Fissures in Thailand: Both Natural and Man-Made
May 14, 2014
May 5 was the start of a very tumultuous week in Thailand on many fronts. But it initially did not start that way. May 5 is Coronation Day in Thailand, a national holiday, which this year commemorated the 64th anniversary of King Bhumipol Adulyadev’s ascension to the throne. Tens of thousands of people, of all ages and all walks of life, waited hours for King Bhumipol’s car to drive past so they could catch a glimpse of their aging monarch in person. Millions more watched on television. Whatever deep political differences Thais have shown of late, they were able to put these differences aside in respect and reverence for His Majesty, who historically has been the unifying force of the nation.
By early evening that same day, the strongest earthquake ever recorded in Thailand struck in the northern province of Chiang Rai. Measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale, the quake has been followed by more than 800 aftershocks. Chiang Rai province, as well as elsewhere in the North, is the epicenter of power for Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra, a powerful political family that has the distinction of having won decisive elections over their political opponents only to be removed by Constitutional Court orders (some people refer to these as “judicial coups”). Opponents of the Shinawatras were insinuating that perhaps the earthquake was a bad omen for Chiang Rai because of Shinawatra family’s “sins” or misdeeds.” This is just a reflection of how dysfunctional the political discourse has become in Thailand.
But the biggest reverberation to happen in Thailand last week was the Constitutional Court’s decision to remove Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, along with nine other members of her caretaker cabinet, for removing the head of the country’s national security council favor of a relative in 2011. As a result, Ms. Yingluck is no longer prime minister, although the caretaker government remains with 20 other cabinet members, including three deputy prime ministers who have retained their office and are charged with administering the country. But anti-government protestors, led by Mr. Suthep Thaungsuban of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), are demanding the resignation of the entire cabinet. They have called on judges, senators, election commissioners, and military leaders to appoint a neutral interim government to oversee the process of political reform before any new elections would be held.
The Pheu Thai caretaker government and the Election Commission have announced July 20 as the new polling date, subject to royal assent. In February an election was held, but the opposition Democrat Party boycotted it knowing that they could never win, and ultimately the court rendered the election invalid. If another election is held on July 20, the same scenario is likely.
The lack of compromise by either side seems to ensure that political stability in Thailand will continue to remain elusive. This is having a serious impact on the economy. Business leaders and foreign investors are expressing concern that Thailand is at risk of falling behind other ASEAN nations if the political impasse goes unresolved. Thailand’s automobile sector, the world’s ninth largest, has let go more than 30,000 subcontracted workers as production has dropped and sales have plunged. The auto industry accounts for 11 percent of Thailand’s economic output. Honda Motor Company is delaying the start-up of a new $530 million manufacturing plant from anywhere from six months to a year because of political uncertainty. Private consumption and investment remain weak as the political crisis weighs heavily on confidence, both foreign and domestic.
The vicious cycle continues with apparently no end in sight. Many observers are saying that civil war in Thailand is no longer only a remote possibility. Indeed, the country is deeply divided and institutions are weak. A 2010 Asia Foundation poll of the Thai public found that 93 percent of Thais polled say democracy is the best form of government, and 97 percent of Thais polled felt that they were united by common values. Have circumstances deteriorated so much that this is no longer the case? This same poll revealed that 76 percent of Thais did not identify themselves as “Red” or “Yellow.” Have more Thais now joined each side, or do three-quarters of the population continue to sit passively in frustration? And if the latter, why?
Thailand is a nation with significant potential and can play an important role both in mainland Southeast Asia and in the Asia-Pacific more broadly. Yet it continues to be led by people who either believe in and value a “neo-capitalist,” winner-take-all approach to politics, or by those who believe in a more feudal system led by “moral people.” Either way, it is not a successful way to lead a country in the 21st century.
John J. Brandon is director of Regional Cooperation Programs for The Asia Foundation, based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.
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