Globalization and Democratic Development in Thailand: The New Path of the Military, Private Sector, and Civil Society

Article excerpt

This article examines the interrelationship between globalization and democratic development by studying three of the main actors in the Thai political economy: the military, the private sector, and civil society. The article examines how their roles have changed in the context of globalization in the 1990s. It then looks briefly at how these changes have impacted on both the form and content of political activity in Thailand at the start of the new millennium, particularly as exemplified in the results of the general election on 6 January 2001. During the 1990s, civil society in Thailand had become stronger and was able to challenge the old socio-political order, while the military was simultaneously tamed. At the same time, however, "money politics" -- the merging of profit-seeking and power-seeking -- has become stronger. The victory of the Thai Rak Thai party in the January 2001 general election signals a new and more sophisticated conjunction between the private sector and politics.


What has been the relationship between globalization and democratic development in Thailand during the 1990s? At the start of the 1990s, there were several analyses of democratization in Southeast Asia, including the works by Kevin Hewison [1] and Michael Vatikiotis. [2] These observers argued that democratization in Southeast Asia was related to internal factors, such as the fast-changing economy, the cohesion or factionalization of authoritarian rulers, the perceptions of the legitimacy of government, the size and attitude of the middle classes, and trends in civil society. By contrast, recent academic analyses have emphasized the importance of external factors on democratization and political change in the Southeast Asian countries. Amitav Acharya has argued that internal forces which press for democratization in the Southeast Asian countries often gain power from external factors, particularly from the spread of democratic values within the context of globalization. [3]

During the decade of the 1990s, Thailand became more exposed to global forces. Of course, Thailand was already a relatively open economy, and had experienced two previous waves of globalization -- the first beginning in the late nineteenth century with the expansion of the rice economy, and the second in the late 1950s with the country's induction under the United States' Cold War strategy and economic tutelage. Even so, most analysts agree that globalization in the 1990s has had a higher intensity. This was most obvious during the 1997--98 economic crisis whose origins lay in the country's financial liberalization and greater exposure to eccentric international capital flows, the result of which was the loss of economic sovereignty to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the transfer of significant capital assets into foreign hands.

At the same time, during the past decade Thailand made significant advances in democratization, most notably through the Constitution of 1997. The new charter was driven by popular support in the teeth of opposition from Establishment forces. The charter set out to re-engineer the political system in order to reduce the power of the bureaucracy, make politicians more responsive to the popular will, and to undercut old monopolies in business and government.

In this article, the interrelationship between globalization and democratic development will be examined through a study of three of the main actors in Thailand's political economy: the military, the private sector, and civil society. The roles of these three actors have changed in the 1990s, and the article will examine how that has happened. It will also examine how these changes have impacted on Thai society in the new millennium, with the results of the general election of January 2001 providing one clear direction.

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