Credible Reform, Not Shutdown, Needed to End Thailand’s Political Standoff
January 15, 2014
For more than two months, tens of thousands of anti-government protesters have gathered at Democracy Monument and other major intersections throughout Bangkok. Initially, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), led by former long-time Democrat politician, Suthep Thaugsuban, was right to demand transparency and accountability from Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her government over a controversial amnesty bill her Pheu Thai party members introduced in Parliament.
This bill would have exonerated the political missteps and illegal actions of many on both sides of Thailand’s political divide, but no one would have benefited more than Ms. Yingluck’s exiled brother and former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. But, since the government backed down and the amnesty bill was scrapped, Mr. Suthep and his followers have demanded that the Yingluck government be replaced by a non-elected, “People’s Council,” which Mr. Suthep says will introduce reforms that are needed to end corruption and money politics.
On January 13, Mr. Suthep and his followers upped the ante by launching a campaign to shut down Bangkok in the effort to overthrow the democratically elected prime minister. Mr. Suthep and his supporters are convinced the scheduled February 2 elections will just perpetuate the hold that Thaksin Shinawatra has on Thailand’s political system. Mr. Suthep and his followers are correct on this point. The Democrats have not won an election outright in more than 20 years, and in August 2011 they were trounced at the polls by more than 4 million votes. If the election is held in less than three weeks, the Democrats would have no success, even if they were to contest the election, which they have declined to do. The only way Mr. Suthep and his supporters can prevail is by technicality. The PDRC has blocked the registration of candidates in eight southern provinces, or 28 electoral districts. According to the 2007 Thai Constitution, in order for a parliament to be convened at least 95 percent of the seats, or a total of 475, must have an elected sitting representative. Without these 28 districts represented, the 500-seat parliament cannot legally convene.
But the current crisis in Thailand is a broader reflection of the failure of democratic institutions to bridge the divide between a new capitalist class headed by Thaksin, whose populist policies and affinity have secured the backing of the rural poor and lower-middle class, and a well-established elite that is seeking to maintain its traditional claim on power. Although a military coup does not represent the best way to resolve the country’s political problems, one cannot rule out the military taking control of the country as it has done in similar circumstances in the past.
People from both sides of the nation’s political divide claim to be proud to be Thai and to love their country. A western journalist recently asked one anti-government protester: “If both sides feel this way, what is the difference between you and those who support the Red Shirts?” The protester answered: “It is true we are all Thai and that we all love Thailand, but the difference is that they [the Red Shirts] are not knowledgeable.” Other characterizations by anti-government protesters are even less flattering, labeling Red Shirts as “stupid” and “poor.” It is unfortunate that the traditional holders of power in Thai society are not recognizing the transformation of the rural population into a new middle class.
Fifty years ago, the average Thai living upcountry was born, lived, and died within a 10-mile radius. The great majority of these villagers had no more than four years of compulsory education. Their access to information came from the village headman or district chief, employees of the Ministry of the Interior. At that time, the government controlled any news on the radio, which was considered synonymous with the views of the military. If a village was fortunate to have a television in a teashop, villagers could gather and watch a program from one of three channels, all controlled by the military. News was very sanitized, and publications were subject to censorship.
But in many respects, Thailand has become a victim of its own success. Rural people are now, by and large, much more educated, informed, and mobile. Compulsory education is now 12 years, so many rural Thais have high school diplomas, and they have more opportunity to attend university not far from their homes. But given that 40 percent of Thailand’s population is engaged in agriculture, while agriculture contributes only 8 percent of GDP, many rural people wish to seek opportunity elsewhere, be it in Bangkok, Phuket, or abroad. Many villagers have satellite dishes and have far more choices to get their news and entertainment than the three Thai government channels that still exist. Each side has its own cable television channel, supporters of the Democrats or “Yellow Shirts” have Blue Sky and ACTV, and supporters of the Pheu Thai or “Red Shirts” have Asia Update and DNN. Many people in rural areas now have access to the internet and are on Facebook and Twitter. Where farmers were once expected to “know their place” and to “obey higher-ups,” today they want their voices to be heard and don’t view themselves as “stupid, “poor,” or “not knowledgeable.” For the past 14 years, they have elected various Shinawatra-led governments because Thaksin introduced populist policies that benefited them. Their political opponents view them as not understanding or caring that they are “being bought off” to secure the Pheu Thai’s success at the polls. To his credit, Thaksin was the first Thai politician to make and honor campaign promises. What did not take place was a serious debate in the country on how beneficial or harmful these policies might be to the nation as a whole, and to try to search for some sort of compromise. When the Democrats led the government from 2007-2011, they did not try to dismantle Thaksin’s populist policies. Instead they mimicked and perpetuated them, thinking rural people and the urban poor would think these are Democrat party policies. Instead, such shortsighted, patronizing thoughts only served to fuel political divisiveness. This, coupled with Mr. Thaksin being enamored with his power and his willingness to abuse it, has created the “mess” Thailand finds itself in today.
The PDRC is right in calling for reform to effectively address the corruption that is becoming increasingly pervasive in Thai society. But it is wrong for Mr. Suthep and his followers to think that reform will come from a “their way or the highway” approach. Likewise, the Yingluck government has to be more serious about reform, not just use it as a public relations ploy to dampen political pressure. Whatever type of government assumes power in the future, that government must work with the opposition and civil society to address key issues important to Thailand’s future – including rising income inequality, corruption, environmental degradation, education reform, and sectarian violence in the South. Unless both sides of Thailand’s political equation are prepared to seriously discuss these issues in the context of a credible reform process, it is hard to see how Thailand will be able to resolve its current crisis in a peaceful, enduring way.
John J. Brandon is director of Regional Cooperation Programs for The Asia Foundation, based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.
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