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Thaksin Shinawatra

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Thailand: It’s Quiet Out There

“It’s quiet out there. Too quiet.”

In the old Hollywood movies, that’s the line that one of the intrepid explorers utters just before all hell breaks loose in the jungle. But the army chiefs are probably saying it in Thailand, too.

It’s just over a month since the Thai army overthrew Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and took control of the country. The elected government, which had faced months of street protests by an anti-democratic opposition movement that sometimes used violence, knew the coup was coming. Indeed, the demonstrations were explicitly intended to cause a military coup. Yet the government’s supporters have remained silent. Curious.

Officially, the army puts this down to popular support for the coup. “Thai people, like me, have probably not been happy for nine years, but since 22 May there is happiness,” said General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, the army chief who now rules the country. And his soldiers have been doing their best to prove it, at least in Bangkok, organising street parties that offer free food and drink, music and dancing, even free haircuts and a petting zoo.

Some Thais clearly are happy about the military coup: they take selfies of themselves with soldiers in riot gear in front of big banners that say HAPPINESS. But their clothes suggest that they belong to the prosperous middle class of Bangkok whose constant anti-government demos were intended to trigger the coup, so why shouldn’t they be happy?

Others, generally less well dressed, are a lot less happy. In a striking example of cultural cross-over, some of them make the three-fingered salute that is used as a gesture of defiance by the oppressed population in the “Hunger Games” films when they pass soldiers in the street (although you can get arrested for doing that). But where are the mass protests that everybody expected when the long-awaited coup finally happened?

The Thai army has some dozen coups to its discredit, but the country has been democratic most of the time since the mid-1980s. Politics nevertheless remained largely a game played out between rival sections of the Bangkok elite until the 2001 election, when Thaksin Shinawatra, a self-made telecommunications billionaire from humble origins, won a landslide victory.

Thaksin’s government openly favoured the downtrodden majority: the mass of poor farmers in the densely populated north and east of the country, and their children who had migrated to the factories of Bangkok. His welfare policies and cheap government loans began to transform their lives – but they also aroused the bitter opposition of better-off people in Bangkok and the south.

The army overthrew Thaksin in 2006, and he has lived in exile ever since. Every time the generals handed power back to the civilians, however, they voted in another government loyal to Thaksin: most recently, to one led by his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who became prime minister after the 2011 election. By then, the conservative parties had concluded that they could never win a free election – so they decided on “reform” instead.

The street protests that began last November were led by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, which demanded the resignation of Yingluck’s government. The PDRC said it would also disrupt any new elections until a committee of “good people” (chosen by the protesters and their friends at court) reformed the constitution to stop poor or badly educated people from voting. Only then could the right people finally win a “free” election.

That’s still the plan, and the army seems to be fully committed to it: the junta leader, General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, says there will be no new elections for up to two years, by which time they will be conducted under a new, “reformed” constitution. So why have the “red shirts” (as the mostly poor supporters of the Shinawatras are known) not taken mass action against the coup, as most observers expected they would? Why is it so quiet out there?

One plausible answer is that the leaders of the “red shirts”, hoping to avoid a civil war, are waiting for King Bhumibol Adulyadej to die. The 86-year-old king generally sympathises with the “yellow shirts” (as the coup’s civilian supporters are known), but he is in poor health. Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn was close to Thaksin Shinawatra when he was prime minister, and if he succeeds to the throne the whole crisis might be resolved peacefully

But Bhumibol might linger on for years, or the “yellow shirts” might even try to break the rules of succession and put Crown Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn (who favours them) on the throne instead. The disenfranchised majority won’t stay quiet forever. What is lurking silently out there in the darkness is a civil war.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Some…happened”)

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.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 6 and 7. (“In most…nepotism”; and “Meanwhile…at all”)

Thailand: A Close Call

18 May 2010

Thailand: A Close Call

By Gwynne Dyer

“The government does not want to negotiate, so I think many more people will die,” said “redshirt” leader Sean Boonpracong in Bangkok on Monday. “This will end as our Tienanmen Square.” Mercifully, it didn’t.

