Understanding the Thai conflict

Written by Anurag Viswanath | Updated: May 26 2014, 09:48am hrs
Over the last decade, the city of angels Bangkok has dodged its divination and destiny, turning instead into a city of guns, soldiers and angry street protesters. The latest assault began when army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha declared martial law in Thailand on May 20. In response, respected academic Ji Ungpakorn (currently in exile in the UK due to the widely misused lese majeste law) went on to predict that it smells like a coup, tastes like a coup, looks like a coup. In just two days, Prayuth Chan-ocha proved him right declaring himself as acting Prime Minister and suspending the Constitution.

The coup comes in acrimonious times with a splintered political landscape translated loosely into a face-off between the yellow shirts (monarchists, nobility, upper classes) and red shirts (poor and rural Thais, supporters of ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra). The old entrenched establishment favours yesteryears status quoand accuses Thaksin of populist measures to buy out the people in the past elections. The yellow shirts hope to reverse thisthey want to have an appointed Prime Minister to reform the system before any elections. Ironically, turning the democratic clock is difficult. Perhaps Thailand should take a cue from the recently concluded elections in India.

Interestingly, Thailands coup claims to be temporary and offset by patriotism, or so it would like all to believe. Its rationale is prevention of escalating tensions between pro- and anti-government clashes that endanger the countrys security and safety. This is not fooling everyoneKhana Nitirat, a widely respected group of eminent jurists of Thammasat University (the university is famously known as a key player and arbiter in Thailands struggle for democracy), has slammed the coup as arbitrary and without the approval of His Majesty, the King.

While tourist arrivals have dropped in the last six monthshitting the backbone of the economythe coup cloaks itself as an altruistic National Peace and Order Maintenance Council (NPOMC) to bring harmony. However, actions run contrary. Political leaders including former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra have been detained and politically inclined individuals debarred from leaving the country. Besides, social media has been blanked out as have TV channels and radio stations. Though a number of yellow shirt leaders have been detained, red shirts call this detention just to show balance.

The military coup follows the judicial coup manoeuvred by the Constitutional Court ousting Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra for abuse of power transferring a senior National Security Council official. Thailand elections scheduled in February could not be held in about 70 of the 375 constituenciesbecause of the hold of the yellow shirts on these provinces (largely in south Thailand). The opposition Democrat Party (closely allied with the yellow shirts) refused to participate in the elections, as they believed they would lose as they have for the last decade and a half. This was used as pretext to annul the elections (which were handsomely won by Puea Thai party run by proxy by Thaksin).

One of the key figures in Thailand has been the revered monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), widely regarded as a consummate political player who outshone and upstaged a litany of military dictators in the 1960s and 1970s to seal his reputation as a moral progressive force with several rural projects under his tutelage.

King Bhumibol is not only the worlds longest serving monarch but also the eighth richest with Forbes and Oxfam estimating Crown Property Bureaus (CPB) net worth in excess of $30 billion in 2012. Many may recall King Bhumibols moral force during the 1992 crisis beamed into television sets all over the worldwhen the key feuding leaders kneeled before King Bhumibol and sought royal intervention.

The roots of the crisis go back to Thaksin Shinawatras meteoric rise in the late 1990sa policeman-turned-billionaire-turned-politician saw the gradual eclipse of the old Bangkok-centric establishment. Thaksin won a landslide victory in 2001 and was re-elected in 2005 gathering 61% of the vote. Thaksin, whose stronghold is the backward, lagging north and north-eastern Thailand (colloquially called Isan), established his popularity with the universal healthcare scheme, village development schemes and incentives to small and medium enterprises (SMEs) such as OTOP (One Tambon One Product).

Thaksins first term (2001-05) turned controversial due to his brash and brusque personal style reflected in the aggressive war on drugs (2003). Thaksin also mishandled the delicate political equation of restive Muslims (4.6% of Thailands population) in the four politically volatile southern provinces of Yala, Pattani, Satun and Narathiwat in two separate incidents Krue Se (2004) and Tak Bai (2004). And, infamously, the $1.87 billion tax-free sale of Thaksins business stake in telecommunications (Shin Corp) to Singapores Temasek Holdings capped the wave of anger.

Thaksin was booted out in the 2006 coup (the 18th coup since 1932) under the call return power to the King. But the euphoria following Thaksins exit has been short-lived. Instead, political polarisation between yellow shirts and red shirts and along geographic north (Thaksins bastion) and south (Democrat Party bastion) has grown, etched right down to a divide between masses and classes, rich and poor, conservatives and reactionaries and even families.

A glimmer of stability came when Puea Thai won the general election in 2011 and Thaksins younger sister Yingluck served as the Prime Minister (2011-14). Despite floating the banner of national reconciliation, she flirted with an amnesty bill that would allow for return of Thaksin (in 2013) and floated a rice subsidy scheme. This gave plenty of ammunition to Democrat politician Suthep Thaugsuban to seek out her dismissal.

Under the rubric of Peoples Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), Suthep sought a return to pre-Thaksin status quo with an unelected Prime Minister. In the last six months, orchestrated anti-government mobs have overrun Bangkok taking over government buildings, thronging public parks and streets.

Thailands problem has been that its independent institutions lack teeth and accountability. Ji Ungpakorn says that the Constitutional Court and Election Commission and the Contempt of Court Law which protects judges from criticism needs urgent reform. Appointed Senators too have been accused of sitting on the fence.

Sadly, in all this, Thailands monarch whose banner is being evoked by all groups is ageing and ailingand so is Thailands economy. The robust destination with strong manufacturing base and infrastructure is starting to be deserted by investorsinvestment has fallen by 9.8% and manufacturing declined by 2.7%. Thailands National Economic and Social Development Board has announced that in the first quarter GDP contracted by 0.6% (compared to last year).

Once a beacon of democracy and economic growth in South-east Asia, Thailands lapse from democracy is nothing short of a tragedy. The yellow shirt elites of Thailand cannot stomach the fact that Thaksin keeps winning every election since 2001, and evoke every means (judicial coup, military coup, etc) to pre-maturely dismiss every elected pro-Thaksin Prime Minister. Perhaps they should take a cue from the opponents of the Congress party in India, who had to endure them for 10 long yearsbut had their moment of triumph, when a long period in power eventually led to misrule and people turned against them.

The author is a Singapore-based sinologist and is currently adjunct fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi