Thailand’s Senate attempts to quell unrest

Published: November 6, 2013

No end is in sight to the torrid and bloody turmoil that has engulfed Thailand’s public life for almost a decade, as the country’s senate prepares to reject an amnesty law that would allow ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to return from exile.

Since it was elected in 2011 the Pheu Thai Party government, led by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra, has been looking for the right moment to produce the highly contentious amnesty law.

Yet even the recent broadening of its provisions to absolve everyone from all parties involved in alleged illegal acts during the years of turmoil, has failed to stem opposition.

Last week’s passage of the amnesty bill through the lower house of parliament, where Prime Minister Yingluck has an overwhelming majority, led to days of mass street protests in the capital Bangkok and other cities around the country.

Fearing these protests will again explode into the street violence that has dogged the nation since a military coup in 2006, Senate Speaker Nikom Wairatpanij says he believes a majority of the 150 senators will decide it is in the national interest to reject the bill when it comes before them on November 11.

Both Yingluck and her brother appear willing to accept the ploy has failed and that Thaksin is doomed to continue manipulating Thai politics from his exile in Dubai.

“I don’t want to see the amnesty law used as a political tool,” Yingluck said in a televised address on Tuesday. “This government will work for the country’s benefit and will not use its majority to go against people’s wishes.”

Thaksin posted a message on his lawyer’s Facebook page saying “I respect the sentiments of the Thai people, but I cannot stand how this law’s intentions have been twisted by my opponents who say that the bill is designed to benefit my family and to restore our fortune.”

It is not just Thaksin’s opponents who see the law as a blatant attempt to allow him back into the country by overruling his 2008 conviction for corruption and abuse of power, and perhaps even to return his $1.5 billion fortune confiscated by the courts.

Many of his supporters are unhappy that pushing forward the amnesty law has undermined public trust in the Pheu Thai Party government, which has been working reasonably well and gained public support as a result.

There is one notable exception in the amnesty law, which points to the central conflict that has boiled around Thaksin and will continue to do so.

The law would not absolve those accused or convicted of lese majeste. Insulting Thailand’s much-revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his family is a serious crime carrying penalties of up to 16 years in prison.

For many devout Thai royalists, Thaksin’s entire arrogant style after he became Prime Minister in 2001 and his apparent republican sentiments are perpetual acts of lese majeste.

It was these attitudes by Thaksin, who began life as a humble police officer and through talent and guile built a massive communications industry conglomerate, which prompted street protests against him by so-called Yellow Shirts starting in 2004.

By 2006 these protests had become seriously disruptive and in September that year the army, with the backing of senior palace courtiers, ousted Thaksin while he was attending a United Nations meeting in New York.

However, when the military orchestrated a return to democracy a year later, it was a party supporting Thaksin that won the election. Thaksin was and remains hugely popular among the rural poor and urban Thais, who feel royalists and associated elites wield too much power and influence over the conduct of the country’s public life.

The election of a pro-Thaksin government in 2007 led to the occupation of the parliamentary compound by the anti-Thaksin, royalist Yellow Shirts and the formation of a pro-Thaksin counter-force, the Red Shirts.

These groups waged frequent and sometimes bloody street battles as the political turmoil continued. The situation changed dramatically in December 2008 when the Constitutional Court banned all the pro-Thaksin parties from holding office and opened the way for the pro-palace Democratic Party led by Abhisit Vejjajiva to form a government.

It was now the turn of Thaksin’s Red Shirts to voice outrage, and by early 2010 their protests had grown into the occupation and barricading of a large area of Bangkok’s central business district.

In May, Abhisit sent in the army to end the occupation and about 90 people, mostly protesters, were killed in the melee. Abhisit has been accused of responsibility for the killings by ordering the army to use live ammunition. Under the amnesty, these charges would be dropped.

Abhisit and his Democratic Party were soundly defeated in July 2011 elections and Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck, came to power.

She is frequently accused of being a mere puppet for her brother, who is said to be running the government from his exile home in Dubai.

However, there is evidence that Yongluck is far more than a proxy for Thaksin and on several occasions has acted against his interests. There’s a school of thought that she has put off presenting the amnesty bill as long as possible and, indeed, may have crafted it to fail.

Behind all the turmoil on the front of Thailand’s political stage has been the gloomy backdrop of the king’s age and worsening health. King Bhumibol is 86 and has spent several years in hospital.

While he is widely loved, the same cannot be said for his heir, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who is loathed and feared by many who have had anything to do with him.

The prince is said to be wildly eccentric and unpredictable with violent tendencies. Many see his fingerprints all over the 2006 coup.

Vajiralongkorn’s private life is lurid in the extreme. A video of his wife being required to participate naked at a birthday party for his dog has circulated widely on the Internet.

So one of the drivers of events in Thailand for nearly a decade has been to resolve the frictions between the palace and parliament before Vajiralongkorn takes the throne. There is now little reason to hope this will be accomplished.


Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Manthorpe