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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.

Army crackdown on protesters in Bangkok

Violent protests in Bangkok ended with a deadly government crackdown on May 19, 2010. Soon after, Prime Minister Vejjajiva established a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate the crackdown. So far, no one has been indicted or convicted of any crime. Photo by Roland Dobbins.

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 jbrandon@asiafound-dc.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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