Will Thaksin Outmaneuver Thailand’s Military and Traditional Elites?
June 29, 2011
Between March and May 2010, Thailand experienced its worst political violence in decades. Since then, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has insisted that he and his government are committed to national reconciliation. Shortly afterward, a truth and reconciliation commission was established to investigate the military crackdown that culminated in May, leaving 91 dead and more than 2,000 injured.
This commission is chaired by Kanit na Nakorn, a former Attorney General. Kanit has experience in heading such commissions in the past. He was put in charge of investigating the violence and unrest in Bangkok during the “Black May” of 1992 when 52 people died and 3,500 were arrested, of whom many claimed to have been tortured. In 2003, Kanit led the investigation of the more than 2,500 extra-judicial killings of suspected drug traffickers in the Thai government’s war on drugs. In neither of these investigations was anyone indicted or convicted of committing any crimes. As nothing came of these investigations, it is highly likely that no one will be charged with crimes for those murdered or injured in 2010.
On July 3, millions of Thais will cast their votes for the candidate they wish to lead their country. Polls indicate that neither major political party, Democrat or the Pheu Thai (“for Thais”), will win a majority. Although Pheu Thai leads in opinion polls, the polls suggest that a significant percentage of the Thai electorate remains undecided with the election just days away. Consequently, minor parties will likely once again play a crucial role in determining which party forms the next government.
Before dissolving parliament, the Abhisit government held a 16-hour, marathon meeting to put into place a series of populist spending measures ahead of the election – from a new mortgage subsidy scheme for first-time home buyers, through low-interest loans for workers in the informal sector, to transportation and utility subsidies, among others. Abhisit’s government is hoping such programs will resonate with people in the Central Plains and the lower part of the northern region to complement their traditional support from the South and the upper middle class in Bangkok. Nonetheless, such measures are unlikely to enable the Abhisit government to win an outright majority.
The leader of the Pheu Thai party, Yingluck Shinawatra, is a political newcomer and youngest sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, who is simultaneously the country’s most divisive and most popular political figure. Thaksin has remained in self-imposed exile since 2008, after having been found guilty in absentia of corruption and abuse of power. Although a political novice, Yingluck has been using her charm and sex-appeal (the latter being a first in Thai electoral politics) to strengthen Pheu Thai support in northeastern and northern strongholds, and is campaigning nationwide, promising credit cards for farmers, debt relief, and better health care. Yingluck’s campaign promises of lowering corporate taxes and building a high-speed rail network also resonate with elements of the Thai business community. But what makes Yingluck formidable is that her brother remains a key figure behind the election; and because of the former prime minister’s significant financial resources, he has the power to dictate who can lead the party. The party’s election slogan is “Thaksin Thinks, Pheu Thai Does.”
If the Pheu Thai wins enough seats to form the next government, Yingluck will become Thailand’s first-ever woman prime minister. But more significantly, Thaksin may have out-maneuvered the country’s military, bureaucracy, and other traditional elites. It would allow him to wield power from behind the scenes without having to be held accountable to a nation’s populace. Thaksin, through Yingluck and the Pheu Thai, will attempt to lure the country’s minor political parties with all kinds of financial incentives in order to form a government. However, minor political parties may shun these incentives – not because they would not appreciate them, but out of concern that aligning with the Pheu Thai would irritate the military and other members of Thailand’s political establishment.
Whoever loses the July 3 elections is likely to cry foul. The election will not resolve Thailand’s five-year political impasse. Instead, it is likely to serve as a prelude to another round of turmoil. Under this scenario, about the only thing all Thais will be able to claim, be they red, yellow, or colorless, is that truth and reconciliation have not been achieved.
John J. Brandon is the director of The Asia Foundation’s International Relations Programs in Washington, D.C. From 1978- 1981, he taught English in Bangkok and Songkhla, Thailand, and visits the country regularly. Brandon can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
About our blog, In AsiaIn Asia is a weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia's development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of over 70 renowned experts in over 20 countries, In Asia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.
In Asia is posted and distributed every Wednesday evening, Pacific Time and is accessible via email and RSS. If you have any questions, please send an email to [email protected].
ContactFor questions about In Asia, or for our cross-post and re-use policy, please send an email to [email protected].
The Asia Foundation
465 California St., 9th Floor
San Francisco, CA 94104
PO Box 193223
San Francisco, CA 94119-3223
THE LATEST ACROSS ASIA
Starbucks Vietnam and The Asia Foundation Launch Project to Support Vocational Training for Disadvantaged Youth
December 5, 2016
Columbia University Weatherhead East Asian Institute: “Asian Views on America’s Role in Asia:” Video and Photos
December 2, 2016
NPR: Amid Economic Crisis, Mongolians Risk Their Lives For Do-It-Yourself Mining
December 1, 2016
Research Reveals Cambodian Television Rife with Depictions of Violence Against Women
November 30, 2016
Charter Outlines 10 Actions to Prevent Violence Against Women and Children in Timor-Leste
November 30, 2016
Public Program: The Asia Foundation’s 2016 Survey of the Afghan People
Wednesday, December 7, 2016
Asian Views on America’s Role in Asia: The Future of the Rebalance
Recommendations for the incoming U.S. president on policy toward Asia