The tragedy of Thailand’s politics


A country of beauty is in danger of turning into a beast. The Kingdom of Thailand, the land of the smiling people, the gorgeous countryside and a storied history as the once-upon-a-time Siam, now has a severe case of the political uglies. This constitutional democracy, anchored by a long-running monarchy, is in danger of heading down a fascist path.

For America, the proper question is what, if any, is our place and role in the unfolding tragedy — what can we appropriately do to help?

To be sure, it would be illegitimate for the U.S. government to intrude in any way into the politics of Thailand. Washington must accept any government that’s a legitimate and constitutional one.

But the many thousands of angry protesters in Bangkok, the capital city where the anti-government movement is boiling, are not marching for democracy but, in effect, for an end to it. They are furious with the present government of Yingluck Shinawatra, the prime minister representing the party elected in 2011. In effect, it is their position that the majority of Thais — many from the country’s sprawling rural regions — are not sufficiently educated to make decisions about the country’s governance and future direction. They would thus end the system of universal suffrage in place since 1933 and substitute an elitist, authoritarian system.

For her part, Yingluck has dissolved parliament and offered the electorate another chance early next year to make its national will known. Vote us out if you wish, she challenges: And it is precisely because it is likely that her party will win yet another mandate that the ominous cloud of further violence and possible coup continue to hover. To this, the U.S. position should be clear and firm. In view of the fact that no clause or article in the Thai Constitution authorizes the option of coup or assassination, America opposes violent or unconstitutional change and supports the Yingluck government until such time as the Thai electorate has otherwise spoken — but only through constitutional means.

The evil, noxious and revolting threat now in the air over Yingluck is deplorable. It threatens to undermine Thailand’s credibility in the world and its key role in Southeast Asia, where even Myanmar has been making strides toward more representative government. The violent threats and salacious slurs being hurled against Yingluck and family (which have no merit and deserve no space in any civilized discussion or debate) have tended toward the malevolently misogynist.

Yingluck is the chosen leader of the dominant political party in Thailand founded by, among others, her older brother Thaksin Shinawatra. It has never lost an election and Thaksin himself was ejected as prime minister in 2006 not via a recall election or any other civilized or constitutional method but by military coup to which, as far as anyone can tell, neither the king nor the queen lifted a royal finger to discourage.

In the current crisis, the patented Yingluck style has been to respond to the anti-government street demonstrations in Bangkok with her quiet aplomb and patient willingness to engage all parties and discuss all issues. But the implacable opposition, revolving around the oddly named Democratic Party, will have none of that, and the prime minister has executed a graceful exit to meet and greet the party’s vast array of supporters and well-wishers in the populous, poorer northeast of the county, where her party is overwhelming popular, and where perhaps half the populace lives. This is a shameful way to treat an elected prime minister — man or woman.

There is no mystery about the vitriol toward her brother Thaksin, to be sure. He may be a modern political mastermind and dominant political-party guru that seemingly cannot lose a nationwide election. But he has made very many enemies of the numerous Thai insiders who he has outfoxed over the years, in part due to a sometimes-arrogant, headstrong style that he has come to recognize in himself and greatly regret as counter-productive. But he has publicly accepted, as far back as 2010, in his first substantive public interviews, that his days as a Thai office-holder are history and that no further office would ever be sought.

Not surprisingly, however, this is not enough for the anti-Thaksin opposition, which views him as, in effect, the shadow prime minister, as he refuses to end his role (but perhaps understandably) as Yingluck’s older and always-full-of-advice brother. Thus, the violent vitriol gets thrown at Yingluck, whose style of government has been anything but arrogant and whose personal ways have been above reproach.

Tragically the current march of hatred by rightwing Black Shirt groups seems reminiscent of European-style, Mussolini-like fascist groups, foaming at the mouth and through their media with sickening spurts of misogyny, sexism and worse. Thailand — beautiful country that she is — must reject this darkness and embrace the enlightenment of accepting and including all citizens of all backgrounds into the continuing and vital process of framing its future.

One-person, one-vote democracy may or may not be the best of all possible systems; but it is the one indicated by the Thai Constitution, and the one deserving the respect and support of all decent Thais. This, too, should be the position of the American people and its government.

