After three consecutive years of deadly street protests, Thailand has arrived at the point where it will need to hold new elections, as the current term of its national assembly expires this December. Indeed, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has indicated that he will call for the dissolution of the lower house by the first week of May. This follows a parliamentary no-confidence motion, which his government barely survived. Accordingly, the stage is set for a general election at mid-year.
But, in view of the political volatility of recent years, this semblance of stability and constitutional regularity is deceptive. Echoing popular movements elsewhere, Thailand remains locked in conflict and polarization between an entrenched regime propping up Abhisit and burgeoning new voices clamoring for enfranchisement. Any peaceful outcome to this conflict will require far-sighted concessions and compromises.
Thailand’s street politics during this political crisis date back to 2005, when the corrupt and abusive government of Thaksin Shinawatra, which had been re-elected in a landslide that year, was toppled by a military coup. Two years later, after the military regime rammed through a new constitution, Thaksin’s proxy political party won another election, as his popular base of “red shirts” in Thailand’s downtrodden northeast and northern regions remained loyal to him.
Thaksin’s yellow-clad royalist foes, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), took to the streets against him again in 2008, as the judiciary ordered the dissolution of his party for the second time. In April 2009, and again in April-May 2010, the disenfranchised red shirts camped in the streets of Bangkok to demand new elections, but were dispersed by the army, with 91 fatalities.
Despite their setbacks and lost credibility following the torching of Bangkok’s central business district, the red shirts have grown in number and demonstrate monthly against Abhisit’s government. And, after two years, PAD yellow shirts have also returned to the streets to show their disillusion with Abhisit.
PAD ringleaders now denounce all politicians as corrupt and extol the virtue of the monarchy. Using the weapons of an anti-corruption drive and rising nationalism (the result of a periodically violent border dispute with Cambodia), the royalist-conservative movement is implicitly pointing to an extra-constitutional solution to Thailand’s political standoff. Another military coup is their unspoken answer.
While these machinations are par for the course for Thailand’s topsy-turvy democracy, they point to a deeper structural schism. Thailand’s six-decade-old incumbent regime, which relies on symbiosis between the monarchy and the military, is unable to tolerate elections that empower the rural masses unwittingly awakened by Thaksin’s premiership.
These masses, along with the urban poor, make up the bulk of the red shirts. They demand a voice in politics, a stake in the country’s grossly unequal economy, and the chance for upward mobility that they saw in Thaksin and his populist programs. They know that elected politicians are prone to graft, but now refuse blatant disenfranchisement and the formation of governments like Abhisit’s, which was brokered in an army barracks.
For Thailand’s military-political axis and its supporting pillars in the judiciary and bureaucracy, suppressing these voices has become increasingly unworkable. Moreover, Thailand already attracts unwanted attention for its draconian security laws.
Bangkok, for example, has been under either a state of emergency or provisions of the internal security act for more than a year, in violation of basic civil liberties. There are now unprecedented scores of political prisoners. Around the country, many red shirts are persecuted, and several have been murdered under mysterious circumstances. More than 100,000 Web pages have been blocked for “subversive” content. More charges of lèse majesté have been filed, and with more convictions than ever.
But the establishment’s efforts to put a lid on the seething Thai kettle appear untenable. Cold War exigencies, which benefited and cemented the military-monarchical alliance in the 1960’s and 1970’s, have been replaced by the imperatives of democracy. The electorate is no longer passive in the face of rampant corruption and vote-buying.
But solutions for the country’s ills must be found within the boundaries of law and constitutionalism. Another military putsch would nudge Thailand backwards, from a democratic outlier on the world stage to an authoritarian outcast.
A way forward beckons. The remarkable 64-year reign of 83-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej deserves credited for Thailand’s unity and stability, which kept communism at bay and enabled steady economic development, warts and all. But times have changed. Entrenched regimes everywhere can endure only if they recognize and accommodate popular aspirations. Of course, Thaksin’s legacy of corruption and of a pandering populism must be rejected, but the profound awakening of the Thai electorate that did occur, almost accidentally, during his premiership needs to be built upon, not suppressed.
Thailand needs elections that are not subverted by judicial decisions. The coup-era constitution will then require a revamp. And the lèse majesté code, which literally allows anyone to file charges against anyone else, must be reformed. Perhaps the Royal Household itself should be tasked with filing such charges.
The list goes on. The opacity of the Crown Property Bureau, worth an estimated $30 billion, eventually will have to be addressed. And the question of royal succession also needs clarification as Thailand’s constitutional monarchy navigates the uncertain path ahead.
These are delicate issues, given Thailand’s raw and rabid polarization between those with vested interests in the old order and those intent on putting an end to what they claim are neo-feudalistic privileges and entitlements. Unless good-faith efforts at compromise are shown by all sides, Thailand will not retake its rightful place among the world’s up-and-coming democracies.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is Professor and Director of Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Security and International Studies in Bangkok. He is also a visiting professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC.Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.