Asia
Commentary

Thailand at a Crossroads

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By Richard Cronin – Thailand is in the grip of its worst political crisis since the
bloody “Black May” suppression of massive pro-democracy protests by the
Thai army in 1992.  At that time, Thailand’s widely revered King
Bumibol Adulyadej used his prestige and moral authority to bring an end
to the crisis.  Now the King lies gravely ill while Bangkok is engulfed
in mass protests involving two implacable political groupings that seem
impervious to any stabilizing authority.

 

Anti-government
protestors have donned the color red and taken to the streets demanding
that the current PM Abhisit Vejjajiva call new elections, emulating the
“Yellow Shirts” who helped provoke a military coup against PM Thaksin
Shinawatra in 2006 and later shut down Thailand’s main international
airport for more than a week.  Abhisit heads a coalition of parties
that took power in December 2008 after the country’s highest judicial
body, the Constitutional Court, dissolved the ruling pro-Thaksin
People’s Power Party (PPP) on ground of electoral law violations.

 

These
initially peaceful protests which have now engendered bloodshed reflect
political and societal change of historic proportions.  Growing
frustration with the economic and political status quo has been a
hallmark of Thai society for at least the past decade.  The largely
rural and mostly poor communities represented by the “Red Shirts” were
politically awakened by the populist electoral strategy of former PM
Thaksin, who used the wealth generated by his telecommunications empire
and festering discontent to win unprecedented parliamentary majorities
in two successive elections.

 

A major new factor in Thai
politics is the emergence of increasingly independent action of the
country’s highest court, the Constitutional Court established by the
1997 constitution, as seemingly the final political arbiter.  Having
dissolved the pro-Thaksin party that won a parliamentary plurality in
the most recent national elections, the Constitutional Court now
appears ready to take up an April 13 finding by the Electoral
Commission that Abhisit’s minority Democrat Party had concealed illegal
campaign contributions.  Whether by design or coincidence, the Election
Commission acted a day after the army chief suggested that new
elections might be a way to resolve the crisis.

 

Apart
from the new judicial activism, numerous other complex variables are
now at play, many of which have been simmering for years.  Their
emergence in the past decade is generally connected to a fast widening
urban-rural income gap, the new awareness of marginalized groups of
their political potential, and environmental degradation and a serious
and prolonged drought that have hurt those engaged in subsistence
agriculture disproportionately – especially in the “Red Shirt homeland”
of Thailand’s impoverished northeast.

 

The new politics of
mass protest will shape the future of the country in significant ways. 
If rechanneled into a broader and more equitable social compact, it
could lead to healthy social, political, and economic change that sees
the decentralization of power away from Bangkok and a reduction in the
glaring income inequalities persistent in Thailand.  The alternative is
a much more painful change that could fracture the Thai state deeply
and lead to prolonged unrest, possibly even threatening the integrity
of the country as the world knows it.

 

The current crisis
poses difficult issues for the United States, especially because there
is no clear way out of what is now a full-fledged institutional,
constitutional and societal crisis.  Thailand is an old and valued
military ally, both in regional and geopolitical terms, and an
important economic and transportation hub for mainland Southeast Asia. 
Nonetheless, the underlying causes of the current crisis are a mix of
long simmering societal tensions and the steady growth of political
awareness, democratic institutions, and a more independent judiciary. 
These are precisely the values that the United States has long
promoted, but their application in the current Thai context has
contributed to growing social tensions.

 

That said,
Abhisit’s government is as legitimate as the current political and
societal impasse can support.  Prime Minister Abhisit and his ruling
coalition headed by the Democratic Party assumed power through
legitimate parliamentary procedure, but with the aid of politically
active senior military leaders and under a constitution that was
largely drafted under the oversight of the military and adopted in a
hasty national referendum.  The new activism of the Constitutional
Court has become a wild card that to date has mainly been played in
support of the older political establishment, though how the Court
handles the new Election Commission findings against the Democrat Party
may speak to its level of independence.

 

One important
question is whether Thailand can find a way to a more stable polity
based on institutions that take into account the rapid societal change
that the country has already undergone, and the further changes that
will be required to deal with an emerging new global economic
paradigm.  If it cannot, the next break in institutional continuity
will be more serious than the previous ones.

 

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