The current political crisis in Thailand reveals how political institutions in the country have been undermined over several decades to the point of marginalization. Political disputes and grievances are increasingly contested in the streets instead of parliament. Thailand’s reputation suffered another blow when protests this past week forced the last-minute cancellation of the East Asia Summit, with several regional leaders being evacuated by helicopter. A state of emergency was declared in Bangkok, and the military confronted isolated riots with force. Calm was imposed as of April 16, but the underlying causes have not been addressed.
In early 2006 the yellow-shirted followers of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) organized in protest against then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s populist policies, corrupt business practices and frequent violations of human rights. Following a military coup, two close Thaksin allies successively became Prime Minister: Samak Sundaravej in January 2008 and Somchai Wongsawat (Thaksin’s brother-in-law) in September 2008. They both were dogged by renewed and increasingly aggressive protests by the PAD, which again accused them of corruption and pandering to rural constituencies.
After several violent incidents involving the PAD including the occupation of Government House and both of Bangkok’s commercial airports in 2008, a Constitutional Court ruling provided the opportunity for the opposition Democrat party, under the leadership of Abhisit Vejjajiva, to assume control. Since then, the red-shirted United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), a group partially organized and funded by Thaksin, has steadily increased in number and adopted many of the PAD’s aggressive tactics.
For decades, the military, Bangkok-based elites, and at times representatives of monarchical interests, have derided politics and politicians as corrupt, ineffective, and incompetent. Whether correct or not, these assertions have severely undermined politics as the legitimate venue for compromise, conflict resolution or transference of power. Since the creation of a constitutional monarchy in 1932, Thailand has experienced 17 constitutions and a similar number of military coups. The result has been a society lacking clearly drawn lines connecting constitutional authorities to corresponding implementing institutions.
Color-coded Polarization: To the Streets!
This political breakdown increasingly has led to confrontations that directly undermine Thailand’s economy and other national interests. The PAD “yellow shirts” can generally be described as representing the interests of Thailand’s traditional power centers: upper and middle class urbanites, the Monarchy, and the military leadership. Their protests against Thaksin provided context for military intervention in 2006. Two years later, their renewed demonstrations crippled the Administrations of Samak and Somchai, the two Prime Ministers who succeeded Thaksin. Their ability to occupy Government House and Bangkok’s commercial airports did major damage to the country’s vital tourism industry and embarrassed Thailand internationally. Queen Sirikit reportedly supported the PAD and appeared prominently at the cremation ceremony of a PAD demonstrator killed at a violent protest.
The UDD “red shirts” were organized by Thaksin and his supporters to agitate against the PAD and the new Democrat-led Administration of Abhisit. The red shirts got off to a slow start, but gained momentum as Thaksin tapped his connections in telecommunications to provide live video feeds to red shirt gatherings and provided the funding to transport rural supporters to Bangkok.
Now there is mention of a third color-coded movement, the “blue shirts,” which appeared in Pattaya to counter the UDD demonstrations. Many people connect this group to Thaksin’s one time right hand man Newin Chidchob, though he denies involvement. Newin originally helped organize the red shirts, but publicly split with Thaksin following his controversial criticism of the Kings Chief Advisor, Privy Councilor. It is conceivable that the PAD dispatched the counter-protestors but was wise enough to advise them against donning yellow, which would have only inflamed the UDD.
The lack of clear connections between the constitution and other institutions is especially obvious in this moment of crisis. Much depends on the individual leader, his or her charisma and ability to navigate murky political waters. It remains to be seen if PM Abhisit’s English childhood, Oxford education and squeaky clean political reputation, will provide the necessary qualities to effectively navigate Thai politics and reconcile the deeply polarized red and yellow factions. Thaksin himself seems to be enjoying a resurgence of support, and it is very unlikely that the political constituency he awakened will return home and remain politically idle without concessions.
With the end of demonstrations on April 14, PM Abhisit has struck a firm yet conciliatory tone, clearly trying to reassert control and bring these simmering disputes back into the political arena. It remains to be seen, however, whether Thaksin and the UDD will be willing to work towards political compromise within legitimate institutions, especially now that the Government has revoked Thaksin’s passport and issued a warrant for his arrest.
Thailand’s important role within ASEAN is seriously threatened by this turmoil. Commentators have suggested that the cancellation of the ASEAN Summit provided an opportunity for Indonesia and Vietnam to further assert their aspirations to tacit leadership of the grouping. Furthermore, Thailand’s unique political and commercial relationships with the US, Japan, Australia and other powers could be damaged, threatening the prospects of economic recovery and the place this middle power has enjoyed in the global geopolitical system.
Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/3427575033/sizes/l/