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Thailand’s Political Crisis—Not so Unique

by Joshua Kurlantzick
December 19, 2013

An anti-government protester holds a placard as she gathers with others during a rally at a major business district in Bangkok on December 19, 2013. (Athit Perawongmetha/Courtesy Reuters) An anti-government protester holds a placard as she gathers with others during a rally at a major business district in Bangkok on December 19, 2013. (Athit Perawongmetha/Courtesy Reuters)

As Thailand heads into the new year, which will mark four months of political crisis, one of the most persistent—and dangerous—concepts in Thai politics remains this idea that Thailand is somehow unique. According to this popular theory, Thailand’s history, politics, and potential political solutions are completely unique, untethered from the experiences of any other developing nations. This Thailand-as-unique narrative clearly comes across in the rhetoric of the anti-government protest movement and its quest for rule by a few good men, in the weakness of studies of comparative politics in the kingdom, and in the denunciation of foreign academics and journalists who write about Thailand.

Overall, the Thailand-as-unique narrative can be seen in the general reluctance of many Thai opinion leaders on both red and yellow sides to admit that many of the country’s problems do bear a strong resemblance to those of many of Thailand’s neighbors. (New Mandala had a fine short summary of the anger expressed against foreign journalists in Thailand.)

Thai politics contain some unique aspects. The country is a constitutional monarchy that does not really function like a constitutional monarchy, and one where the limitations of the monarch are not really clearly defined. It has had more military coups than almost any other middle-income nation, and it retains a “coup culture” (the term of Australian National University professor Nicholas Farrelly) that has largely vanished from most other middle-income developing nations.

But in many ways, Thailand is not so unique, and there are lessons to be learned from other democratizing nations—once Thai opinion leaders get beyond the idea of Thai uniqueness. Many countries have made a gradual transition to democracy only to find that some segments of the middle class and elite dislike the shift in power engendered by democratization, and look to extra constitutional means of subverting democracy. In countries like Spain, for instance, remnants of the military/bureaucratic/business elite repeatedly tried to bring down elected governments in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But as King Juan Carlos and other top military leaders repeatedly stymied coups and other interventions, it became accepted that coups were no longer feasible in Spain, and most elites reconciled themselves to democratic politics.

The Thai army’s reluctance, during this round of political protests, to consider an extra constitutional intervention, bodes well for a future in which resorting to coups as a means of subverting democracy is no longer acceptable in Thailand as well.

Similarly, other countries in the region have made a gradual transition toward building trusted formal institutions of conflict mediation and away from having disputes mediated by informal institutions gathered around one or two top leaders, as was common in Suharto’s Indonesia and has been the case with Thailand’s network monarchy for years. Indonesia slowly has built a more stable and trusted court system, and more trusted institutions designed to monitor elections and address potential electoral fraud. Poorer than Thailand, and in many ways far more divided and harder to govern, Indonesia nonetheless has created reasonably stable formal institutions, allowing politics to be channeled through a system, and no longer through the hands of a small handful of men and women.

Right now Thailand’s political future seems grim, and January almost surely will bring more violence in Bangkok; yesterday someone firebombed the home of prominent anti-government protest leader and former Democrat Party spokeswoman Chitpas Bhirombhakdi. But if Thai opinion leaders can move beyond their myopia, and admit that Thailand is not actually so special, they can see that, in the long term, there are many other examples to offer them hope.