The danger was real enough. If the army had used all the force it had available in trying to clear the thousands of protesters out of central Bangkok, which they had occupied since mid-March, there would have been a massacre. And if hundreds of poor peasants (for that’s what most of them were) had been killed by the army, then it would have been trapped in power permanently.

If you commit a massacre, you HAVE to stay in power. Relinquish it, and in a year or two you will be facing a court charged with heinous crimes. So Thai democracy was at stake in Bangkok this week in a most fundamental way. Fortunately, the army used much less force than it might have when it cleared the area on Wednesday (only six people killed), and the protest leaders avoided further bloodshed by surrendering.

One is tempted to say that this demonstrates the basic common sense of Thais, except that we have just had such vivid demonstrations of unreason from the very same people.

Two weeks ago Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had agreed to the protesters’ key demand: new elections this year. Instead of closing the deal, the protesters insisted that Abhisit also order the arrest of his deputy prime minister for having ordered an earlier attack on their encampment in which about 24 people were killed.

Abhisit refused, of course – and then cancelled his offer of elections this year as well. That is why another forty people were killed in the past two weeks, and why democracy in Thailand ended up in real danger. The obstinacy of both sides needlessly prolonged a confrontation that might have ended in much blood. It was more by good luck than by good judgment that the Thais got through this phase of the crisis without mass killing.

But there was a lot of killing: sixty-odd dead over a period of weeks, almost all of them protesters shot by the army, is certainly not a success story. The Thais went right to the brink of civil war over the past two months, and the crisis is not over. Abhisit has withdrawn his promise of elections this year, and shows no sign of reinstating it.

The “redshirts” who feel cheated by the political manipulations that put Abhisit in power have retreated from central Bangkok, but they are still very angry and they certainly predominate in northern and north-eastern Thailand, the country’s rural heartland. They could seize control of much of it tomorrow, if they chose to do so.

The roots of this crisis are in the military coup of 2006, when the Thai army overthrew the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin, an ex-policeman who became a telecommunications billionaire, was not an ideal prime minister: his “war on drugs” involved thousands of illegal killings of dealers and addicts, and his response to unrest in the Muslim-majority far south was clumsy and brutal. But he endeared himself to Thailand’s poor.

Thailand has been a democracy since 1992, but Thaksin was the first politician to appeal directly to the interests of the rural poor rather than just bribing their local village headmen to deliver their votes. He promised them debt relief, cheap loans, better health care, and he delivered – but that was not how the urban elite wanted their tax money spent.

A “yellowshirt” movement seized control of the streets of Bangkok, seeking Thaksin’s removal and demanding curbs on the voting rights of peasants because most rural people were too ignorant to make wise choices. After months of confrontation in the streets, the army took control in 2006, ejecting Thaksin from office – but it was not unequivocally on the side of the “yellowshirts” either.

The soldiers allowed a new election in late 2007 – and Thaksin’s supporters won again, of course. His opponents used the courts to dismiss two prime ministers drawn from the pro-Thaksin party for “conflict of interest” (in one case because the prime minister appeared on a television cooking show), and ultimately simply had the whole party banned and its members ejected from parliament.

The rump of the parliament, cleansed of most representatives of the rural poor, then voted in the current prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva. The “redshirts” started their occupation of central Bangkok two months ago in order to obtain his resignation and a fresh election. They have not changed their demands, nor is there any good reason why they should.

