- Prem, The Privy Council to the Thai King, is the “Key Link”
- The Following is from International Institute of Strategic Study
A crackdown by the Thai authorities on 19 May 2010 finally ended two months of major street protests by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), known as the ‘red shirts’. The protests were part of a wider political crisis that has been raging for nearly five years. Demonstrators were challenging the legitimacy of the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and demanding an election. More fundamentally, however, their actions seemed to be questioning the legitimacy of the Thai state itself and expressing fears about the royal succession. Thailand is a politically polarised nation plagued by anxieties about the future. It seems unlikely that even an eventual return to the polls can offer lasting solutions.
Since 14 March 2010, UDD-led protests, typically comprising tens of thousands of demonstrators, sometimes more, had paralysed central areas of Bangkok, including major shopping malls and popular tourist destinations. Eighty-five people were killed, most of them protesters, but also including some members of the security forces, as well as one Japanese and one Italian press photographer. According to the Bangkok Post, 1,387 people were injured, including a number of foreigners.
The police were at best half-hearted in their efforts to control demonstrations with which many of them strongly sympathised. And though the army opened fire at key moments, it long delayed implementing a decisive crackdown, despite repeated requests from the beleaguered government. It was only after the red shirts’ unofficial security chief, rogue army general Khattiya Sawasdipol, died of injuries from a sniper’s bullet on 17 May, that the army moved in. The red-shirt movement had already been split by an earlier government offer to dissolve parliament to pave way for fresh elections in November, a deal which was accepted by a number of core leaders but resisted by Khattiya and other hardliners. Once Khattiya was dead and many other red-shirt leaders were losing heart, the military used armoured personnel carriers in a final assault on just a few thousand remaining demonstrators.
Thailand has been in an extended political crisis since September 2005, when Sondhi Limthongkul, media magnate and former ally of then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, started hosting and televising anti-Thaksin protest rallies. Sondhi’s movement culminated in the emergence of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), or ‘yellow shirts’, who staged mass protests against Thaksin during the first half of 2006. Thaksin, an ex-police officer and billionaire telecommunications tycoon, was ousted by a military coup on 19 September 2006, and since then Thailand has been bitterly divided between the pro- and anti-Thaksin camps.
Pro-Thaksin parties formed the first elected government following the end of military rule in early 2008, but lasted less than a year in office, brought down by the PAD who occupied Government House, which houses ministerial offices, for several months and finally paralysed Thailand by occupying Bangkok’s main airport. An anti-Thaksin government led by the Democrat Party leader and current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva took office in December 2008, without an election being held, following the banning of Thaksin’s former ruling party, Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais). (The Democrat Party is not synonymous with the PAD, though they have many supporters in common.) The courts have made a series of decisions against Thaksin since a speech by King Bhumibol Adulyadej in April 2006, in which he urged the judiciary to help solve the country’s political problems. Setbacks suffered by Thaksin and his supporters have included the dissolution of two pro-Thaksin parties.
- A democracy or a monarchy?
The ongoing conflict reflects a basic ambiguity as to whether Thailand is a modern democracy, governed by elections according to rules laid down in a constitution, or in fact remains a monarchy, in which the royal palace is allowed to exert considerable extra-constitutional power. This confusion is magnified in times of crisis: there is no consensus on which body – politicians, the army, the judiciary, the monarchy, or the judiciary acting on royal advice – should have ultimate responsibility for resolving political crises. It was the king himself who eventually intervened to halt the last major street protests in May 1992.
For all the rhetoric of the Thai authorities, who are always eager to tell foreign diplomats and the international media that the king is ‘above politics’, nobody really believes them. However, there is rarely any need for personal royal action. For the most part, the palace engages in political activity through what has been termed ‘network monarchy’, a loose alliance of broadly pro-royalist forces centred on institutions such as the Privy Council, but which spans the judiciary, the armed forces, elements of the bureaucracy, academia and even the NGO sector. The network, which has no fixed membership, seeks to advance the ideas, positions and assumed views of the royal family on its behalf. In the Thai context, a leader does not need to give explicit instructions to subordinates. A good subordinate will already know what needs to be done.
In the recent rounds of conflict, royal preferences have been clear. Queen Sirikit attended the funeral of a PAD protester in October 2008, telling the young woman’s father that she was a ‘good girl’ who had died defending the monarchy. Former prime minister Anand Panyarachun – seen as a royal confidante – and Abhisit (in his capacity as Democrat Party leader, shortly before he took up his post as prime minister) attended another PAD funeral a few days later. These developments indicate an affinity between the palace and the Democrat Party.
There was much speculation as to why the king did not take any direct action to end the recent conflict. This question reflected a belief that he is so revered that he could halt any protest at his command. But in practice such royal intervention was very unlikely. Apart from the 82-year-old king’s poor health, such a move would be extremely risky: a successful intervention would enhance his prestige and charisma, but an unsuccessful intervention could be a disaster. On previous occasions, as in 1992, the king has waited until the tide of opinion was already moving in a clear direction. His interventions have then served to endorse and solidify an emerging consensus, and were only made when he was confident his wishes would be respected. In 2010, there was no reason to believe that the red-shirt leaders would accept a direct royal instruction to disband their protests, and such a request might appear to confirm the impression that the monarchy was on the side of the government, and indeed that of the PAD. Overall, it was much safer for the palace to do nothing.
- Who are the red shirts?
Despite the oft-repeated mantra that Thaksin’s supporters are largely poor farmers from the north and northeast, frustrated by their long oppression at the hands of the Bangkok elite who are consistently abetted by the urban middle classes, the reality is much more complicated. While many red shirts were brought in from the northern province of Chiang Mai or the eastern province of Ubon Ratchathani in pick-up trucks, the army estimated that 70% of red-shirt protesters actually came from Bangkok and surrounding provinces; and the capital city is peppered with ‘pro-red’ communities and zones.
