Thailand opts for stability

Thailand’s Senate has rejected an amnesty bill that threatened the country’s hard-won political stability. The bill, proposed by the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, had something to offend most Thais, but the chief concern was that it would have led to the return of deposed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The storm of disapproval stirred up by that prospect obliged the government to drop its support for the bill. While it can be revived in 180 days, the legislation will not be revived.

Yingluck has long been accused of serving as a mere stand-in for her brother. An executive in her brother’s business empire, she had no political experience before being drafted in 2011 to run for office. Suspicions mounted when the Pheu Thai party she headed ran on the slogan, “Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai does.”

The party’s platform echoed that of her brother with a broad appeal to rural interests and Thailand’s poorest citizens. Equally important was her call for national reconciliation, including an amnesty for all political acts since 2006, when her brother was deposed. Many observers and critics saw that effort as setting the stage for his return. Inexperience notwithstanding, Yingluck pulled off a landslide party, winning 265 seats in the 500-member House of Representatives.

Since Yingluck’s taking office, the prospect of Thaksin’s return has periodically surfaced, but the opposition to such a move has been so strong that the government has shelved any such plans. More recently, and in keeping with the prime minister’s call for national reconciliation, the government proposed an amnesty bill that would have freed members of the public jailed for political violence since 2006. The bill was subsequently amended and expanded by a parliamentary committee to include leaders of both the pro- and anti-Thaksin groups, prompting criticism that amnesty for the former prime minister was the purpose all along.

The move to widen the amnesty solidified opposition to the bill. The original critics, so-called Yellow Shirts who opposed Thaksin’s government and his return, were joined by the “Red Shirts,” Thaksin’s supporters who sought justice for the 80 protestors shot and killed and the thousands of others injured in 2010 by the Democrat Party government led by then Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Despite the unified opposition, the original bill passed the Lower House of the Thai legislature last week, in a 4 A.M. vote of 310 to zero, with four abstentions. That launched a week of protests, with tens of thousands of demonstrators taking to the streets across the country to denounce the legislation. The fervor of the protests prompted the government to back away from the legislation. In a vote earlier this week, the Senate rejected the bill 141-0. According to Thai law, the House can reconsider the bill in 180 days and over-ride the Senate vote, but Yingluck and her government have said that they will not revive the legislation.

Thailand remains a deeply divided, fragile democracy. The country has gone through six governments since a new constitution was promulgated in 1997. In fact, however, that number understates the instability in Thailand. Thaksin or his surrogates have won every election held since 2001 but each resulting government has been overturned by protests abetted by sympathizers in the government. Thailand is now semi-permanently divided into Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts, each looking for opportunities to assert their grievances — of which they have many — and take to the streets.

Quite simply, there is a division in Thailand between the majority of people who seek a greater share of the political and economic spoils and the minority, centered in Bangkok, who want to retain their privileges. Thaksin and his supporters have sought to tap the anger of the disenfranchised and their success has earned them the enmity of the entrenched elite. Thaksin’s personal foibles — the corruption charges that prompted his dismissal — allow his detractors to tar his cause.

In theory, then, the defeat of the amnesty bill could open the door to reconciliation in Thailand. The refusal of the Red Shirts to back the legislation means that there is now a conflict of interest between Thaksin and his party. If that split widens, then the party could take on a legitimacy of its own and its fate could be freed from that of its founder. That could allow other party leaders to make the Peau Thai case, without being tainted by Thakin’s misdeeds. That would make it harder to marginalize the party and force the opposition to deal with it as a genuine political force rather than demonize and caricature it as the stalking horse of a particular set of interests.

Two questions remain. The first is whether Yingluck is truly committed to political reconciliation or if she is more interested in the far narrower concerns of her brother. If she is prepared to pursue the national interest, then there is a starting point for dialogue.

The second question is whether the opposition will acknowledge that they live in a democracy and that they must share power. They have lost every election they have contested in the last decade and a half. If they truly desire domestic peace and stability, then they must make Thailand a democracy in more than just words. The government’s retreat from the amnesty bill is a first step. Thailand’s fate now rests in the hands of the opposition.