By Jayantha Dhanapala* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis
KANDY, Sri Lanka (IDN) – On May 22 this year the military in Thailand announced that it had taken over the country, suspended the Constitution and ousted the democratically-elected but controversial Government of Yingluck Shinawatra – sister of the exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thus ended a period of political gridlock as the supporters and opponents of Yingluck conducted their months long struggle for supremacy on the streets of Bangkok imperiling the economic stability of the country and its reputation as a booming tourist capital of the world.
For some this came as a welcome relief. For others it is viewed cynically as more of the same in Thailand’s chequered history after 1932 when a constitutional monarchy was established, leading to a fragile democracy with a vibrant “Tiger” economy enjoying Newly Industrialized Country (NIC) status within the pro-US ASEAN regional group. That is because military dictatorships rather than elected democratic governance has been the predominant pattern in this country – approximately eight times the size of Sri Lanka and a 65 million population – with its centuries old Theravada Buddhist tradition and enjoying the unique advantage of never having been under colonial rule.
Or is it that we are witnessing a different concept of democracy beyond the basic one-person one vote electoral mandate? In Egypt when elections resulted in the Muslim Brotherhood being elected, a backlash enthroned the Army once again in an ironic reversal of events which began in Tahrir Square. Now in Thailand popular elections are not enough as a mandate to rule when the Bangkok elite thinks otherwise and while profound social and political transformations are taking place with the “Red Shirts” clashing with the “Yellow Shirts”.
Samuel Huntington wrote of three waves of democracy – the first around the early 19th century; the second post World War II and the current period as the third. Perhaps we are seeing an ebb of that wave beginning with various distortions and threats to democracy taking place throughout the world – including the US with its gerrymandering and Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission – a landmark case in 2010, when, in the words of Obama “the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests – including foreign corporations – to spend without limit in our elections.” Add to that the threat from Boko Haram in Nigeria and ISIS in Iraq and the weaknesses of Sri Lanka’s Executive Presidency, we need to focus on how democracies can be reinforced.
The source of the current political problems may be traced to the January 2001 general election, widely regarded as free and fair, when the Thai Rak Thai Party, led by Thaksin Shinawatra, won defeating the incumbent Democrats. After a four-year term the Thaksin government was re-elected with an absolute majority in the 2005 elections which had the highest voter turnout in Thai history. However the Government was soon overthrown in a coup in 2006 and the military took power. Under military rule the Thai Rak Thai party was dissolved. A new constitution was approved by referendum and a democratic general election was held on 23 December 2007.
The People’s Power Party (Thailand), led by Samak Sundaravej formed a government with five smaller parties which, after a series of controversies, was finally unseated by the Constitutional Court. The succeeding Government was also plagued by controversy until on 2 December 2008, Thailand’s Constitutional Court in a disputed ruling, described as “a judicial coup”, found the Peoples Power Party guilty of electoral fraud. This led to the dissolution of the party according to the law.
The military then met with factions of the governing coalition to get their members to join the opposition and the Democrat Party was able to form a government for the first time since 2001. The leader of the Democrat party, Oxford-educated Abhisit Vejjajiva, was appointed and sworn in as the 27th Prime Minister, together with the new cabinet on 17 December 2008. Vejjajiva’s tenure was marred by constant demonstrations by the “Red Shirts” who opposed his party. Army efforts to control these led to many deaths and injuries.
On July 3. 2011, the opposition Pheu Thai Party, led by Yingluck Shinawatra, won the general election by a landslide (265 seats in the House of Representatives, out of 500). Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, a newcomer in politics, was the country’s first female leader and ruled despite street demonstrations until the coup led by Gen.Prayuth Chan-ocha of May 22. An attempt to grant amnesty to her brother and others provoked strong opposition, as did populist measures marred by corruption. The street demonstration led by Suthep Thaugsuban was called the “Muan Maha Prachachon” (The Great Mass of People) and was awarded the Bangkok Post People of the Year award.
