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Uniting a Divided Thailand

April 14, 2010

Over the past four decades, during times of political turbulence in Thailand, King Bhumibol Adulyadej has served as the nation’s unifying force. In October 1973, King Bhumibol supported student demonstrators against violent military action. Subsequently, Thailand’s three top military leaders were forced to seek asylum in other nations. The tempestuous politics that followed – weak, unstable coalition governments, a troubled economy, and an internal communist insurgency; coupled with communist victories in Indochina – alarmed the King who then lent his weight to the return of military rule in October 1976. In May 1992, when a cycle of pro-democracy protests and military repression seemed to fly out of control, the leader of the military junta, General Suchinda Krapayoon, and his principal civilian opponent, Chamlong Srimuang, were summoned by King Bhumibol for a late night audience that was televised live and mesmerized its viewers. His “talk” diffused the confrontation and paved the way for new elections.

For much of his 63-year reign, King Bhumibol has largely refrained from getting involved in politics, but when national stability has been threatened, the King has sometimes chosen to exert his influence. Given the great mistrust between the government and anti-government protestors, the unprecedented vitriolic political discourse by mob organizations that appear to silence all sense of reason, and ineffective government institutions, be they civilian or military, that are unable to keep peace and stability, are there any Thais in leadership positions in institutions to whom King Bhumibol could impart his advice and guidance? On April 12, Thailand’s Election Commission recommended that the Democrat Party, led by Prime Minister Abhisit’s Vejjajiva, should be disbanded over $8 million in illegal donations made in 2005. This ruling will now be sent to the Attorney General’s office for referral to the Constitutional Court. If found guilty, the Democrat Party would be dissolved, party leaders would be barred from politics for five years, and the current weak coalition government would collapse. The same thing happened to the parties supported by anti-government protestors in 2007 and 2008. This is why they are on the street. Is there a rationale in Bangkok that two wrongs will make a right?

Protests in Bangkok last weekend resulted in 23 dead, with recommendations from Thailand's Election Commission for the Democrat Party to be disbanded. Photo by Flickr user Pittaya, used under a Creative Commons license.

Protests in Bangkok last weekend resulted in 23 dead, with recommendations from Thailand's Election Commission for the Democrat Party to be disbanded. Photo by Flickr user Pittaya, used under a Creative Commons license.

It seems Thai Army Commander, General Anupong Paojinda, feels caught between a rock and a hard place. He is reluctant to use force to end the stand-off and wants to see political negotiations determine when the parliament will be dissolved and when elections will next be held. In addition, the Thai military learned hard lessons when it did not rule effectively after the 2006 coup overthrowing then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. For more than three years, Mr. Thaksin has been a thorn in the government’s side. Although convicted of corruption and sentenced in absentia to two years in prison, he travels to various parts of the world on Montenegrin and Nicaraguan passports urging his red-shirt supporters to continue protesting against the government. Although highly charismatic and savvy, he is Thailand’s most divisive figure – simultaneously loved and loathed. Thaksin’s popularity has raised questions about just how deep fissures run in the military and bureaucracy.

Despite efforts to simply wait out the protests and hopes that they will fizzle out peacefully, last weekend’s violence in Bangkok showed the Abhisit government’s ineffectiveness in handling the situation. If the parliament is dissolved and new elections are held, will the losing side honor the results? Or will red shirts and yellow shirts return to the streets with the aim of forcing the government they don’t like to resign?  The political climate is so toxic and the discourse so uncivil that it will be difficult to negotiate. At the moment, there is no such thing as a loyal political opposition in Thailand. A loyal opposition is important for any country that has democratic aspirations.

For more than six decades, King Bhumibol has filled a great psychological need for Thais. As Thailand changes, King Bhumibol remains the unifying force of the nation. Before becoming frail and in poor health, King Bhumibol developed an extraordinary rapport with Thais from all walks of life. Through his words and deeds, King Bhumibol has earned the Thai people’s respect.

But politicians are another matter, and the image of both politicians and the military has changed in the eyes of the Thai population. Villagers are no longer uneducated, and with the power of information technology, have become well informed about both their nation and the world. They are no longer willing to be deferential and respectful simply because it was to be their station in life. All Thais want to articulate their needs, aspirations, and, in times like these, their discontent. Any respect for leaders, be they in government or civil society, should be earned, not simply given. It is time for Thais from all walks of life to engage in spirited but constructive and civil political discourse. This will require a great change in mindset by the nation’s political elite. It will also require that ordinary Thais feel they have a stake in the nation’s political process and their country’s future, with both rights and responsibilities.

In the end, the Thai people need to understand themselves that they must lend their voices in a positive and constructive way in determining whether Thailand can develop into a peaceful, stable nation that meets the aspirations of all its people and contributes positively to Southeast Asia and globally.

John J. Brandon, who briefly lived in Bangkok, Thailand, and continues to travel there regularly, is The Asia Foundation’s Director of International Relations Programs in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jbrandon@asiafound-dc.org.

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