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Color-coding won’t explain mess in Thailand

by Simon Tay

Special To The Japan Times

Anti-government protests in Bangkok have lasted more than three months and continue to confuse.

Much of the international media assert the sanctity of the vote above all else. Most overly rely on distinctions that the “reds” represent the poor and the “yellows” are the elite — as if simple color-coding could explain complexities.

Rather than trying to understand, many have prejudged events. Developments over the past two weeks will further confound them, as a new stage in the situation seems to be emerging.

Much relates to the vote that went ahead on Feb. 2 despite disruptions at some polling stations. Opposition Democrats had sought a delay, and the independent Elections Commission agreed that a postponement could be allowed. Nevertheless, the government exercised its prerogative to push ahead.

Today, although full results have yet to be confirmed, what is emerging may not vindicate Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s snap poll gamble.

The south — where the Democrats are strongest — did not complete voting, and without these provinces, a new Parliament cannot convene. In other provinces where voting went ahead, unofficial reports say that less than half of the eligible voters bothered to vote.

Moreover, early sampling by the well-respected Thailand Development Research Institute suggests support for the ruling Pheu Thai party may show erosion. Questions are being asked about the caretaker government’s effectiveness and legitimacy.

New pressure is emerging in the streets. Rice farmers are now protesting alongside the long encamped yellow shirts rallied by former Democrat Deputy Premier Suthep Thaugsuban. While not large in number, their presence in Bangkok is a visible setback for pro-Shinawatra supporters.

The Pheu Thai pledge at the last elections to subsidize rice farmers attracted strong support from rural areas but was always controversial economic policy. The subsidies have cost billions in taxpayer money and made rice exports uncompetitive — the country has slipped from the top spot to number three. The farmers’ complaints cast further doubt on the social benefits of the scheme.

On top of this, investigations of corruption have started, prompting the Chinese government to back away from an earlier pledge to buy rice.

Contrary to Yingluck’s hopes, her administration looks shakier after the elections than it did before. However, this does not mean that the protesters led by Suthep will have their way.

These elements have called for a military coup, a nonelected committee to run the country, and for a ban on the Shinawatra family’s participation in politics. Such measures would be unacceptable not only to the international community but also to many moderate Thais.

While it has not ruled out a coup, the military is clearly reluctant to seize power as it did in 2006. Instead, calls are emerging for a new caretaker government that is neutral — featuring neither Suthep nor the opposition Democrat Party. This would only be an interim arrangement to review constitutional and other rules so that a free and fair election could be held.

If this or some other compromise cannot be reached, two prospects arise. Neither are good: The first is for violence, beyond what has been seen so far.

There is increasing impatience on both sides and violence can spike — especially if the red shirts and others who still support the Yingluck administration come out into the streets.

The second is an economic crisis. At present, stronger companies and the industrial sector remain confident even as smaller businesses and the tourism sector suffer the impact. But a protracted stalemate and paralysis of the Yingluck administration will worsen matters.

And in the wake of the U.S. Federal Reserve tapering, emerging economies with deteriorating macro-economic figures or visible political instability are being punished by skittish markets. Thailand is showing both of these tendencies.

As anti-government protests gear up and pro-Shinawatra supporters dig in their heels, it is hard to discern what compromise might be acceptable. The majority of Thais, however, realize that, despite elections, no one is winning.

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, an independent think tank recently ranked by a global survey as No. 1 in the Asia-Pacific.