Beginners guide to Thailands political deadlock

Protests from both sides have dogged Thailand

Protests from both sides have dogged Thailand

By Andrew Bond

Friday February 26th will go down as a landmark date in Thailand’s modern history, and the fallout or reaction from the judicial ruling on the Thaksin assets seizure case will not escape the attention of tourists, as widespread protest and disruption is expected. Here’s the backstory.

To the outsider, the modern Thai nation might seem like something of an oxymoron. Here we have a passive Buddhist nation prone to military rule and periodic conflict. It’s a hard working Asian tiger with a habit of economic self destruction. And the people, though fiercely loyal to the monarchy, can’t seem to decide just what sort of democracy they want to be.

This misunderstanding of the principals of democracy is perhaps the central theme in a traumatic start to the twenty first century for one of the world’s 30 largest economies. A coup, massive street protests, unprecedented landslide election victories, assassination attempts and corruption convictions at the highest level have all helped newspapers fly off the stands this past decade.

In short, it’s never a dull moment in Thai politics. And yet, in among all this the country somehow manages to get on with its daily life as if this is all business as usual. Despite the occasional traumas, Thailand remains a laid back, pleasant and non aggressive country most the time. But tourists and newly arrived expats cannot escape the drama since the regular flair-ups have directly inconvenienced them, with airport closures, street battles in Bangkok and upcountry protests. And the one man who has kept Thailand in the international headlines is the chief protagonist in the current drawn out saga; Thaksin Shinawatra. Indeed the same chap who briefly owned Manchester City football club.

Loved and loathed in equal measures, he is both the single most popular and successful politician in Thailand’s 68 year democratic history, yet also one of the most divisive figures to write himself into the nation’s history books. His ouster in the Sept 2006 coup brought to a head an explosive situation, but far from solving the problem has created an even larger and more complicated war of attrition.

Thaksin is undoubtedly a champion of the poor, and if there was an election tomorrow he would win it hands down. So, what’s the problem in this so-called democracy? Well, the coup not only turfed out the first prime minister ever to be re-elected, but also opened a can of worms in the form of multiple corruption charges. Without immunity or influence, this telecomms billionaire tycoon soon found himself convicted in a high profile case, and without appeal options, fled the country. But, with two billion dollars of seized assets, he wants back in, and he’s putting up a fight with a rather large army of support.

Corruption is of course a recurring theme in Asian politics, almost an accepted means of business, which is why Thaksin cried foul on the accusations. To be clear, the military weren’t exactly seizing power for themselves – that simply wouldn’t be acceptable in twenty-first century Thailand, though there have been 18 coup attempts in the previous century resulting in military rule for more than 30 years. And corruption has been cited as reasons in previous coups. Far more subtle however, was the control and abuse of power, which was the real problem with the Thaksin juggernaut.

The tipping point of Thaksin’s meteoric rise of power came in January 2006, when he announced that his family business, Shin Corporation, had been sold to Singaporean investors for 76 billion baht (US$2b). His ‘family’ were prompted to offload their prime asset after continual pressure over conflict of interest, since Thai law forbids MPs and ministers from owning businesses. The sale price was reckoned to be about four times more than the company’s value at the start of his premiership. However, the final straw was his decisions at the 11th hour to undertake some tricky footwork, transferring ownership to individual entities to avoid a $500 million tax bill. This unscrupulous move would eventually lead to his downfall.

Thaksin: gone but ever-present

Thaksin: gone but ever-present

Thaksin Shinawatra had made his fortune through neo-monopolistic practices in mobile telecomms during the nineties, and four years after entering politics stormed to a coalition victory in 1999. He proved to be a shrewd player, quickly galvinising support to strengthen his Thai Rak Thai party and overcoming weak coalition politics that had dogged the effectiveness of previous governments. With deep pockets he co-opted wide support and set about targeting the poor North easterners who make up the largest voting block in the country. He proved economically adept, initiated a string of populist poverty upliftment projects, and installed administrative stability with his CEO style of governing. Thailand quickly recovered from the trauma of the ’97 Asian Financial Crisis, which it had caused, and was now enjoying halcyon days.

By the time Thaksin pulled off a landslide re-election victory in the 2005 poll there were already mumblings of his autocratic leadership. The press was being muzzled, its editors threatened with withdrawal of advertising revenues, outspoken opponents were routinely sued ridiculous sums for libel, and the newly formed senate had become a virtual rubber stamp for the Prime Minister rather than a watchdog. More concerning however was the ‘favourable’ rulings his party continued getting from the judiciary and the fact that the anti corruption committee had been disabled on a technicality.

Most of this dissatisfaction however came from a small group of Bangkok based activists and watchdogs, while the majority seemed content with the handouts, easy credit, and six per cent economic growth. That all changed when he fudged his tax returns. Soon he was facing down a crowd of over 100,000 at the Democracy Monument chanting ‘Thaksin awk pai’ (Thaksin get out!). The middle class, who were picking up the tab for his popularity, had heard enough.

