Political storm to come

opinion January 20, 2014 00:00

By The Star

All parties locked in bangkok strife seem oblivious to growing peril

Violent upheaval in Thailand is set to grow, getting a lot worse before (and if) things get any better.
On the external front, Thailand is at peace with the world. The “land of smiles” faces no enemy, foreign threat or serious competitor.
Its historical foe Burma, as the aspiring overlord next door when Thailand was still the absolute monarchy of Siam under different kingdoms, has long ceased to be the deadly irritant that it was.
Even Thailand’s ancient rival Vietnam, in vying for influence over smaller neighbours like Laos and Cambodia, poses no such anxieties today.
The tempers that raged recently between Thailand and Cambodia over territory around a border temple had cooled swiftly after a decision by the International Court of Justice.
As Thailand is not among claimant states in its neighbourhood competing interminably for disputed maritime territory, old conflicts are as unlikely to arise with other nations as new ones to develop.
“Mai pen rai” attitude
Both regionally and further afield, Thailand can afford a laid-back “mai pen rai” attitude to current affairs. Modern developments like Asean membership have helped to iron out prospective wrinkles.
However, issues on the domestic front are an entirely different matter. Thailand continues to be rocked by not one but two crises of national proportions simultaneously.
Waves of anti- and pro-government dissent, sometimes violent, form a rising tide of lawlessness centred in Bangkok regardless of ideology or principle. The many problems are almost certain to get worse before they get better.
At the same time, sporadic violence in the southernmost provinces continues with no end in sight. While anybody in the wrong place at the wrong time can be attacked or killed, the cause of the violence remains largely unidentified.
Compounding these problems is the failure of many analysts to appreciate the prospective scale of each crisis and to understand the severity of the implications.
Worse, too few comprehend how both sets of issues not only occur simultaneously but also feed into each other, making for a grand conflagration.
Bangkok’s woes deriving from the latest Thaksin-driven government are alarming for everyone throughout the country.
The issues and the problems they generate do not discriminate as to who or what is harmed.
On one level, the street protests are an unlawful way to unseat an elected government that had not been pronounced illegitimate by democratic, constitutional or juridical means.
Unlike previous administrations manipulated by convicted fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government has not been found to have violated any law as to nullify its mandate. Suspicions of vote-buying in the 2011 election remain unproven allegations.
The preceding prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva of the Democrat Party, had even conceded defeat. Since then the street protests have grown in strength, with Abhisit joining in. The demonstrations are led by his former deputy premier Suthep Thaugsuban, who has an arrest warrant on his head.
Instead of the warrant being served on Suthep, he has called for the arrest of the prime minister. That all this has been allowed to spiral speaks volumes of a failure of governance.
In trying to topple the government by provoking a military coup, the protesters are demonstrating not just their dislike of a government, but against the undisputed result of an election.
Yet nobody doubts that the anti-government demonstrators are outnumbered by the pro-government ones who have yet to emerge this time.
Far from the Bangkok-centred mess being an exclusively Bangkok imbroglio, it divides the pro-Thaksin North and the anti-Thaksin South and Bangkok. It is a deteriorating national divide that is set to grow deeper and wider.
This crisis shows that Yingluck’s government has lost all control of events at street level.
Yingluck tried to negotiate with the protest leaders, only to be spurned by them as they insisted that she quit. She then called for a meeting with the Election Commission and the opposition, only to be shunned by both.
She then planned to announce her resignation on Thursday afternoon, only to be told by Thaksin by phone to stay put. The prime minister has now drifted past the point of patching up her credibility, with scant hope of salvaging any dignity of office.
Taking advantage
The crisis with its epicentre in Bangkok is essentially a crisis of governance, of the lack of governance at the centre. And that is precisely the fuel that insurgents in the South have been looking for to widen their scale of operations.
It has been nearly a year now since supposed peace talks facilitated by Malaysia were first held between the Thai government and the insurgents, the latter as represented by the underground rebel group, the BRN (Barisan Revolusi Nasional) Coordinate.
A few preliminary meetings were held since last February, with little follow-up until a stalemate. Neither Bangkok nor the BRN showed commitment to the talks. Now talk of the peace talks seems like such a long and forlorn time ago, as regression sets in with a return to violence.
Thailand’s “southern violence” has been known to afflict the three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat for decades. Over the past year it has been spilling over these provinces in heading north.
Last December, multiple bombs went off in Padang Besar and Dan Nok in Songkhla province. They targeted police stations and commercial establishments, leaving no doubt they had been the work of militants.
This had followed another bombing campaign in Phuket, a little further north, in early August. The target then was Phuket City Hall.
Earlier in May, a bomb went off in Bangkok itself in Ramkhamhaeng Soi 43/1. Opinion was divided even within the security forces over whether this was the work of southern insurgents, until a rebel group claimed responsibility.
Insurgents have no doubt that they oppose established authority, and no Thai authority is so targeted as the national government in Bangkok.
Since November at least, that national authority is seen everywhere as weak and in decline.
Meanwhile, all parties locked in their urban-centred strife in Bangkok seem oblivious to the perilous potential of both crises growing until they merge into a mega-turmoil expanding exponentially.
If left unattended, that long-lamented Bangkok-centric attitude may prove the catastrophic undoing of the country as a whole.