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Thailand: Reconciliation Fails

by Joshua Kurlantzick
August 13, 2012

A member of Nation Associate Anti-Corruption Network (NACN) holds a placard during a rally outside the U.S. embassy in Bangkok August 10, 2012. A member of Nation Associate Anti-Corruption Network (NACN) holds a placard during a rally outside the U.S. embassy in Bangkok August 10, 2012 (Chaiwat Subprasom/Courtesy Reuters).


After some time on vacation, I have returned to find that Thai politics, which almost couldn’t get worse, actually has. Last month, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, in my opinion the most astute observer of Thai politics, captured the fundamental tension in Thailand today in an op-ed:

Thailand’s problem is that those who keep winning elections are not allowed to rule, whereas others who ultimately call the shots cannot win elections. [Thanks to Bangkok Pundit for pointing me to Thitinan’s op-ed]

 That, in a nutshell, is Thailand’s dilemma, one shared by many middle-income developing nations where middle classes are becoming increasingly skeptical of the benefits of democratization, as I discuss in my forthcoming book The Decline of Democracy (Yale University Press). In Thailand, however, the government of Yingluck Shinawatra seemed at first to make some headway toward at least a short-term solution to this impasse, the kind of solution achieved by more populist governments in places like Brazil: Yingluck and her party would be allowed to hold and exercise power, and might continue some of the populist programs started by her brother Thaksin Shinawatra (and continued by the Democrats), but she would also take significant pains to reassure traditional elites, including the military, that she would not challenge their orbits of power. Yingluck publicly venerated Privy Council members, and, according to several articles by Shawn Crispin and others, allowed pro-royalists to essentially continue their McCarthyite attacks on anyone who even questions the long-term nature of the monarchy unabated. She also had mostly kept her hands off of the military budget.

Over time, such a deal, as in Brazil, might eventually have reassured elites —the military, big business, the palace— enough that they would see that a truly democratically elected government would not necessarily be a significant threat to their interests, and surely would be preferable to the alternative: to hold out against real democratic rule for as long as possible, further enraging large portions of the Thai public and thus potentially birthing a more aggressively anti-elite politician than Yingluck or other Puea Thai leaders, who are hardly grassroots populists, along the lines of Hugo Chavez or Evo Morales.

But Thaksin has now clearly overstepped the deal, with his desire to show that he is really in charge and that his political purgatory has ended. His planned trip to the United States was originally supposed to be relatively low-profile, just a means of demonstrating that he was again welcome in Western capitals and should not have been treated like a fugitive. But it may become increasingly high-profile, just as his recent trips to Southeast Asian nations have put him at the center of Thai politics again, and made him look exactly like what his opponents always claimed —the puppet master who ruled the “red shirts”, Puea Thai and Yingluck from behind the scenes. I don’t believe that this was —or is— really the case. In fact, a fascinating article released late last year by academics Duncan McCargo and Naruemon Thabchumpon shows that the red shirt movement is far more diverse, class-wise and policy-wise, than the simple reductions of poor rural farmers who follow Thaksin. But Thaksin’s increasing desire to place himself again right at the center of the political stage, even while his sister maintains high popularity ratings among the public, is both threatening the reconciliation and allowing his opponents to more effectively make their case.

Post a Comment 15 Comments

  • Posted by Andrew Spooner

    Not a credible article to be honest. I have no idea why the author cites Shawn Crispin who works for the leader of the PAD, Sondhi Lim, the owner of Asia Times, a man who has publicly called for democracy to end and for the country to be shut down for two years and “cleansed”. Don’t forget the Asian Human Rights Commission described the PAD as “fascistic”. Crispin lives in a huge mansion on Sukhumvit Rd and knows precisely which side his bread is buttered. He is also prone to making ridiculous comments such as this one in 2008

    And, to be completely frank it is the Thai people who, via the ballot box, have kept Thaksin at centre of Thai politics. Without their mandate Thaksin would be reduced to an irrelevance.

