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Thailand Political Standoff: The Latest Flash of Deep-Seated Tensions

December 11, 2013

This week, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of controversial former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, dissolved parliament in response to an escalating anti-government protest movement. Led by former Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, the movement has mobilized tens of thousands of whistle-blowing demonstrators under the banner of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC).

Thailand Protests

Anti-government protests in Bangkok. The trigger-point for the tensions of recent weeks was a blanket amnesty bill pursued by the Pheu Thai government that purported to absolve all those convicted of or associated with political malfeasance since 2006.

PDRC has declared its intention to unseat the Pheu Thai government, remove the Shinawatra family from politics, and press for the appointment of an imprecisely defined “People’s Council” that would seemingly be composed of neutral, respected leaders who would replace elected government for an undefined period of time. While the Thai Constitution clearly states that the dissolution of parliament triggers a national election within 60 days, with a tentative date already set for Feb. 2, 2014, one finds little persuasive constitutional authority to support the appointment of a non-elected body to assume de facto legislative authority. The PDRC has rejected the dissolution and pending election as too little, too late, and pressed forward with sharper demands.

The current political standoff reflects tensions that have seethed beneath the surface of Thai politics for more than a decade. These tensions have flared in a succession of political crises that are rooted in the collision of traditional political systems, structures, and practices with the realities of contemporary Thailand – including a broad-based electorate whose members in regions of the country distant from Bangkok are politically savvy, in touch with national and global political trends, and keen to raise their voice in public affairs. The trigger-point for the tensions of recent weeks was a blanket amnesty bill pursued by the Pheu Thai government that purported to absolve all those convicted of or associated with political malfeasance since 2006. While the amnesty bill would have affected political actors on all sides of the conflict, including those who were never held accountable for the more than 90 deaths that occurred in the violent final days of the tragic May 2010 political demonstrations in Bangkok, its most incendiary feature and driving motivation was to pave the way for Mr. Thaksin to return to Thailand from self-imposed exile with his criminal convictions for corruption set aside. The outrage ignited among opponents of government reflected the polarizing effect of the former leader, who is assumed to still play a strong hand in directing government affairs from his base in exile. There is little middle ground in public sentiments about Mr. Thaksin. While many admire him as the first elected national political leader to reach out to the rural poor and urban wage earners, others cite the corruption, violent criminal justice measures, and consuming ego that led him to squander a potential that inspired the support of the Bangkok middle class when he first entered the national political scene. The amnesty bill passed swiftly through the Lower House, but was refused by the Senate and returned for a 180-day cooling off period, with the prime minister assuring that the government would not take it up in future.

The second flash point of controversy was the government’s effort to consolidate legislative power by amending the Constitution to change the composition of the Senate from a mix of elected and appointed members to a purely elected body. Referred to judicial review, the proposed amendment was rejected by the Constitutional Court on grounds of technical irregularities, with a bare majority of the court going on to reject the substance of the proposed amendment. When the Pheu Thai government declared that it would not be bound by the Constitutional Court decision, anti-government protesters took to the streets.

Fueled by the passionate rhetoric of Mr. Suthep, the PDRC movement appeared to define, extend, and redefine its objectives as it gathered, lost, and resumed momentum. While the PDRC claimed the moral high ground in its opposition to the amnesty bill and Senate change, it later surprised and disappointed some supporters with its occupation of television stations and call for live-stream broadcasts of anti-government rallies. The PDRC was itself surprised and arguably outmaneuvered by deftly-timed government actions to contain rising tensions – including ordering the police to stand down from their defense of Government House and the Bangkok Municipal Police headquarters and allow demonstrators to occupy those and other public compounds. Beyond its claims of popular victory and exercise of the people’s mandate, the challenge for the PDRC is that past performance suggests that the Pheu Thai party is likely to be returned to power in the forthcoming election, in what would be the sixth successive victory of Thaksin-supported parties at the polls. This consideration is assumed to figure prominently in the PDRC resolve to press forward in its call to unseat government and install a non-elected caretaker administration. With the government still firmly in power, it is not clear what would secure a change of such magnitude, save for the worrisome specter of past authoritarian interventions that have removed elected governments from power. Any action of this kind would presumably be met by a counter-swell of protest by the Red Shirts loyal to the present government.