Tom Plate, a former editor of the Editorial Pages of the Los Angeles Times, is a syndicated Asia columnist, whose works appears in newspapers in the U.S. and Asia. He is also Loyola Marymount University’s distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies.

  • J Travers Devine

    A total misreading of the current Thai situation. The demonstrators against the Government are not attempting to defeat democracy, they are in support of it and opposed to the corruption of the family of Shinawatra Thaksin.and the proxy government led by his sister. Unfortunately the populist program Shinawatra put in place played to the poor farmers of the North and won him their support in spite of being one of the largest thieves in the history of corrupt politic’s – manipulating the laws to always favor his companies in large dealings with the Government itself.

    • Tom Huck

      Bollocks. Thaksin is only one particular gangster in Thai politics. His corruption is only a drop in the bucket compared to the “CORRUPTION” of real gangsters like Suthep -leader of your mass dissenfranchisement efforts, who has twice been ->convicted<- of major corruption, not accused, CONVICTED in the 90s on a corrupt elite enriching land deal and again in 2009 over a conflict of interest. Suthep, along with Abhisit has charges of Crimes Against Humanity against him at the world court, and now has lead violent attacks on foreign journalists, setting public buses on fire, having mobs attack civilians, harras, beat and now shoot and kill 3 red shirt supporters. You forgot to mention Suthep's major corruptions "in large dealings with the Government itself" – like appropriating enormous public sums to subsidize an army base in Khon Kaen to appease his (and your?) constituency: the military. Not mentioned are the wild, unbeliveably expensive and ongoing military blimb scheme. A blimb that flew for all of 10 minutes. Or the GT-200 fake bomb detectors bought for the military at public expense. ~Those~ kind of corruptions never seem to find the time of day on Suthep's radar. As well, the odious, elitist contempt for "the poor farmers" of Isaan, and disparaging of their autonomy, contempt for their judgement and bitter hostility to their voting rights and human rights are absolutely apparent. How is nullifying elections "support of" democracy? How is disenfranchising poor and low income voters supporting democracy? Calling Yingluck a "proxy" denies, as well, her fundamental autonomy and agency and, as Mr. Plate implies, is a straight misogynist interpretation, in keeping with all the de-humanizing rhetoric that comes from Mr. Suthep and the jackboot protestors who, it seems would be happy to turn Thailand into North Korea or Imperial Japan or worse.

      • J Travers Devine

        Clearly we have polar views on the Thai political scene.

  • Myron K

    Concur with the author and Mr. Huck. As an American man well acquainted with the political and business situation in Thailand it is readily observable that Suthep and his cronies are essentially trying to bring back the aristocratic image of the “King and I” Siam of the 19th century. Without Thaksin and his sister Yingluck would be at the level of Burma or Laos or Bangladesh. Thaksin, as a western oriented capitalist businessman, liberated the creative and industrial power of the Thai public and made it possible for a system to be established whereby it was no longer paramount as to where you were born or to whom you were born. The progress of the past 20 years has been remarkable. Suthep and his bureaucratic and royalist sycophants wants to bring back the days where Father Knows Best and only the high and mighty succeed. He is essentially Bashar Assad in Thai clothes.

  • Thailand turning from beauty to beast? Heading down a fascist
    path? Are you sure?

    There is no tragedy in Bangkok, only greed and lust for
    power. Both political parties are equally corrupt, only indulging in their
    hidden agenda and serving vested self interest. The military seems quiet at the
    moment, but it will take over again when situation gets uglier and out of

  • Tom Huck

    Your assertion, sir, is a joke. If the voters of the Northeast are simply bought and no self-interested agency is ascribed to the poor who live there, then why don’t Suthep’s and Abhisit’s Democrats [sic], who have much, much more money than the Shiniwatras, just go up there hand out cash and buy up the elections. Boom. Deal Sealed and stop complaining. This is after all, politics, and pretending that Suthep and Abhisit (1) don’t have money and (2) have more “ethics” than to buy votes – when Suthep and Abhisit and so many in the Dem party have wretched track records in this and so many other areas of their public record certainly lacks much introspection.

    So, You go ahead and print out the list of Thaksin’s atrocities. Do it here even, and I will lay them out side by side with the track record of the Democrats [sic], along with all the contextual history of this party – which you, sir, seem to assume only began around 2003 or even more recently. OK Mr. Cartalucci we will deal only with “the facts”. I am waiting.