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Is There a Way Out in Thailand?

by Joshua Kurlantzick
May 12, 2014

thai-protestors-may2014 Anti-government protesters react as their leader arrives at Thailand's parliament building during the senate session in Bangkok on May 12, 2014. Thailand's interim prime minister expressed hope on Monday that February's annulled general election could be re-run soon, and said anti-government protesters would not succeed in getting the senate to impose an alternative premier (Damir Sagolj/Courtesy: Reuters).

Since Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was removed from office last week by the Constitutional Court, already-high tensions in Thailand have only ratcheted up. The anti-government protestors rallied in Bangkok this past weekend. They have called their protests the final push to remove the government and install a non-elected prime minister who will, presumably, try to roll back the power of Thailand’s rural voters and further empower unelected Thai institutions.

Although the protestors have taken heart from the selection of the new senate leader, who is far more favorably inclined to the protest movement than the government’s candidate for senate speaker, the demonstrators still have not won their battle. As I noted last week, the Constitutional Court did not completely come down on the side of the demonstrators, which would have meant removing the entire cabinet and essentially destroying the Puea Thai leadership. In addition, the protestors have not yet won the army leadership completely to their side; the army has preferred to let police handle the protests, and even though army commander Prayuth Chan-ocha has clear royalist tendencies, he has continued obfuscating his views on the political standoff. (General Prayuth surely remembers how terribly the army-installed government managed Thailand in 2006-2007 and how poorly that management looked for the military’s image.) In addition, repeated attempts by protest leaders to publicly get key palace go-betweens to support the demonstrations and act on behalf of the demonstrators have mostly fizzled.

However, since the Constitutional Court’s decision there seems to be a dangerous creep—among many Thai and foreign opinion leaders—toward greater acceptance that a coup d’etat now is the only way to break the political deadlock. For example, in conversations with a wide range of middle class Puea Thai supporters, many have become increasingly resigned to the idea that the army eventually will intervene, although core red shirt supporters and leaders are not similarly resigned and probably would fight a coup. Some foreign media outlets and some foreign Thai experts appear similarly resigned. A recent editorial in the New York Times, though calling the Court’s decision “A Coup by Another Name,” also suggested that there are few options left in Thailand other than a royal or military intervention—or that these interventions in the past were somehow helpful to Thailand’s political system.

Although an army intervention may indeed be coming, it is not the only way out; there are other possibilities. These would include a compromise deal brokered between Puea Thai leaders and Democrat Party leaders—a deal that effectively sidelines the street demonstrators by putting into place a short-term caretaker government dedicated to reform, as well as an election date far sooner than two years from now, the timeline proposed by Democrat Party leaders. Such a compromise also, of course, would require both the Democrats and Puea Thai to agree to participate in such elections.

Foreign countries should not accept that a military intervention is the only way out in Thailand now, even if it seems somewhat more likely than it did earlier this year. Grudgingly accepting the idea of a coup will make the event more likely to occur, and also will give the Thai army the notion that a coup will go pretty much unpunished by the world, as occurred after the 2006 putsch.

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