Normative Narratives


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Conflict Watch: A Coup By Any Other Name…

May be even more deadly.

Days after declaring Martial Law, Thai General Prayuth Chan-ocha announced a Military Coup on Thursday. Since then the Military has stationed troops in major cities, suspended the constitution, enacted a curfew, put a halt to both pro and anti-government protests, taken certain channels and media outlets out of circulation, and detained former PM Yingluck and members of her government. Classic Coup actions.

The Thai army says it will remain neutral and wants to enact certain reforms before holding elections. If this is indeed possible, this Coup could be less disruptive than previous Coups. The big question is what form will reforms take? Will they increase transparency and accountability, curbing the potential for future corruption? Or will they involve drastic legislative redistricting, in an attempt to marginalize the political voice of rural Thailand? Can the army orchestrate meaningful reforms while remaining a neutral intermediary between rival political parties?

The answers to these questions will likely determine how the Coup plays out. There is, however, something reassuring about the Thai army calling this a Coup, especially in comparison to Egypt’s “non-Coup”. By acknowledging this was in fact Coup, the Army is at least taking responsibility for what happens next in Thailand. We should not, for instance, expect a bloody crackdown as we saw in Egypt.

In a previous post, I emphasized the determinative role armed forces can play in regime change. All things equal, it is always best for the military to stay out of politics and focus on security and defense issues. But all things are not equal; countries face unrest for a variety of reasons, and this unrest can turn violent and often has adverse economic consequences, as it has in Thailand.

One could certainly question the necessity of this Coup, violence has not recently escalated and Prime Minister Yingluck agreed to step down 2 weeks ago. Economic deterioration seems to be the most obvious catalyst in this instance. Either way a Coup has occurred, and the focus now shifts to the actions of the Thai army.

If the Army is indeed committed to the things it says, it may be possible for a Coup to play a constructive role in Thailand’s political crisis. Last month the U.N. highlighted this constructive role security forces can play in peace efforts:

The United Nations Security Council today called on countries emerging from conflict and all those assisting them to prioritize the development of domestic police and national defence forces that maintain rule of law and respect human rights, in its first-ever stand-alone resolution on security sector reform.

Stressing that it is the sovereign right and the primary responsibility of the countries concerned to reform their security institutions, the Council, through the resolution, encouraged the UN and other international partners to strengthen their approach to training and other assistance, and to integrate it with other efforts to help rebuild national institutions.

Mr. Ban reaffirmed some of the principles of security sector reform outlined in his latest report on the issue, including the linkage between security efforts and broader processes of political and institutional reforms in the countries in question.

“Strengthening operational effectiveness must be combined with efforts to build a strong governance framework, robust accountability and oversight mechanisms, and a culture of integrity and respect for human rights. National ownership is imperative,” he said.

Security is a necessary prerequisite for stability, human development and economic growth. There is nothing inherently good or bad about security forces. They can restore order and champion principles of democracy, human rights, and rule of law, or they can kill with impunity. There is something very interesting and deeply psychological about the broad spectrum of roles armed forces can play in society–it is in many ways a microcosm of free will.

Thailand is not Egypt, there is no reason to think just because there was a Coup, that the human rights environment in Thailand will deteriorate as it has in Egypt. However, certain actions by the Thai army certainly raise eyebrows, such as imposition of a curfew and suspensions of press freedom. Also, the Thai military’s track record does not inspire confidence; perhaps today is a new day?

All we can do now is wait and see, and hope the Thai army backs up its neutral rhetoric with appropriate actions and reforms. Except more on this topic in the coming weeks.

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Conflict Watch: The Determinative Role of Armed Forces In Regime Change (A Comparative Analysis)

Police leave their position around the Ukrainian p[arliament in Kiev on Friday after the country’s deputy army chief resigned in protest over government attempts to involve the army to put down the unrest rocking Ukraine. Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

Disgraced ex-Ukranian President Yanukovych (is it too soon to call him ex-President?) signed an agreement with the opposition for early elections and a new government, pulling Ukraine back from the brink of catastrophe. Do not confuse Yanukovych’s decision for altruism; rather it was a last resort after it became clear the Ukrainian army would not intervene on his behalf.

Today, the Ukrainian Armed Forces reiterated its commitment to neutrality. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel commended the move, and his support is well founded. A comparative analysis of recent protest movements shows the determinative role Armed Forces play in domestic political conflicts:

Egypt: In modern Egyptian history, the Army has been the strongest and least unaccountable force in domestic politics. It is therefore unsurprising those in control of the Army are determined to ensure their spot at the top of the pyramid (no pun intended) is preserved. The Egyptian military has a vested interest in a protracted civil conflict; by creating an adversary in the Muslim Brotherhood, it has secured an important role in Egyptian life and public support. Indeed, military supremacy was enshrined in a recently passed constitutional referendum.