Thailand’s colour-coded politics cannot be reduced to simple class or regional tensions, which offer only crude insights into the deep divisions affecting the society. Across all social classes and parts of the country, even people within individual families are divided by the conflict. The urban–rural divide is not as clear-cut as it might sound, since Bangkok and other major cities rely heavily on migrant labour, much of it transient, from the provinces – while most rural provinces also contain large towns with urban social and voting characteristics.
While only a small proportion of Thailand’s population of 67 million – perhaps around 200,000 – has actively participated in red-shirt demonstrations, a sizeable minority of the population consistently supports pro-Thaksin political parties, and sympathises with the protests to some degree. The now-defunct pro-Thaksin People Power Party won 39.60% of the proportional vote in the December 2007 elections; while the Democrat Party achieved a near-identical 39.63%. To a large extent, that 2007 divide still holds good: somewhere around 40% of Thais are broadly red shirt in sympathy, around 40% are broadly sympathetic to the yellow shirts, and about 20% are in the middle, perhaps half wavering, and half simply unwilling to take sides. The pro-Thaksin 40% includes significant elements of the urban middle class.
The red-shirt movement is not unified around a single ideological position. Even the question of whether the red shirts support Thaksin is not entirely straightforward. While a substantial proportion of the protesters do support the ousted prime minister and continue to demand his return, other elements of the movement are either indifferent to him – arguing that even if he were to die, their cause would continue – and still others are critical of Thaksin, seeing him as a problematic figure whose premiership did not deliver on its promises. Thaksin, who is living in exile in Dubai and Montenegro, now appears more distant from the red-shirt movement, failing to make any of his usual video-link or phone-ins to the demonstrations during the tension in April.
- Defining Thaksin’s interests
Nor is it clear what Thaksin himself actually stands for. While both critics and supporters have ascribed a range of policy and intellectual positions to Thaksin – he has been variously portrayed as an economic nationalist, a pro-poor populist, and an anti-monarchist, for example – most evidence suggests that he is essentially a pragmatist and an opportunist, driven by the single-minded pursuit of power. Faced with a rival power centre such as the monarchy, his well-honed business instincts are to cooperate and cut a deal, rather than to try and force through a hostile takeover bid. To see Thaksin as an anti-monarchist would miss the point, though some red shirts do have republican tendencies.
Thaksin made clear in a November 2009 interview with The Times of London that he has higher hopes than many for Thailand’s controversial Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. Asked about the likely heir to the throne, Thaksin declared: ‘After he becomes the King I’m confident he can be shining to perform Kingship’. While the former prime minister later tried to repudiate some of his statements in the interview, it is precisely the prospect of Thaksin working alongside the crown prince that underpins much of the tension between the two sides in this conflict.
At their core, the unrest, demonstrations and violence that have affected Thailand since 2005 can be traced back to growing national anxiety about the succession question, since few Thais welcome the prospect of the crown prince acceding to the throne, and many fear that a weak new monarch would give Thaksin carte blanche to run Thailand to his own liking.
It is possible to see both the PAD and the UDD as manifestations of the same collective anxiety about the succession; very broadly, the PAD fears the influence of Thaksin in the next reign, while the red shirts believe that only strong political leadership might prevent that reign from ending in disaster. Like the pro-Thaksin government that preceded it, the Abhisit government was for many weeks incapable of maintaining law and order, and the youthful, Oxford-educated premier himself sometimes seemed a hapless figurehead, a captive of the vested interests that propelled him into office. That the government was eventually able to bring the situation under control has boosted Abhisit’s credibility in some circles. But for many with red-shirt or pro-Thaksin sympathies, the current Democrat government cannot easily be forgiven for its extensive use of lethal force against largely unarmed demonstrations, in tactics condemned by Amnesty International for violating international law.
- Reconciliation unlikely
Although the street protests of early 2010 seemed to be about the legitimacy of the Abhisit government and demands for an election, they were therefore actually about the legitimacy of the Thai state and fears about the royal succession. In this, they closely resembled earlier protests by the UDD in April 2009, and those by the PAD from May to December 2008. What this means is that despite the talk of ‘reconciliation’ (a word tainted by association with royalist language and ideas in the Thai context) and a roadmap for new elections, Thailand will still face a divide that may be irreconcilable.
On one level, this divide exists because many of the 40% of the population who are broadly pro-Thaksin do not accept the legitimacy of the current government, just as many of the other 40% who are broadly pro-Democrat would not accept the legitimacy of any new pro-Thaksin government that might come to office after fresh elections. There is no fundamental agreement about the rules of the political game, partly because Thailand’s real politics cannot ignore the question of monarchy, which looms ever larger as the succession approaches. Both yellow-shirted and red-shirted protesters have been acting out their fears for the future in quasi-theatrical performances, which are simply dress rehearsals for a much bigger crisis to come. No ‘road map’ intended to resolve the crisis will lead to genuine reconciliation.
- Thai Opposition Red Shirts Balk at New Army Chief (time.com)
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- Thaksin drops call for return to power (telegraph.co.uk)
- Thai Red Shirts begin coup anniversary protests (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Thai Premier Rules Out Thaksin Amnesty in Talks on Peace Deal (businessweek.com)
- Thaksin to increase activities ahead of Thai polls (newsinfo.inquirer.net)
- Cambodia denies Thai assassination plot allegation (foxnews.com)
- Cambodia denies Thai assassination plot allegation (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Thaksin Shinawatra drops call for return to power (telegraph.co.uk)