There is an unmistakable class conflict behind the politics of Thailand. Thaksin is seen as a “nouveau riche” parvenu billionaire who made his money in the telecom industry and whose Thai Rak Thai party commands strong support in the rural north and north-east of the country. Anthropologists warn that this is an over-simplification of complex change in Thai society. For example Grant Evans writes – “Thailand’s northeast region, just across the border, accounts for 31 per cent of the total population. Commonly called Isan (and its people, Khon Isan), the region is mostly ethnic Lao, and has been a major base of support for Thaksin. According to anthropologist Charles Keyes, the region’s ethno-regional identity and solidarity has made the local people into a formidable political force. But, as Keyes also shows, Isan has been transformed out of sight since he first visited fifty years ago.”
Thaksin’s opponents are drawn mainly from Bangkok’s upper and middle class elite, and from opposition strongholds in the south. The Bangkok Post has described them as “white collar working class people and business entrepreneurs” who comprise the “Yellow Shirts”. They claim that Yingluck’s government was controlled by the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from Dubai.
Many of the middle-class protesters make no effort to conceal their scorn for the Shinawatra “red shirt” supporters, whom they portray as country bumpkins whose votes are easily bought with Thaksin’s money. Surin Pitsuwan, internationally known former ASEAN Secretary-General, sees this mass mobilization as a political evolution and social transformation. He is quoted as saying, “Deep grievances are being articulated against a rampant and unprecedented level of corruption, abuse of power, cronyism in business, nepotism in the bureaucracy…..pervasive and systematic violations of human and civil rights”. What is evident is that major political reform is needed for Thai democracy to work and the military must allow that to happen. Land reform and reform of the Buddhist Sangha is also being pursued
Before the coup UNDP reported positively on Thailand’s economy stating – “Thailand has shown remarkable economic growth during the past 20 years, reducing poverty from from 21 percent in 2000 to around 8 percent in 2009. It has also been extending the coverage of its social services, including education and health care, to nearly all of its population. In the areas of poverty, education and health, Thailand has made strong progress during the past two decades . . . Thailand has met the majority of its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) ahead of the 2015 deadline.” At the same time corruption remains a key challenge, and there is limited access to justice for the poor and vulnerable. Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perception Index (CPI) ranked Thailand 78 among 178 countries with a score of 3.5.Inequality is another challenge. Vulnerable groups, such as migrants, informal workers, and displaced persons, are not equally benefiting from Thailand’s economic successes. Women and children are still at risk of sexual and domestic violence.
A sub-text to the scenario
There is a sub-text to the Thai scenario which can never be published in Thailand because of the stringent laws surrounding any reports concerning the monarchy. That has to do with the fact that King Bhumibol Adulyadej is 87 years old and is ailing. The Crown Prince is unpopular unlike his sister and is regarded as a playboy with links to Thaksin. The military coup was endorsed by the King giving it the legitimacy it needed in a nation where the monarchy is deeply revered. Thus all the institutions – the monarchy, the political parties, the military and the judiciary – are involved through interconnected oligarchies and no one is blameless in the political imbroglio.
A Minister of the Yingluck Government, Charupong Reuangsuwam, went into exile to lead a campaign against the military coup. Allegations have been made that the military coup was a long time in gestation. The coup has had a bad press in the West complicated by reports of slave labour being used in Thailand’s fishing industry. Spokesmen for the military have denied the allegations promising that controversial former PM Thaksin Shinawatra and his family could still return to Thai politics. No elections are scheduled for at least after October 2015.
Meanwhile observers fear that the economy will decline with capital leaving the country. The military have made determined efforts to make themselves popular by organizing public displays of World Cup Soccer games and peace demonstrations to heal the rifts among the people. However like the Roman Emperors of yore this policy of “bread and circuses” is unlikely to win the hearts and minds of the people unless accompanied by genuine political reforms.
*Jayantha Dhanapala is currently President of the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize recipient the Pugwash Conferences on Science & World Affairs, a former UN Under-Secretary-General and a former Ambassador of Sri Lanka. [IDN-InDepthNews – July 4, 2014]
The writer’s previous articles on IDN:
Picture: King Bhumibol Adulyadej 2010-9-29 | Credit: Wikimedia Commons