The Egyptian military determined the outcome of Egyptian politics by removing democratically elected President Morsi by a coup (as opposed to allowing a political process of impeachment and new elections to decide who leads). The army has restricted media independence and cracked-down on all dissenters (including many who were instrumental in removing previous dictator Hosni Mubarak and the ineffectual President Morsi). Now General Sisi–the very man who organized the coup–is poised to take over as Egypt’s next “democratically elected” president.

Syria: In Syria’s dynastic authoritarian regime, the armed forces are controlled exclusively by President Assad; the military cannot be expected to support the will of the people. Assad ordered a military response to peaceful protests, resulting in a protracted civil war with no end in sight.

Thailand:  The Thai army is committed to remaining neutral in anti-government protests (which was not a given; Thailand has a long history of military intervention in politics), allowing the political process to play itself out (the army has positioned itself near protest sight for security purposes, but hasn’t taken a side).

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has proposed early elections; her opposition wants an appointed caretaker government to implement reforms before elections are held. In a recent development, Yingluck has been called in to answer for corruption charges related to a rice subsidy (a policy symbolic of her Pheu Parties popularity with Thailand’s poor), which could result in her impeachment.

Venezuela: Paratroopers we’re called in to “maintain the peace”, which is allegedly a cover for a brutal crackdown of the anti-Maduro opposition. The future remains uncertain in Venezuela; if reports of a bloody crackdown are true, a protracted civil conflict is likely.

When it comes to regime change, the means are just as important as the endsThe extent to which Armed Forces remain neutral / indiscriminately uphold security (in order to give the political process time to run it’s course) is a good indication of both how “ugly” protests will become, and the direction a country will move ex post facto.

In Egypt the military could have remained neutral, allowing the Egyptian people to impeach Morsi and setup elections. Instead, the military decided to intervene, securing it’s own interests. Morsi had to go, but the way he was removed has set the country on a path divergent from pluralistic democracy. In a similar vein, Sisi may indeed be the President Egyptians want. If so, why the need to crackdown on dissenters?

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck may indeed be a corrupt ruler unworthy of her office. If this is the case, allow the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) to conduct an impartial investigation. If she is found guilty, there may be grounds for impeachment. If not, the vocal minority opposition will have to rethink it’s position.

Notably, the Thai Military is allowing the political process to determine the countries political future (as in Ukraine), increasing the likelihood that a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Thailand can emerge from this current bout of unrest (Unlike Egypt, Syria, and likely Venezuela).

If a countries Armed Forces are committed to the goal of pluralistic democracy, the best thing they can do is remain neutral and allow domestic political conflicts to be resolved politically. Democratic governance is derived from “soft power“–inclusive politics, non-violent protest, self-determination. The need to resort to force against non-violent protests is proof in and of itself that human rights rhetoric is being used to human rights violations.

When the global champions of human rights (U.S., E.U., U.N. etc) urge deescalation and dialogue, these are not empty words (as Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay has urged in Venezuela). Over the past few decades, “soft power” has played an increasingly important role in both domestic and international affairs. Governments that embrace this shift will ultimately be the most successful.


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Transparency Report: Anti-Corruption Movements and Populism

World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim called corruption “Public Enemy Number One“:

“In the developing world, corruption is public enemy number one,” said Kim, speaking at an event hosted by the World Bank’s anti-corruption investigative arm, the Integrity Vice Presidency. “We will never tolerate corruption, and I pledge to do all in our power to build upon our strong fight against it.”

“Every dollar that a corrupt official or a corrupt business person puts in their pocket is a dollar stolen from a pregnant woman who needs health care; or from a girl or a boy who deserves an education; or from communities that need water, roads, and schools. Every dollar is critical if we are to reach our goals to end extreme poverty by 2030 and to boost shared prosperity.”

An important step toward fighting corruption and helping more people lead better lives is to build institutions with greater integrity, Kim noted.  He described three key elements in the World Bank Group’s approach:

“First, we need to improve the way we share and apply knowledge about building institutions with greater integrity; second, we need to empower citizens with information and tools to make their governments more effective and accountable; and third, we need to build a global movement to prevail over corruption.”

In addition to governmental action in anti-corruption, Kim called on other partners to join the fight, including the private sector. 

“The private sector has to be part of the solution as well. Oil, gas, and mining firms are increasingly disclosing their contracts with governments. This gives everyone a chance to scrutinize the behavior of corporate and public officials.”

