Thailand's permanent political crisis – A brief introductory guide
Economic & Political Weekly
December 26, 2013
Thailand in Another Round of Turmoil
By Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker
The proximate cause for the latest wave of protests which has swept through Bangkok since October was the ruling party's attempt to ram through legislative changes that would have benefited the former prime minister and deeply polarising figure of Thaksin Shinawatra. However, the demonstrations reflect a deep divide in Thai society according to class, region and ideology, a divide which has developed over the past half century as growth has centred on Bangkok while the rural north and east have been left behind.
Pasuk Phongpaichit (firstname.lastname@example.org) is at the Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok and Chris Baker is an independent writer who lives in Bangkok.
Between October and December 2013, Thailand has experienced another round of street protests. The government has dissolved parliament and scheduled a general election for 2 February 2014, but the protesters want to suspend parliament for 18 months while an appointed “people’s council” maps political reforms. This round of protests is not over yet.
The government that has just resigned was installed after elections in July 2011 delivered a strong majority to the Pheu Thai party headed by Yingluck Shinawatra, younger sister of the former prime minister Thaksin who has been in self-imposed exile since 2008. In its election platform, the Pheu Thai party promised to provide amnesty for offences during the Red Shirt demonstrations in 2009 and 2010, and to amend the constitution drafted after an army coup in 2007. More informally, the party also promised to bring Thaksin home, which would require cancellation of a two-year sentence for abuse of power.
In mid-2013, the government began to deliver on these promises. Parliament debated a bill to amnesty the ordinary protesters in various street demonstrations since the 2006 coup, but to exclude the leaders. A parliamentary committee modified this bill to include leaders in the amnesty, and added an extra clause that would annul Thaksin’s conviction (and several thousand corruption cases). The modified bill was promptly rammed through three readings, ending at 4 am in the morning of 18 October.
The reaction to this clumsy piece of parliamentary chicanery was immediate. Protests came from anti-Thaksin groups bent on stopping his return, but also from Red Shirts intent on some legal accounting for those responsible for shooting Red Shirt protesters in April-May 2010. While this protest was swelling, the government passed a constitutional amendment to make the upper house of parliament totally elective (under the post-coup constitution, roughly half is appointed), and to remove a restriction on kin and relatives of sitting MPs becoming senators.
Protesters saw the amnesty bill as evidence of parliament manipulated solely for Thaksin’s benefit, and the constitutional amendment as evidence of the ambitions of Thailand’s big political families to dominate both houses and neutralise the system of checks and balances.
Three Different Groups
Three different groups brought people out onto the Bangkok streets in protest. The first were the core of the Yellow Shirts, the nickname for the anti-Thaksin movement, founded in 2005-06, that uses the colour yellow associated with the king as its uniform. The second was the Democrat Party, which initially kept its rather decorous protest well separate from the Yellow Shirts. The third and most effective was a collection of ad hoc groups that devised a strategy of urban protest brilliantly attuned for white-collar workers – flash-mobs announced on social media, gathering over lunch-hour at intersections served by Bangkok’s mass transit, getting visual impact from the restricted site and aural impact from blowing whistles.
The government backed down almost immediately, calling on the senate to kill the amnesty bill and making little protest when the Constitutional Court killed the senate amendment.
At that point the protests might have died as the two proximate causes had been neutralised. But the protests had very rapidly gathered considerable emotional momentum based on deeper causes (explored below). On 11 November, six opposition Democrat Party MPs resigned from parliament in order to continue the protests. Their leader is Suthep Thaugsuban, a long-standing politician from Thailand’s south, a typical local machine politician trailing a string of scandals, mostly over dubious acquisition of land. In the Democrat Party-led government of 2009-11, he was the tough-guy enforcer working behind the scenes for the inexperienced prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva. Suthep is an unlikely character to become a hero of street politics. He was turned into a protest leader by the collective emotion of the crowd rather than his personal attributes.
Over the following weeks, the three protest groups gelled into one. An elaborate protest camp was established in the heart of the old royal city, costing an estimated $1,70,000 a day, suggesting powerful business backers. Several socially powerful groups voiced support including groups of university teachers and students, doctors, lawyers and civil servants. The Bangkok press was largely favourable. On Sunday, 24 November, the leaders claimed a million people attended the rally. Though other sources estimated the crowd between an eighth and half of that number, the impact was significant.
The combined protest vowed to “overthrow the Thaksin regime”, meaning the removal of the current government but also (and more vaguely) reforms to prevent its return. While the movement had momentum, it lacked a mechanism. Traditionally, the military had provided the mechanism by enacting a coup, and more recently the courts have played the role by annulling an election or dissolving the ruling party. On this occasion, neither mechanism worked. The army chief repeatedly refused to get involved, while the constitutional court claimed there were grounds for dissolving the ruling party but decided not to enforce them. Most likely, both the military and the courts were nervous because their intervention would undoubtedly provoke the Red Shirts into a much larger protest and possibly more violence. The protesters also called on the king to intervene and appoint an alternative government under Article 7 of the constitution, but the king had refused a similar call in 2006 and this time the palace kept silent.