    Also fascinating that the author has barely any contacts himself within the Red Shirts or other people in Thailand and has to quote other journalists to make his point. Get out their and talk to people would be my comment. Then you might actually begin to understand why Thaksin would win a huge landslide victory if he ran in an election tomorrow and why the Democrats and Abhisit – the political representatives of the elite and the army – remain, as ever, completely and totally unelectable.

  • Posted by Tony Cartalucci

    I can’t figure out who is more ridiculous – Joshua Kurlantzick working for the corporate-fascist CFR, or Andrew Spooner neck deep in US State Department propaganda outfits, somehow citing them as evidence that Thailand is run by a US-backed military dictatorship.

    Thaksin is a mass murdering (2,500 extra-judicially shot dead in the streets during his “war on drugs”) despot attempting to install a hereditary dictatorship in Thailand – the PM is his sister, former-PM was his brother-in-law, Chief of Police his other brother-in-law, and two of Thaksin’s sisters have also been given government portfolios. Deputy PM Chalerm Yubamrung’s cop-killing son has just been made a police officer himself!

    For “democratic governance” it sure looks like 3rd world, banana republic nepotism to me. I’d say in reality all politicians in Thailand are equally unelectable – Thaksin’s cronies simply stoop lower – offering free concerts, beer, 500 baht, and wild untenable promises of free computers, houses, and cars for everyone. How ridiculous and what a mockery they’ve made out of real representative governance.

    When you consider that Thaksin has before, during and after his term in office been directly working with corporate-financier interests on Wall Street and in Washington – to call him “the people’s choice” is either a lie – or indicative of the horrific exploitation of under-educated people. Shame on you either way!

  • Posted by Guy Spector

    Shutting the country down for 2 years and cleansing is the best idea I’ve heard yet.

    It doesn’t matter who’s in charge, because the people will not get an honest run for their money. The democratic election of a Thaksin looks great on paper, but the only reason Thaksin has had popular support is because he figured out that throwing the average Thai a few baht, while stealing millions concurrently, is a winning formula.

    Democracy is great, but without a solid foundation it is worthless. I’m referring to an electorate that is informed and can trust media coverage of the news, a constitution that is equitable and enforceable, a court system that is above reproach, and a way of life where corruption is the exception rather than the rule.

  • Posted by Peter Kouwenberg

    Agree with comment by Andrew Spooner.
    Do not hide behind others, find out yourself.
    If you cannot find something of relevance,
    do not write.

  • Posted by Paul

    The problem with Mr T is he sees enriching himself and his family beyond belief as a natural consequence of winning elections. It’s a modified version of the trickle down effect – allowing some money to be spent on the poor while the bulk is squirreled away. The cost of doing business in Thailand rises as a consequence.

  • Posted by Raja M. Ali Saleem

    Its strange that a popularly elected PM has to bow before military and royalty and spend her considerable time appeasing them, instad of working for the country. Its also strange that Thaksin has been asked to keep a low profile so that generals/royals/some media persons are happy.

    Otherwise what will happen? Oh, don’t ask. These persons will get angry and will throw the elected PM and parliament to dustbin. Of course, all fault will be of Thaksin and her sister who didn’t know their place.

  • Posted by Kimberley

    It is amazing that what MONEY can do: even the US. has allowed a fugitive like Thaksin to enter its teritory wiht disregard for a criminal treaty between Thailand and the US.

  • Posted by Gantal

    Thaksin’s support, especially in the North, is much more diverse that this article suggests. I personally know wealthy, well-travelled Thai businessmen who pray daily for Thaksin’s return. Comments like, “For Thailand’s future”, and “for my kids’ sake” abound.
    The working class people I’ve asked explained patiently that of course Thaksin’s corrupt–just like all the elite. The only difference, as one put it, is that “Thaksin is the only corrupt politician who has ever done anything for the common people”.

  • Posted by kal

    Thaksin Shinawatra is Thailand’s curse. And those ‘reconciliation checks’ quickly disbursed to Thaksin’s Red Shirts supporters-victims-and-culprits only underscore the deep distrust and disdain for Thaksin’s corruptive politics.

