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Mark Kent, the British Ambassador to Thailand

Mark Kent

British Ambassador to Argentina

Part of UK in Thailand

15th September 2015

International Day of Democracy

On 15 September each year the UN and its member countries observe the International Day of Democracy.

Following last year’s military coup in Thailand the UK and other members of the international community, including the Secretary-General of the UN, called for the early restoration of democracy. That seems even further away now than it did then. But what’s so great about democracy? We don’t support it because we want to impose a western, political system on everyone. We do so because a genuinely democratic system brings with it tremendous benefits.

In a democracy, everyone has equal right and opportunity to participate in the political process, and even stand for election. So democracy gives people some control over the decisions that affect their lives. People are less likely to resort to violence to resolve their differences or make their voices heard if they can participate in credible, fair elections, which allow for the peaceful and periodic transfer of power. Where democratic values are upheld, prosperity flourishes, and the risk of instability is minimised.

In a democracy, the people get to choose their leaders. So democratic governments have to respond to people’s needs and aspirations if they want to get re-elected. In countries where there is no democracy it is all too easy for governments to focus on their own self-interest, rather than governing in the interests of their citizens. So democracies provide fairer distribution of resources and access to power.

Democratic governments are accountable. Officials and politicians are answerable for their decisions and actions. This reduces the opportunity for corruption. Democracy also subjects governments to the rule of law, which means the law treats everyone, including the government, equally. Rule of law is important because, while it respects the will of the majority, it also protects the fundamental rights of individuals and minority groups.

Democracy isn’t just about having the right Constitution. We in the UK should know that – we don’t have a written Constitution at all: we have an uncodified and unwritten constitution. But it is dependent on some key players.

Take political parties, for example. Many people blame politicians and political parties for whatever they think is wrong with their country. There are good politicians and there are bad politicians, just like in any part of society. But political parties play a key role in a democracy. They take the issues we care about, and turn them into public policy. They train political leaders. They simplify the choices for voters at election time. They help inform the electorate. And, when in opposition, political parties monitor and challenge the performance of the ruling party. Of course, for all this to work, political parties must ensure they retain a strong link with the community, and keep listening to the people. And they need to be inclusive, and accessible to all citizens, and reflect broader society.

This year, the UN’s theme of International Day of Democracy is “Space for Civil Society”. The components of civil society – including a free press, charities, NGOs, religious organisations and international bodies such as the UN – all have a key role to play in a democracy. Civil society is an important safeguard against excessive state power. When strong enough, it holds governments to account, and ensures citizens are adequately informed about the issues that affect them. That is why we are concerned when governments put barriers in place to constrain the activities of civil society. Restrictions on freedom of expression are a clear example. In Thailand, a particularly worrying manifestation is the use of criminal defamation laws to instil fear and prevent people from raising legitimate concerns about wrongdoing and the abuse of power.

I blogged earlier this year about UK celebrations to mark the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. One of the lessons from that anniversary is that democracy and the rule of law take time to take root. We in the UK are still working on it. There is healthy and open debate in the UK about issues such as membership of the House of Lords, which is the UK’s unelected upper chamber; about which voting system should be used in our elections; about devolution of power to other parts of the UK. Reform is a never-ending process. Political systems should continue to evolve to reflect changes in the society around them.

The important thing is that there is space for debate, and opposition. As Thailand once again begins the process of agreeing a new Constitution I hope there will be a full and free public debate on the implications for democracy.

13 comments on “International Day of Democracy

  1. This preoccupation with Thaksin as an excuse to trash democracy and the constitution in Thailand simply plays into the hands of those who seek to maintain control at all costs. Make no mistake the military and police in Thailand are nothing more than criminal enterprises where corruption goes right to the top. To believe in the unaccountable rule of “good people” is complete stupidity.

  2. Dear Horst,
    I am another European.
    One that abhors the idea of England leaving the EU, after which a German-French bloc would be paramount in that awful undemocratic body, the EU.
    Talking about democracy in Thailand, my idea is that without the latest military coup, undemocratic as it may be, Thailand was heading in a nice democratic civil war.
    All in all, while I think soldiers should remain in the barracks, I think the current Thai government is not really doing a bad job.
    May I wonder, looking around in the world, if democratically elected do it better?
    Indeed, dear brethren in TV, I think democracy is highly overrated and reduced to voting once every few years while some rich people rule the world.
    Thailand should find it’s own way.
    And maybe, just maybe, we must accept that.

  3. Sorry, but as a European ‘Farang’ I feel much safer and happier living under the present military government than in a democracy controlled by the Thaksin Shinawatra family .
    Interesting that a country like the UK wants to advise Thailand how to write a constitution without having one for themselves. For that reason alone, the earlier Britain leaves the European Union, the better. Scotland is welcome to re- join the EU after achieving their independence from the English.