Rather than learn from the incident, Thaksin banked on his enormous popularity and fought back, but hadn’t reckoned on the rise of a group of marginalised broadcasters with nationalistic feelings who formed the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). This yellow shirted protest group claimed he was ethically unfit to rule and was disrespectful to the monarchy, escalating their protests to the point where Thaksin called a snap poll to re-assert his mandate.

However, the opposition decided to boycott the sudden April 2006 election, claiming the 30 day notice was insufficient. Thaksin went ahead, but needed a blatantly bias Election Commission to bend the rules so that a result could be achieved in each constituency. It was a farce and ultimately the courts ruled it null and void, following a rare speech by the King to ‘sort it out honestly’. Thaksin backed down, pledged new elections for October and promised he wouldn’t personally run for Prime Minister.

The election never happened. While attending the UN conference on September 19th, the army rolled their tanks into Bangkok and seized power. They immediately announced an interim government tasked at re-writing the constitution, and promised new elections within a year. All three of these have turned out to be the country’s unravelling in the years since. However, at the time a poll suggested 75 per cent of the country agreed with the coup in a collective sigh of relief that tensions had been postponed.

The constitution they tore up had been Thailand’s first real people’s charter, written 10 years earlier. Yet it was riddled with flaws that Thaksin had proved to be very clever at exploiting, notably the absence of checks and balances. Unfortunately the one re-written with ‘military pens’ wasn’t entirely fair either, despite being approved by 60 per cent of Thais in a 2007 referendum.

PAD protest blockage of the airport hit tourism

PAD protest blockage of the airport hit tourism

It retro-actively applied heavy handed penalties for election fraud - a chronic problem in Thailand, effectively banning Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party and proving useful in keeping his clique out of power. But the poor hadn’t forgotten that Thaksin was the first Thai prime minister to actually do something meaningful about their lot, and when an election was held in December 2007, his proxy party won and formed the government.

Thailand’s politics has long been dominated by factions that rely on an age-old client-patron relationship, whereby local influential people bought the loyalties of their constituents through various (increasingly sophisticated) means, then earned the capital back once in office. This perpetuated the corruption necessary to finance increasingly high stakes elections, in a country that was getting rapidly richer. Governments are formed by horse trading among the many disparate parties and factions, where lucrative ministerial posts, and ‘opportunities’ trump any real ideology.

This has emerged as one of the key flaws in Thailand’s democratic process, known as ‘gutter politics’, and the topic of much soul searching among the ‘yellow shirts’ recently. Thus they took to the streets once more in 2008 when it became obvious that the Thaksin-friendly government was focused mainly on exonerating their benefactor by means of subverting legal interpretation of his charges, and amending the constitution to roll back the election fraud and criminal charges.

But the majority of voters are simply too poor to worry about the ethics of their leaders, accepting corruption and poor law enforcement if it means short term financial relief for them. These two opposing concerns reveal deep rooted problems in Thai society that have been ignored as the country matures, and continue to contribute to the problem.

This all comes against a backdrop of a country that was largely made up of a vast peasantry and small elite when it began its headlong plunge into industrialisation in the sixties. For two decades Thailand was the darling of Third World economists with its sustained double digit growth. Lots of wealth was created very quickly, conditions for greed and corruption were ripe, regulation was inadequate and elections became increasingly ‘expensive’ to the parties involved.

A burgeoning middle class emerged, but a large portion of the population were largely ignored except in the weeks and days before an election. A popular saying reveals that ‘it is Isarn (the poor but populous Northeast) that votes in a government and Bangkok that removes it’. With monies to be recouped quickly, governments rarely lasted more than 18 months before being caught up in a corruption scandal or a coalition squabble that sank them.

Thaksin didn’t suffer either however, as he had a solid loyalty among his factions and the nascent recovery of the economy after the Asian financial crisis created ‘opportunities’ for everyone in the administration. What he hadn’t banked on was a sizeable middle class that was now demanding accountable and transparent government. And when he tried to dismiss them with old fashion strong-man tactics of past leaders, it backfired.

As a result Thailand has found itself in a deadlock. Though an election will usually guarantee a return to power of Thaksin or his proxy representatives, pledging economic upliftment to the poor, it’s not long before pressure of ethics and accountability come to bear. By mid 2008 the PAD were back on the streets, laying siege to Government House when the government made moves to protect Thaksin from corruption investigations.

The government fought back, and as the stakes reached boiling point the PAD moved their protest to the shiny new airport, just as the tourist season was kicking off. Economically, a week long closure of the country’s main gateway was disastrous and lost the PAD a lot of credibility among the moderates. But it did have its intended effect in speeding the collapse of the government, as the Supreme Court brought forward a trial verdict on vote fraud that resulted in the dissolving of the ruling party.