Following the refusals of the military and judiciary, Suthep and other protest leaders adopted a vocabulary of “people’s revolution”. Their thinking drew on two incidents in Thailand’s recent history. First, during the student protests of October 1973, the leaders of the military government were sent into exile, creating a power vacuum. The king then appointed a prime minister along with an assembly of over 2,000 people that selected the members of a constitutional drafting body. Second, the leaders of a military coup in 1991 installed Anand Panyarachun, a former diplomat, as prime minister, and Anand hand-picked a cabinet of technocrats that devised several reforms. Suthep called for some combination of these events, meaning a suspension of parliamentary government, the installation of an appointed, non-political cabinet, and the convoking of an assembly to draft reforms.
The Yingluck government replied that this procedure had no basis in the constitution. Various academic groups endorsed this view.
On 9 December, Yingluck dissolved the parliament. Suthep declared victory, claiming that power should now “return to the people” to enact his plan.
Red and Yellow since 2005
These events are just the latest round of a political battle that has been fought out largely on the streets of Bangkok since 2005. The country is increasingly divided into two camps, colour-coded as red and yellow. The division is very complex – with elements of class, region, and ideology – plus the controversial figure of Thaksin.
The core of the yellow movement is the Bangkok middle class. From the 1960s onwards, most of the gains of economic development have accrued to Bangkok, the seat of power, the source of over a third of gross domestic product (GDP), and the country’s only major city. As the city was transformed by globalisation, its middle class, mostly of Chinese origin, prospered, embraced modernity, and identified itself with booming urban Asia. Its members appreciate the upcountry peasantry as a source of cheap labour, but look down on them as backward.
The core of the red movement comes from the rice-growing regions of the upper north and north-east. Over the last quarter of the 20th century, per capita GDP tripled, and enough trickled down to transform the peasantry. Many tapped the gains of growth by migrating to work in Bangkok or overseas. Travel, television, and internet blew away old local horizons. Many developed rising aspirations for themselves and their children, and growing resentment at the great inequalities in income, in the distribution of public goods, and in access to power.
From 1998, the spread of elective local government gave people a rapid education in the power of the vote. Thaksin Shinawatra recognised the power of this new social force to win elections at the national level. By delivering some basic services (universal healthcare, microcredit, crop subsidies) that significantly changed people’s lives, and by being the first leader to empower this new social force, he was rewarded with fierce emotional support.
In the late 1990s, the Bangkok middle class had strongly supported Thaksin because he promised to make the economy grow and lift Thailand into the first world. They fell out of love with him because of his corrupt use of power to boost his family business profits, and because his tilt towards popular politics raised a “fear of the mass” inculcated during the Cold War. From 2005, Bangkok middle class opinion turned against Thaksin with the fire of a jilted lover.
Thaksin was felled by a coup and driven into self-exile by a conviction for abuse of power. In the past, such action had been enough to eliminate an unwanted leader. But his political colleagues and his mass base refused to abandon him. When the electorate again returned a Thaksinite government in 2007, the middle class swarmed onto the streets, clad in yellow. The courts toppled the government and dissolved the Thaksinite party, then the army and business groups installed an alternative government. Supporters of Thaksin then swarmed onto the streets dressed in red, and demanded new elections to return a legitimate government. The July 2011 elections brought in Yingluck Shinawatra, followed by the recent troubles.
Thaksin’s Electoral Triumphs
The Thaksinite party has now won all five national elections since 2001 by convincing margins. In face of this record, his opponents have gradually lost faith in electoral democracy. Initially, they pressed for more checks and balances on the executive, coded into the 2007 rewrite of the constitution. Some yellow theorists advocated increasing the institutional power of the monarchy, military and judiciary. In 2009, the yellows proposed “new politics”, meaning a retreat from the principal of one person/one vote through some graded form of franchise. Yellow advocates talk of a need for more “morality” in politics, and a greater role for “good people”. They repeatedly aim to delegitimise elected politicians by claiming that they buy their votes. Now they are pressing for a complete suspension of constitutional democracy.
On the other side, the reds have consistently backed the electoral principle. The main objective of the Red Shirt protests in 2009 and 2010 was the return of an elected government. As one 2010 protester told a researcher, “Bangkok people already have a good life, they don’t need elections for change, but we do”. The red rank-and-file is aware of Thaksin’s considerable failings but they put their faith in the electoral principle and his leadership because they believe this combination has brought them significant benefits in the past.
The reds say they want elected people running the country, whether or not they are “good”. The yellows want “good” people, whether or not they are elected.
The yellows have more money and more social power. They own the capital which is the stage-set for rally politics. They have the support of the media. But they lack the numbers to win in national elections.
The reds have the numbers but they lack the social power and get very little support in public media. In rally politics, they are at a disadvantage because people have to be transported into the city and have to operate in a hostile environment. This was evident during their 2010 protests.
The two camps have grown steadily further apart over the eight years of turmoil. With the explosion of social media and cable television, each camp now has its own source of news and opinion. In red media, Thaksin is a wronged hero. In yellow media, he is a demon destroying Thailand.
This latest round of protests has hardened these divisions, but has also brought some important milestones. Thaksin can probably never return to Thailand. After the amnesty bill fiasco he gave a statement which suggests he is resigned to that conclusion. The military, judiciary, and palace refused to intervene (openly), forcing the two camps to seek a negotiated solution. How that can be done is still very unclear.