I have long been skeptical of the claim by many who push for more American intervention in the affairs of other nations that they are driven largely by the impulse to defend basic democratic values. In many cases, the stronger motivation seems clearly to be a desire to protect or expand American influence in the world, even when there is no discernible benefit to our country from doing so, nor any loss of anything important if we abstain. My conviction that this is the case is reinforced by the fact that the pressure for more intervention in recent times has come primarily from conservatives and have been predominately aimed at regimes that they perceive to be too far to the left.

The terrible situation in Thailand gives them a chance to prove me wrong. There is no situation in the world today where basic democratic values are more explicitly violated than in that unfortunate country. Earlier in this century, Thaksin Shinwatra led his party to victory in a free election. His strongest support was in the poor northeastern part of the country, and he defeated the party strongly supported by the wealthier, establishment sectors in Thailand. He offended the latter first by winning an indisputably fair election over their opposition, and then by pursuing policies which benefited the poor and were highly popular with a strong majority of Thais.

He was then overthrown in a military coup, and subsequently found guilty of corruption by a judiciary which, as it has performed over the past few year, makes the Supreme Court opinion giving George W. Bush the presidency over Al Gore look like a shining example of judicial objectivity.

After the demonstrable inability of the military to govern, civilian rule returned and while Shinawatra was banned from the country by the judicial rulings, his sister Yingluck Shinawatra took over as party leader and won an equally decisive victory in another fair election.

Frustrated by the obvious preference of a majority of Thais for a government that was paying attention to their needs, and that was governing in an responsible fashion, with no disruption of the private sector, nor any discouragement of foreign investment, the elite was faced with a dilemma: Their opponents were not only winning elections, they were governing reasonably, leaving no basis for an effort to overthrow them.

So the economic elite perused a two track strategy. First, they explicitly denounced democracy, not even pretending to argue that their electoral losses were somehow based on improper processes. Instead, they openly argued that the great number of people who had voted against them were incompetent to be entrusted with the decision as to who should govern the country, and they called for the replacement of democracy in Thailand with an appointed council of leaders – Plato’s Republic with its wise guardians directing the affairs of an incompetent population that literally believed in shadows is a pretty good model of their approach.


Simultaneously, they began a massive show of civil disobedience, aided by the fact they have greater popular strength in the Bangkok area than in the country at large, allowing them seriously to interfere with the government’s functioning. They were aided in this sabotage of the democratic process by a military unwilling to enforce the rule of law.

Predictably, this stalemate in which the wealthy minority was allowed by military passivity and biased judicial rulings to prevent the government that had been duly elected from functioning led to concern about the economic future of the country. So the military agencies intervened – not by restoring order and allowing the government that had won the last elections to govern, but by overthrowing it.

At first the military claimed to be acting in a somewhat neutral capacity to referee the dispute, which in itself is of course an undermining of democracy, since it was a dispute between people who were duly elected and those who denounced elections since they knew they could not win them. More recently, the military has made clear it is acting in the service of the wealthy elite that does not want to relinquish control of the country, and in particular opposes policies which diminish inequality.

The military has paid lip service to democracy by announcing that there might be elections in the future. But the problem faced by the military and the wealthy on whose behalf they are acting is that no one doubts that in any future election, the party of the Shinawatras will again prevail.

To date, I have not heard the cries of outrage from those in America, especially, although not exclusively, among Republican senators and right wing advocacy groups, that America must come to the defense of democracy in Thailand. I have no sympathy for those left wing governments that have suppressed democracy and civil liberties. I consider Fidel Castro to be one of the great betrayers of democracy in recent world history because he came to power based on an appeal to human rights and then became one of the most effective deniers of those rights in power. Similarly, I support American criticism of the regime in Venezuela, first under Hugo Chavez and now under his successor, Nicholas Maduro, which is abusive of basic freedom in many cases.

But by comparison, the refusal of the richest people in Thailand to allow a party that represents lower-income people to govern, even after it wins successive elections, is a far greater denial of human rights than anything that has happened in Venezuela. And with the temporary – we hope – imprisonment of the supporters of the people who had the temerity to win elections on behalf of redistributive economic policies puts the Thai establishment on the track to equal to the Cuban regime on the moral scale. Chillingly, the military recently justified this detention of elected leaders and their supporters by announcing that they were “giving them time to think.”George Orwell in his 1984 depiction of totalitarianism and its semantic justifications could not have put it better.


Unlike Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham with regard to Syria, I am not urging American military intervention or arming the victims of this oppression. But any claim that we are acting in defense of fundamental human rights and democracy requires that we impose the toughest possible nonmilitary sanctions on the current Thai regime. Once again a comparison comes to mind: At this point the denial of the basic rights of the Thai people to govern themselves far exceeds the damage that has been done to the people of Ukraine, as much as I deplore that, and it is striking that those American political and intellectual leaders who have been critical of the president for not doing more to punish Putin have said little or nothing about the moral imperative to act against the explicitly anti-democratic Thai regime.

I await a demonstration that many of the conservatives who have been critical of President Obama for insufficient interventionism in the affairs of others are not upset only when those threats come from entities perceived to be on the left, but are in fact are demonstrating a genuine commitment to support for democracy whenever it is threatened. The relative silence with which the brutalization of democracy in Thailand has been greeted among many of those who clamor most loudly for a more assertive American role on behalf of “human rights” as they phrase it, is striking.

People seeking to establish their credentials as defenders of democracy must put the case of Thailand very high on their agendas.

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.

Twitter: @BarneyFrank

— Special to the Telegram

This story was corrected on June 5. A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the former leader of Venezuela as Cesar Chavez, not Hugo Chavez.

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