Thailand’s political crisis will not be resolved any time soon as the recent mayhem reflects deep and possibly irreconcilable interests, a Washington meeting heard this week.
The violence in Bangkok threatens to undermine the appeal of democracy in a region where it remains to be consolidated.
The security forces’ 19 May crackdown ended two months of sporadically violent street protests by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), or Red Shirts. The demonstrators were disputing the legitimacy of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s government and demanding fresh elections.
The Red Shirts’ genuine grievances over their perceived disenfranchisement by the Bangkok elite have been “hijacked” by exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, said Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher on Thailand for Human Rights Watch.
But the rival People’s Alliance for Democracy, or ‘Yellow Shirts’, who staged mass protests against Thaksin during the first half of 2006, had openly adopted anti-democratic principles, invited military intervention and demanded a further dilution of the country’s fragile democracy, he told a meeting at the National Endowment for Democracy.
Abhisit has pledged to promote national reconciliation after a week of turmoil devastated downtown Bangkok, leaving 53 people dead and at least 400 injured. But that’s easier said than done.
Abhisit’s problem is as much cultural as political, claims one observer: “While democratic institutions are developing roots across the region, the concept of ‘loyal opposition’ is still regarded as an oxymoron by many local politicians.”
The current situation differs from previous constitutional crises that precipitated military coups in 1973, 1976 and 1992, Joshua Kurlantzick, Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the NED event. The security forces were notably weaker and divided, the opposition has not been neutralized and, perhaps most significantly, the monarch failed to mediate with the result that there is no consensus on the way forward.
The source of the country’s acute political fissures is less a matter of perceived injustice than a crisis of legitimacy, as Brian Joseph, NED’s senior director for Asia and Multiregional programs noted. This view finds support in an overview and analysis of the crisis from the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“The 40% of the population who are broadly pro-Thaksin do not accept the legitimacy of the current government, just as many of the other 40% who are broadly pro-Democrat would not accept the legitimacy of any new pro-Thaksin government that might come to office after fresh elections,” it suggests:
The ongoing conflict reflects a basic ambiguity as to whether Thailand is a modern democracy, governed by elections according to rules laid down in a constitution, or in fact remains a monarchy, in which the royal palace is allowed to exert considerable extra-constitutional power.
There is no fundamental agreement about the rules of the political game, partly because Thailand’s real politics cannot ignore the question of monarchy, which looms ever larger as the succession approaches. Both yellow-shirted and red-shirted protesters have been acting out their fears for the future in quasi-theatrical performances, which are simply dress rehearsals for a much bigger crisis to come. No ‘road map’ intended to resolve the crisis will lead to genuine reconciliation.
A corrupt populist, Thaksin is a deeply flawed poster-boy for democracy, his election and the emergence of his Thai Rak Thai party nevertheless gave his largely rural supporters a sense of empowerment, Human Rights Watch’s Phasuk told the NED meeting.
But he threatened the status quo and the Bangkok elite exploited his manifest corruption as a pretext to depose him in the 2006 coup.
“Thailand has essentially had a system whereby the Bangkok elite didn’t mind an upcountry government just so long as the Bangkok elite could decide when that government had to leave office,” said Karl Jackson, head of the Southeast Asia program at Johns Hopkins University. “From around 1992 down to 2001, there were weak coalition governments that were essentially pushed aside when they became too grotesquely corrupt.”
“The fundamental problem of the Thai political system is that most of the money is in Bangkok and most of the votes are outside of Bangkok,” he said.
Reports suggest that militant elements among the Red Shirts are preparing for armed insurgency in the countryside. But it remains a diverse movement and some of its leaders may yet be persuaded that a constitutional settlement is possible.
In any case, the movement is not about to dissipate.
“I think this is a new beginning for the Red Shirts,” says Kevin Hewison, a Thailand expert at the University of North Carolina. “It will be a darker and grimmer time of struggle and less-focused activities. By no stretch of the imagination is the movement finished.”
The revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej avoided entering the recent fray to avoid making the monarchy’s role a political issue, argues David Van Praagh, author of Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy, but the monarch may yet play a pivotal role.
“Along with making democracy work, Thailand’s most pressing needs are the restoration of popular confidence in the government, and easing the alienation of many poor Thais from the increasingly prosperous mainstream,” he suggests. “The monarchy exists to help do these things.”
Yet recent events revealed a degree of social and political polarization that could yet foment further political violence and possibly precipitate a military coup or civil war, commentators suggest. A peaceful solution currently appears more desirable than feasible.
“The way out of this will require a return to parliamentary and constitutional processes, with revised rules and eligible political players acceptable to all sides,” writes Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “This difficult way forward, towards reconciliation, will require mutual recognition and accommodation between the two main sides.”
But prospects for a peaceful settlement appear slim, especially since, as Kurlantzick told the NED meeting, Abhasit’s “reasonable and fair” reconciliation pact was rejected outright by the Red Shirts and, more ominously, the state has lost its monopoly of political violence.