Post a Comment 11 Comments

  • Posted by Termsak Chalermpalanupap

    Thailand is politically unique in the following ways:
    • After 81 years, since the end of the Siamese absolute monarchy in 1932, the Thai democracy is still faltering, beset by money politics. This must be one of the oldest cases of democracy failure in the world.
    • A large majority of the Thai people genuinely love and revere the Royal Family. The Thai monarchy as an institution and HM the King in particular hold tremendous political influence. Whenever Thailand is in a bloody crisis, Thai people would look towards HM the King for a solution. This happened in the 14 October 1973 students uprising and the Bloody May in 1991. This is a unique role of HM the King, who is now the longest reigning monarch in the world (since 5 May 1950).
    • The coup on 19-20 September 2006 which ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was actually not unpopular. At least in Bangkok people gave flowers to soldiers and took souvenir photos with them and their tanks.
    • That was the 14th coup since the 1932 Revolution. If other minor coup attempts are also counted, Thailand is a close runner-up to Haiti, the world champion of coup.
    • Thaksin faces a long list of pending corruption charges, among others, and yet the international media tend to portray him as the “champion of the Thai poor”, or worse, the “champion of Thai democracy”.
    • The international media also describe his situation as a “self-imposed exile” after the 2006 coup. This is inaccurate. Thaksin actually returned to Thailand on 28 February 2008 to fight corruption charges in court. But when he realized that would be convicted he fled under the pretext of leaving the country to attend the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing in August 2008. Thaksin is actually free to return to Thailand anytime, but there is a 2-year jail term awaiting him.
    • Thaksin has acquired passports of Montenegro and Nicaragua to facilitate his international travel. Legally speaking he is no longer a 100% Thai national. And yet it is an open secret that he funds and controls the ruling Pheu Thai Party and directs the Yingluck Administration. This explains why Prime Minister Yingluck contended at first that she had nothing to do with the doings of Pheu Thai Party in the House of Representatives in recent weeks prior to the dissolution of the House on 9 December. She was telling the truth. It was her fugitive elder brother, Thaksin, who called the shots all along.
    • Under international standard of democracy, such a puppet government administration would be unacceptable, illegitimate. But not in Thailand. The Yingluck Administration managed to last 27 months in office. Maybe this is the famous Thai carefree mindset of “mai penrai” (it doesn’t matter).
    • However, recent blatant abuse of majority power in the House of Representatives by Pheu Thai Party and defiance against the Constitutional Court has woken up a good segment of the otherwise passive silent majority Thais. An unprecedented large number of protesters from virtually all walks of life (not just students or “Bangkok elites” or “royalists”) took to the streets in Bangkok on 9 December to demand uprooting of the so-called “Thaksin Regime”. They are also demanding an overhaul of the Thai political system to end money politics and fight corruption.
    • It is no accident that in the 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index compiled by Transparency International, the ranking of Thailand plunged to 102nd among 177 countries, a sharp fall from 88th among 174 countries in 2012.
    • Even though Yingluck has resigned as a result of the House dissolution on 9 December, she is still holding the role of a caretaker head of government until the next general election scheduled for 2 February 2014.
    • The protesters will mount yet another massive protest in Bangkok this Sunday (22 December) to push her out of this role entirely.
    • Rumours are now spreading that she will concede in exchange for an immediate end of all protests.
    • If this happens, HM the King can appoint a replacement caretaker head of government.
    • The 2 February 2014 general election can be postponed in order to give Thailand some more time to do a historic political overhaul. This, I believe, is a uniquely Thai solution to a uniquely Thai political crisis. Good luck Thailand!
    • The democratic spirit of the Arab Spring has finally arrived in Thailand!

  • Posted by Name Surname

    I wish to answer each point mentioned by the above commentator.

    • After 81 years, since the end of the Siamese absolute monarchy in 1932, the Thai democracy is still faltering, beset by money politics. This must be one of the oldest cases of democracy failure in the world.

    Answer: Not beset by money politics – that problem exist also in the best democracies in the universe. Thai democracy is beset by other factors, which we are not really allowed to talk about due to censorship.

    • A large majority of the Thai people genuinely love and revere the Royal Family. The Thai monarchy as an institution and HM the King in particular hold tremendous political influence. Whenever Thailand is in a bloody crisis, Thai people would look towards HM the King for a solution. This happened in the 14 October 1973 students uprising and the Bloody May in 1991. This is a unique role of HM the King, who is now the longest reigning monarch in the world (since 5 May 1950).

    Answer: it is not possible to answer due to censorship.

    • The coup on 19-20 September 2006 which ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was actually not unpopular. At least in Bangkok people gave flowers to soldiers and took souvenir photos with them and their tanks.

    Answer: Thai people had just elected PM Thaksin with a landslide 60% of votes.

    • That was the 14th coup since the 1932 Revolution. If other minor coup attempts are also counted, Thailand is a close runner-up to Haiti, the world champion of coup.

    Answer: this may be considered am abnormality, but the ongoing protest in Bangkok is asking exactly the opposite: a new coup to oust democratically elected Pm Yingluck.

    • Thaksin faces a long list of pending corruption charges, among others, and yet the international media tend to portray him as the “champion of the Thai poor”, or worse, the “champion of Thai democracy”.

    Answer: Thaksin is a Thai citizen living abroad. Given that the sentences are deserved, he can be still considered a “champion of the Thai poor” due to the pro-poor policies he implemented as a PM. Yes, a person can be ugly, rude, arrogant, corrupted, but can still be a “champion of the poor.”

    • The international media also describe his situation as a “self-imposed exile” after the 2006 coup. This is inaccurate. Thaksin actually returned to Thailand on 28 February 2008 to fight corruption charges in court. But when he realized that would be convicted he fled under the pretext of leaving the country to attend the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing in August 2008. Thaksin is actually free to return to Thailand anytime, but there is a 2-year jail term awaiting him.

    Answer: correct.

