How did it come to this? Blood in the streets of Bangkok, as a modern, prosperous, thoroughly Westernised country descends into a spiral of violence and chaos. Barricades, razor wire, free-fire zones, all the trappings of massacre and revolution; echoes of Tiananmen Square, the Paris commune, and a hundred other confrontations where political opponents have stopped talking and started killing.

What makes Thailand’s anguish all the more puzzling is that it is ruled by a supposedly liberal government: Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s Democrat Party is a member of Liberal International (alongside, for example, Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats), and came to office in 2008 with the apparent support of the masses in Bangkok. Last year I compared it to the “liberal and revolutionary forces” of 19th century Paris and Vienna. What went wrong?

The fate of Abhisit’s government illustrates the equivocal relationship between liberalism and democracy. Looking at his “red shirt” opponents, the supporters of exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, Abhisit sees a populist rabble: not respectable urbanised liberals like himself, but ignorant peasants following a corrupt, authoritarian demagogue.

This is not an outlandish view. Thaksin is certainly an unlikely poster child for democracy; a friend of mine who met him some years ago likened him immediately to Mussolini. He has also reminded observers of a more recent right-wing Italian leader and media tycoon, Silvio Berlusconi.

But a system in which only “the right people” are allowed to get elected is not democracy. It’s basic to democracy that the electorate has to be allowed to make mistakes. Bad governments will win office from time to time, but a robust democratic system will cope with that — better, at least, than it will cope with fraud and repression.

Abhisit, however, has taken the opposite route. A plan for early elections seemed, earlier this month, to be leading to agreement with the protesters, but the government has now backed away from it.

Overnight a proposal from the red shirts for UN mediation was summarily rejected by the government.

The Democrat Party has always been strongly royalist — not necessarily a bad thing, since the Thai monarchy has often been a safeguard against dictatorship. But fear of Thaksin’s peasant populism has driven Abhisit more and more into the arms of the country’s elite establishment, and especially of the military. When you lose faith in the rule of the ballot box, you end up sooner or later in the hands of the men with guns.

Better to remember the wise words of AJP Taylor (writing about the “June days” of 1848 in Paris):

“No doubt the masses threatened all sorts of ‘civilised’ values; the answer to this danger was to bring the masses within the pale of civilisation, not to shoot them down … After all, anarchy is a form of liberty, which is more than can be said for dictatorship or clericalism.

“… Above all, he who loves liberty must have faith in the people.”

The Thai government needs to recover some of that faith. And quickly.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey