Political crises are nothing new for Thailand. Since becoming a constitutional monarchy in 1932, the country has faced numerous political crises, including a 1973 student revolution to overthrow a military dictatorship, the storming of Thammasat University and the installation of an extremely right-wing government in 1976, and the people power victory over General Suchinda in 1992. In September 2006, a military coup deposed the former prime minister, Dr. Thaksin Shinawatra. In retaliation against the coup, Thaksin supporters in 2006 formed the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), a political pressure group whose supporters are commonly called Red Shirts.
Following the political storm of April-May 2010 involving Red Shirt protests against the Abhisit government, Thailand remained calm under the leadership of Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand’s first female prime minister and the youngest sister of Dr. Thaksin. She became prime minister after a decisive election victory over Former Prime Minister Abhisit in July 2011. However, this period of peace and stability ended abruptly late last year. While the country has faced turmoil before, the current situation is exceptional in that protestors, organized by the People’s Democratic Reform Council (PDRC), are calling for an appointed, unelected “people’s council” to govern the nation and draft a new constitution. Also noteworthy is the extraordinary patience of the government in dealing with the protestors. The German specialist on Thai politics, Michael Nelson, describes the protests as an attempt to carry out a “civilian coup d’etat.” This article is focused on the formation and hopeful resolution of the political crisis that has persisted in Thailand since November 2013.
Late last year, the Yingluck government introduced an amnesty bill in an attempt to end the serious polarization plaguing the country. It would have given amnesty to individuals across the political spectrum, including Dr. Thaksin. In October 2008, Thailand’s Supreme Court found Thaksin guilty of corruption and sentenced him to a two year prison term. Later, in February 2010, the Supreme Court of Thailand approved the seizure of US$1.46 billion of his financial assets. To avoid his prison term, Thaksin moved into exile.
The amnesty bill outraged those who opposed Thaksin and led to a wave of demonstrations in Bangkok involving thousands of protestors. After realizing that she and the Pheu Thai Party had made a serious mistake, Yingluck withdrew support for the bill, and it was subsequently rejected by the Thai Senate. Unfortunately, by that time the protests were already in full force.
Yingluck further outraged protestors by stating that she would ignore a ruling of the Constitutional Court that declared unconstitutional a bill making all legislative positions elected, as opposed to the status quo of half elected positions. Her opponents then upped their demands to remove her from office. In response to the protests, Yingluck dissolved parliament on December 9, 2013, and called for a new “snap election” on February 2, 2014. The Thai Constitution stipulates that an election must be held no more than two months after the dissolution of parliament.
The protestors indicated that they would boycott the election. They also declared that on January 13, 2014, they would “shut down” Bangkok by blocking about 20 key intersections leading to key government offices. They occupied key intersections for weeks. Protestors also actively worked to obstruct candidates from registering for the election. Throughout the voting process, some protestors used force to prevent voters from voting, particularly in the South and certain areas of Bangkok. While elections occurred, they were less than successful, with only 47.7% turnout and just 87.2% of constituencies able to implement voting. As a result, there were not enough Members of Parliament to convene a new parliament. Many protestors were hoping to destabilize the government so much that the military would carry out a coup to remove Yingluck, but this has also not happened thus far.
Ironies and errors on the political stage
Along with Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand’s first-ever female prime minister, one of the key actors in Thai politics is Suthep Thaugsuban, a veteran Democrat Party politician from the South. He is the leader of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, but resigned from parliament in December 2013 to lead the protest movement. Other Democrat Party Members of Parliament also resigned to support the protests. Ironically, when Suthep was deputy prime minister during the political crisis of May 2010, he ordered a harsh crackdown to end the demonstrations against the Abhisit government. In that crisis, approximately 90 to 100 deaths occurred and there were approximately 2,000 injuries. Another major irony is Suthep’s own corruption-tainted background. His involvement in a land reform scandal in 1995 led to the downfall of the Chuan-led Democrat Party government. In 2009, he was accused of violating the constitution by holding equity in a media firm that was receiving concessions from the government. Suthep’s supporters, however, would argue that his corruption is extremely small-scale compared to that of the Shinawatras.
Still, there have been many errors made by key players on both sides. While Yingluck’s ill-fated decision to sponsor the amnesty bill originally triggered the crisis, her decision to ignore the Constitutional Court’s ruling on the unconstitutionality of an elected Senate exacerbated the situation. Even though many argue that the court went beyond its jurisdiction in making this decision, her disregard for the Constitution was apparent. Yingluck’s economic policies have also alienated crucial supporters in the Thai countryside. Many economists view her populist program to subsidize rice production at above market prices as a flawed policy. There have also been serious problems in the implementation of the scheme, with errors in distributing money and accusations of corruption. These issues have weakened her position in rural areas, costing precious political capital.
