Friday, September 22, 2006

Thailand (and how it's similar to Turkey)

You can read the Economist article here. The news of the military taking over while the Thai PM Thaksin Shinawatra was away at the UN General Assembly meeting was very interesting. Turkey itself has experienced three military coups before I was born and a quasi-coup in 1997 (a "National Security Council" declaration which in turn led to the "voluntary" dissolution of the coalition government and closure of its senior partner, the Islamist Welfare Party.)

The root problem in Thailand and Turkey are the same: The "enlightened" part of the population (in the minority, but backed by the military) believes that the "backward" part of the population, which is the majority, is not worthy of democracy. The elites are threatened by the choices the masses are making: They don't want to be subject to the governments, which the uneducated, poor, rural, backward masses bring to power.

The Turkish Independence War was fought and our republic was founded by soldiers. They were influenced by Europeans, especially the French (the Ottomans had long realized that they were left behind, and the Ottoman elites often traveled to Europe.) They wanted to adopt the European values fast: Laicism was one of them, which required the state to be totally free from the influence of religion. To free itself from the tentacles of religion, the state even reverted to limiting and controlling religious factors by force.

During the time of Ottoman Empire, religion was an important common ground that bound different nations together. But the national uprisings, along with World War I, left the Turks bereft of any other territory or nation to rule upon. They decided to build their young republic around a new national identity, "Turkishness." They hoped that everyone who lived in Anatolia would own this identity and stay loyal to their state.

This was a fast, top-down revolution that did not evolve naturally by the masses thinking differently over time and changing their views and habits, but instead they were dictated by new laws and force. The first twenty years of the republic was a one-party rule: During this time, new parties were allowed only for a short time, then they were suspended, because they were indeed representing an important vein in the society: Religion, ethnicity, tradition, old values and habits...

As new parties were founded, the divisions within the society surfaced, and the "modernization process" never gained the same momentum again, often suffering from backlashes. The military always remained powerful as the "defenders of the Kemalist revolutions and republic," protecting the secularist republic often from the democratic will of the population. The military took the role of a father who limited his children's freedom for their own sake.

And many urban Turks supported the military for the sake of security, seeing the uneducated, poor masses as a threat (see below post!) Many urban Thais, including my close Thai friend with whom I just spoke about the coup, think the military did the right thing by taking over the government. She said that Thaksin Shinawatra was buying the votes of the rural poor, who didn't see his corruption and cronyism. The urban elites clearly saw his flaws and wanted to oust him, but they were in the minority. The only remaining option was to step out of this democratic vicious circle by a military coup.

The military, on the other hand, is not always a benevolent savior. According to the Economist article, the class of generals who took over the government was upset that Shinawatra was giving important positions to his friends in the military. In Turkey too, the military is upset that the government, in the name of EU reforms, is limiting its role in the civil life. Now there is a new law proposal suggesting the auditing of military spending by the state's audit institution (Sayistay.) The military does not want to be accountable to the government chosen by the people, but it wants to be an independent, even superior body, who decides whether it is necessary to intervene or not. And it is the only group that has the ability to take up arms, because it has the monopoly over violence.

However difficult it is, there is a way out, but it will definitely take time. First of all, people's education and economic situation should be improved, so that they will be able to make well-judged decisions, not only based on short-term considerations and promises, but on a consistent world-view and opinions based on information.

People are not capable, or can be held responsible of obtaining the necessary information to form opinions and make a judgement. There are institutions for this purpose: Media, police, investigators, and courts. They are the ones who are obliged to investigate and surface the allegations for corruption, crime and cronyism. They are the checks and balances of democracy. (Also, laws should be changed to allow these institutions to do their job, for example, immunity of the politicians should be lifted.) Only then will the people have the necessary information to base their choices upon. As these institutions do their job well and the bad politicians are either eliminated in the elections, or in the courtroom, decent people will not be intimidated to go into politics. Then the society, in turn, will have better options to choose among.

Lastly, people should feel confident that they are able to voice their opinions and make a difference in the existing democratic system. The current threshold should be lowered for this purpose, so that people can trust the integrity of democracy in Turkey.

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