This will be a year of living precariously
This year will prove to be highly eventful for Thailand, with proposed constitutional amendments topping the list of "potentially explosive" issues, followed closely by economic "time bombs" in the form of the Bt300-per-day minimum wage and the costly and controversial rice price-pledging scheme.Somewhere near the top of the list of hot topics will be the ruling by the International Court of Justice over the disputed Preah Vihear temple. Popping up all over the place in the political minefield is the widespread corruption tied to the government's various populist schemes, which could blow up any time in the course of the ongoing investigations by various civic pressure groups.
And just under the surface of the vulnerable political landscape lies the "reconciliation bill", which has become a taboo issue of sorts. No sooner had the draft law been submitted to the House than strong protests from both within the legislative body and independent groups virtually sent the proposal to the backburner. It's now waiting to be revived at another, unpredictable time.
This is the year in which Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra will have to prove that she is more than just her brother's younger sister. She will have to decide whether to make it in politics or go down in history as a seat-warmer who could charm one side of our severely divided society but remain an enigma for the rest of the country.
The charter amendment issue could be Yingluck's undoing if she doesn't handle it in such a way that she can really fulfil the pledge to make the change a "democratic one" - one that will really involve all sectors of the population. Thaksin's public push for a referendum on the issue clashes with some red-shirt leaders' calls for a dash towards a third and final reading of the charter-change bill that will entail a rewriting of the whole Constitution through an assembly elected for the purpose.
Yingluck has so far appeared to be sitting on the fence, either because she isn't sure what the fuss is all about or she is working to patch up the differences among various groups, both within the Pheu Thai Party and the red-shirt movement.
The political instability that could rock her government comes from both the charter issue and the upcoming verdict by the ICJ on the Preah Vihear case.
Foreign Minister Surapong Tovijakchaikul kicked off a controversy at the beginning of the year by suggesting that Thais should be resigned to the fact that we won't win the case. "For us, the expected ruling is either the status quo or a defeat," he said, prompting strong criticism that he was throwing in the towel even before the legal fight begins. Thai and Cambodian officials and lawyers are to testify on the case in the middle of April. Surapong first said he won't be attending the hearings, and the Thai delegation will be headed by our Ambassador to the Hague, Virachai Plasai, while Surapong's Cambodian counterpart, Hor Namhong, will be making a visible presence there. The Thai foreign minister changed his mind a few days later and announced that he would personally head the Thai delegation.
Depending on how the government handles the verdict, things could get fluid. Attempts will intensify from the government's critics to whip up public nationalistic sentiment that could turn ugly. The combination of domestic conflict and cross-border tension could become a combustible mix.
Negative reaction from various business sectors over the enforcement (beginning on January 1) of the Bt300-per-day minimum wage in most parts of the country will get louder as more medium and small-sized firms feel the pinch of the additional financial burden. The rising cost of living, plus sporadic reports of labour layoffs in certain industries, will add to the grim political stirrings.
Any one of these potentially explosive issues could force a confrontation on the streets between those for and against the government, especially if the move to get Thaksin home without him facing judicial punishment is renewed again. That would be tantamount to igniting a real political conflagration.
Of course, Yingluck is aware of all the potentially calamitous scenarios. How she defuses all those time bombs by keeping a proper distance from her brother and all the various contentious factions within her party and affiliated groupings will determine to what extent she can really be herself.