As always in Thailand, it was a pressure valve release but the pot was still boiling on the hotplate of Thai politics. What happened next really infuriated Thaksin’s Red Shirt brigade, and his rural supporters. The military and elite were suspected of getting involved behind the scenes, persuading a key faction led by controversial politician Newin Chibchob to cross the floor and join the Democrat Party in forming a minority government.

Soon the focus of discontent was levelled at the military and elite, whom the masses blamed for ‘influencing’ the democratic process in order to maintain their grip on power. With a world recession now in full swing, the 44 year old Abhisit Vejjajiva – an Oxford graduate in economics – might have been a suitable leader in normal circumstance but he soon faced a torrid task in reconciling a deeply divided nation.

By now the coup was increasingly looking like a terrible mistake, as many longed for the stability and prosperity of the Thaksin era. But the demons had been released and the nation doesn’t quite know how to face up to them; a yawing gap between rich and poor, unequally applied laws, money politics, a culture of corruption that many find almost acceptable, increasingly outdated lese majeste laws applied indiscriminately, and extra-political personnel meddling in democracy.

Just when face-saving Thailand thought it couldn’t sink any lower, it outdid itself with embarrassment. Scarcely four months into the new government’s administration, a planned summit of Asian leaders in Pattaya was abandoned with heads of state being airlifted from the hotel roof as red shirted protestors, egged on by Thaksin over satellite TV link, stormed the venue, overrunning the incompetent police force. It turned out to be an unhappy Songkran celebration as the mob moved their riot to the streets of Bangkok and were eventually brought under control by the army using a temporary State of Emergency. It was another arrow in the heart of tourism.

The government survived, but as the months passed the public at large became increasingly impatient with efforts to revive the economy. Genuine motions at reconciliation, through constitutional amendments, were stonewalled by the opposition under neo-control of the fugitive Thaksin in Dubai, who naturally favours a return to the pre-coup 1997 constitution.

Thaksin, meanwhile, continued to apply the pressure, as his own freedom became increasingly restricted and time began running out in his assets freeze case. On the eve of the rescheduled Asian Heads Summit, this time in Hua Hin under heavy security, he stole the limelight again. Showing up in Cambodia as their newly appointed economic advisor, he enrolled the help of the foul mouthed Cambodian strongman Hun Sen to up the ante against Abhisit’s government, leading to a rapid and dangerous slump in relations between the two countries.

Such antics might spell the end of a political career for anyone in a normal democracy, and indeed Thaksin’s misjudged the backlash from his lack of patriotism. But Thailand is still defining itself as a democracy, and he’s far from down and out. Regular phone ins to rallies, urging the poor to push for a dissolution of the house and fresh elections, is his last ditch hope of unseating this administration so that it might be replaced with one that is more sympathetic to his raft of corruptions charges that seem to be inching their way through the courts.

One lingering question in the minds of anyone familiar with Thailand, is the role His Majesty the King plays in all this. It’s a difficult one to answer, since draconian Lese Majeste laws make it risky even to mention the Royal Family in print. Such is his respect that he could urge all parties to back down for the sake of the nation, but he assiduously avoids political comment. Besides, it would mean compromising his enormous popularity by leaving at least one half of the country dissatisfied. He’s also old and frail and perhaps weary of getting involved.

Unfortunately both sides in the conflict have abused his patriarchal position to suit their cause, with the Yellow Shirts claiming to be protecting the monarchy with their conservative agenda. Meanwhile the Red Shirts have levelled their ire at the so-called blue blooded elite close to the palace, who have apparently been engaging the military to stave off Thaksin and protect their eroding influence.

And neither side appears willing to compromise to achieve their ends, as Thaksin remains the wedge in Thailand’s divisive immediate future. He is determined, with the support of a large portion of the country, to make a comeback. But to do so would mean rolling back justice, and all its implications in a country where law enforcement is notoriously selective.

The sitting government need to call an election some time in 2010 to assert their legitimacy, but is plagued with coalition squabbling and the real risk that they will lose. A return to power of a Thaksin-friendly government is likely to lead to even greater friction as he will undoubtedly use the opportunity to whitewash his alleged sins, as rapidly as possible.

Meanwhile, the politicians and leaders involved are so distracted by this charade that few notice the real issues concerning the Poor’s needs, nor the crippling effects of corruption, untransparent law enforcement and widespread lack of ethics.

So, while the country gets on with business, trying its best to emerge from a recession and boost its tourism prospects, it will continue to carry a political millstone around its neck until such time as a face saving solution is found for Thaksin Shinawatra; Thailand’s great Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. And even after he exits from the political scene, the legacy he leaves behind is a deeply divided country that has shaken all sorts of skeletons from the closet during this tumultuous decade.

More on Thailand’s history.

Latest updates on political security situation in Thailand on Bangkok Post sub website:Judgement Day.

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