Thailand: Skip the New Year and Go Straight to the Hangover
April 14, 2009
This is normally a time of celebration in Thailand. This week is Thailand’s New Year, known as “Songkran.” The holiday falls during the hottest time of the year, where people celebrate the spiritual aspects of water and renewal, but it is also a time to visit family and friends. Some people make New Year resolutions, such as doing good deeds or refraining from bad behavior. Unfortunately for Thailand, the supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra and the Democratic Alliance against Dictatorship (DAAD), also known as the “red shirts,” elected to do neither.
On April 11 thousands of red-shirted protestors broke through a wall of riot police and soldiers and entered the Royal Cliff Hotel on Pattaya Beach, where Thailand was serving as host of the East Asia Summit: a 16-member association that includes the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), plus China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand. The summit’s agenda was to address the global financial crisis, China and ASEAN were to sign an investment pact, and China, Japan, and South Korea were to brief the other members on North Korea’s recent missile test. Instead, protestors wreaked such havoc that the East Asia Summit was unceremoniously cut short. The security breach meant Asian leaders had to be air-lifted by helicopter from the hotel and flown out of the country, causing great embarrassment, not only for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, but the nation as a whole. Feeling buoyed by Abhisit’s humiliation, the protestors returned to Bangkok to create even more chaos. On Monday, April 13, clashes between red-shirted protestors and the military left two dead and more than 120 injured.
Although order has been restored, and the protests have ended for now, deep divisions that exist in Thai society remain. The country is at a difficult impasse. Thaksin’s “red shirts” want nothing less than to bring down the Abhisit government. They believe the government led by Abhisit has no legitimacy because of how it came to power. This is not correct. During the blockade of Bangkok’s international airport last November, Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled that the People’s Power Party (PPP) was guilty of electoral fraud. Because of the political stalemate, a faction of the PPP jumped ship and gave its support to the Democrat Party, which enabled Abhisit to become prime minister without calling for elections.
Conversely, if the “red shirts” were to be successful in bringing down Abhisit, and a government loyal to Thaksin was to come to power, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) — the “yellow shirts” — would revive their mass protest movement. The PAD believes Thaksin and his supporters are illegitimate, due to their governments’ election irregularities, abuse of power, and corruption. As each side views the other as illegitimate, mob protests have only served to exacerbate the division in Thailand’s body politic. Except for the possibility of Thailand’s revered King Bhumipol Adulyadej, it is unclear what person in Thailand can bridge these divisions and promote reconciliation.
Events of the past week show that there are no winners in Thailand. Tourism remains in the doldrums as events continue to damage the country’s attractiveness as a tourist destination. Thirty percent of the country’s air traffic that was rerouted as a consequence of the November airport closures has not returned. Many of these flights have elected now to operate from Singapore, Malaysia, or Hong Kong. Exports have dropped by 25 percent. Even before the most recent round of protests, the World Bank predicted that Thailand’s GDP will drop by 2.7 percent in 2009. Growth may decline further as a result of the recent chaos.
Moreover, the egregious security breach at the East Asia Summit in Pattaya calls into question the Abhisit government’s ability to provide security for future meetings to be hosted in Thailand, as the ASEAN Regional Forum, which U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pledged to attend. What assurances can Prime Minister Abhisit and his government give that dangerous or embarrassing situations will not disrupt or postpone future gatherings?
There appears to be a strong misconception in Thailand these days that democracy equals intimidation – whether that is by occupying the Government House, closing airports, or shutting-down a major international summit attended by Asian leaders. This Thai New Year the “red shirts” upped the ante by engaging in violent acts causing loss of life, injuries, and damage to property. Some form of political realignment is in order, but who in Thailand can provide an effective stable government under such a poisoned, political atmosphere? For the moment, the people of Thailand must be hung-over in disgust.
John Brandon is The Asia Foundation’s Director for International Relations programs. Earlier this week, Mr. Brandon gave radio and TV interviews to Canadian TV, and Channel News Asia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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