KYOTO – More than six months have passed since protesters launched a campaign to topple the elected government of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
During this period the agendas of the protesters have shifted several times, from objecting to the ruling Pheu Thai Party’s controversial amnesty bill to fighting against the so-called corrupt Thaksin regime. It is convenient for the protesters to substitute Thaksin with his sister Yingluck. They have accused her of being his puppet and reproached her for inheriting corrupt policies from him.
What was meant to be a short-lived battle has turned out to be long and dangerous wrangling between the two sides. The crux of the problem does not lie with the widespread corruption supposedly committed by the Yingluck government. Indeed, the protracted conflict is a part of the transitional royal succession. Thailand’s much-revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej is in his twilight years. The network monarchy that he built has become shaky and directionless now that the end of his era is near.
The only heir apparent, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, is not well loved by the people because of his troubled past and hedonistic character. But this does not explain why the network monarchy is not willing to support him as he waits to be enthroned. The seemingly intimate ties between Vajiralongkorn and Thaksin have gravely worried the conservative royalists in the network monarchy. They fear that once Vajiralongkorn becomes king, their political position and economic status will suffer.
In Bangkok, talk is growing about the increasing internal struggle in the palace. Conservative royalists do not approve of the crown prince and may seek to install the more popular Princess Maha Chakri Siridhorn as the next monarch. But in accordance with the succession law, she is ineligible to be enthroned so having a female monarch remains wishful thinking.
Realizing they have much to lose if the planned succession goes ahead, the conservative royalists have attempted to disrupt the handover of power in the royal court by creating chaos that will lead the military to take control of politics, and subsequently the succession process. This may explain why the anti-government protesters, obviously endorsed by the monarchy, took to the streets of Bangkok in the first place.
But after months of political interruption, there is no sign that the Yingluck government has wobbled. Its confidence partly derives from the solid backing from its supporters in the red-shirt movement. And the military has not judged it as timely to stage another coup for a myriad of reasons. The army learned lessons from the 2006 coup and the deadly crackdowns on the red shirts in 2010. The coup gave birth to the red-shirt movement, whose main agenda has been to reject military’s political intervention. A new coup would provoke the red shirts to resort to violence.
Moreover, there is fragmentation within the military. Not every soldier would agree with a coup. Some are more sympathetic toward the Yingluck government and the red shirts, particularly the low-ranking military officers who come from the poorest regions of Thailand, which are Thaksin strongholds.
As a military coup is not viable now, conservative royalists have employed other means to try and remove Yingluck from power. The Constitutional Court, the Election Commission, the Anti-Corruption Agency and the Human Right Commission — all have found ways to delegitimize the Yingluck government. The court has been rather active in pursuing cases that might lead to Yingluck being forced from office. This is not the first time the court has played a political role. In 2008, it ordered the resignation of two Thaksin-backed prime ministers, Samak Sundaravej and Somchai Wongsawat. Will history repeat itself?
The two-day gathering of the red shirts near Buddha Mandala Park, at the outskirt of Bangkok on April 5 and 6 signified that they were ready to protest should the Yingluck government be ousted by one of those independent institutions. At the gathering, core members of the red shirts took turns rousing the crowd with their speeches.
Although references to the monarchy are taboo in Thailand, many of the red shirts hinted that the driving forces behind the anti-government protesters were the network monarchy and a key member of the royal family who did not wish for a planned royal transition.
Thus the future of Thailand remains bleak. The royal transition is a lengthy process so the political conflict will drag on. If the conservative royalists continue to punish their enemies through illegal means so they could take charge of the royal succession, the political game will likely end in bloodshed.
Many in Thailand have begun to ask if a civil war is possible.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate fellow at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.