We as citizens of the United States observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. We may endeavor to follow the news accounts of our nation's politics as they unfold, and of the consequences those political actions yield, but we have little power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. Perhaps we write an occasional letter to our senator or representative, but we almost inevitably receive a vague and impersonal response explaining why they will vote in our opposition.

Over the decades, our representative democracy has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. The system that the founding fathers painstakingly devised in order to best serve the interests and the will of the people has been corrupted and the systems of checks and balances on power that they instituted have been stripped away. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change, without any hope of instituting a new system of governance that would instead take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and would empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the places in the world where people are successfully bringing about that type of change in the face of similar odds, where an alternate form of democracy, which is called participatory or direct democracy, is taking root. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

Our system of representative democracy does not admit the voice of the people into congressional halls, the high courts, or the oval office where our rights and our liberties are being sold out from underneath us. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

In places like Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Brazil, South Africa, India, and the Phillipines, new experiments in grass roots community based governance are taking place. There is much to be learned from these and other examples of participatory democracy from around the world when we try to examine how this grass-roots based governance could begin to take root here in our own country in order to alter our political system so that it might better serve the American people.

In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…


Monday, July 21, 2008

THAILAND: Strengthening People's Power on the Streets

In the wake of the Sept. 2006 bloodless military coup in Thailand, large street protests have been organized in the name of democracy. The following article gives one viewpoint from one group the PAD. Whether demonstrations be pro Thaksin or anti Thaksin, it is important for the people's voice to be heard, on the streets if necessary, in the absense of a direct democratic forum for expressing the will of the people. - Editor

Strengthening people's power


Demonstrators generally come from only a few groups with similar interests, writes Piyaporn Wongruang

While the asphalt surface of Ratchadamnoen avenue can turn hot under the burning afternoon sun, the same road, if it rains, can also bring the temperature down so quickly it can leave one shivering. For over 15 days, supporters of the anti-government People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) have experienced such tormenting weather conditions.

If they find the conditions too harsh and unbearable, they just disperse temporarily. When things improve, they regroup to continue their struggle to unseat what they claim is an immoral government.

The PAD, which took to the streets on May 25, is demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej and his government as they view that those who are part of the current government are just nominees of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The protesters have accused them of being absolutely corrupt, causing divisions in society, and interfering in the work of agencies investigating the alleged wrongdoing by Mr Thaksin and his cabinet members.

Just like any other demonstration in the past, the biggest challenge facing the PAD is to make its supporters stick together and remain united. Since unity is strength, failure to do so would certainly bring cracks into the movement and cause a serious setback for the protesters.

This is much easier said than done. Since people don't think alike most of the time, even if they happen to be on the same side during a street protest, collective behaviour is what determines which way a public gathering is heading.

There have hardly been any specific studies on this in the country, say mental health and public health experts.

''We have so far only loosely observed the mental condition of those participating in demonstrations, but we have not conducted any scientific study of crowd or mob psychology yet. Since demonstrations these days have become more intense, we think the time has arrived for such a study,'' said M.L. Somchai Chakrabhand, chief of the Mental Health Department.

A study made in 1997 by Col Pongskorn Rodchompoo while he was pursuing his doctorate degree suggested some of the motivations behind demonstrations by people here.

His report on ''Political Participation of Thais and Factors Affecting a Prolonged Demonstration'', covering demonstrations after the 1992 military coup for a period of five years, concluded that demonstrators generally came from only a few groups with similar interests.

They tended to have their immediate priorities achieved rather than any ideological goals, according to the research.

Although this can help organisers of a demonstration to control the crowd more easily, it was found that the bond among demonstrators themselves was quite weak, making them vulnerable to any enticing government offers, it added.

This also left little room for analysing the concerned structural problems and finding long-term solutions to the demonstrators' woes. And that was the reason why direct democracy was developing at a very slow pace, the research noted.

While participating in a rally, demonstrators put their trust in the leaders and the organisers, particularly about their safety.

This, he wrote, reflected how passive Thai people were in general in demanding that they be allowed to look after their own affairs under democratic rule, and thus were often taken advantage of, the research concluded.

In order to strengthen people's power and fill a gap in representative democratic politics, Col Pongskorn suggested demonstrations be lifted to a new level, with closer connections between city dwellers and rural people through wider issues such as decentralisation of power, and development of shared ideological goals rather than immediate benefits of particular groups.

Suriyasai Katasila, coordinator of the PAD, seems to realise these constraints and opportunities well.

Although the psychological state of the PAD crowd has not yet been much understood, the organisers have tried to eliminate any conditions that may promote violence or cause the protest to crumble.

Despite the physical hardships, the group, which has at least 20 organisations lending it support, has agreed to stick to the principle of non-violence in its demonstration, now in its second week.

Mr Suriyasai believes that with such a clear principle, provocation from any ill-intentioned people would not succeed in unsettling the protesters.

During the ongoing rallies, the PAD's key leaders have often reminded the demonstrators of their stand on non-violence, meaning the protesters should not respond to any external violence, and even lie low if they were attacked.

To ensure the demonstrators' safety, the PAD leaders have also come up with their own security guards.

The organisers have also taken their fight to a new level with a new political goal of ''rebuilding the country'' after getting rid of what they call ''the Thaksin regime''.

''People can see that we have resorted to a peaceful demonstration and tried to be as patient as possible,'' said Mr Suriyasai.

''Our society has reached a turning point as we believe that the present democracy is at its lowest point, under which power is directed by interests of those winning an election, not true public interests. We just can no longer sit back and repeatedly convince ourselves to believe that democracy comes from an election,'' he added.

Kamonchanok, a 43-year-old Bangkok resident from the Sathon area who joined the demonstration on the very first day, said she and her friends sometimes feel very angry when inaccurate information is passed on to the demonstrators. ''For instance, the government seems not to care about the plight of the people, but only its allies.''.

However, they were rational enough to think and decide for themselves what was appropriate and what was not.

''Most of the demonstrators here have now realised what is going on in our country, and that to resort to violence is not the answer,'' said Ms Kamonchanok, who recently closed down her family's grocery shop after a modern convenience store opened nearby.

''It is time to protect each other from bad influence. And we now have the space here that is truly opened to us to do so,'' said another protester, who refused to disclose her last name.

Uthan, a 22-year-old master's degree student from King Mongkut's University of Technology Thonburi, who joined the demonstration after learning about it from the internet, said the demonstration was lively and sometimes provocative.

This should be seen as more of a challenge than anything else.

All you need is a little understanding of the present political situation among the public at large, said the student.

''I was sometimes offended by my friends who asked me why was I here and for what,'' said Uthan, a new face at the demonstration.

''I think it is our right to come here since our democracy cannot fulfill our needs anymore.

''Unfortunately, many people just don't give themselves a chance to use their rights and learn the other side of the story.'

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