A very Thai farce

Posted on | juni 23, 2011 | No Comments

Yellow Shirt protest 2008

Karl Marx once famously quipped in his commentary on the 1851 coup d’etat in France by Napoleon’s cousin, Louis Napoleon, that “that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice… the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”. This adage seems about to be realized in Thailand. With the country poised to go to the polls on July 3rd Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, looks poised to lead the Pheu Thai party to victory and to become the country’s first female Prime Minister. If this result does come about Thailand’s politics will have effectively come full circle.

On September 19th 2006 then Prime Minister Thaksin was overthrown in a bloodless coup by the Thai military that was largely greeted with jubilation by the country’s middle-class and traditional elite. Although there is a long history of direct intervention in Thai politics, this was the first time since 1992 that the country had experienced a coup d’etat. The coup occurred following street demonstrations by anti-Thaksin protestors, dubbed the ‘Yellow Shirts’ because they wore yellow signifying their loyalty to the Crown, that had resulted in a contested election which while won by Thaksin’s political party the Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) had been boycotted by most of the opposition parties. The coup consequently aimed to ‘save democracy’ by ending the stand-off between Thaksin and the protestors.

Red Shirt protest April-May 2010

Thaksin Shinawatra was, and continues to be, Thailand’s most controversial and polarizing political figure. A former police officer who became a telecommunications billionaire, Thaksin was instrumental in forming the Thai Rak Thai party in 1998 which went on to win the 2001 legislative elections decisively, taking 40 per cent of the vote and 49 per cent of the seats. Thai Rak Thai’s success broke the mould of Thai politics in a number of important ways. Firstly Thaksin campaigned on a nation-wide platform adopting a broadly populist platform that in particular reached out electorally to the country’s rural poor by promising, among other things, comprehensive health care coverage under the ‘30 baht’ project (effectively giving full coverage to all with a $1.00 co-payment). Thus rather than relying on local ‘godfather’s to get out the vote via personal patronage networks and petty corruption, Thaksin instead sought to become the pivotal political power by aiming for, and achieving, a national mandate from the electorate.

Consequently his party became the first ever to serve a full term in government, the first ever to be re-elected, and the first to win an overall majority in parliament. Indeed the 2005 election saw TRT win a landslide, 60 per cent of the popular vote and 75 per cent of the seats. Thaksin himself thus would become Thailand’s longest serving democratically elected Prime Minister until his removal from power in the 2006 coup.

Although popular electorally, Thaksin had become increasingly authoritarian in his exercise of power. His sanctioning of extra-judicial killings in the war on drugs and a crackdown on separatists and Islamic militants in the country’s southern provinces outraged both domestic and international human rights groups. In addition the sale of his family’s 49.6 per cent stake in the telecom giant Shin Corporation to the Singaporean government’s Temasek Holding Company provoked outcry (denounced by among others the leader of the yellow shirt movement Sondhi Limthongkul). Firstly the family netted almost $2 billion from the sale, secondly they paid no capital gains tax on the sale (legal under Thai tax laws at the time) and thirdly critics argued that Thaksin had sold an important national asset to a foreign entity. While an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission cleared Thaksin and his daughter of any wrong-doing the perception among middle-class Thais was of increasingly unchecked rule by Thaksin. The above notwithstanding, ultimately the cause of Thaksin’s overthrow was his growing challenge to the country’s traditional elite, headed by the country’s monarchy.

The Thai monarchy as an institution has been the one enduring constant in Thai politics during the country’s tumultuous post-war history. Constitutions were introduced and abrogated (17 since 1932), coups and coup attempts toppled relatively short-lived governments as the country fluctuated between military rule and forms of democratic governance. The restoration of the image and institution of the monarchy has been a key feature of the reign of King Bhumipol Adulyadej who having succeeded to the throne in 1946 is the longest reigning monarch in the world. During his 65-year rein King Bhumipol has made strategic interventions that both restored the reverence of the masses towards the monarch and ensured that it played an extra-constitutional role by effectively wielding a super-veto. In addition through the Crown Property Bureau the monarchy owns large amounts of land and equity in Thai companies with an estimated value of $36 billion. The portfolio includes over 36,000 properties, making it the country’s largest landowner, and stakes in some of the largest companies in Thailand including Siam Cement, Siam Commerical Bank, the National Petrochemical Corporation, the construction company Christiani and Nielsen, Deves insurance and ironically Shin Corporation. The CPB pays no taxes, and does not issue an annual report, except to the King.

Thaksin sought to openly challenge this network monarchy (McCargo, 2005) by weakening the ties between the military and the palace and by replacing supporters of the head of the Privy Council Prem Tinsulanonda with his own supporters, loyalists and relatives. To this end he also dismantled army-led security structures in the South replacing them with police-led structures, and openly courted the Crown Prince including, as revealed in Wikileak cables, paying off the Prince’s gambling debts.

The coup however failed to settle the ‘problem of Thaksin’. Having forced Thaksin into exile and then dissolving his political party, the coup leaders failed to recognize the underlying and continuing support for much of what he stood for among the electorate. Consequently, much to the chagrin of the coup leaders and the Yellow shirts, the first post-coup election of December 2007 was won by the successor to the TRT, the Peoples Power Party. While the PPP refused to succumb to continuing and intensifying protests by the Yellow Shirts throughout 2008, Thailand’s Constitutional Court again intervened dissolving the PPP for electoral fraud enabling the opposition and pro-establishment Democrat party took office.

Denied their electoral victories supporters of Thaksin followed the example of the Yellow Shirts and themselves took to the streets of Bangkok in protest. Consisting mostly of the rural and urban poor, but joined by disillusioned civil rights and other activists, the ‘Red Shirt’ protests grew increasingly large throughout 2009 culminating in May 2010 with a military crackdown on protestors in which 91 were killed. Critics of the Red Shirts routinely alleged that the movement was little more than a front for Thaksin and that many of them had been paid to protest to serve the former Prime Minister’s political ambitions. Others feared Thailand’s political system was becoming increasingly divided by class.

Into this fray came Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Sinhawatra in May when she was unexpectedly nominated by the latest incarnation of Thaksin’s original TRT, Pheu Thai (For Thais) as their candidate for Prime Minister. With no previous political experience many within Pheu Thai questioned the rationale of the decision, however Yingluck’s nomination has set the political campaign on fire in Thailand. The obvious name recognition aside, her youth, good looks and easy manner have given her ‘celebrity’ appeal. Coupled with the astute decision to appoint campaign managers who previously worked with her brother, Yingluck has opened up the real possibility of Pheu Thai winning the general election and returning a Shinawatra to power. If she does Thailand’s politics will have effectively come full circle rendering farcical the coup and the various court cases that have sort to destroy the political legacy of Thaksin. Already however there are moves afoot to deny Yingluck of any anticipated victory. On June 21st a petition was lodged with the Department of Special Investigation accusing Yingluck of perjury in the assets case against her brother last year. It seems the farce may have only just begun?

AUTHOR: Dr. Jason Abbott
URL: http://profjabbott.blogspot.com
E-MAIL: jason.abbott [at] louisville.edu


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