The basic issue in dispute here is whether Thailand is really a democracy or not. If it is, then one way or another the “redshirts” must get their way, for they represent a clear majority of Thais, and they were cheated of the government they chose. But there is no obvious way to get from here to there.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (“If…surrendering”; and “But there…reinstating it”)

Class War in Thailand

15 April 2009

Class War in Thailand

 By Gwynne Dyer

Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was humiliated last week when red-shirted protesters overran the summit of Asian leaders that he was hosting and forced him to evacuate them by helicopter, but now he is back in control. The “reds” have been driven off the streets of Bangkok by the army, and the “yellows” who fought them last year have not come out in force either. For the moment, peace has been restored.

It sounds as arcane as the street battles of the blues and greens in Byzantium fifteen centuries ago. It certainly doesn’t sound like modern politics, and indeed it is not like politics in mature democratic countries like France or India. But it is (apart from the coloured t-shirts) a great deal like 19th-century European politics.

Thailand’s democracy is less than 20 years old, and it was the growing Thai middle class that made it happen — just as it was the middle class in European countries that made the revolutions happen there in the 1800s. In both cases, they were doing it for themselves, not for the poor.

As the history of a hundred ancient empires demonstrates, the poor and the downtrodden never launched a democratic revolution. It didn’t occur to them to demand their democratic rights, because they lacked the education and the perspective even to think in those terms. Democracy only got onto the political agenda when a large and literate middle class appeared.

What the middle class were after was mainly political equality, since they were already doing quite nicely economically. But no sooner had they won it than they discovered to their horror that the poor were also infected by this idea of equality. At that point, the newly empowered middle class faced a stark choice.

Either they made a political deal that brought the poor into the system economically, or they lived forever in fear of the day when the angry poor broke into their homes. In Europe, it took most of the 19th century and a good deal of the 20th to come up with a deal that worked, but in the end various versions of the welfare state did the trick.

Most of the former colonial countries inherited the democratic system. They didn’t all make the system work, but at least they knew the rules, including how to get the poor to accept the system. Whereas Thailand, almost uniquely in southern Asia, was never colonised.

In 1992 middle-class Thais, overwhelmingly Bangkok-based, drove the army from power in a non-violent revolution that brought genuine democracy to the country for the first time. It was an exhilarating and long overdue event, but it appears that the Thai middle class really didn’t anticipate what was going to come next.

Give a country a democratic system, and pretty soon the poor will figure out how to use it for their own purposes. Their leader and voice in Thailand was Thaksin Shinawatra, an ex-cop from humble origins who became a telecommunications billionaire. He was a demagogue who cut as many corners in politics as he had in business, but he genuinely did represent the poor, both urban and rural, and they voted for him in their millions.

Thaksin won power in 2001, and began pushing through measures to give the poor access to cheap loans, medical care, and other things that the middle class took for granted. The poor loved him for it, but the urban middle class was appalled: they had lost control of politics, and their money was being spent on ignorant peasants.

Thaksin was overthrown by the army in 2006 and his party banned — but as soon as democracy was restored, the poor voted for his allies and the new party they formed. So the new government also had to be overthrown, a task that was accomplished last year by the yellow-shirted supporters of the People’s Alliance for Democracy.

In many ways the PAD is typical of conservative parties seeking to rein in the demands of the poor. It is backed by the army, the senior bureaucracy and the upper middle class, but its street fighters are drawn mostly from the aspiring lower middle class. However, this being Thailand, there is one big difference: the PAD actually wants to take democracy back from the poor.

In the parts of the world that know democracy better, the notion that the demands of the poor can be dealt with simply by disenfranchising them seems crazy — and we have the history to prove it. At the moment, however, it clearly doesn’t sound like a crazy idea to many middle-class Thais.

Really bad outcomes to this impasse are possible, including a return to permanent military rule, although that would now require repression on an almost Burmese scale. But the likelier outcome is that the Thais will find some way out of their current blind alley and back to democratic normality.

The whole history of the past two centuries proves that you have to compromise with the poor. You don’t have to give them all your wealth, but if you want to live in a stable and prosperous country then you do have to share it.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 15. (“As the history…appeared”; and “The whole history…share it”)