This transparency and accountability approach to development marks a stark contrast from the World Bank of 1990s. The IMF has recently also taken a more context-sensitive approach compared to “Washington Consensus” policies of the 1990s. This trend points to greater policy coherence between the World Bank, the IMF, and the U.N. as the Post-2015 development agenda is finalized.

These organizations have fully embraced the importance of the political economy of development. Without considering “good governance”, economic gains can be embezzled or misused. Corruption retards growth, increases inequalities, and causes grievances which can boil over civil if not regional conflicts. Economic growth and poverty reduction cannot be achieved on a large scale without considering political factors.

Ultimately, there are limits to even what global organizations can accomplish. To sustain social progress, people must be able to hold “duty bearers” (generally governments, but also private sector actors and social service providers) accountable for their human rights obligations. The role of international organizations and governments is mainly an empowering / enabling one–provide access to information, advocate for avenues / institutions to meaningfully voice grievances, and let people-power do the rest.

The anti-corruption push has recently taken hold in a number of countries. Below are a few notable examples:

India:

“Today, the common man has won,” Kejriwal said in a triumphant speech at Delhi’s Ramlila grounds, the very place were huge protests over corruption erupted in 2011, opening the way for the birth of the AAP.

“This truly feels like a miracle. Two years ago, we couldn’t have imagined such a revolution would happen in this country.”

In a December 4 election to the legislative assembly of Delhi, a city of 16 million people, no party won the majority of seats required to rule on its own.

Wearing a simple blue sweater and with a boat-shaped Gandhi cap on his head, Kejriwal pledged to set up an anti-bribery helpline.

“If anyone in the government asks you for a bribe, don’t say ‘no’,” he said. “You report it on the phone number and we’ll catch every bribe-taker red-handed.”

 Kejriwal, who has tapped into a vein of urban anger over the venality of the political class and the neglect of citizens’ rights in the world’s largest democracy, has promised to expand his movement across the country.

Along with a pledge to send Delhi’s corrupt lawmakers to jail, the AAP has also promised free water for every family in the capital and a sharp reduction in their electricity bills.

business lobby group said on Saturday the unorthodox ideology was not important as long as results were delivered.

“We feel that though the promises made by it may look tall, they can still make a good economic sense if the objective … is achieved by bringing in operational efficiencies,” Rana Kapoor, president the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, said in a statement.

Turkey:

The allegations of high-level corruption threaten to undo Mr. Erdogan’s accomplishment of wresting Turkish politics from the military and overseeing a long period of economic growth. Like a Moses in the wilderness, he has led his people from one sort of bondage but appears unable to deliver them to a promised land of transparent government where people are ruled through consensus rather than bullying and threats.

Mr. Erdogan does not know how to play defense. Last weekend, he addressed rally after rally and cursed the “international groups” and “dark alliances” trying to undermine Turkey’s prestige.

The government is treating the crisis as nothing short of a coup by those jealous of its success. This is nonsense.

The opposition it faces has emerged because of the A.K.P’s own lack of respect for the rule of law and a cynical disregard for public accountability. It can no longer hide behind conspiracy theories and bluster.

Indonesia:

Since its establishment in 2002, the KPK (Corruption Eradication Commission) has become, contrary to all expectations, a fiercely independent, resilient, popular and successful institution that is a constant thorn in the side of Indonesia’s establishment.

[In 2009] police arrested two KPK commissioners for extortion and bribery. The charges were dropped after nationwide street protests and a Facebook campaign that gathered one million supporters.

“The KPK’s only friend is the public,” says Dadang Trisasongko, secretary general of the Indonesian chapter of global corruption watchdog Transparency International.

The international business community is watching this tussle closely. Executives surveyed in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2011-12 said corruption remained “the most problematic factor for doing business” in Indonesia.

The World Bank has said corruption across the world costs $1 trillion. No one has done a thorough study of the costs in Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most populous country and one of the hottest emerging markets with an economic growth rate of 6 percent. The Anti-Corruption Studies Center at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta put the losses to the state at $1 billion over the past five years alone.

Thailand:

Thailand protests are different in the sense that the opposition is arguing for less democracy and less populist economic policies. Opponents of Prime Minister Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party cite corruption as their main grievance.

Populist economic policies, while generally beneficial in the long run, do have a common pitfall of corruption. Populist policies rely on the government signing many contracts for social goods and services. Without proper oversight, these contracts themselves present many opportunities for corruption / embezzlement of tax-payer money.

I do not know if this is what has happened in Thailand, or whether these claims are unfounded (it is worth noting that Thailand does not score well on Transparency International’s “Corruption Perception Index“. Regardless, the Pheu Thai party should consider setting up social accountability mechanisms to allay the fear of corruption.

