The Yingluck trial ends in anticlimax, leaving our political polarisation no closer to resolution
Thailand has once again found itself in the eye of the storm entangling its politics and justice system. Yingluck Shinawatra’s failure to appear in court yesterday to hear the verdict on the rice-pledging scandal is neither the end nor the beginning of the matter, but it is typical of the country’s ongoing malaise. The nation will continue to be divided, and disagreement over the respective powers of the judiciary and the ballot box deepened rather than tamed.
The trial was seen as a showcase for the national divide, which looks increasingly irreconcilable. Common ground might yet be found, but it still looks “so near yet so far”. Thais want the same thing: a democracy that can take care of itself. The conflict is about whether that’s just a dream or whether a tendency to impatience has widened the gulf separating us. One camp says two wrongs don’t make a right, meaning dictatorial military powers are not the solution. The other camp says there is no other way to right the wrong.
Both sides proffer good reasons. The first camp insists there is no way for fairness to prevail in the absence of democracy. The other side says fairness is impossible under democracy too, because the accused can always invoke public support as a shield. The Yingluck trial has been shrouded in this debate, just as when her brother Thaksin Shinawatra was accused of corruption.
To be fair to the Shinawatras, the problem dates to long before they rose to power. It was always difficult to punish politicians, even amid glaring evidence of wrongdoing. The military has repeatedly pounced on this unhealthy characteristic of our political system, which every Thai freely acknowledges.
That the Shinawatras were not responsible for this tradition, however, doesn’t mean they should foster it.
During Thaksin’s supremacy it became even harder to punish anyone in his Cabinet. In fact, a trend was unmistakably set when he, as prime minister, escaped Constitutional Court punishment in connection with a share scandal in which he appeared to be guilty as sin.
So we can blame politicians for making Thai democracy vulnerable, or we can frown on military opportunism.
No matter which side you’re on, this is a national illness that has trapped us all in a vicious cycle.
Pro-democracy protesters triumph and a democratic government is installed, only for that government to use public support as a shield against actions that should not be protected, thus enabling the military to clamp down again.
The Yingluck affair is just a part of the cycle. What makes it worse is that the case was so politicised and became a proxy issue in an ideological war. This should not have happened. Everyone’s judgement regarding her and the rice programme was blurred by partisanship. The rice scheme should have been judged on its own merits and flaws, not by who initiated it.
The political partisanship will likely continue. Optimistically, Thai society will have learned from Yingluck’s plight, what caused it and what it might lead to, and that knowledge hopefully will leave the partisan somewhat more mature. The soul-searching has not been easy, and the best we can look forward to is a future that’s less violent, less divisive and where unsavoury elements are removed one by one.