E.Koldunova. Thailand: Pandora’s Box

Thailand is no stranger to protests. There is nothing new in the looming schism in the country that is dividing supporters and opponents of the Pheu Thai Party, a third reincarnation of the political entity that supports Thai ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s henchmen. Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted from power through a coup in 2006 and had to flee the country. These events triggered a whole series of internal political crises in Thailand, each of which helped to contribute further to the deepening schism. An attempt in 2013 by the government to have the parliament adopt a law granting amnesty, which would have given Shinawatra a chance of a comeback, put into question the very future of the country’s political system.

The Rise and Fall of Thai Democracy

Never colonized by foreign powers, Thailand has had the longest democratic tradition in Southeast Asia. The country’s absolute monarchy adopted a constitution in 1932. Since then, the country has had over five decades of authoritarian rule and numerous military coups. Thailand has effectively existed under so-called ‘despotic paternalism,’[1] which combines elements of traditional political culture with that of military rule.

Although attempts were made as far back as the period from 1973 to 1976 to re-establish a democratic system, this did not happen until the early 1990s. After the 1991 coup, the army tried hard to remain in power, but by that time, Thai society had grown to support a broad oppositional front that joined together diverse social groups clamoring for real democracy. By the late 1990s, the country’s political system saw radical changes, with a new constitution adopted in 1997 that had genuinely democratic features and facilitated the engagement of the general population in the political process.

The January 2001 parliamentary elections were won by the Thai Rak Thai Party (TRT) with the rich businessman Thaksin Shinawatra at the helm. Because the TRT did not win an absolute majority, a coalition government was formed. However, during the next election in February 2005, the TRT received over 70 per cent of the ballot and was able to form its own government for the first time, making Thaksin Shinawatra Prime Minister for the second time. However, in September 2006, a political crisis struck again: the prime minister, accused of insulting the personage of the king, corruption, and abusing his power to further his own business interests, was ousted from power by a military coup.

“Thaksinization”[1] (and its opponents)

The roots of the current split in Thai society are to be found in the populist policies pursued by Thaksin Shinawatra. This leader enjoyed massive support among large groups of the population in agrarian regions, in particular, in the northeast of the country, from where the politician himself comes from.

Thaksin Shinawatra’s programme, which offered cheap loans to farmers, inexpensive healthcare, and support to industries under the scheme of “one tambon[3] - one product” was an immediate hit in a country where the income gap between the richest and the poorest had frightening dimensions. Thailand’s Gini index was far ahead of that of many of its neighbours in the region[4].

As a result of a fairly robust economic period from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, the poverty level in Thailand dropped, and the country became part of the middle-income group of countries. However, many of those who believe themselves to be part of Thailand’s middle class today, were “yesterday’s poor”, while conditions in the country, which has remained in the middle-income trap for two decades now, do not leave much hope for citizens to see their well-being improved significantly in the foreseeable future[5]. Put against the country’s current social inequalities, Thaksin Shinawatra’s slogans have fallen on fertile ground.

Of further importance is the fact that while he was busy pursuing his own public policies, Thaksin Shinawatra did not exactly forget about his own financial interests. Many of his foreign policy initiatives vis-а-vis neighbouring Myanmar and Cambodia were in fact a front for his efforts to promote his own company, Shin Corporation. But Thaksin also found support among big business. As Thai researchers Thani Chaiwat and Pasuk Phongpaichit have pointed out, Thaksin Shinawatra tried to break up entrenched patronage relationships between politicians, bureaucrats and large business, replacing them with a network of relationships with himself as the prime minister at the centre[6].

Ironically, Thaksin Shinawatra’s mass social programmes only served to intensify the inner territorial conflicts within the country. In particular, because Thai’s oldest political party, the Democratic Party, was banished to the margins of the political process, the southern provinces, which traditionally had voted for this party, found themselves marginalized outside the normal channels of political representation. These southern provinces, three of which that have a predominantly Muslim population (Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani), have also been ignored by the government’s economic programmes. As a result of these changes, among other things, the problem of separatism, which in the early 1990s appeared to be basically resolved, flared up again.

