But both sides' demand for justice and real democracy is the middle ground upon which a debate on the future of Thailand can be built
The current showdown between the Pheu Thai government and the opposition is the latest round in an epic struggle between conservative and populist forces that began when Yingluck’s brother Thaksin Shinawatra became prime minister in 2001.
Thaksin came to power in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis of 1997-’98, which saw more than a million Thais drop to the ranks of the poor after one of Southeast Asia’s most dynamic economies collapsed owing to capital flight followed by an austerity programme imposed by hapless governments under the thumb of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Thaksin had benefited from globalisation owing to his firms’ monopolistic position in private telecommunications, one of the economy’s most globalised sectors. Yet, with unerring populist instinct, he sensed that the financial crisis catalysed popular fears about free-market globalisation, smouldering resentment at the urban and rural elites that seemed to be cornering the country’s wealth, and anger at the international financial institutions. On becoming prime minister, Thaksin made a number of dazzling, if opportunistic, moves. He paid off the country’s IMF loan and kicked the Fund out of Thailand, initiated a universal healthcare system that allowed people to be treated for the equivalent of a dollar, imposed a moratorium on the payment of farmers’ debts, and created a Bt1 million fund for each village that villagers could invest however they wanted.
This side of Thaksin won him a mass following among the country’s deprived and marginalised sectors. But there was another side to Thaksin, the side that most of his urban and rural poor followers chose to ignore.
Thaksin literally bought his political allies, constructing in the process a potent but subservient parliamentary coalition. He used his office to enhance his wealth and that of his cronies. He failed to distinguish public interest from private gain. He gave short shrift to human rights concerns, backing a police campaign against drugs that saw the extra-judicial execution of over 2,000 people.
Like many others with overwhelming power in their hands, Thaksin overreached.
The courts ruled that while prime minister, he abused his power to help his wife buy public land at auction, and sentenced him to two years in jail. He was also stripped of Bt46 billion, half his wealth, for failing to declare his assets when he sold his 48 per cent stake in Shin Corp to Singapore’s Temasek in January 2006.
Fast forward eight years and the widespread perception that Prime Minister Yingluck is a “puppet” for her brother turned into protest when her government tried to push through an amnesty bill that would have forgiven all those charged in connection with 2010’s tragic street protests. The opposition contended, however, that the bill was mainly a ploy to allow Thaksin to return to the country without having to serve out his jail term. This was confirmed when in an early morning parliamentary manoeuvre, the ruling coalition rammed through a provision that would extend the amnesty to 10 years before 2010.
Yingluck’s counterstroke against the Bangkok “shutdown” was to dissolve Parliament in mid-December and set new elections for February 2. Sensing it had momentum, the opposition called for a boycott, insisting that Yingluck step down and calling for the formation of an unelected council that would formulate reforms.
The opposition’s stand against elections has deepened the divisions within Thailand’s liberal and progressive community. For Kraisak Choonhavan, an ex-parliamentarian and one of the pillars of the human rights community, non-participation in the February 2 elections was justified by the fact that the priority is a “total reform” of the electoral system. “Every democracy needs such a period of reform,” he contends.
To others, the principle of one person-one vote, the basic tenet of democracy, is what is at stake. Chris Baker, who together with his equally prominent wife, economist Pasuk Pongpaichit, has written some of the most comprehensive exposes of Thaksin’s amassing of wealth and power, expressed concern that key forces in the PDRC “have clearly said they think Bangkok people should have more weight in the elections than non-Bangkok people”.
The Bangkok Post, a supporter of the street protests against the amnesty bill, drew the line at protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban’s call to boycott the elections, characterising it a “deeply flawed plan” that “contains hugely anti-democratic principles that are troubling at best. The entire call for a year or more of this country under an unelected, unaccountable ‘council’ is unacceptable.”
To many liberals and progressives, recent remarks by scholar-activist Thirayut Boonmi, who has iconic status as key leader of the historic 1976 student uprising, are troubling. According to an account of his comments at a recent forum that appeared in The Nation, Thirayut acknowledged that while the anti-government movement “consists of a minority in Thai society, mostly from the middle classes and people from the South”, he argued that “those who voted for the Yingluck Shinawatra administration have forfeited their rights by accepting a corrupt and dictatorial government, which would have to be removed by a ‘people’s revolution.” To people like Thirayut and Kraisak, extraordinary means are needed to rescue Thailand from what they feel is the all-pervasive corruption of the country’s institutions by the Shinawatra family, which Thirayut likens to a “flock of mating vultures”.
What is clear is that both sides of the political divide defy simplistic explanations. The protesters are not simply tools manipulated by traditional political and economic elites whose interests are threatened by Thaksin, as some pro-government analysts have characterised them.
Most see themselves as participants in a grand crusade against corruption. On the other hand, many among the masses that have brought the red-shirt coalitions to power are not bought and corrupted by Thaksin’s money, as they are portrayed in anti-government speeches; they really feel that they are fighting to salvage democratic rule and economic justice against reactionaries.
Perhaps this universal demand for justice and real democracy is a middle ground upon which a debate on the future of Thailand can be built.
While the protests have still remained largely non-violent, instances of violence, including grenade attacks last month, portend another bloody denouement like May 2010. Some pro-government sources people think the PDRC strategy is to provoke the military to intervene to oust Yingluck and impose Suthep’s unelected Reform Council.
There is tremendous hesitation on the part of the military to embark on this, given the terrible experience it had in governing the country after the 2006 coup, though another putsch this time is not out of the question.
With no third force to break the deadlock, there is no prospect in sight except deeper and sharper polarisation. If Yingluck is ousted, it will be the turn of the red shirts to invade Bangkok. Following the opposition’s failed court bid to have the February 2 poll declared null and void, elections may eventually put another Pheu Thai government in power, but this will not bring an end to the opposition’s refusal to grant legitimacy to any Thaksin-led government and put its middle-class muscle to oust it. For many on both sides, it is no longer a question of if but when this deep-seated civil conflict descends into outright civil war.
Walden Bello is a member of the Philippine House of Representatives and is principal author of “Siamese Tragedy: Development and Degradation in Modern Thailand”.