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The Question in Question

Trial lawyers, so I am told, are warned to be careful about what questions to ask witnesses.  They are advised never to ask a question unless they are confident about what the answer will be.

Not so journalists, so I don’t suppose we can berate the reporter who decided to ask Prime Minister and junta leader Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha if there was enough money for a referendum on the draft constitution.

He’d obviously been thinking about this because he already knew the price tag – 3 billion baht.  And he quickly spotted the opportunity offered of ducking down the either-prosperity-or-democracy-but-not-both bolthole.

So can the state afford a referendum?  We must accept the current financial situation and spend what we already have, hinted the PM, who, amid all the finger-pointing, seems to be the one who will democratically make this decision for us.

And what if we have a referendum, the General further mused, and it is voted down (possibly by those that he has described as ‘human trash’, though this was not clear from the reports)?  We will only have to do it all over again at twice the cost.

3 billion isn’t loose change.  Admittedly it is less than the last annual profit of struggling national carrier Thai Airways; it is less than 10% of what the Ufun pyramid scheme allegedly bilked from its victims; and it’s what Satun Province claims to earn from tourism each year (at least until the government decides to ruin it by building a deep sea port there).

It’s also about the same amount that the Army spent on suppressing the red shirt protests 5 years ago and I can’t seem to recall the deputy chief of the Army at the time (whose name escapes me for the moment) wondering how they were going to pay the bills for that.

Not that the General doesn’t want to spend money.  But it could be spent on ‘buying construction materials for infrastructure and assisting farmers’.

And there you have it.  The Lee Kwan Yew dichotomy.  Not the Goebbels-inspired polarity of ‘Guns or Butter’, but the East Asian miracle-based ‘Butter (and Guns) or Ballots’. 

Dictators the world over have claimed that autocratic rule was necessary to deliver economic development.  Airy-fairy fripperies like democracy (or human rights or environmental protection) would have to wait.  And given the choice, they assert, this is in fact what the population of poor countries wants.  Though how you would know this without any large-scale assessment of informed public opinion (aka elections where the right to freedom of expression is respected) is not at all clear.

Look at Lee’s own don’t-you-dare but dynamic Singapore.  Look at booming South Korea under the military dictators.  Look at China, for heaven’s sake.  And look at ramshackle India that keeps voting itself into poverty.

But don’t look at simultaneously autocratic and decrepit Zimbabwe, or autocratic, immensely oil-rich and decrepit Equatorial Guinea.  And don’t look at places like Botswana, economically outstripping its neighbours while nurturing an oasis of African democracy.

There is no negative correlation between economic prosperity and democratic freedoms.  You can have one, or the other, or neither, or both.  And Amartya Sen never tires of pointing out that there has never been a famine under a functioning democracy. 

A popular mandate behind what looks to be an extremely idiosyncratic constitution would be a godsend to whoever is in charge after the generals.  The constitution is not something to be short-changed by a play-acting parsimony that pretends a referendum is a luxury that we can’t afford. 

The people who drafted and vetted the constitution were all of them chosen by the military (when they’re not military themselves) and the military that chose them were what you might call ‘self-selected’, courtesy of their superior firepower.  There has been not a shred of democracy about the entire constitution drafting process. 

Surely even the military can see the benefits of having the final product gain the seal of popular approval, can’t they?

Oh damn.  I’ve just asked a stupid question, haven’t I?

About author:  Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).


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