Thailand: The Certainty of Uncertainty

Three prime ministers in three months. Two airports in the Thai capital blockaded for a week. Protesters twice booting out of office an elected government.

All of these scenes in Thailand’s political drama unfolded in less than a year. The only political certainty that this South-east Asian country of 66 million people faces in the new year is more uncertainty.

These twists and turns in domestic politics are unlikely at this point to affect Thailand’s foreign policy. Historically a U.S. ally, Bangkok has a (not always popular) free-trade agreement with Washington. Thailand is also a dialogue partner in the main regional diplomatic grouping, the Association of South-east Asian Nations. But neither its neighbors nor the United States want to see Thailand mired in long-term instability.

Still, the December 15 selection of Oxford-educated politician Abhisit Vejjajiya – to many a thinly disguised variant of a coup d’etat – hardly offers a breather from the simmering political tensions that peaked this year. The current political balance of power is far from permanent, critics say, because this government’s legitimacy is tenuous at best.

No sooner had the 44-year-old Abhisit won the parliament vote than Thais were talking about the likely brevity of the new Democrat Party-led government’s tenure.

“Let’s see if he even lasts three months,” said Noi, a language teacher. “He didn’t really get a big mandate.” Abhisit got just 235 of 437 votes, after a night during which the Democrat-led group billeted MPs in a hotel – without access to mobile phones – to make sure none of the defector-MPs changed their minds on voting day. Abhisit’s rival, from the political camp that supports ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, got 198 votes. Though it lost the parliamentary poll, the pro-Thaksin faction made a strong showing and demonstrated that it is far from a spent force.

Anti-Government Protests

The ouster of the elected government in Thailand – sealed by Abhisit’s getting the prime minister post – had been the goal of anti-government protests led by the yellow-clad People’s Alliance of Democracy (PAD) since December 2007. At that time, in the first elections held since the September 2006 army coup ousted Thaksin, voters sent right back to parliament the pro-Thaksin forces in the People’s Power Party (PPP). Led by conservative middle-class elites, business groups, and some politicians, PAD protested these election results and said it did not want more of Thaksin’s influence in the government. They called for a “new politics” that translated into fewer elected seats in parliament and possibly even an appointed, not elected, prime minister.

At root, PAD believed that Thaksin and his populist policies had duped the poor into supporting his party in the elections. In truth, “they are angry that the poor have become politicized,” said Giles Ungpakorn, a professor at Chulalongkorn University who has called PAD a “fascist-style middle class mob.” He added: “They hate the fact that state budgets were spent on healthcare, rural development, and education. Instead they want to cling to their old privileges. . . .Their excuse for opposing democracy is their belief that the poor are too stupid to deserve the right to vote.”

Thaksin was far from a clean politician. His human rights record was blemished by assaults on press freedom and a war on drugs that led to more than 3,000 deaths. Nevertheless, his support base among poor voters, for whom a low-cost health scheme and village loan packages were welcome relief, has been confirmed by several elections since 2001. Discredited for corruption and banned from politics until 2012, the exiled Thaksin has nevertheless achieved a rare level of popularity in Thailand. By shrewdly tapping into the needs of the neglected poor – whether for populist or less than altruistic purposes – he has upset the status quo.

Thailand, a deeply hierarchical society, is currently experiencing a “complex form of class warfare, in which the middle class, motivated by anti-corruption sentiments, has mobilized as a barrier against a populist government with heavy support from the rural masses and urban lower classes,” explained political analyst and professor Walden Bello of the Bangkok-based Focus on the Global South. “What complicates it is that the traditional elites that benefited from the traditional political, economic, and cultural arrangements have encouraged the actions of these mobilized middle classes. These elites’ power has been threatened by the Thaksin brand of populist democracy in a way that it was never threatened by the revolving-door type of parliamentary democracy prior to Thaksin.”

As PAD stepped up its protests this year, its leaders said “new politics” was needed to keep out “dictators” like Thaksin and called the PPP-led government his puppet. In the process, PAD drew support from a range of anti-Thaksin critics, including academics and activists.

In May, PAD supporters occupied the Makhawan Bridge in old Bangkok, staying it would not retreat until the government left. In August, it occupied Government House – the prime minister’s seat of power, forcing the government to work from the old domestic airport. After a Constitutional Court ruling ousted that government, PAD found its successor – Thaksin’s brother-in-law Somchai Wongsawat – equally unacceptable. In late November, PAD leaders said they would not leave the airport until Somchai, returning from the APEC summit in Peru, talked to them. A few thousand PAD supporters laid siege to both the domestic and international airports for a week, effectively paralyzing the government. Meanwhile, red-shirted pro-government supporters gathered by the tens of thousands in stadiums to express opposition to a military coup against the pro-Thaksin government.

Finally, on December 2, the Constitutional Court stepped in to disband three parties in the ruling coalition, led by the PPP, on account of several electoral offenses. PAD claimed victory, but promised to return to the streets if the next government didn’t meet its approval.