It is difficult to reconcile the competing positions in a highly charged political environment that pits principles of electoral democracy, sanctity of law, and institutional checks and balances with those of moral stewardship asserted when elected governments disappoint, misuse power, or simply overwhelm with the strength of their performance at the polls. At the same time, some positives have emerged that inspire a degree of confidence in the prospect of compromises through which opposing sides may find a positive way forward:

First, regardless of the serious question marks surrounding the democratic logic and extra-constitutional end goals of the PDRC movement, the scale of public outrage in response to the blanket amnesty bill, Senate reform measures, and other controversial policies of the Pheu Thai government is unequivocal. When ordinary citizens take to the streets by the tens of thousands to voice their concern and commitment to monitor political integrity and legislative affairs through demonstrations that have been remarkably peaceful, responsible political leaders will do well to take notice.

Second, the Pheu Thai government and the forces at its command deserve significant credit for their handling of a challenging political crisis and the measures taken to defuse tension at several points when the risk of escalation to uncontrollable violence was greatest. While one could argue that the government brought these problems on itself by pursuing legislative and policy measures that were bound to rankle, it maintained a steely calm and confidence befitting a popularly elected government as the protests mounted. The government likewise offered up a number of compromise solutions, including consultative forums, a national referendum to seek public input on the reform measures proposed by anti-government demonstrators, and the dissolution of parliament and an early election. As the anti-government protests mounted, the Red Shirts remained largely sequestered in Rajamangala Stadium, quietly dispersing on the eve of revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s birthday, and – with the exception of a few unfortunate incidents that resulted in tragic deaths and injuries – declining to confront the anti-government protesters.

Third, mixed in the shrill rhetoric of the PDRC protests, sensible reform priorities have been articulated, including electoral reform, devolution of political authority and fiscal resources to the subnational level, stronger checks on corruption and abuse of power, and police reform. One hopes that these issues, together with those related to broader institutional reform and strengthening, economic growth, resolution of the persistent subnational conflict in Thailand’s Deep South, and a vision for future dialogues that will shape a new political settlement consistent with the realities of contemporary Thailand will figure in the election campaigns of all serious political contestants.

Unless and until Thai society and political actors can resolve these tensions through good faith reform dialogue, we can expect further flashpoints of political conflicts of the kind. Sadly, the distracting effects of these unresolved tensions will in turn continue to divert lawmakers and policymakers from important national economic and other development priorities that are critical to Thailand’s economic growth and regional stature and leadership.

Kim McQuay is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Thailand. He can be reached at kim.mcquay@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

One comment on this post:

  1. tuey:

    This is a corruption as it best!!!: Abhisit listened to his fortune teller who said that his luck would be at best in 6 to 8 months. Therefore, for now, his job is to postpone an election until that time, but other 30 parties leaders did not agree with that proposal, and the constitution (his government worte) states that an election must take place not more than 60 days after the People’s Hose was desolved. So, Abhisit’s party boycott the election on February 2, 2014. Then the new corruption begins:

    Most candidates in 28 districts from the south and some candidates from other parts of the country could not file their applications because the mobs disrupted the process. The Election Committee, (EC), instead of moving the election offices or making better plans to provide effective registration process, they told the candidates to file with the police to inform the police they had gone to file their papers but could not complete the process because of those mobs. Those candidates were told that the the EC would take care of them later. In facts, later, the EC told those candidates have to go to the Constitution Court (the Kangaroo Court-the court who believe that they are all in one power-can write the law/constitution, be a jury, and be a judge). This Kangaroo Court then told the candidates that they would not approve the name of those candidates, and after these candidates have jumped through those hoops, the Election Committee told those candidates that it was too late The EC could not accept them either. The Election Committee then asked Ms Yingluck to postpone the election date for 180 days even though this is not allowed by the constitution. This will be in the range with the time that Abhisit will have the best luck. We call this: “The greatest corruption System at all time”.

