Normative Narratives


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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: 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.