    • Thaksin has acquired passports of Montenegro and Nicaragua to facilitate his international travel. Legally speaking he is no longer a 100% Thai national. And yet it is an open secret that he funds and controls the ruling Pheu Thai Party and directs the Yingluck Administration. This explains why Prime Minister Yingluck contended at first that she had nothing to do with the doings of Pheu Thai Party in the House of Representatives in recent weeks prior to the dissolution of the House on 9 December. She was telling the truth. It was her fugitive elder brother, Thaksin, who called the shots all along.

    Answer: inaccurate. PM Yingluck said she had “nothing to do” with the doings of PT party in the House because she heads the Government, not the party, nor the PT group in the Parliament.

    • Under international standard of democracy, such a puppet government administration would be unacceptable, illegitimate. But not in Thailand. The Yingluck Administration managed to last 27 months in office. Maybe this is the famous Thai carefree mindset of “mai penrai” (it doesn’t matter).

    Answer: under int’l standard of democracy the Yingluck Government has been elected in a free and fair election, and thus it is the legitimate government of the country.

    • However, recent blatant abuse of majority power in the House of Representatives by Pheu Thai Party and defiance against the Constitutional Court has woken up a good segment of the otherwise passive silent majority Thais. An unprecedented large number of protesters from virtually all walks of life (not just students or “Bangkok elites” or “royalists”) took to the streets in Bangkok on 9 December to demand uprooting of the so-called “Thaksin Regime”. They are also demanding an overhaul of the Thai political system to end money politics and fight corruption.

    Answer: it is not the “recent blatant abuse of majority power ” that took people to the streets. The same happened in 2005, 2006, 2008, and finally last year (“Pitak Siam” movement). It is 8 years that, each time the Pheu Thai party (previously called otherwise) wins the election, a Bangkok-based minority tries to oust the democratically elected government with street protests, military coup d’etat, or judicial rulings. But when the Thai people are allowed to vote, the Pgeu Thai (and his previous incarnations) wins. It has won 5 times in a row (2001, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2011). The opposition “Democrat Party” won his last election in 1992.

    • It is no accident that in the 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index compiled by Transparency International, the ranking of Thailand plunged to 102nd among 177 countries, a sharp fall from 88th among 174 countries in 2012.

    Answer: corruption is deeply corruption Thai society, not only Government, but every other possible institution, such as the Army, the ‘state religion’, the police, education, and also other institutions which we are not allowed to talk about due to censorship. Corruption is not an issue in the current political crisis (for “current” I mean 2005-2013), but just a carrot to win some supporters to one’s side.

    • Even though Yingluck has resigned as a result of the House dissolution on 9 December, she is still holding the role of a caretaker head of government until the next general election scheduled for 2 February 2014.

    Answer: correct.

    • The protesters will mount yet another massive protest in Bangkok this Sunday (22 December) to push her out of this role entirely.

    Answer: correct. (The “massive” is relative).

    • Rumours are now spreading that she will concede in exchange for an immediate end of all protests.

    Answer: rumors don’t really deserve answers.

    • If this happens, HM the King can appoint a replacement caretaker head of government.

    Answer: correct.

    • The 2 February 2014 general election can be postponed in order to give Thailand some more time to do a historic political overhaul. This, I believe, is a uniquely Thai solution to a uniquely Thai political crisis. Good luck Thailand!

    Answer: you are commenting an article which explains why there is nothing unique in this crisis. #facepalm

    • The democratic spirit of the Arab Spring has finally arrived in Thailand!

    Answer: unclear why you use the word ‘democracy’ for a movement which aims to oust a democratically elected government, “suspend democracy” (the protest leader’s words), get rid of the current electoral democratic system, and replace it with a Myanmanr- or Hong Kong-style system where some sectors of the public (perhaps the army and the business community) are over-represented and others (the commoners) are under-represented.

  • Posted by Walaiporn

    I find Mr.Kurlantzick’s article is shortsighted and condescending – his narratives simply lack depth. One needs to ensure when one looks at the narrative of “other’, one needs to make sure one understand ‘other’ as ‘other’ not as ‘self’.

    Thailand is not unique according to his meaning. Thailand is simply facing a political turmoil, which is different from other nations, but the mindsets of people can prove universal as in the case of Cambodia, Ukraine and Arab Spring.

    Can he explain why a sea of people coming together to protest against this (un)ligitimate government? And we are talking from all over the country regarding their classes (if one prefers using this term). The protestors come simply because they want to have their rights back – their fundamental right – the right to choose the government – it is a social contract (it’s how we have a state according to Locke and Rousseau). Surely, people have a right to overthrow a corrupted government? And this time you can see the constraint of the military whether intentionally or intentionally.

    I really do wish Mr. Kurlantzick had done more research – then perhaps he could see how the policies the government has proposed have not valid and substantiate and lots of loopholes for corruptions (and please do not use that anywhere in the world we could not avoid corruptions).