    1. Horst Bullinger: of course as a European “Farang” you felt much safer and happier under a military dictatorship. Let the good times roll, and sod the underclass.

  4. I agree with your view about democracy in general. Thailand would do well with it.

    At the same time, it is also appropriate to think about UK politics on the International Day for Democracy.

    My worry is, with Westminster, Brussels and Capitol Hill increasingly seen to be institutions which serve the interests of the few – City bankers, Texas oil tycoons, the loony left, farmers, Eurocrats, whoever it is – there may hardly be any examples of inspiring democracies left for the world to emulate.

    What sort of system allows Jeremy Corbyn to be elected as the leader of HM’s Loyal Opposition?

    Why were voters so alienated that they turned to fringe parties in May?

    Why did Murdoch go unpunished?

    Why is the Chilcot Inquiry delayed?

    I guess what people from the Third World really want to see is for propenents of liberal democracies to adhere strictly to those principles in the first place. And to be fair though, Britain is not doing a terrible job of that. Yet, improving on it so that fans of authoritarianism can’t find holes to pick needs haste.

    You may recall that when Sir John Bowring came to Siam to demand a free trade treaty, he had previously worked in the Anti-Corn Law League.

    Mr. Kent, it also seems to me that the Foreign Office and the MoD needs better policy co-ordination. Will it do that you demand democratisation while Thailand is still invited to the Defence and Security Equipment International Exhibition (DSEI) in London?

    While the FCO may want to spread peace and goodwill abroad, the MoD is perhaps more interested in promoting an exhibition which has a turnover of £30m, methinks.

    An old adage is if you want change, do it by deed not by word. But again Mr. Fallon might disagree with going too hard on the Thai military. Maybe if Mr. Corbyn becomes an PM, he will take the democratisation agenda seriously.

    I am reminded about what someone wrote in Foreign Affairs journal earlier this year: an outsider’s criticism of authoritarian systems risks creating defensive nationalism; it hardly helps to generate indigenous liberalism.

    The Magna Carta was brought about by English barons.

    1. Passawuth, again you are agreeing with the key point. no democracy is perfect, and in the UK we are still learning after 800 years. You are also right that the Magna Carta was really not such a big step forward! I voted for Corbyn. I now feel I have a chance of more change in the right direction. But we will have to bring a majority of the British people with us, so any extreme policies will have to change. That IS democracy,

  5. Not all country in the world could have or ready for an ideal democracy specially the transparency democracy. On other hands, some country may need to start with educating their politician first how can they be a good politician, clean from corruption etc. Secondly, is to educate the people why it’s a must to honor their clean vote… what will be a consequence if they allow politician to buy them. Thirdly, the balancing power of court and parliament must be also totally free from political tyrant… whenever the court did the final judge other country must not accept such judged guilty politician to live in other country. World leader developed country should help to bring back the justice. World society should aware and not support political tyrant to use democracy as a tool to support their power… when they use a conflict of interest policy to buy/abuse the people – the mutual benefit of the country. Democracy is not about election only. But, it’s a matter of if the election is free from greed, business & conflict of interest.

    Generally, talk on whole picture, not only one small portion of it, this will bring the talker respect. Also, a talk that free from hidden agenda.

    1. Really? …and how do you think “other” countries became democracies????
      do you think the peoples of 19th century US and Europe were any better “educated” than Thailand is now?
      The thing about democracy is don’t make excuses, just DO it!

    2. Noi, I think the point being made is that democracy is not a process that starts perfect from day one. But without democracy, and especially without accountability, politicians cannot learn and develop. Its not something you can teach from a text book. It has to develop over time with the people in the lead.

    3. 1) how do you educate a politician to be “good”? Can you give an example of another country doing this?

      2) buying votes – why do you need to “educate the people”? Just make vote-buying illegal and ENFORCE THE LAW

      3) A tyrant does not use democracy. That goes against the definition of democracy.

    4. Many Thai people would not agree with you Noi. If you wait for those in certain positions to be clean from corruption, you will wait a very, very long time. Thailand needs help in this but will not ask for it due to loss of “face”.

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About Mark Kent

Mark Kent graduated in Law from the University of Oxford. He gained a Master’s degree in European Law and Economics from the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium, and has…

Mark Kent graduated in Law from the University of Oxford. He gained a
Master’s degree in European Law and Economics from the Université Libre
de Bruxelles in Belgium, and has a postgraduate qualification in
Business Administration from the Open University. He has studied Thai at
Chiang Mai University, Khon Kaen University and Chulalongkorn

Mark Kent joined the FCO in 1987 and has spent most of his career
working with the emerging powers of South East Asia and Latin America,
and with the European Union. He is a Fellow of the Institute of
Leadership and Management and has language qualifications in Thai,
Vietnamese, Spanish, Dutch, French and Portuguese.

Mark Kent took up his appointment in August 2012.