In addition, Thaksin Shinawatra has disturbed the system of checks and balances that Duncan McCargo, a UK observer, termed a “network monarchy”[7]. Under this system that had already been well established by the 1980s-1990s, the king enjoyed the role of being supreme arbiter for resolving political differences, as his pronouncements were the source of legitimacy for various political forces. As a result, throughout the 1990s, none of political actors could dominate the political process. That the centre of control over politics shifted in favor of the king’s guard within the Privy Council, was of no principal importance prior to Thaksin Shinawatra. It only acquired significance after Shinawatra had succeeded in forming a single-party government, seriously weakening the positions of “traditionalists”.

However, removing Thaksin Shinawatra from the premier’s office in violation of constitutional rules did not help to alleviate political tensions. In 2008, Abhisit Vejjajiva, a member of the oppositional Democratic Party, was appointed Prime Minister after having parliament endorse him (instead of being nominated by a party that had won the majority during the general election). This development only reemphasized the weakened positions of the Democrats[8]. The emergence of a popular movement called the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship in 2006 (commonly called “Red Shirts” for the colour worn in protest) that supported Thaksin Shinawatra, demonstrated that deep divide in the country was structural in nature. The Red Shirts have brought together both the agrarian population from the north and northeast of the country and poor urban residents, who have protested against what they believe to be the illegitimate rise of Abhisit Vejjajiva and his flouting of popular opinion.

During the August 2011 elections, the Pheu Thai Party (which had replaced the TRT and its previous reincarnations that have been outlawed since 2006) with Thaksin Shinawatra’s younger sister at the head won 265 out of 500 seats in the House of Representatives[9]. One would think that the country has returned to normal, following a path to national reconciliation, despite the fact that Yingluck Shinawatra had never pretended that she would not be ruling the country on behalf of her brother. Yingluck Shinawatra, who had been previously employed in the family business, had effectively joined politics at the behest of her brother, with the election slogan “Thaksin thinks, Yingluck acts”[10]. There were also signs that various Thai elite groups were looking for a compromise. The army in particular found Yingluck Shinawatra to be quite acceptable. In July 2013, after government reshuffles, Yingluck Shinawatra was made defence minister. With no clean plans to meddle in army affairs, she became actively involved instead in various formal and informal ways of canvassing support for the military leadership[11].

If you cannot play by the rules, ignore them

The confidence that her political positions were strong enough must have prompted the prime minister to introduce an amnesty bill in parliament in November 2013. If adopted by both houses[12], the bill would have provided Thaksin Shinawatra with a way to return to his country. In response, protests erupted in Bangkok in December 2013. Suthep Thaugsuban from the Democratic Party accused Yingluck of buying votes; subsidies to rice farmers had cost government USD 6.22 billion a year[13].

In reaction to growing popular resentment, Yingluck Shinawatra disbanded parliament on 9 December 2013 and announced early parliamentary elections scheduled for 2 February 2014, but the opposition pledged to undermine them. On 13 January 2014, the opposition launched a campaign to block Bangkok and disrupt the functions of government. If the election could be derailed, its legitimacy would be questioned. And since electoral violations were recorded in 18 of 77 provinces, the government planned additional bi-elections early in March and in late April. Meanwhile, the opposition appealed for an interim government (without Yingluck Shinawatra or supporters of the Pheu Thai Party) and established something similar to a People’s Council to carry out the reforms, since elections, as the opposition claimed, could not help resolve the political stalemate in the country. Nevertheless, in February 2014, the Constitutional Court refused to annul the results of the election, thus recognizing the first round as valid.

