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Thailand’s Tentative Peace Is Collapsing

by Joshua Kurlantzick
February 28, 2012

Red shirt supporters wave flags as thousands of people gather outside the Grand Palace to celebrate the birthday of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej in Bangkok. Red shirt supporters wave flags as thousands of people gather outside the Grand Palace to celebrate the birthday of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej in Bangkok. (Damir Sagolj/Courtesy Reuters)

In a brief but informative piece in the Wall Street Journal recently, veteran correspondent James Hookaway notes that “a delicate détente between Thailand’s powerful armed forces and a populist government led by [Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra] … is looking increasingly fragile.”

Saying that the truce is “increasingly fragile” is like saying Homer Simpson enjoys donuts or Barney Frank is a difficult interview: Thailand could easily blow up again, soon. After Yingluck’s election in July, the army, together with royalist elites (and presumably the palace) backed off slightly from the strident anti-Thaksin rhetoric and political fighting that had characterized 2009 to the middle of 2011. And in return, Yingluck apparently stayed out of the military’s way, allowing it to dominate its appointments and its budgeting. Her government also basically looked the other way as royalists upped the pace of lèse-majesté indictments against people for the slightest charges, including one elderly man who allegedly sent four text messages criticizing the king (though the court could not actually prove he’d sent the messages, or that he even knew how to send text messages at all). The military remained in prime position to stage a coup, if it wanted to, though senior officers insisted that is not in the cards — a promise made and broken many times before in Thailand’s history.

Yingluck’s government thus got little from this approach, which may be why Thaksin, and other power players, are now pushing her to move more aggressively — and now, while she still has the mandate from the July election, and before another potential upheaval if the king were to pass away. If, as prime minister, she cannot exert virtually any civilian control of the military, they are arguing, what use is she? If she cannot pass a new constitutional drafting assembly designed to remove the worst clauses of the constitution passed after the 2006 coup, then how will she ever help deflate the climate of impunity for the army and assuage many of her red shirt supporters, who are still furious over the bloodbath in Bangkok in spring 2010, as well as the hundreds of arrests and intimidation afterwards?  As leading red shirt figures have been given more prominent positions in the government, they have become increasingly vocal, worrying the military and the Thai elite and middle classes. They also have learned, from the multiple street protests of the past  five years, that if you do not get what you want, the best tactic now is to take to the streets and paralyze government and business.

At the same time, the military, the Democrat Party, the Bangkok middle classes, and, presumably the palace, see that their window for pushing back against Yingluck, Thaksin, the red shirts, and their broader movement, is dwindling. Soon, a group of pro-Thaksin politicians who where banned from politics for five years will return — strengthening Yingluck’s party, giving it more policy substance, and potentially broadening its appeal to once again include some middle class liberals. The charter change could also provide an opportunity for Thaksin to come back, further inflaming the situation.  Moves to establish more civilian control of the military, seemingly benign when viewed in the West, are seen by many hard-line officers as a mortal threat to their independence, political role, and access to sources of income. And, among the elite military, the Democrat Party, and certainly the palace, the fear of time running out is only exacerbated by the increasingly frail king, who looked his weakest yet in his birthday speech in December.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Andrew Spooner

    Joshua

    The case against the old man sending SMS messages was began long long before Yingluck came to power. And while rhetoric has certainly increased the number of actual court-charges for LM has decreased. If you’re going to make claims please back them up with evidence of which you have provided none.

    As for civilian control over the Thai Army – well the USA has been providing huge support to that institution for decades.

    Andrew

  • Posted by RickBangkok

    A good overall description of the situation minus the two recent Middle Eastern/Iranian terrorist incidents and arrests, and of course the floods. Those are on Thaksin’s sister’s watch and she has to own those. Based on her inaction during the floods and the first terrorist event, after the 2nd incident she flew to Malaysia to talk with their PM. She asked for extradition of one of the Iranian suspects (all had entered from Malaysia). Extradition is now delayed. Governance is impeded by Thaksin’s use of the Red Shirts and upcountry poor against the Bangkok elites (do you refer to the 40 families or to more recent middle class nationwide?). When I lived in Thailand only Bangkok taxi drivers were Red Shirts because Thaksin had quite a vote buying program with them and the upcountry farmers and poor (that is posted on YouTube). Thaksin and his sister Yingluck manipulate the system as it is in much the same was as Mahatir did for 18 years as PM in Malaysia and currently, even as the court has acquitted the reformer Anwar. Thaksin for his own selfish agenda, has disrupted and retarded real political reform, progress of the society and economic development including foreign direct investment. Those Thai Rak Thai 5 year bans that will end, will not bring any useful policy expertise to Yingluck or to Thailand. Thailand is a great place, the people are friendly, and while American politicians wrap themselves in the flag, Thai people of all parties revere King Bhumibol, so that is not an issue per se.

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