Damage Done

By this time, the damage was immense. Its energies eaten up by domestic woes in the last few years, Thailand had to postpone the ASEAN summit, which put a dent to its standing as a regional heavyweight. Some 350,000 tourists were stranded as newspaper headlines proclaimed that the “Land of Smiles Now Land of Chaos,”. Losses due to the airport closure were estimated at more than $628.5 million. The tourism industry, which contributes 6% of GDP, was in tatters.

Neighboring countries such as Singapore, not exactly the most democratic of societies, threw political darts at Thailand. An editorial by the Jakarta Post likewise lamented: “Thailand was once regarded as a showpiece of democracy in South-east Asia. Many Indonesians went to study the Thai experience when we embarked on our own path toward democracy after the collapse of the Suharto regime in 1998. Today, Thailand is no longer a role model of democracy in this part of the world — although it still makes a good case study of what not to do in a democracy.”

“The chief lesson — or the biggest mistake that well-meaning Thais have committed — is losing their faith in democracy just because the electoral system in 2001 put someone like Thaksin Shinawatra, a businessman whose democratic credentials are dubious, as prime minister,” it said.

Divisions Remain

Surveying the wreckage in the wake of the PAD protests and change of power, many Thais are keen to see a government that addresses economic woes that are already being felt in slower growth figures and declining export orders. But they nurse many worries, among them fears of a return of the cycle of revolving-door governments, as political groups jockeying for position in parliament lead to the collapse of coalitions.

It has not always been easy for elected governments to finish their terms. Thaksin, whose then-new political party won in the 2001 general polls, completed its first term. The protests that interrupted his second term, which he won with the aid of populist programs, led to new elections and then to the September 2006 coup.

Abhisit has pledged to be a prime minister for all Thais. ”I have risen through democratic procedures, and never take short cuts. I am not in a position to set up a party of my own. I am only an MP who has the support of my colleagues,” local media quoted him as saying.

Abhisit has denied getting military support to become prime minister, although media reports have reported that the army chief met with different politicians to encourage pro-Thaksin politicians to switch sides and back a non-PPP government. Before that, in what journalists called an “on-screen” coup, all the chiefs of the armed forces appeared on television to suggest that Somchai resign.

Divisions between the red, pro-Thaksin camp and the PAD yellow group still run deep, and the degree of intolerance for opposing views remains quite high. Divisions run deep even within families, or within non-government organizations.

Already, media are reporting worrying signs of this anger from below. Angry residents in the North-east have taken measures such as marking the homes of MPs who used to be in the pro-Thaksin camp and switched sides to support Abhisit. Some have lobbed hand grenades, though locked, onto the lawns of other defector-politicians. On the day of Abhisit’s selection, irate red-shirted protesters hurled stones and smashed bricks through the windshields of the cars of MPs leaving parliament.

Still, one positive result of all this political strife is the acceptance that coups are an unacceptable shortcut to political change. Thailand has had 18 coups since it became a constitutional monarchy in 1935; non-elected prime ministers have ruled for more than three decades since 1932. So this decline in popular legitimacy for coups may well be significant.

Looking Abroad

Despite all the domestic changes, Thailand is not likely to shift any of its relations with other countries, including its ties with the United States. For instance, Thailand has been an ally of the U.S. government in its “war on terror.” In August 2003, Thai authorities arrested Indonesian terror suspect Hambali, said to be behind the 2002 Bali bombings, and turned him over to U.S. officials. Earlier that year, the Thai government passed anti-terror legislation pushed by Washington that allows detention without trial of terror suspects. Thailand, with which the U.S. military holds the region’s largest military exercises, was also upgraded to a major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally.

Despite this cooperation, Washington did not categorically speak out against the 2006 coup against Thaksin, not even when President George W Bush visited Bangkok in August 2008 to mark the 175th year of U.S.-Thai diplomatic ties. Given the priority of anti-terrorism issues in Washington, the Bush administration likely sided with the Thai military despite the unseating of an elected leader – or at least that is what many in the Thaksin camp believed.

Looking Ahead

Looking ahead, new elections could serve to channel political debate more effectively than the occupation of state facilities. PAD, however, would oppose any electoral option that would allow a rural majority to vote pro-Thaksin forces back into power.

“I would love to see them really clear out all the people in Parliament and re-elect everyone. But that would only be in my dreams,” quipped an office worker in Bangkok.

“Even the Democrats changed their position from favoring dissolution of parliament, for its own benefit (to gain the prime-ministership),” remarked Ying, who works with a non-government group. “I think it’s not working and the best resolution is dissolution and calling new elections as soon as possible. Let Thai people decide to select which one is best for them.”

Johanna Son, a journalist for two decades, has been based in Bangkok since 1999. She is director for Inter Press Service Asia-Pacific news agency and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org).