Relying on the protest movement, the oppositional Democratic Party, which was not exactly untainted by corruption scandals, started looking for ways to circumvent the existing political system. The party not only wanted to gain access to power, but also to sweep the political stage clean of their direct competitor - Yingluck Shinawatra and the Pheu Thai Party. Another important goal for them was to prevent Thaksin Shinawatra from ever returning to the national political stage[14]. If he was able to stage a comeback, the Democrats could not gather a decisive majority vote in parliament. But the army’s support of Yingluck Shinawatra deprived the opposition of any possible allies. The neutral stance of the Royal Court, which since 2006 had shown no desire to interfere in the course of events in the country, had effectively eliminated any hope of appealing to the higher ground which was perceived, ceremonially and morally, if not politically, to be above inter-party fighting. As a result, with her amnesty bill, Yingluck Shinawatra had committed a serious blunder, as the opposition was finally given a chance to go for broke.

Irreversible Processes

The processes that are underway in Thailand have far-reaching implications. The opposition is not prepared to become engaged in a dialogue, let alone seek compromise or look for common positions on political reform. The confrontation between Yingluck Shinawatra and opposition leaders is only part of the problem that Thai society is currently facing. The broader issue is the overall crisis of democracy. Many local residents distrust, broadly speaking, all political forces, believing, quite rightly so, that both sides are mired in corruption. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index 2013, which reflects the degree of corruption in the public sector, ranked Thailand 102nd, with the index value of 35 on a scale from 0 to 100, where 0 is the highest and 100 is the lowest corruption score[15]. Public opinion polls held at the end of February 2014 by the National Institute for Development and Administration showed that over 60 per cent of the population want a neutral prime minister that does belong to any of the opposing groups to head the government[16].

From this perspective, elections are unlikely to change the situation in the country, but could instead provoke both sides to look yp extra-constitutional forms of political representation (such as the People’s Council project, e.g.) hailed as a legitimate mechanism under the pretext that the protest movement has allegedly supported it. However, opponents of the pro-Thaksin government are not in a position to offer realistic economic alternatives. Moreover, it is unlikely that they will be able to come up with any projects that would focus on reducing social inequalities. In 2008, the leader of the now oppositional Democratic Party, Abhisit Vejjajiva, in a populist move, tried hard to convince the people that Shinawatra’s social programmes would be maintained and, even more so, extended to other areas. As Thaksin Shinawatra’s populism increased expectations from a sizeable portion of Thai population that their incomes would grow, it will be difficult to expect them to give up on this hope easily. This fact has been borne out by the growing political activism in the northeastern regions, which stand poised to become more involved in the civil conflict should Yingluck Shinawatra be ousted from power. Given the previous experiences of the Red Shirts[17], they easily match what the opposition is doing. Political turbulence will not help to address the issues of the South, where, apart from Bangkok, most of the voting abuses happened on 2 February 2014. What makes the situation even worse is that the monarch who is 86 years old and no longer in a position to arbitrate over political disputes as he once did. The state of his health leaves no hope for improvement, while his heir does not enjoy the same uncontested authority in society. Celebrations of the king’s birthday on 5 December 2013 and his address to the nation calling on the people to preserve national unity helped suspend street protests only for a short amount of time.

Developments in Thailand have so far remained the internal business of Thailand itself. As an important political and economic partner, US made calls calls for moderation at the beginning of the confrontation from both parties, urging them to honour the principles of democracy and avoid another coup. Looking back, neither the governments formed by the Thai Rak Thai/Pheu Thai party, nor those of the Democrats had ever questioned the importance of their relationship with the US, though the US is obviously keen to see democratic political processed implemented.

It is however apparent that political instability in Thailand may have repercussions far beyond the country’s internal political process. Although Thailand’s neighbors in the region have avoided making any official statements about the events happening there, ongoing developments may make countries in Southeast Asia concerned about the ease by which a political balance might be disturbed, and the disastrous consequences that economic modernization could have if it results in wider social disparities. It is already obvious that political tensions in Thailand will have negative implications for its economic indicators (under the worst scenario, GDP growth in 2014 may slow from 5 to 2 per cent) and may in the mid-term limit the country’s contribution to the ASEAN’s integration plans which are aimed at creating an economic alliance by 2015. Concerns over instability in Thailand have been voiced by neighboring Myanmar, which is wary that many of their bilateral infrastructure projects have been put on ice.

