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King Bhumipol’s last play

by Kevin Rafferty

HONG KONG — It is not easy to see any way out from the present impasse in Thailand, which has seen successive governments at the mercy of mob rule while the security forces have failed to do their duty.

Much of the international press and media has romanticized the events in Bangkok as some kind of grassroots democracy at work, in which the poor rural masses have come to Bangkok to confront the cruel ruling classes. This is utter nonsense. Thailand is being torn apart by gangs of hoodlums masquerading as democrats and pretending they are embarked on the pure quest for fresh elections. Mobs of “red shirts,” proclaiming allegiance to exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, are in command of a glitzy hotel and shopping district close to Bangkok’s main financial area.

Certainly, the enthusiasm and dedication of some of the red shirts has surprised neutral observers, as has fraternization between red shirts and local Bangkok people and ordinary soldiers and Buddhist monks. But 30,000 demonstrating red shirts are fewer than 0.05 percent of Thailand’s population, hardly a resounding expression of democratic will.

There is big money backing the red shirts, with large numbers of demonstrators being paid 1,000 baht a day, five times the agricultural wage, and their leaders having recourse to the comforts of five-star hotels. The red shirts have also shown good planning and organization and the support of modern weaponry. Some Red leaders have said they are going to wage “war” against the government.

At least nine of the 24 dead in the April 10 violence when the military halfheartedly tried to retake command of Bangkok were killed by high-velocity bullets, some at close range. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has called the shooters “terrorists” but his official investigation has so far failed to reveal whether they were rogue soldiers or hardcore red shirts or just freelance killers hired by someone to spark violence.

If it is war against the government, this is not democracy. It means that the only democracy the demonstrators will accept is theirs. A BBC correspondent in Bangkok claimed that Thaksin had “empowered the poor.” Other Western commentators have painted Thaksin as some democratic hero turfed out of office by military thugs acting on behalf of Thailand’s elite vested interests.

William Pesek of Bloomberg astutely noted that Thaksin’s “economic policies, dubbed ‘Thaksinomics,’ were never more than Tammany Hall-like doling out of cash for support.” Thaksin certainly had some good ideas, like providing money for poor farmers and trying to establish cheap health coverage, but they were mostly borrowed from previous leaders and spoiled by corruption and the bigger pursuit of vote-buying.

Thaksin, who comes from the rich Chinese business elite, cleverly played on his military connections to gain a telecom monopoly and become rich. In power he manipulated the organs of state for his benefit. Ironically, given the Red demand for immediate elections, Thaksin virtually ignored Parliament except as his private rubber stamp.

Any civilized government would find it impossible to accept what the red shirts are doing. The mobs move in convoys, randomly blocking all traffic, and storm Parliament, threatening to lynch the prime minister, then go to his house and throw excrement and threaten to kill him. When authorities move in to disperse them, they fire rocket grenades and snipers use laser guidance to pick off officers.

There is no easy way out for Thailand because almost every potential leader has been compromised. Thai politicians have long been thought to be as corrupt as those anywhere in the world. But hitherto the conservative bureaucracy and business elite could be relied upon to see that the country ran relatively smoothly, with backstop from the military if necessary and a cautionary word from King Bhumipol Adulyadej if things really got out of hand.

But when it came to the crunch, the military failed. They ousted Thaksin when he was at the United Nations in September 2006, and then showed that they lacked the imagination and intelligence to run the complex, developing country that Thailand has become. They further disgraced themselves by failing to take action against the previous royalist “yellow shirt” demonstrators even when they took over Bangkok’s international airport.

The ailing king and his courtiers have also compromised themselves first by being seen to back the coup ousting Thaksin, and then by association with the yellow shirts. Although talk of succession is still taboo and punishable with stiff jail terms, in the last week posters have appeared in Bangkok calling for Thaksin to be Thailand’s president. He has disavowed them, but it looks as if someone is testing the waters.

There is only one slender hope of halting Thailand’s journey to failed state — that King Bhumipol should try to save his kingdom and country by declaring that Abhisit has agreed that fresh elections will be held. Not now, because that would be giving in to mob rule and encourage the mobs to try to run the election, but before the end of the year and name the date. He should promise a grand council of state, excluding prominent royal courtiers, to oversee the fairness of the election and accept its result. The council would also consider changes to ensure a smooth succession of a constitutional monarchy along British lines where the court will not interfere in politics. If the king is too sick, then his daughter, Crown Princess Sirindhorn, should make the announcement with full plenipotentiary powers.

The red shirts might be unhappy, but there is still enough popular reverence for the king that there would probably be widespread acceptance and relief that breathing space had been achieved. Then Abhisit would have six months to prove that he really is the most intelligent, thoughtful and least corrupt of the candidates and capable of the social reforms that can bring the country together.

Kevin Rafferty is a former editor in chief of Thailand’s Business Day newspaper.