New Internationalist

No room left for democracy in Thailand’s political chaos

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In calmer times, January 2014. Johan Fantenberg under a Creative Commons Licence

Six months of political turmoil in Thailand have resulted in a military coup. This has been a depressing period. One of the bleaker moments was in February, when a grenade explosion outside my local supermarket killed two children boarding a tuk-tuk. Not a large event in the broader scheme of things, just another personal tragedy punctuating the country’s gradual slide into political chaos.

Who killed those children? The attack took place alongside one of the protest sites of the yellow-shirted, anti-government People’s Democratic Reform Committee. So maybe it was one of the pro-government red-shirted, United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship members. Or maybe it was the yellow shirts themselves, or maybe it was another shadowy third party adding to the general sense of chaos. We avoided the supermarket for a couple of days and then drifted back.

Now Thailand is in more familiar territory – with soldiers patrolling the streets. One of the strangest aspects of recent months was that protesters were able to seize control of government buildings and set up sound stages and massive encampments that blocked some of the city’s main arteries. Very inconvenient, though in true Thai style, these camps effectively turned into street markets, with excellent food.

One of the blocked thoroughfares was Ratchdamnoen Nok, home to an army headquarters and a UN building. The soldiers parked the odd armour-plated truck alongside, but just looked passively on. Maybe they were sympathetic to the protesters; maybe they were just trying to avoid bloodshed. Now they have cleared the roads.

Thailand’s crisis can be seen, at its simplest, as a struggle of the largely poor and rural population against the middle classes and the royalist élite in Bangkok. In the past, some of this conflict was mediated through the influence of the much-revered King Bhumibol. The paternalistic monarch, on the throne since 1946, set up a number of worthy rural development projects for his grateful subjects. He was also active behind the scenes in manoeuvring between politicians and the military. Now aged 86, and in poor health, he seems to have withdrawn from the scene.

Ironically, his mantel was in part effectively adopted by a politician he is assumed to despise, Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin is a telecoms tycoon who, during his period as prime minister from 2001 to 2006, exploited his position to consolidate his business empire. But he was also a canny populist who declared himself to be on the side of the poor. For example, he set up a scheme to support rural enterprises, and also established a cheap healthcare programme – both of which worked fairly well and are still running.

Thaksin over-reached himself with one shady business deal too many, and was overthrown in Thailand’s last military coup in 2006. He is currently exiled in Dubai, from where he pulled the strings for his sister Yingluck, who acted as his proxy prime minister from August 2011 until May 2014. She too tempted fate and was ousted by a constitutional court for abusing her powers in making a public appointment. In other countries she might have been given a rap on the knuckles. But in this case the judiciary, which is sympathetic to the opposition, forced her to resign.

There were hopes for another election, but even this might not have resolved anything. Thaksin’s Pheu Thai party, or some subsequent reincarnation of it, would certainly have won yet again, since, no matter how corrupt Thaksin was, he at least offered benefits to the poor and generated some loyalty. Anticipating defeat, the opposition Democrat Party would have boycotted the election. Instead, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee would prefer to ditch democracy and have an ‘appointed government’.

Neighbouring countries have had similar governance issues – resolved, as in Laos, within a one-party state; or in Burma, through a military dictatorship; or in Cambodia, through rigged elections; or in Malaysia, through a skewed constitution; or in Singapore, through a repressive autocracy.

To speed up discussions of street protests Thai has now adopted the English word ‘mob’ – though in Thai a ‘b’ at the end of a word is pronounced as a ‘p’. A friend says: ‘I looked it up and couldn’t understand why people were referring to these crowds as floor cleaners.’

But he is clearer about what is happening now. ‘We are supposed to have a system where the people control the government which controls the army. Now we have the army which controls the government which controls the people.’

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