Why Thailand is looking like the next Ukraine
By David Pilling
Financial Times, February 27, 2014
The battle lines are drawn in a conflict that is testing the unity of the nation
Something potentially nasty is brewing in Thailand. In recent weeks the world’s attention has understandably been on Ukraine. But the political stand-off in southeast Asia’s second-largest economy is just as intractable. The chances of more serious violence spilling on to the streets is real. For the first time in decades, there have even been murmurings about the possibility of the country splitting into two, with the poorer northeast ceding from a generally richer and more urban south centred on Bangkok.
Of course, it need not come to that. Thailand’s political crisis has, after all, been simmering for years. Somehow the country has managed to carry on – and even to attract bucketloads of foreign investment and large numbers of tourists – in spite of military coups, annulled elections and occasional bloodshed.
Yet the two main sides in the dispute are now more entrenched than ever. If violence is not to boil over with truly frightening consequences, one or both will have to back down. For months, there have been protests on the streets against the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, the self-exiled former prime minister. Protesters say the government is a mere front for Mr Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and subsequently sentenced for abuse of state power for corruption. (Mr Thaksin’s lawyers say the trial was politically motivated.) Protests were triggered by a cynical attempt to pass a bill that would have given Mr Thaksin an amnesty.
Ms Yingluck sought to head off the crisis by holding snap elections in February. It did not work. The opposition, which has not mustered an electoral victory in 20 years, boycotted the poll and blockaded polling centres. Turnout was patchy. Although Ms Yingluck’s party won, it was a pyrrhic victory. She must wait for by-elections in uncontested constituencies before she can form a legal government. In the meantime, she heads a caretaker administration devoid of power. Her ministers meet furtively or communicate by email.
Protesters are literally walling off Ms Yingluck’s office. A judicial noose is tightening around her neck. She faces possible impeachment after an anti-corruption body said it would charge her for mismanagement of a rice subsidy scheme.
Ms Yingluck’s days as prime minister are surely numbered. Yet the opposition’s proposals for what comes next are barely credible. It is proposing a non-elected council of the great and the good to bring in unspecified “reforms” and to manage the transition to new elections. So long as universal suffrage is maintained, however, it seems likely that some proxy of Mr Thaksin will win again – as it has in every contested poll since 2001. There is little middle ground. Suthep Thaugsuban, former deputy prime minister and protest leader, has said his movement will win or lose but never compromise.
Lack of faith in national institutions is crippling. The army has mounted 11 successful coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. The government it installed after 2006 was a farce. Mercifully, this time it has stayed on the sidelines. “Judicial coups” have been almost as rife. The courts have dissolved several of Mr Thaksin’s proxy governments. Thais are left with no one to trust.
The monarchy is the one institution that still commands some respect. But King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 86 and in frail health, has withdrawn from the scene, residing outside the capital. When he dies, there is every prospect of a succession crisis. Some even argue that recent street battles are a kind of proxy monarchical struggle with supporters of the Crown Prince and Crown Princess lining up on opposite sides.
The truth is more complex. It is plausible, however, that when the restraining figure of the king is gone, long-suppressed antagonisms will burst to the surface with unpredictable results.
Even if the king were at the height of his powers, it is not clear how he could resolve what is essentially a struggle for power. Broadly, this pits Thailand’s establishment against the previously disenfranchised masses. The establishment thinks the masses have been duped by Mr Thaksin. It does not believe the majority has what it takes to choose wisely. Therein lies the impasse.
The struggle has recently turned more violent. Several people have been killed, including a five-year-old girl. Cities have echoed to the sound of grenade attacks and firefights. The public is revolted by the turn of events.
That could, says Chris Baker, an expert on Thailand, persuade the two sides to pull back from the brink. If both Mr Suthep and Ms Yingluck withdrew, it is just possible, he says, that some kind of compromise could be hammered out. More political autonomy for the northeast could be part of the solution.
Things, though, could just as easily go the other way. If Ms Yingluck is forced to stand down, her supporters may conclude that, no matter how they vote, the establishment will not accept the result. If that is their verdict, trouble lies ahead.