Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand

What is Democracy?

red and yellow chiang mai irisbLast week, we had meetings in Bangkok and then traveled to Chiang Mai to learn about the current Thai political situation, meeting with an impressive line-up of community leaders, activists, professors, and others from a variety of viewpoints.  The same question kept emerging at all the meetings in one way or another and kept burning in my mind: what is democracy?  We’ve discussed this question in class, with our speakers, and amongst ourselves informally, and I think this question is an important one to ask in the context of Thailand, but also in a global context.  One speaker explained that coups are part of a functioning Thai democracy, others disagree.  The understanding of what a democracy is can be different from country to country, culture to culture, person to person.

In 1932, Thailand became a constitutional monarchy, and has had 19 coups since then, the latest taking place on May 22, 2014.  Since then, the protests in the streets have stopped, but the discontent still bubbles below the surface.

The possibility of upcoming elections is on everyone’s mind, and the question kept coming up:  Does simply having elections mean democracy exists?  A speaker asked the question, does “election” have the same meaning to the Thai people as it does in other developed civilized countries?  Another speaker questioned whether people vote on principles or rather specific policies.  One speaker suggested the massive negative impact of vote-buying in the elections; another suggested that it was people’s own right to sell their vote if they wanted to.

Is democracy merely the process of having elections, or is the result of the elections important?  Is there majority rule?  Is there an option to remain politically neutral, not joining either side?  How are minorities represented?  What is the role of the opposition?  What is the role of finances in an election?

A speaker questioned: how we can attain equilibrium?  We cannot make everyone agree, there will always be different opinions.  He asked, how can we make a fair system?  People with different opinions are beautiful.

As we had these many discussions about democracy, I couldn’t but help reflect on democracy in my own country, the United States.  The U.S. is seen as a bastion for democracy, yet do all of our citizens feel represented in government?  I ask the same questions: what is the role of finances in elections?  How are minorities represented?  Do people vote on principles or policies?  I think about how our democracy has developed, and its challenges, past and present.  I think it is imperative that we continue to ask these questions about how we can attain equilibrium where there is a fair system so that all voices and differing opinions can be heard.  We must look for those basic ideas that connect us all, and build on those – not the things that divide us.

As one speaker reminded us, Thailand’s democracy is only 80 years old – they are still working hard to improve it, and have a ways to go.  I am eager to continue following the situation in the coming months and years.

Emily Willard, USA
Rotary Peace Fellow
June 2014 Session


4 comments on “What is Democracy?

  1. Jan Woloson
    July 16, 2014

    I had (and still have) similar questions and know that the Chula experience has enriched my appreciation for the hard work that is democracy. Enjoy your studies.

    Jan Woloson (Chula class 13)

    • Emily Willard
      October 16, 2014

      Agreed, Jan. The Rotary Peace Fellow program and field study really did deepen a nuanced understanding of how challenging and complex democracy building is, especially when even the definition of democracy can be controversial.

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