Commentary

Bangkok’s 2008 Stumble: Time for Reform

in Program

2008 saw the culmination of several years of political infighting and social division in Thailand after the 2006 military coup and ensuing constitutional crisis. Constant demonstrations by primarily urban middle class Thais against governments associated with disgraced former Prime Minister Taksin Shinawatra caused an unprecedented ten-day closing of Thailand’s international airport and the stranding of thousands of foreign travelers. Eventually, the crisis brought to power the young leader of the opposition Democrat Party, Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Prime Minister Abhisit is widely viewed as uncorrupt, though shrewd bargains were made with minor coalition partners who do not share that distinction. British born and Oxford educated, Abhisit has led the Democrat Party since 2005, when this author met him while conducting graduate work at Chulalongkorn University. At that small meeting, Abhisit candidly fielded questions and made clear his desire to promote the rule of law and implement a top-down approach to tackling corruption.

Though generally well regarded, Abhisit’s policy ideas had little to do with his ascent to the post of Prime Minister. His success was marked by a platform that advocated national reconciliation and promised swift action to address mounting economic challenges. Thus far, he has relatively broad, if fragile, public support.

 

A Society Divided

The rise and fall of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra both epitomized and exacerbated Thailand’s current social tensions. The Democrats held power during the 1997 financial crisis, and were subsequently blamed for the country’s economic contraction. Thaksin, already a billionaire whose business empire benefitted from political access, formed a new umbrella party, Thai Rak Thai, and captured the large rural vote in 2001 with populist promises such as universal healthcare and grants and loans to rural constituencies. The Democrats and urban elites dismissed Thaksin’s campaign as pandering to the uneducated rural masses and patronage politics, but were soundly defeated, gaining only 128 parliamentary seats to the TRT’s 248.[1]

In the wake of a financial scandal involving one of Thaksin’s companies, the newly formed People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a middle-class, Bangkok-based movement spearheaded a mass protest campaign that led to Thaksin’s removal from office in a 2006 military coup. In 2008, the PAD resumed aggressive protests when a close Thaksin ally, Samak Sundaravej, gained power in post-junta elections.[2] The movement peaked when the PAD occupied Government House and Bangkok’s new international airport, crippling the important passenger and cargo hub, tarnishing Thailand’s image as a premier tourist destination and costing the country up to $8 billion (290 billion Baht).

While Abhisit was critical of the coup, his own rise is the result of political forces larger than his fresh ideas, including popular anger at the PAD’s disregard of the public interest and fallout from the global financial crisis. Abhisit’s platform focused more on reconciliation and a return to stability than any dramatic new policies. There is little doubt that the Democrats benefited from the PAD protests and it appears they have strong support from within the military establishment.

A Way Forward

Respect for the rule of law and judiciary institutions is decreasing in a country where it was already low. Thaksin’s 2001 “War on Drugs” resulted in almost 3000 extrajudicial killings. His confrontational policies systematically fanned the flames of Muslim separatists in Thailand’s south. Now, a resurgence in lèse majesté charges suggests the law is again being used as a political tool to silence opposition voices rather than to protect the Monarchy.

Although investigations into past abuses may complicate national reconciliation and exacerbate partisan tensions, such actions are a critical underpinning of the return to democratic norms. To start, an investigation into the alleged abuse of Rohingya illegal immigrants by the Thai military would be a wise political move. It would demonstrate the independence of Abhisit and the Democrats from the generals and weaken charges of partisan witch-hunts. The judiciary has increased its assertiveness and played a significant role in the recent political drama. If future rulings can demonstrate impartiality and elevate the institution above political squabbles, the prospects for improved rule of law in Thailand will be enhanced.

Thailand remains one of the United States’ most important allies in Southeast Asia. The Bush Administration was rightfully modest in its reaction to the 2006 coup, denouncing the act as a “step backward for democracy” but stopping short of further action. Similarly, the US was cautious not to choose sides in this past year’s turmoil. This approach certainly has its merits, but an increase in support that strengthens rule of law and increases respect for human rights is necessary. While Thailand’s problems can only be solved by Thai citizens, US diplomatic gestures in support of stronger adherence to democratic ideals and institutions empowers the internal voices advocating such change.



[1] Out of 500 total seats

[2] For clarity’s sake, it is important to note that Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party became the People’s Power Party under Samak, and is now known as Puea Thai. The evolution in name and leadership is the result of repeated judicial rulings based upon Constitutional Article 237 which provides for the banning of parties and their leaders for violation of election laws.

 

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