BANGKOK – Thailand is once again being convulsed by extreme partisan politics, with the country’s polarization playing out on Bangkok’s streets. Several people have been killed, and many more have been injured. The sense that Thailand has been through all of this before would be mildly reassuring were it not for a nagging fear that this decent and prosperous society may be set to destroy its democracy.
Much of the violence has been led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister. He has inspired thousands of demonstrators, many from his power base in the country’s south, to storm and occupy government buildings with the aim of unseating Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Suthep says that this is the first step in rooting out “Thaksinism” from the country’s political life.
On December 1, Suthep demanded – and received – a meeting with Yingluck in the presence of Thailand’s military chiefs, whom he had asked to “guarantee” his safety. During the meeting, Suthep gave Yingluck a two-day deadline to resign. With the police failing to control the mobs in the streets without the help of the military, Yingluck decided to resign and dissolve parliament, declaring that she would lead a caretaker government until a new election is held on February 2.
The date was endorsed by a “reform forum,” established to resolve the crisis and comprising Bangkok’s elite (including the military). Suthep and his followers were dissatisfied, and left the forum in protest, rejecting Yingluck even as an interim prime minister and demanding that the election be held after political reforms – the sort he would agree with – are implemented to eliminate all vestiges of the Thaksin clan from government.
In fact, Suthep has called for a “people’s council,” comprised of 400 unbiased representatives. The council would replace the Senate after the upper house nominates a new leader to be appointed by the King, thus obviating the need for elections in the near future. Wassana Nanuam, the military-affairs correspondent of the English-language daily Bangkok Post, has described the move as a “silent” coup d’état: no tanks in the streets.
The Democrat Party, led by the former court-appointed Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, has separately announced a boycott of the February 2 election on the grounds that the party could not reform the country even if it participated. The Democrat Party last won a parliamentary majority in 1992.
While the military chiefs’ inclinations have been with Bangkok’s elites, they are being careful to keep their options open. Their unsuccessful stint in power following the military coup in 2010 appears to have taught them that they should wait to see if their political allies can break Thaksin’s electoral stranglehold, which has lasted 12 years and five general elections, before deciding what to do next.
Bangkok’s elites maintain that the billionaire Thaksin and his allies have bought their electoral victories. But Freedom House, which tracks democracy and civil rights around the world, declared Yingluck’s landslide electoral victory in 2011 free and fair, a position supported by most Thailand experts.
Despite Thaksin’s corrupt image, a majority of mainly poorer Thais see him as their only alternative to the country’s out-of-touch urban elites. Indeed, Suthep’s insistence on delaying the election is an open admission that he and his allies cannot win a fair contest, and he has even gone so far as to suggest that, with the “right” leader, Thailand may not need elections at all in the future. Nor is it clear that any reforms would satisfy the anti-Thaksin camp, except for those designed to deny Thaksin’s followers a parliamentary majority.
That said, Thaksin and his sister bear some responsibility for their recent misfortunes. Guilty of excessive hubris, their ability to empathize with the peasants and the urban poor is matched only by their disregard for the urban middle class and its members’ demand for clean government and rule of law rather than populism.
Yingluck must also take some blame for her clumsy handling of the current crisis. What ignited the protests was her attempt to amend an amnesty bill, originally intended as a grudging act of reconciliation between the country’s opposing “red” and “yellow” political camps. But, while the amnesty was to apply to lesser crimes committed from 2006 to 2011, Yingluck tried to extend it two years earlier and include capital crimes – a move rightly seen as a blatant attempt to absolve her brother and pave the way for his return to Thailand.
Thaksin’s supporters miscalculated in assuming that they could so easily abuse their parliamentary majority. Their effort to manipulate the amnesty, though not unconstitutional, was nonetheless arrogant and provocative. Anger erupted among Bangkok’s middle classes, prompting Suthep to unleash his mobs.
The story is far from over. If recent history is any guide, the February election (assuming it is held) will sweep Thaksin’s allies back to power. What follows will be fraught with risks of further instability, as poor rural Thais face off against wealthy urban elites, and polarization intensifies between the north, where most people live, and the southern power base of the Democrat Party and Suthep, the street mobs’ leader.
Sin-ming Shaw, a former fellow at Oxford University, is a visiting scholar at the University of Michigan