Mass street protests are usually seen as a hallmark of democratic aspirations. And elections are meant to be a culmination of such aspirations, affording people the opportunity to choose their own leaders and system of government. But in country after country these days, the hallmarks of democracy are being dangerously subverted and co-opted by powerful elites. The question is, are we recognizing what is happening under our noses? Three examples unfolding right now are indicators of this trend: Thailand, Ukraine and Egypt.
Thailand has just witnessed its 19th coup in 82 years. Although coup leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-Ocha has promised “genuine democracy,” he has given no timetable for an end to martial law. The U.S. State Department initially refused to call the takeover a coup, insisting that martial law is consistent with Thailand’s constitution. It then changed its tune to issue a strongly worded condemnation.
In Ukraine, voters elected a pro-Western leader after President Viktor Yanukovych fled following mass protests over his refusal to sign an accord with the European Union. Although the incoming president, Petro Poroshenko, has promised democratic development, the U.S. has openly sided with pro-Western forces inside Ukraine and raised the tensions of the conflict to near Cold War era levels, rendering any promises of true democracy ineffectual at best.
In Egypt, an army general is in the process of being “elected” following a period of violent military rule after post-revolution elections yielded a leader from the Muslim Brotherhood. The U.S. quietly condoned the army’s overthrow of the Brotherhood leadership and has made only lukewarm criticisms of violent repression under Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, employing a dangerous wait-and-see approach while Egyptian lives hang in the balance. Once the election is over, Sisi will likely be viewed by the U.S. government as a democratically elected leader.
In Thailand, Ukraine and Egypt, wealthy elites, whether native born or foreign, have used popular movements and elections to ratify decisions in their favor. In an interview on Uprising, filmmaker and investigative journalist Andre Vltchek, who has traveled recently to all three countries in question, explained that in Thailand in particular, Thaksin Shinawatra, the business-tycoon-turned-prime-minister who was driven from power in 2006, “was trying to bring the country to modern capitalism.” He introduced medical care that is much better than the system in the United States, with “heavily subsidized medicines.” Additionally Thailand now has 15 years of basic education free for all citizens, and according to Vltchek, Thaksin gave citizenship to a population of millions in the north who were disenfranchised. Thaksin’s supporters called themselves the Red Shirt Movement, and consisted primarily of rural Thai farmers and left-wing activists.
To be fair, Thaksin’s rule had several serious problems that Vltchek acknowledged as “terrible mistakes,” including a brutal “war on drugs” and a war against a Muslim minority in the south of Thailand. But it was his progressive social programs for which he was “hated by the elites—the monarchy and the military, because in Thailand it is not just money but the gap between the elites and the majority” that matters.
What most of us viewed from the outside as a major people’s revolution occupying government buildings to oust a corrupt leader—the so-called Yellow Shirt movement—consists in fact of forces allied to the Thai royal family and military. The movement has ironically adopted the name People’s Alliance for Democracy. I asked Vltchek whether its supporters were really in favor of democracy. “No, they were not,” he pointedly replied. In fact, “they have nothing to do with democracy”; rather, “they were against democracy,” said Vltchek, who met with many of the Yellow Shirt protest leaders and heard the “rumors that there were ‘very powerful forces’ behind the protests,” which meant “the monarchy and the military.” Vltchek maintained that Thai elites are afraid of true democracy, as the opposition ran in multiple elections after Thaksin was pushed out and lost time and again.