On the other hand, many protestors have harmed their public image by describing the people of the north and northeast as ignorant and uneducated. While the region is considered by some to be disadvantaged economically and educationally, there are many universities and well-educated people in the region. In a recent book, Professor Charles Keyes, a leading world expert on the northeast, noted the increasingly cosmopolitan nature of the people of the northeast, primarily a result of processes of globalization. Additionally, by using force to prevent people from voting, the protestors lost international credibility and undermined their democratic ideals.
Yet, while there have been errors on both sides of the political divide, Thais across the country are unified in their criticism of Western media reports regarding the situation. Many argue the media portrayal is biased and superficial, oversimplifying the issue as a class war between the rich and the poor. Most notably, there are reports portraying the protestors as a monolithic group, when in fact there is considerable diversity among them. The results of two formal surveys of protestors carried out by the Asia Foundation indicate that the protestors come from both sides of the political divide and all across the economic spectrum. The protestors are generally well-educated, with 74% having some higher education, and 40% earn relatively high salaries, but they are evenly distributed geographically. While their numbers include many of Thailand’s educated elite, there are clearly protestors from all walks of life, united by a common goal to remove the Shinawatra family from power and eliminate what they consider to be its corrupt influences. Additionally, further media errors include reports stating that Abhisit was an illegitimate unelected prime minister and misrepresenting the geographical distribution of Yingluck’s political support.
The impact of protesting
On the positive side, these protests demonstrate political engagement and wanting to make a difference. Certainly, those involved are vehemently critical of the Yingluck government’s policies and its alleged corruption, and are exercising their voice. However, the incomplete election has resulted in a government without a Parliament, leaving it incapacitated. Former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun describes this kind of government as dysfunctional.
There have also been serious adverse economic effects. Tourist arrivals in January 2014 are down approximately one million from the year before, resulting in a net revenue loss of approximately 22.5 billion baht. Given the turbulent political situation, economic growth for 2013 is projected at 2.9%, down from 6.5% in 2012. In recent months, the Thai stock market has decreased approximately 26% and the value of the baht currency has dropped about 14%.
Regardless, one development that is deeply troubling to all parties is the negative tenor of the language being used by both sides in the conflict. Many observers have detected a change in tone to one that is much more vengeful, or even hateful, than in the past.
In thinking about Thailand’s future and how the country might resolve this crisis, it may be useful to consider three scenarios: the most optimistic, the most pessimistic and the most likely. There is an old saying that embedded within every crisis is an opportunity. Thus, the most optimistic scenario might then be the emergence of what Professor Titinan Pongsuttirak at Chulalongkorn University terms a “grand new political realignment.”
In the February 2 election, support for Yingluck was considerably lower than in July 2011. Many Thais are frustrated with those on both sides of the political divide and the intensive polarization. Needed is a new, middle-path third major party that would bring together the best from each side of the political divide and those neutral in the conflict. It would need to embrace the rural constituency that has strongly supported Dr. Thaksin and Yingluck. It might include individuals such as the technocrat, Dr. Somkid Jatusripitak, one of the most respected members of Dr. Thaksin’s cabinet, who established the popular village fund program. Others from the Thaksin side of the political divide could be individuals such as Dr. Olarn Chaipravat, the “economics guru” and former CEO of the Siam Commercial Bank. From the Suthep side, possibilities include individuals such as Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, the former Secretary-General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and Dr. Supachai Panitchpakdi, former Director of the World Trade Organization and Secretary General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. More neutral options include former Prime Minister Panyarachun, considered by many to have been one of Thailand’s most honest and effective leaders. A new party led by such highly regarded and talented individuals could very likely win a national election.
Another relatively optimistic scenario could be the resolution of the problem by either “protestor fatigue” or “prime minister fatigue,” with one side or the other simply giving up. One estimate is that the number of protestors is down to a few thousand members. This was confirmed when Suthep announced on February 28 that the protestors would end the Shutdown of Bangkok and no longer block key intersections.
The most negative scenario would be a civil war between the protestors and the Red Shirt supporters of Yingluck in the north and northeast. A much softer and acceptable alternative positive scenario related to this regional conflict would be a move to a more decentralized federal system with the king as head of state more along the lines of Malaysia or Great Britain.
The most likely scenario may be a judicial coup that removes Yingluck from power if she is found in dereliction of duty because of the rice subsidy scheme, in violation of Section 157 of the Criminal Code. If Yingluck is removed either by a judicial or military coup or a new senate, then Duncan McCargo, a scholar of Thai politics at Leeds University, predicts that Thailand could face the greatest political uprising in its modern political history by the angry supporters of Dr. Thaksin and Yingluck and their populist policies. Such individuals number in the millions. Given this alarming scenario, the Pheu Thai Party would have to identify an acceptable alternative to Yingluck such as current deputy prime minister Pongthep Thepkanjana, who appears to be one of the more highly regarded Pheu Thai politicians. Continued leadership by Pheu Thai, but with less association with the Shinawatra family, would likely prevent the uprising mentioned above. Yingluck may not be able to survive this political storm. If she does, she will have shown amazing leadership with both extraordinary patience and persistence, characteristics of a great political actor.