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The real conflict in Thailand

Is it about the old establishment versus the new, populist challenger? Or about metropolitan conceit versus the aspirations of the rural masses?

Published: January 25, 2014 3:10:08 am

TM“I was determined not to waste another minute discussing my country’s failure as a democracy,” says narrator Jimm Juree in The Axe Factor, the latest book in Colin Cotterill’s marvellous crime fiction series set in southern Thailand. Juree, a former crime reporter in a Chiang Mai daily up north, reluctantly helps run her maverick mother’s resort by the sea while on the lookout for crimes to report on a freelance basis. As Bangkok is besieged yet again by political protesters, she is determined to telescope the saga into a single sentence. But what a long sentence it must be, at more than 200 words. Even then, it’s not quite enough, and she must eventually allow herself a few more sentences to make the point that Thailand may well be headed for “civil war”.

Juree, she of Thailand’s north, makes it clear whose side she is on by her choice of words, “a rabble of yellow-shirted yuppie royalists” at that point in her timeline — as now — seeking the banishment of the “rightly aggrieved” red-shirted supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra. Juree’s exasperation is understandable, and it’s been shared widely these past weeks as the yellow and red shirts have refused to blink in a particularly fraught standoff.

Exasperation because, one, it’s not clear that, even in a week when the highly politicised constitutional court ruled that a general election called for February 2 can be delayed, any resolution is in sight to a political conflict that has so totally polarised the country between the sole electable politicians (Thaksin protégés) and the influential royalist-Bangkok establishment. And two, it’s making everyone tiresomely repetitive, because to capture the possibly disastrous consequences that could accrue in terms of paralysing Bangkok, sparking extended violence in the capital city and beyond, even a civil, if not a class, war, one must necessarily return the narrative to the beginning each time.

It’s important to do so. Thailand, you could argue, is the test case for political scientist Larry Diamond’s contention that “the (East Asian) region may actually represent, even more than the Middle East, the next frontier for a significant wave of democratic transitions”.

In brief, in the 1990s, Bangkok’s middle classes fought a feisty and ultimately successful battle to bring genuinely representative democracy into a political system effectively controlled by the royal court and the military. The first such government to take power on the basis of the 1997 constitution was telecom magnate Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party in 2001. He staggered the Bangkok establishment, and eventually its middle classes, by bypassing them and making a connect with the rural masses and other emergent elites, especially in the north, through a series of what they derided as populist measures, his microcredit and cheap healthcare schemes. He won easy re-election in 2005, showing the numbers remained with him, and the challenge to Bangkok’s monarchy-military-middle-classes-powered establishment was obvious. Bangkok had by now withdrawn electoral support to Thaksin, and began to actively lobby against him. He was deposed a year later in a military coup, and then exiled. Ever since then, every election has been won at the ballot box by his protégés, only to be negated by street protests and rulings by the constitutional court, including to disband avatars of the earlier disbanded Thai Rak Thai party.

Now his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, prime minister since the 2011 election, is fighting for the chance to fight another one. She faces, of course, an election boycott by the main opposition, pro-monarchy Democrat party, which has been part of the current mobilisation of yellow shirts to bring Bangkok to a halt and her government to siege. The financially and socially influential yellow shirts want time out from elected governments and want Thailand to be ruled by a council of presumably wise men and women who would make the country safe for genuine democracy — anything to be rid of Thaksin’s corrupt and authoritarian shadow.

Yingluck, leading what is now called the Pheu Thai Party, did her bit to alarm the yellow shirts about the possibility of being further sidelined by using her majority in parliament to try to push through an amnesty bill that would have enabled Thaksin’s return, and another to make the upper house fully directly elected and so dominated by her party. She subsequently abandoned the amnesty initiative, and the pro-Democrat constitutional court drew lines on the latter. But the crisis had acquired too much momentum to allow return to the anyway uneasy status quo, leaving her no choice but to call fresh elections. But given what Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, calls the city’s “disproportionately prominent voice in national politics”, it is difficult to see how she will now assert a new mandate or even secure the opportunity of contesting for one.

What is the real conflict in Thailand? Old establishment, used to not being questioned since the Cold War when warding off communism trumped all other priorities, versus the new popular and populist challenger? Wise counsel of the technocrats/ bureaucrats versus abrasive, self-aggrandising consolidation by the electables? Metropolitan conceit in a country dominated financially and culturally by a single urban centre versus aspirations of the rural masses and smaller towns? Monarchy protected by a harsh lese-majeste law versus republican sentiment?

Whichever way you see the faultlines, it is clear that Thailand is missing a template for how competing interests can push their respective envelopes on the basis

of mutually honoured rules. In fact, as India celebrates this weekend the coming into force of its enduring Constitution, it is interesting to draw the arc of “democratic transitions” westward from Thailand, through Burma, Bangladesh, Nepal, even on to Egypt, to compare how countries are currently reordering their institutional balance to heed a wave of street mobilisations.

The writer is a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express

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