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).
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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