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The return of a bureaucratic polity

( วันที่ October 15, 2006 )
 

Prof.Dr. Likhit Dhiravegin
Fellow of the Royal Institute 
                                  
Politics and the administrative system are not born out of a social and economic vacuum.  Likewise, economic system and social structure are not unrelated to the state of the art of science and technology.  Indeed, these days of the globalization era, the four structures, political, economic, social and cultural are interrelated.   Change in one area such as a change in the economic structure will exert its influence on the other structures such as politics. 

Take for example the economic development program launched by Field marshal Sarit Thanarat starting with the first National Economic Development Plan, a six-year- plan.  The laying down of the economic development program and implemented them would naturally lead to a change in the economic structure, with the concomitant result of social change.  Once the agricultural economy started to become an agricultural-cum-industrial economy, it would lead to changes in the social structure.  First, there would be an increasing number of industrial workers who would form into unions.  Urbanization would ensue as a result of industrialization and urbanization.  Educational attainment would follow because in a new economic setup, there would be need for more educated and better-trained personnel.  The list could go on.  This is exactly what had happened in Thailand when the October 14, 1973 political uprising took place.  The event resulted in the downfall of  the military regime of Field Marshal Thanom Kittkachor and Field Marshal Prapass Charusatian.

Using the economic and social change above as a starting point, it will be useful to point out that the Thai political system has been developing chronologically as follows.

Prior to the June 24, 1932 revolution, the country was under an absolute monarchy and the Thai state was known as a monarchical state.   Under the monarchical state, ruled and reigned by an absolute monarch, the state of the Thai, known as Siam then was faced with Western imperialism.  Two Western powers, Great Britain and France, were ready to impose upon the nation a colonial system.  In order to avoid being colonized, the great monarch, King Chulalongkorn, pursued a policy of Westernization by taking on what his august father had left off.  In 1892, the King launched a most dramatic reform which could be dubbed as a Revolution from the Throne. This was undertaken by having a centralization of power and the adoption of a modern state bureaucracy.  New technology was introduced including electricity, telegram, telephone, tram, and train.

But with the coming a new Western-type bureaucracy manned by technocrats of new expertise, conflict between the old the new elements would naturally take place which culminated in the June 24, 1932 political change.  This took place four decades after the reform of 1892.  The power vacuum was then filled by the technocrats who were mostly Western-trained.  These military officers and civil servants formed what was subsequently known as a bureaucratic polity.   It is to be noted that when the coup took place, the nation was then an agricultural society with an agrarian economy and a population which were politically apathetic.

The bureaucratic polity had thus replaced the absolute monarchy.  The new group of the ruling elite then put a great emphasis on economic development,  a discussion of which has already been given above.  But after forty years, 41 to be exact, a new class of people resulted from the changes in the economy and the society was instrumental in leading a protest against the military government known as the  October 14, 1973 uprising.  The event in fact signaled an end to the bureaucratic polity in the conventional sense.  Henceforth, what one would witness was a halfway democracy which meant that it was a system which attempted to bring about a fusion between the old element, the bureaucrats and the new element, the new middle-class born out of economic and social changes.          

But the changes in the economy with the coming of a high degree of industrialization went further twenty years ago through the coming of information technology.  Hence, in the May 17-29, 1992 democracy protest, one heard the term, "cellular telephone mob" and "motorcar-driving mob."  This is a new middle class which would render a military junta out of lace.   Thirty three years have elapsed since the October 14, 1973 uprising, and ever since the Thai society has undergone major changes in the area  of technology, urbanization, education, political consciousness.  Under the 1997 constitution, a full democracy, if in form as opposed to substance, had been in operation for nine years until the September 19, 2006 coup d' etat.

The government after the October 14, 1973 uprising could be called anything but a democracy.   It was in essence a plutocracy due to the economic status and profession of the power wielders.    But the government formed after the September 19 political change which should be more appropriately called a coup de grace was a going back to a bureaucratic polity.  The appointed legislative assembly, the selection of the cabinet, the drafting of the constitution would date back to the year 1973.   Whether there is any choice apart from power seizure is irrelevant.  This is simply what has happened and what the real political system has to be classified. 

To be noted is that when the June 24, 1932 revolution took place, the Thai nation was a country with an agrarian economy.  When Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat staged a coup in 1957, it was still heavily an agricultural economy but state-owned enterprises had started to emerge.  The October 14, 1973 uprising took place when the country was  halfway between an agricultural and  an industrial economy. The May 17-20, 1992 democracy protest witnessed a Thailand of a society characterized by development in agriculture, industry and information technology.   Today, one can argue that after a full democracy, albeit in form, and with all the mobile phones, television stations and radio stations numbering hundreds, the Thai society has gone far beyond a traditional political system such as a bureaucratic polity.  Hence a return to a bureaucratic polity could at best be temporary.  The society has gone too far for a backward step to the post 1970?s era.   

The sad part was the government which has been toppled on September 19, 2006 had gone too far in its excessive violation of the rule of law, blatant abuse of power, and rampant corruption.  The former regime had unscrupulously destroyed the sanctity of the political system. With or without the political change of September 19, 2006, democracy was already dead or dying and the putsch was only a coup de grace.

The die is cast.  The immediate issue is how the power vacuum is to be filled. The power and systemic vacuum must be filled with a democracy germane to the Thai cultural context and a functioning constitution by taking into account ideals and reality.  This has to be done within a reasonable time frame.

But caveats are in order.  Persistence in holding power sans political legitimacy would only be repeating the mistake of the former regime or the mistakes committed by past power wielders.  A coup de grace is an act to put an end to an ailing and dying system but it must give rise to a new system fast enough before it will victimize the savior, the good intention and the initial innocent effort notwithstanding.  The good news is the savior has the support of the people for the act.  The people can be compared to water and the perpetrator can be compared to a boat.   As the Chinese saying would put it, in effect, water can help float a boat but it can also sink a boat, pure and simple.

 
   
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