want to take over. The biggest challenge now for the PAD leaders is not to bring down another government; it’s how they can avoid becoming their own worst enemies.