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Constitutional Court

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Thailand: Waiting for the Coup

By Gwynne Dyer

If you are trying to get rid of the legitimately elected government of your country, it helps to have the Constitutional Court, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) and the Election Commission on your side. And Thailand’s Constitutional Court has come through for the opposition once again: it has just ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and nine of her cabinet ministers for improperly removing a civil servant from office.

This is the latest move in an eight-year campaign by the old political establishment and its middle-class supporters in Bangkok to destroy a populist party, twice renamed and currently called Pheu Thai, that has won every election since 2001. The street protests by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) that have intermittently paralysed Bangkok since last November get the headlines, but the courts remain an indispensable weapon too.

The civil servant who lost his post, Thawil Pliensri, was the head of the National Security Council. He was appointed by a previous government that was deeply hostile to Yingluck’s party, and he was publicly critical of her government. So after winning the 2011 election she moved him to a different post and put in a national security head of her own choice.

In most democratic countries that would be seen as a normal part of politics. Even in Thailand, where the non-elected official bodies are all dominated by people sympathetic to the opposition, it is hard to deny that the government has the right to choose its own senior officials. So the actual complaint the Constitutional Court ruled on was that Thawil’s transfer was motivated by nepotism.

The prime minister actually replaced Thawil with a general called Paradorn Pattanatabut, who is not a relation – but his promotion allowed a distant relative of hers, also a general, to move up one rung in the hierarchy. It didn’t give him political power or more money, but any old accusation will do if the court works for the opposition. The Constitutional Court found Yingluck guilty of nepotism and ordered her to step down.

Meanwhile, the National Anti-Corruption Commission has brought corruption charges against 223 members of parliament belonging to Pheu Thai, and the Election Commission has ruled that the party’s victory in the February election was invalid because the main opposition party boycotted the election and disrupted voting in 10 percent of the polling stations.

Yingluck Shinawatra had actually called another election for 20 July before she was dismissed, but the opposition party and its supporters in the streets of Bangkok have already rejected it as Pheu Thai would just win yet again. What they want first is  “political reforms” that would prevent the rural poor, Yingluck’s biggest source of support, from voting at all.
Meanwhile the PDRC’s street protests continue, and Suthep Thaugsuban, the movement’s leader, is brutally frank about their objective: “From a Western point of view, ‘democracy’ is an elected government serving as the people’s representative,” he said. “Unfortunately, elections in Thailand do not represent people’s (real) choices because their votes are bought.”

What he means is that the parties led by Yingluck, and earlier by her exiled brother Thaksin Shinawatra, have “bribed” the poor, and peasant farmers in particular, with policies like a universal health-care system, microcredit development funds for villages, price supports for rice, and low-interest loans for farmers.

In other countries, such policies are seen as normal and legitimate political tools in the competition for votes. They have outraged the prosperous middle-class in Bangkok and the south, who were accustomed to having the government devote most of its time and money to their own needs, but they have delivered five election victories in a row for the Pheu Thai party and its predecessors in a country where the majority of voters are still poor farmers.

The PDRC’s solution is to prevent any more elections until an unelected People’s Council, made up of “good people” chosen by the elite institutions that support the opposition, can “reform” the political system by excluding voters who are poorly educated or simply poor. Then the conservative opposition parties would finally be able to win elections.

Relying on their allies in the judiciary and the various official commissions to prevent elections or set their results aside has served the right-wing parties well since the original military coup that overthrew Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006. In the last four months, however, they have returned to the streets in Bangkok, and their next step may be to ask the army for another coup.

That is the only thing that could give them their cherished “People’s Council” and the disenfranchisement of a substantial part of the electorate. All their street demonstrations and legal obstructionism are ultimately intended to create a political paralysis that will provide the pretext for such a coup, and they are now probably quite close to achieving that goal.

The only little problem is that a whole generation of Thais has now grown up to expect that they will have a political voice in the government of their country. Another coup, in these circumstances, could well be the trigger for civil war.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 6 and 7. (“In most…nepotism”; and “Meanwhile…at all”)

After Bhumibol

19 October 2009

After Bhumibol

 By Gwynne Dyer

People get long jail sentences in Thailand for criticising the royal family, so the Thai media have been silent on the question of what happens after the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. But the king is 81 years old and he has been in hospital for a month now, so there are widespread fears that he is dying. Last week the Bangkok stock market fell by 8 percent in a day on rumours that his health is worse than the Palace admits.

