HONG KONG – Crowds and crowds of people have continued to demonstrate on the streets of Bangkok calling for the ejection of the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and a “people’s revolution.”
Some of them have carried a huge national flag that enveloped almost 50 rows of protesters and proclaimed that they were the people of Thailand; a small hard-line group resorted to violence, in which a policeman was killed and more than a hundred people were injured.
Demonstrations have continued with ferocity since Yingluck’s decision to dissolve Parliament early and ask the Thai people to decide who should run the country in a February election. Fears about violent disruptions led the election commission to ask the government to postpone the election indefinitely.
It would have been a flimsy Band-Aid solution, and the government rejected it. Someone has to run the country, and Yingluck’s legitimacy is undermined if she has dissolved Parliament and there are no elections in sight. No one else has a real claim to represent the people.
Worse still, the growing crisis also demonstrates that Thailand’s politicians — of all colors of the rainbow — are dancing with disaster or worse in their claims that they alone represent democracy.
The grim prospect is that if the crowds on the streets of the capital continue to disrupt government business, the reluctant army may intervene. The army has held back, but it has already given a warning. That might be the least worst of the options, but it would be an immense setback for the country that could and should be the brightest rising star in Asia.
Thailand has superb natural assets, a good industrial base, and an energetic and entrepreneurial population. It has variously been called the kitchen of the world because of its food, the playground of the world because of its climate and beaches, and the pickup truck capital of the world because of its growing car industry. All this is at risk because of the political turmoil, making Thailand a fascinating case study in the interplay between politics and economic development or lack of it.
Discontent on the streets was fomented by a former deputy prime and Democrat Party politician, Suthep Thaugsuban, who declared that his “people’s revolution” would offer a chance for the country to “start over again.” He promised that the police, who are notorious for their corruption, would be replaced with “security volunteers.”
In addition, a new constitution would be written that would ban populist policies of the type that Thaksin Shinawatra (the exiled elder brother of Yingluck and the continuing power behind her) has employed. And a “people’s council” composed of what he called “decent men” would be chosen to replace Parliament.
What arrant, arrogant nonsense! Who gave Suthep the authority to present himself as the savior of the people? It is not easy to sympathize, but it is important to understand where he is coming from.
Western media has generally presented what is happening as a struggle between the largely Bangkok-based elite, unwilling to surrender its privilege to rule, and the hardworking farmers and peasants commanded by the exiled Thaksin, the man who can’t stop winning elections.
This is a caricature of the whole truth, though it contains grains of truth. Thaksin and the parties standing for him won the last four elections with good majorities.
There was certainly vote-buying and bribery and corruption, as there has been routinely in Thai elections, but Thaksin has done it more efficiently since he came to power in 2001. Thaksin carried a popular majority with him, but led a fractured country, with Bangkok and much of the south increasingly hostile to him.
In 2011, Thaksin, in exile because of court rulings and a prison sentence hanging over him, again won handsomely with his sister as his proxy.
The argument against Thaksin is that he was no democrat and shamelessly and shamefully manipulated the democratic process. To his credit, he offered better prices to poor farmers and a better deal for poor areas of the country (though in this he was stealing the policies of Kukrit Pramoj, a prime minister of the 1970s).
Thaksin was a one-man band who treated his Cabinet as a rubber stamp and largely ignored Parliament. He was accused of responsibility for the widespread killings of Muslims in the south who wanted more autonomy. His “war on drugs” led to 2,200 alleged dealers being killed, some of them innocents caught in the crossfire. He was accused of abuse of power for using his office to strike business deals to enhance his personal fortune, already worth several billion dollars and built on his clever use of monopoly telecom power.
The army coup that toppled Thaksin when he was visiting the United Nations stirred up Thailand’s political waters dangerously. It was the 18th military coup in the last 80 years. But it showed, as leading Democrat politician Korn Chatikavanij said, that Thailand has become too complicated for simple military men to command. That explains the reluctance of the army now to take sides.
Thaksin’s enforced absence abroad allowed his enemies to move against him, get his party banned and himself convicted on several charges of corruption. Seizure of assets and a jail sentence hang over his head if he dares to return to Thailand.
Even in exile, Thaksin dominates Thai politics. After a two-year interregnum in which Suthep was deputy prime minister of a Democrat-led coalition, Thaksin loyalists roared back to power in 2011, with Yingluck, a businesswoman and political neophyte as prime minister. It is an open secret that Thaksin himself calls the shots from abroad and meets offshore from time to time with ministers.
At one meeting in Singapore recently, a conversation was accidentally recorded of Thaksin giving instructions for the amnesty bill that would allow him to come back to Thailand a free man.
Yingluck duly steamrollered an amnesty bill through the lower house which would give Thaksin his freedom from the corruption charges and other possible charges going back to 2004. She offered to negotiate only after the amnesty had passed the lower house and was stalled in the upper house because of intense opposition that spilled onto the streets.
It’s easy to understand the frustration and anger of the opposition, having to face a prime minister who takes her instructions from abroad and does not take Parliament any more seriously than her brother did.
“All she did was parrot formulas that her brother had given her,” complained one Democrat. “We have real problems now with the rice support prices guaranteed to farmers. They are way higher than world prices, more than the country can afford.”
The best that Democrats will say of her is that she is “easy on the eye” and less aggressive than her brother. When the protests erupted, for which she was responsible for provoking with the amnesty bill, at least she had the sense to back- peddle, drop the amnesty proposal, express a willingness to talk and tell police not to confront the demonstrators. The downside of this, of course, is that she is seen as a pushover who will give in to mob rule.
But nothing will be served if the Democrats and other opponents continue their campaign to boycott elections. It can only lead to a choice of mob rule or an army takeover, either of which would be disastrous for Thailand.
Wise Democrats, if there are any, would talk to Yingluck and her allies to set terms for the election and for the behavior of the parliament that is elected. True democrats have to trust the people or there is no meaning in it.
Kevin Rafferty was editor of Business Day in Thailand.