    Could the Thai people forgive Thaksin for his ‘corruption’ conviction in the spirit of reconciliation. Perhaps.

    Could the Thai people forgive Thaksin for the murderous bombing/shooting/arson rampage of the Red/Black Shirts following his call for ‘revolution’ and urban warfare under the late General Khattiya? No! most definitely No.

  • Posted by Andrew Spooner

    The slogan for the 2011 general election for the winning Pheu Thai party was “Thaksin Thinks, Pheu Thai Acts”.

    Pheu Thai then won 48.5% of the vote – a single party mandate bigger than almost every single democracy on earth.

    The 2011 election was the 5th straight election victory for a Thaksin party.

    These are the facts – Thaksin and his allies are the democratic choice of the Thai people.

    And the so-called “liberals” who oppose him are overly comfortable with the fascistic PAD.

  • Posted by polo

    “After some time on vacation, I have returned to find that Thai politics, which almost couldn’t get worse, actually has.”

    A little bit melodramatic, perhaps? They aren’t shooting in the street, bombs aren’t going off, and Yingluck isn’t at imminent threat of a coup.

    All for the moment, of course, but your perspective seems a little short. And your rose-colored view that “reconciliation” was coming under a popular Yingluck ignores that ultimately with succession looming nothing really can be settled. Your comments seem more sentimental disappointment that what has happened didn’t meet your hopes rather than any clear-eyed assessment of what the situation is.

  • Posted by Andrew Spooner

    Don’t want to bang on too much about Shawn Crispin but this short video interview he did in 2008 after his boss’s PAD movement stormed the airport and helped bring down a democratically elected govt is quite possibly the most laughable piece of political analysis on Thailand on record and should become a textbook study of how NOT to do journalism.

    In it Crispin states Thaksin is finished, that the Red Shirts will amount to nothing and that Abhisit belongs to a faction of the Democrat Party opposed to the military. Wrong, wrong and wrong. In fact it is so epic in its wrongness that is smacks of artistic genius.

    So why are the supposedly serious CFR relying on a journalist who, despite living in Bangkok, doesn’t seem to know what time of day it is? Can Joshua please explain why?

  • Posted by Vichai N

    Thaksin Shinawatra must be guilty as hell of all the serious constitutional misconducts he was/is accused of.

    Because reading from all the Spooner ‘facts’ about Thaksin’s ‘overwhelming’ Thai election majority support, and considering that his sister Yingluck is the current sitting Thai PM, why does Thaksin Shinawatra still continues his self-exile?

    Face Thai justice Thaksin Shinawatra and face your Thai accusers boldly. Just a little dose of courage please to show some consideration to your Thai supporters who were maimed and killed to fight for the ‘democracy’ they believed you espouse.

  • Posted by Mister A.

    2 Vichai N
    You are totally right about Thaksin, but don’t even count that would have the courage to face the justice, it is much easier to talk etc you know…

  • Posted by JamesG

    When it comes to credibility, Andrew Spooner fails far more miserably than Shawn Crispin. It’s true that Crispin works for AsiaTimesOnline, which is owned by Sonthi Limthongkul. But Crispin, despite getting some predictions wrong, has a record of nearly two decades of solid reporting from Thailand and is respected by his peers and readers. Andrew Spooner, on the other hand, was a failed travel writer in Thailand who beat it back to England when he couldn’t make in Southeast Asia and now is on the payroll of Robert Amsterdam – the lawyer for Thaksin and the Red Shirts.

    Now, getting fat on Amsterdam/Thaksin’s money, he promotes himself as an “analyst” and spends his time on webboards sniping at people, such as Crispin, and Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch, who have accomplished far more than he has or ever will, and are far more respected by those who follow events in Southeast Asia.

    By the way, Crispin doesn’t live in a “mansion.” But it would be foolish to expect facts or fairness from Spooner. Not as long as his job is to be an Amster-spammer.

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