Anti-corruption measures are themselves populist policies. Enabling people to hold corrupt government officials accountable realizes a key political right. Moving money from corrupt politicians pockets to social services helps fulfill economic and social rights. Therefore, the anti-corruption movement is an indispensable aspect of the human rights based approach to development.

The near universal embrace of anti-corruption measure–from the highest level of global governance to local politicians and their constituents on the ground–bodes well for the Post-2015 development agenda. While much work remains to be done, every anti-corruption / accountability / civilian empowerment policy is a step in the right direction.


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Transparency Report: Thailand’s Anti-Democracy Protests

Original article:

In a world now accustomed to democratic upheavals, including the Arab Spring and the Saffron and Orange Revolutions, the weeks of political upheaval in Thailand stand out for one main peculiarity. Protesters massing on the streets here are demanding less democracy, not more.

From their stage beneath the Democracy Monument, a Bangkok landmark, protesters cheer their campaign to replace Parliament with a “people’s council” in which members are selected from various professions rather than elected by voters.

The embattled prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, has proposed new elections as a solution to the turmoil. But that is just what the protesters do not want.

In today’s fractured Thailand, a majority wants more democracy, but a minority, including many rich and powerful people, is petrified by the thought of it.

Because a number of the protest leaders are members of Thailand’s wealthiest families, some have described the demonstrations here as the antithesis of the Occupy Wall Street movement. This is the 1 percent rebelling against the 99 percent, they say.

The reality is more complicated — the protesters include rich and poor, Bangkok residents and many people from southern Thailand who feel disenfranchised by the current government and its northern power base. What unites the protesters is the desire to dismantle Ms. Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party, which has won every election since 2001.

The anti-democracy protests, which have been some of the largest in Thai history, call into question the commonly held belief that a rising tide of wealth in a society will naturally be followed by greater demands for democracy. Thailand today is much richer than it was two decades ago, but it is also much more divided.

On the face of it, the crux of the protest appears to be a classic power struggle between a dominant majority and a minority frustrated by its losing streak in elections and its inability to influence national policies in a winner-takes-all, highly centralized system.

But Thailand’s crisis is multifaceted and tightly intertwined with the fact that King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the country’s 86-year-old monarch, who during more than six decades on the throne has been revered to the point of quasi-religious devotion, is ailing and that the country is bracing for his death.

More broadly, Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a leading Thai scholar on the monarchy, argues that Thailand’s protracted political turmoil has been exacerbated by the contrast between a deified king and politicians who appear crass and venal in contrast. “We have an image of monarchy that is flawlessly excellent in everything,” he said in 2010. “If we had not built this image in the first place, we would not have so many problems and complaints with politicians.

Respect for the king, and the notion of his near-infallibility and beneficence, are deeply ingrained in Thais from the earliest years of schooling.

This blog is concerning the legitimacy of protests calling for replacing the democratically elected government with an appointed “peoples council”. There are two central tenets of liberal democracy I will base this analysis on:

1) Liberal democracy is meant to uphold the will of the majority, while protecting the rights of the minority.

2) Everyone is viewed as equal in the eyes of the government; no one person has more or less influence over political outcomes than another.

Based on uncontested election results, and the fact that protesters are not satisfied with the proposition of early elections offered by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, one can assume the protesters represent a minority of Thailand’s population. Based on this article, there is no evidence that the rights of this minority are being infringed upon.

Protesters cannot claim a mismanagement of the economy, as the per capita GNI has more than doubled over the past decade. Thailand’s HDI has been trending upwards for decades, and it’s poverty rates have been going down for years (accompanied by a decline in the Gini inequality index)–the current democratic governance structure surely has some merits.  One particular area of concern is Thailand’s level of perceived corruption / lack of transparency, however a move away from democracy would likely exacerbate this problem.

It seems rather that protesters, unhappy with populist policies that do not directly benefit them, are trying to change the policy making process to one which they can control. Such a move would be a violation of the two tenets of liberal democracy listed above. It would amount to upholding the will of the minority while violating the political rights of the majority. It would also give more power to the desires of select individuals.

To appease the opposition, the government should consider changing its parliament from a “first past the poll” system to a proportional representation system, to ensure a plurality of opinions in policy making. The government should also consider expanding civilian oversight mechanisms, to increase transparency and allay fears of corruption / embezzlement.

To become a more effective political party, the opposition should consider embracing policies which have had success in reducing poverty / inequality while simultaneously increasing economic growth. Such pragmatism is a necessary component for the continued relevance of any political party; in democracies everywhere, parties which do not embrace popular and effective policies tend to fall by the wayside.  

So far, the King and the military have stayed out of this fight, hopefully they will continue to do so and allow the democratic process to fix the unrest it has caused. Thailand should not dismantle its democratic system, which has a long history of effective governance.