Bhumibol has been on the throne for 63 years and he is universally revered. Thailand is three years into the worst political crisis it has seen since it became a more or less democratic country two decades ago, and the king is just about the only unifying and stabilising factor that remains. His death would make matters much worse.

The crisis is the result of democracy. Thailand has become a semi-developed country – average income has risen forty-fold since Bhumibol came to the throne – but most of the population is still rural and quite poor. Their votes used to be bought by powerful local politicians and delivered to whichever urban-based party paid the highest price, but no more.

As the people of the overwhelmingly rural north and north-east acquired more education and sophistication, they started using their votes to back politicians who promised to defend their interests and not just those of the Bangkok-based economic elite. In 2001, they elected a populist politician of humble origins called Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister.

Thaksin had made a fortune in telecommunications, and he probably couldn’t have won the elections if he wasn’t rich. But he did govern in the interests of the poor, and he was re-elected with an increased majority in 2005. It was how you would expect a maturing democracy to work, for the poor always outnumber the rich.

But you would also expect a backlash from the traditional ruling elite, and it came in the form of the People’s Alliance of Democracy (PAD), a yellow-shirted movement that actually aimed to roll back democracy. By provoking confrontations in the streets with Thaksin’s supporters (who took to wearing red shirts), the PAD created a pretext for its allies in the army to seize power in a military coup in 2006. Since then, Thailand has been in permanent crisis.

Thaksin was convicted of corruption in questionable circumstances and now lives in exile. His political party, Thai Rak Thai, was forced to disband after being found guilty of “electoral fraud” by the Constitutional Court, whose impartiality in this case is open to question. However, Thaksin’s supporters remain devoted to him, and when the army allowed Thais to vote again at the end of 2007, a new party that was essentially a continuation of Thai Rak Thai won the election.

The voters had got it wrong again, so the crisis continued. Two successive prime ministers who were standing in for the exiled Thaksin were forced to resign by PAD demonstrations and occupations that included a blockade of both of Bangkok’s airports. The new pro-Thaksin party was also forced to shut down by the Constitutional Court, and late last year a new government was installed that was more to the taste of the yellow-shirts.

The PAD’s urban, middle-class supporters can control the streets of the capital (with some help from the army) and even overthrow governments they don’t like, but they cannot force the rural majority to abandon its own loyalties. The country is dangerously polarised and politically paralysed – and many Thais believe that only King Bhumibol can hold the country together.

Maybe it’s true, although there are suspicions that he actively supported the 2006 coup rather than just acquiescing in it. (Again, that cannot be openly discussed in Thailand. A well-known former journalist, Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul, was recently sentenced to 18 years in prison after she suggested in a public speech that the king had backed the coup.) At any rate, the king’s death would greatly deepen the crisis, for his likely successor is not loved.

Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn has led a turbulent personal life, including three marriages. His attitude has probably not been improved by living for 57 years in the shadow of his father. He would be a perfectly serviceable constitutional monarch in normal times, but the Thai people have decided, fairly or unfairly, that they do not like him very much.

Vajiralongkorn is so lacking in the respect that has enabled his father to play a mediating, calming role that there are those who quietly suggest that his sister, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, might perform the duties of the monarchy better. It’s not impossible. Thai law has been changed to allow women to occupy the throne, and the constitution leaves the final right to designate an heir to the 19-member Privy Council of senior advisors to the king.

They are unlikely to change the succession, but the mere fact that it could happen introduces another element of uncertainty and potential conflict into the equation. Which gives Thais another reason to pray for Bhumibol’s recovery.

The almost daily reports from the Palace on the king’s condition are always upbeat, but there have been references to a “lung inflammation,” which is a delicate way of saying pneumonia. That is potentially a killer in a man of his age, and the worries of the Thai public are justified. Long live the King!

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“Thaksin…yellow-shirts”)