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‘New politics’ of Thai opposition

by Pavin Chachavalpongpun

SINGAPORE — Somchai Wongsawat, Thailand’s 26th prime minister, has assumed the top position amid an unresolved political crisis. Unfortunately, the appointment of Somchai guarantees the continuation of massive protests by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which accuses the new premier of being another agent of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown by a military coup in September 2006.

Somchai, who happens to be Thaksin’s brother-in-law, faces the uphill task of a reconciliation with antigovernment forces. Somchai must prove he is not a Thaksin surrogate and ensure that violent confrontations between PAD and progovernment supporters don’t erupt again, a tall order these days.

Much attention has been paid to the role of the ruling People’s Power Party (PPP) and Thaksin’s alleged control of it during his exile in Britain from September 2006. However, little is known of PAD’s position, its political dogma and why it persists in its opposition to the PPP regime.

Calling itself a champion of democracy, PAD has shunned democracy in dealing with past and present PPP governments. Its ransacking of the state-run television station in late August and the occupation of Government House thereafter mimicked the brutish strong-arm tactics of a failed state. Many have condemned PAD and regard it as a destabilizing force aimed at turning the country’s democratic system into an authoritarian political beast.

PAD acknowledges that it is a threat to Thai democracy. To some it is on a par with Thailand’s No. 1 enemy of yesteryear, the communists. The communist movement took root in Thailand in the 1920s during a political transition in Beijing. It was led by ethnic Chinese residing in Thailand.

Today PAD is led by a new breed of Sino-Thais including Sondhi Limthongkul, a media tycoon and one-time ally of Thaksin. Their falling out, which overflowed into Thai politics, had much to do with revenge and the struggle for power.

As an alternative political ideology, communism thrived in Thailand in the 1970s. Confused by a new Western-style democratic system following the abolition of the absolute monarchy in 1932, Thais were politically vulnerable and almost fell prey to communism. Thailand struggled against the threat, internally and externally, finally exhibiting clear signs of a mature democracy after the Cold War ended. Almost two decades later, similar confusion in Thailand’s political space has enabled PAD to come to the fore.

When the Thai communist movement, later known as the Communist Party of Thailand, enjoyed wide appeal among the more influential groups in society, students formed the largest part of the movement. It was the transformation of some students from idealistic supporters into insurgents that led to the October 1976 massacre at Thammasat University.

PAD, too, enjoys widespread support among Bangkok’s elite, well-educated urbanites, businesses and military factions. PAD was established ostensibly in 2005 as part of an anti-Thaksin campaign that resulted in the military coup of September 2006. PAD’s power became more pronounced after Thaksin returned to Bangkok last February.

The single motivation of the communists since days gone by and that of PAD today is almost the same — to bring down the government and legitimize “minority rule.” Just as the communists claimed to wage their war against the Thai state on behalf of rural peasants in local areas so they could seize political power, PAD maintains that its mission is to protect democracy even if, in reality, it means to protect its own power interests.

Evidence of this is overwhelming in PAD’s version of democracy, “new politics.” The concept calls for a future parliament consisting of 30 percent elected leaders and 70 percent appointments. PAD reckons that under this political model, future politicians will exercise their powers more responsibly with clear limits — an obvious reaction to Thaksin.

Thailand seems to have arrived at political deadlock. When Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai Party reigned in Thailand, democracy was abused to the point where major institutional mechanisms and processes ceased to function. PPP continued this authoritarian spirit during the seven months (until Sept. 9) that Samak Sundaravej was prime minister.

Although the brief post-Thaksin military rule worsened Thailand’s democratic development, certain factions of the military have raised the prospects of yet another coup. With PAD’s “new politics” making the rounds, Thai democracy is at risk of becoming moribund.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a visiting research fellow at the ASEAN Studies Center, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. © 2006-2008 OpinionAsia (www.opinionasia.org)