Thai military poised as country approaches political deadlock

January 10, 2014

Thailand is awash with rumours of a looming military coup as opposition activists aim to shut down the capital, Bangkok, on Monday, in their campaign to oust the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. All the signs are, however, that the military is reluctant to intervene unless the police lose control of the streets.

The head of Thailand’s army, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, was involved in the 2006 coup in which the government of Prime Minister Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, was ousted. Thai politics have been in sometimes-violent disarray since, and people close to Prayuth say he is well aware that military coups solve nothing.

More difficult to envisage is what will solve Thailand’s increasingly dysfunctional political culture. The fissures in what was always a bumbling, corrupt and ineffectual democracy have been widening and deepening since the 2001 election of Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin, now in self-imposed exile to avoid prison for a corruption conviction, is a deeply divisive character. He started life as a lowly policeman but, by some business dealings which don’t bear too much scrutiny, rapidly built a communications and media empire which made him Thailand’s richest entrepreneur.

When he turned to politics in the late 1990s, he followed the well-worn path of patronage and voter handouts that have always dogged Thai electoral politics.

The provision of large subsidies to rural northern Thailand for such things as village grants, micro-credits for small businesses, and healthcare have made that part of the country a bastion of support for Thaksin and his sister. Their supporters display their loyalty by wearing red shirts at demonstrations.

Pitted against them are the Yellow Shirts, a group broadly defined as representing the urban, educated middle class, fiercely loyal to Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and often basking in the glow of status and privilege from their association with the palace.

The Yellow Shirts, now led by former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban, see Thaksin as a closet republican who threatens the monarchy and the traditional privileges of those close to the palace. They accuse Thaksin of corruption, nepotism and human rights abuses, and there is substantial evidence for these claims.

The Yellow Shirts also often dismiss Thaksin’s rural supporters as uneducated people, easily swayed by patronage.

It was months of street protests by Yellow Shirts in 2006 that finally prompted the army, with the encouragement of palace courtiers, to launch the coup in September that year that ousted Thaksin.

The hard truth is though, that despite sometimes outlandish efforts by Thailand’s establishment and institutions to erase Thaksin from the political arena, political parties supporting him have won all the elections since the coup.

Another election has been called for February 2, and it is to try to stop that happening that Suthep and the Yellow Shirts are taking to the streets.

Institutional Thailand also seems to be intent on stopping or discrediting next month’s election, which Prime Minister Yingluck is likely to win easily.

In recent days, a storm of attacks has been launched against Yingluck and her Peua Thai Party (PTP) by state auditors, judges and anti-corruption investigators.

Some of the actions are so bizarre that even opponents of the Thaksins shrink from endorsing them.

On Wednesday, the Constitutional Court launched an action against a government proposal to build a high-speed rail link. The court proclaimed that the government should upgrade roads first, though few can work out what right the court has to proclaim on such matters.

This followed the Auditor-General’s office writing to the National Election Commission, saying the February 2 election could be an unacceptable waste of money.

This was in response to an announcement by the National Anti-Corruption Commission that it will press charges against 308 current and former members of parliament, almost all from Yingluck’s PTP, for last year trying to amend the constitution to make the Senate fully elected.

To the Thaksins’ supporters this institutional intervention is reminiscent of 2008. Then, the courts removed from government another party loyal to Thaksin that had just won an election. The justification was that the leader had, before taking office, made money as the host of a television cookery show.

The court’s action allowed the opposition and pro-palace, but inappropriately-named Democratic Party, to come to office. But that government unravelled in 2010 after Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his deputy Suthep ordered the army to break up the occupation of central Bangkok by thousands of Thaksin’s Red Shirt supporters.

Over 90 people died in the fighting and Abhisit and Suthep face murder charges as a result.

Yingluck won the elections held the following year, but her opponents claim she is only a front for her brother, who they say runs the government at arm’s length from exile in Dubai.

That claim gained added credence last year when Yingluck pushed for parliament to approve an amnesty bill. The act would have removed the legal threat against Abhisit and Suthep for the 2010 killings by the army, but it would also have allowed Thaksin to return to Thailand without fear of having to go to prison.

Yingluck’s move was ill judged and led to a storm of street protests by the Yellow Shirts. To try to reassert her authority, she called the February 2 election.

The Yellow Shirts have already tried to disrupt preparations for this vote by demonstrating on December 26 outside a stadium where candidates were registering. Four people, including two police officers, died in gunfire when the protesters clashed with police.

Instead of the election, Sethup and the Yellow Shirts want an un-elected “People’s Council” to draw up a new political constitution for Thailand. They are vague about what they think this should contain, but in the past Yellow Shirts have said rural votes should not carry the same weight as those cast by educated urbanites.

As Monday’s protests by the Yellow Shirts approach, Thailand faces three alternatives, all of them unappetising.

If the election goes ahead, Yingluck and the PTP will likely win, but unless she is prepared to embark on a serious program to reconcile Thailand’s political divides, that will resolve nothing.

It may be that Thailand’s courts and electoral officials will find some way of halting the election or dismissing a re-elected Yingluck government. That will only bring the Red Shirts out onto the streets again.

The Yellow Shirts might succeed in creating enough violence on the streets that the army feels duty-bound to intervene, as it has done 18 times in the last 81 years.

That, however, will only take the country back to where it was at the end of 2006.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2013