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Thai angst and the battle for royal intervention

by Pavin Chachavalpongpun

Special To The Japan Times

One of the more auspicious events of the year has just passed in Thailand. It was the birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest reigning monarch. Born Dec. 5, 1927, he was enthroned in 1946 following the mysterious death of King Ananda, his elder brother.

Now turning 86, historically, the king has remained at the epicenter of Thai politics. But his position in the past decade has been challenged by new political forces. The current crisis, which witnesses a new round of political violence provoked by the anti-government movement, fails to conceal the fact that the monarchy once again is the source of deep political polarization.

When the Yingluck Shinawatra government proposed a controversial amnesty bill, which would potentially exonerate her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin, of corruption charges as well as those behind the killing of “red shirt” demonstrators in Bangkok in May 2010, anti-government forces saw this as an opportunity to stage protests to topple the elected government of Yingluck.

Led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister in the Abhisit Vejjajiva administration, the anti-government forces accused Yingluck of perpetuating the so-called Thaksin regime. Thus her government had to be eliminated.

Facing immense public pressure, Yingluck decided to shelve the controversial bill, but that was not the end of it for Suthep. Unable to exploit other issues, Suthep and his supporters turned to the monarchy as the ultimate lever to bring down the Yingluck government. The battle has since been redrawn into one between ethical rule centered on the monarchy as the face of moral authority against the supposedly corrupt regime of Yingluck.

Suthep condemns Yingluck and, more specifically, Thaksin for contaminating Thai politics with cash and material gains. He also reproaches Thaksin’s supporters in the rural provinces, labeling them victims of the fraudulent regime and alleging that they are stupid and easily bought and know nothing about democracy.

To find a long-lasting solution to this, Suthep has come up with the idea of a “People’s Parliament” whose members would consist of appointed citizens from various segments of society. Unsurprisingly the initial list of members reveals a large number of anti-Thaksin personalities. Suthep has nominated himself as the secretary general of the parliament.

Rejecting an elected government in the most absurd way is nothing new in the context of Thai politics. Through military coups, judicial coups or street mobs, enemies of Thaksin vow to douse his political influence, seeing it as a threat to their own political position and economic status. The call for a royally appointed prime minister is therefore growing louder. They argue that the king, in exercising his moral authority, has a legitimate right to appoint a trustworthy figure to lead Thailand in time of crisis.

Suthep’s Democrat Party is a part of a larger elitist network that has allied itself with the monarchy. In seeking royal intervention in the crisis, the Democrat Party unveils its agenda. Since 1992, the Democrat Party has never won a straight majority at the polls. Meanwhile, from 2001 to the latest election in 2011, Thaksin and his proxies in politics have achieved sweeping electoral triumphs, confirming the success of the “Thaksin regime.”

In the game of electoral politics, the Democrat Party simply cannot compete with Thaksin’s magic. Using extra-parliamentary means to remove the Yingluck government is the only option.

It is unclear why Suthep alone has launched a crusade against the government. Probably the motivation could be personal. Suthep played a central role in ordering deadly crackdowns against red shirts and may seek a way out to avoid culpability for his actions. In declaring war against the “Thaksin regime,” Suthep has successfully diverted public attention from his own wrongdoings to the troubled past of Thaksin. He has injected a large dose of “Thaksinophobia” into Thai society.

In past weeks, Thailand has been seized by relentless protests. Suthep has earned support from the upper-middle class in Bangkok for destabilizing the Yingluck government by occupying state offices, including the Finance Ministry, Foreign Ministry and House of Government.

Meanwhile, Yingluck has chosen not to resort to the use of force against the demonstrators. Instead, she has taken legal action and served up traitorous charges to Suthep and his cohorts.

The royal intervention that took place in 1992, when soon-to-be Prime Minister Suchinda Kraprayoon collided with pro-democracy protesters led by Chamlong Srimuang marked the height of royal power. It has declined steadily since the arrival of Thaksin in politics in 2001.

The 2006 coup that overthrew Thaksin was endorsed by the monarchy. Since then, the monarchy has shifted its approach from subtle to open intervention so as to defend its political position. Attendance at an anti-Thaksin protester’s funeral by Queen Sirikit showed that the monarchy is not neutral. That incident enraged some red shirts.

Now that the king has celebrated his birthday, Thailand is once more falling into a political coma. Thaksin is still pulling the strings behind the current government and Yingluck might well be his puppet. But both are champions of electoral politics.

Meanwhile, Suthep and his Democrat Party have struggled to come to terms with a political reality in which they are no longer credible contenders in the game.

As a result, the monarchy has been backed into a tight corner where it needs to defend itself. The imminent royal transition will not make Thai politics any brighter as the heir apparent is not popular with royalists. The situation has already brought about a sense of anxiety. Unfortunately, this shows that political violence will always be a part of Thai politics.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.