For Russia, an unstable Thailand means the weakening of one of its most promising economic partners in the region, apart from Vietnam. Yingluck Shinawatra’s visit to Russia, which was cancelled in December 2013 as a result of protests in the country, served once again as a reminder of the degree to which Russian-Thai relations depend on the domestic political situation in Thailand. The political instability was, to a large measure, the reason why a number of bilateral business projects in the renewable energy and infrastructure sectors have remained solely on paper.

The situation can apparently only be improved if radical transformations are implemented in the economic and social spheres, along with a tangible reduction in corruption and a new system of checks and balances. However, this would require dedicated efforts, true political stability, and a substantial amount of time, something which Thailand does not seem to possess.

1. Chaloemtiarana Th. The Politics of Despotic Paternalism. N.Y.: Cornell University, 2007.

2. The term used by Duncan McCargo and Ukrista Pathmanand in their book (McCargo D., Pathmanand U. The Thaksinization of Thailand. Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2005).

3. Agrarian administrative units below provinces and district.

4. According to the UNDP, Thailand’s Gini index was 40 in 2000-2010. For comparison, the same figure is 34 in Indonesia, 35.6 in Vietnam, 37.9 in Cambodia, and 36.7 in Laos. Thailand is ahead of the Philippines with 43, and Malaysia with 46.2 (http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/reports/14/hdr2013_en_complete.pdf)

5. Phongpaichit P., Benyaapikul P. Locked in the Middle-Income Trap: Thailand’s economy between resilience and future challenges. URL: http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/bueros/thailand/09208.pdf

6. Chaiwat T. Rents and Rent-Seeking in the Thaksin Era/ T.Chaiwat, P.Phongpaichit// Thai Capital after the 1997 Crisis. Ed. by P. Phongpaichit, Ch. Baker. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2008. P.258-259.

7. McCargo D. Network Monarchy and Legitimacy Crisis in Thailand// The Pacific Review. 2005 (December). Vol.18. No.4. P.500-501.

8. Since 1992, the Democratic Party has not won a majority of seats in the country’s legislature.

9. IPU PARLINE database: http://www.ipu.org/parline-e/reports/arc/2311_11.htm

10. Hookway J. Thai Leader Yingluck Shinawatra Says Instability May Drag On/ The Wall Street Journal URL: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303722104579243713207998356

11. Some believe that key to this arrangement was the prime minister’s promise to keep the defense budget intact (Hookway J. Op.cit).

12. The Thai parliament has two houses: the House of Representatives and the Senate. One half of the senators are elected by provinces, and the other half are appointed by the Senate’s Election Committee.

13. Tang A. Thai protesters join final anti-govt march before election: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/01/thailand-protest-idUSL3N0L602S20140201

14. Chachavalpongpun P. The Real Reason Thais Won’t Find Resolution Soon: http://www.themalaymailonline.com/what-you-think/article/the-real-reason-thais-wont-find-resolution-soon-pavin-chachavalpongpun

15. Corruption Perception Index 2013 (http://cpi.transparency.org/cpi2013/results/).

16. Poll: Anand preferred 'neutral' PM/ The Bangkok Post. http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/local/397071/60-support-proposal-for-neutral-prime-minister-thai-pollster-reports

17. Yellow Shirts belong to the People’s Union for Democracy and stand opposed to Thaksin Shinawatra and his supporters. Yellow is the king’s colour, so this group of protestors express their loyalty to the ruling monarch and their disagreement with the rule of the Shinawatra clan. The Red Shirts movement of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, in contrast, is supportive of those governments that continued Thaksin Shinawatra’s policies.

Yekaterina KOLDUNOVA,
Russian International Affairs Council



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