    If they can not win by Trick, they will use their Magic. If they can win by Pray they will use their Spell. When all else fail, they will use their Corruption Force to get their ways.

    For those who think that they can complete the real reform in Thailand in one year are not speaking the truth. I marched in 1973 for Thai democracy with a goal to have a New constitution (New Constitution promulgated in 1978). Thailand has gone through coups about 18 times end up with military took over, and current conflicts facing us are confusing to many, and the constitution be rewritten many times. We all know now more than ever, we need to modify the constitution to bring all inputs or agreements from all sectors of the populations. Bringing these many groups to accept the same ideas is not easy. There will be those who have to give something, will receive something.

    All of these conflicts are not new, and it’s so common to every country in the world: “ It a matter of how to distribute the country wealth”. The elite riches want to hold on to their wealth and power to rule and control their interest, create classes. They believe that if you give freedom to the poor, the poor will rise up and they can not keep the control.

    In Thailand, corruption and different classes society are not new things. Many years ago, for the middle class to get a house phone, it took more than 8-10 years after they filed and made a 10,000 bath deposit: for the rich, let’s see “ it may be next week to get your phone”. Then we got these new tech. Guy, not only you get the house phone quickly, you can have your mobile as well. The children were given access to learn computer and can afford to buy one for themselves. When you need services such as hospital, you stand in lines for hour or days, for the riches, they put their money in the envelopes for a doctor and the nurses, and a first class hospital room is available to them right away-never mind cutting any one queue or any one may die. The poor study hard to get to a good school or a good university, the riches would find who you know, who should you give the money to buy a seat in those places for your children. After the middle class and the poor graduated and look for a job, the chance is so slim. But the riches class see if you can find some one important “who you know” to place your children some good jobs. They live good lives: buy expensive or import products showing of their wealth. When it time to retire, they get their retirement pensions as well as keeping receiving a salary from their retired work places-claiming they work as consultant one day a week-specially the big short and military generals. “The system of “You scratch my back I scratch yours in return”. Who want to give all of these up. It’s a good live. They don’t even want to raise a minimum wage they pay to the poor to $10 per day when they all can exploit these cheap labors and enjoy more benefits, pay less money for goods made from these sweat labors. For $10/ per day income these poor hardly can feed their families. We need to change these systems, to eradicate corruptions at the same time, improve human lives to be able to live fairly together? If an official have to report his or her wealth before during and after their services, should the judges, business men, top military generals do the same thing. This may slow down some corruptions. I bet they all so called these “good men” will object to these requirements when they have to follow them. At least the following matters need to be changed.

    1. Political processes need to be changed. The House of people should all be elected and represent the people who elect them.
    2.The Judicial System need to be change; to prevent a judge to act as a legislator, jury, and a judge. Each Court have their own specific duties and power within their limits.
    3.Military should understand that they have duties to protect the country from any harms, Their duties do not include injecting themselves in the country’s political administration.
    4.The Economic group, so called private, should follow same rule of law as other citizen.
    5.The education systems need to educate, include for all student to study the political systems and their civic duties within the rules of law. The professor’s duties has to include teaching ethic, not to brain wash their students.
    6.We need to have the effective evaluation systems and the effective enforcement systems.

    I am glad that many Thai people still believe in democracy and constitution, willing to work through conflicts by using processes under the law. Therefore, I think we can find the best ways to move forward for all citizens instead of stepping back to use dictatorship system again. I consider having Freedom and Democracy is important to all of us.

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