    As Mr. Chalermpalanup has pointed out in his response to your article “…blatant abuse of majority power in the House of Representatives by Pheu Thai Party and defiance against the Constitutional Court has woken up a good segment of the otherwise passive silent majority Thais.” is a case in point to prove the legitimacy of people.

    Thailand cannot change the history of the power struggle, however, Thailand is not a static country and not stuck to the past. Thailand has moved on and are awake after a long slumber. So please give Thailand a chance for the country to move into the right direction without a harsh comment and shortsighted.

  • Posted by Graham Watts

    Last comment is not a list of things for which Thailand is unique. Just a list of assertions.

  • Posted by Sami

    Looks like Termsak Chalermpalanupap totally missed the point of the article.

    It’s like saying that I’m unique because my fingerprint is unique, there is no one else in the world with my fingerprint.

    Please read the article again.

  • Posted by polo

    What does it matter if Thailiand is or is not special?… it is the country of the Thais and they are fighting over its future. So it’s absolutely special to them. You can tell them to be like Indoneisia but in real terms, with the succession looming, what does that really mean they should do? With Thaksin viewed by many as another Suharto, and by many others a non-Suharto, what should they do?

  • Posted by pat lert

    1. The present political confrontation risks bringing Thailand backward because, in fact, the country’s “historic political overhaul” already took place some 5-6 years ago after a coup. That was when a new constitution was drafted by selected “people council” and also approved by natioanl referendum, almost exactly to what the protesters are demanding at present.

    2. It looks like political conflict will continue for years in the future because the same group who wrote the rules are erasing them, thus only raising the level of hate.

    3. By pressuring for power to rewrite the rules again, this group of protesters neglects the root of problem, the very big difference between the rich and the poor.

    4. The present situation centers only on power control between two sides without real intention to solving the nation’s deep rooted problem.

    5. So there will be no luck while following the Egypt-model.

    Pray for Thailand.

    3.

  • Posted by Burin Kantabutra

    For Thailand to progress, each side needs to understand that the other side has valid points that must be addressed in good faith, and I stress “in good faith.” The anti-government protesters, whether Democrat or not, are fed up with Thaksin’s massive excesses of corruption and subversion of good governance, e.g., seeking to amnesty those responsible for the 92 deaths during the 2010 political disturbance just so he could get his conviction for corruption whitewashed. On the other hand, the protesters should recognize that Thaksin addressed many valid points that the disadvantaged have, e.g., need for affordable health care and low-cost housing.
    The time is ripe for a third party to address these deep-felt needs which are being studiously ignored by the government and Democrats. The party need not be big to be effective, for it can hold the balance of power. As Margaret Mead noted, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

  • Posted by Hipolitus Ringgi

    I respectfully disagree with the Indonesia as an ideal comparative case to Thailand. One thing in common for both countries in terms of transition to democracy is the continuing role of the elites and oligrachs to determine the political system. On the one hand, after the collapsed of Suharto, the rule of law merely applies to grassroots people, otherwise has been blunted for those few powerful groups. The executive and legislative bodies have been occupied by remants of what Soeharto established during new order. On the other hand, the ongoing tension bertween Thaksin and his groups and the elites has been repeteadly exarcebating the established system on the national level. Even though Indonesia has been undertaking remarkable changes since 1998, the foundation of the system still being controlled by those powerful groups.

  • Posted by Nawin Saysavas

    WARNING: the above comment (Termsak’s) is both myopic and delusional. And, of course, illegitimate. The comment supports extra-constitutional means to violent ends. It is written with deep anti-democratic, if not entirely fascist, sentiment.

    After all, what’s the use of arguing for Thai uniqueness? Can we ponder a bit here what it entails? What is at stake when invoking this love of nation-thing? (yes, i’m referring to a phrase coined by Slavoj Zizek)

    Apparently, Termsak’s love for the king is acknowledge (like a “docile”, usual Thais you can meet on the street of Bangkok). And that is his own problem. A major one indeed.

    Should it always be like this? When a country is in peril, should the people cry out for the sovereign hand–to put them out of misery?

    I don’t deny that corruption remains a problem as much as the abuse of majority rule. Anti-amnesiac reminder: Don’t forget that the Democrat party too was charged with numerous corruption cases even if they were not “legitimately” elected. Weird.

    But why crying for the “other” hands when you can fix this mess on your own? Or can’t you? Grow up!

    Stop bothering yourself with the make-believe claims that you need a “uniquely Thai solution”. Isn’t it ironic that despite this ungrounded claim for uniqueness, you make comparison to the Arab spring?

    And don’t be so naive. Take a look at what happens to Tunisia, Egypt, Libya or even Syria. Are these the kind of “Arab spring” you aim for?

  • Posted by Dietrich

    I found this article to be a very sober analysis of the situation, although unpopular among many Thai journalists.

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