Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Bleak Year Coming for Thailand

With 50,000 red shirt demonstrators on Bangkok's streets in the first weekend of the year, the outlook is grim

For those who wish to maintain their optimism, Thailand this year faces changes in its politics – including an election, for sure, that is designed to return power to the Thai voters. The election will seek to legitimize a new regime.

During the past two years, the Abhisit Vejjajiva government has been accused of lacking legitimacy since it came to power only because of a backroom deal brokered by the military. Last weekend, the demonstrators were back on Bangkok's streets -- estimated at 50,000 by the Thai media and some foreign embassies in Bangkok, a figure denied by the government. They have promised to reappear every two weeks to question the government's legality.

Certainly, for those who are pessimistic, including me, Thailand's political situation can be expected to remain bleak. Since the 2006 military coup and, in particular since the state's brutal crackdown on the red-shirted demonstrators in May 2010, Thailand's fundamental problems have not been seriously addressed. Instead, rhetoric, not action, has become the instrument for the current regime. Prime Minister Abhisit has repeatedly said that he could not call for a fresh election since the Thai situation has not yet returned to normal, and that the country is still susceptible to the imminent threat posed by the so-called red-shirted terrorist network.

While countless allegations against the red shirts have been made, little evidence has surfaced and none seems to affirm that they were actually the threat to Thailand's national security that the government alleged. A large number of scholars who followed closely the violent crackdown at Bangkok's Rachaprasong intersection on 19 May 2011 doubt whether the red-shirts were the real culprits behind the arson attack against the Central World.

One academic recently asked whether tired, hungry and chased red-shirted demonstrators had the capacity, time, technical and floor plan know-how to bring such calculated and well targeted destruction, especially against a building of some 10 storeys at the Central World complex. But presenting the argument in this way could be a dangerous exercise. Nobody in Bangkok is ready to accept it, and certainly not the government. This is because it would delegitimize the state's subsequent hard-nosed policy towards the demonstrators, including the declaration of an emergency decree.

Late last year, the Oxford-educated Abhisit gave a promise to the Thais: he pledged that an election would be organized during the first half of 2011 in order to display his government's sincerity for not staying in power until the end of the term in December. Not everyone was excited about his announcement. Indeed, many Thais believe that there were many reasons behind a long delay of an election. One of them is that Abhisit wanted to ensure that all key positions were filled by key pro-establishment forces, including those in the military and police.

Abhisit appeared to focus mainly on the election as though it was the only solution to the Thai crisis. A bigger question has however been left unanswered: how to reinstall faith and trust in the electoral system? The establishment forces showed in the past that they were willing to employ extra-constitutional means in order to overturn the results of elections which they found unacceptable and threatening to their power interests.

The military coup and the interventions of the court were used to unseat the Thaksin regime and its subsequent proxies in politics. If the result of the upcoming election again proves dissatisfactory to the elites, they could use the same tactics to throw out an elected government. Unless they start to respect the outcome of the election, the Thai conflict will not subside. The red shirts will stage more protests as long as Thai politics continues to be dominated by a handful of elites.

Thailand in 2011 could also be marked by the rise of political violence. The emergency decree in Bangkok and surrounding provinces was abolished in late December last year. Since then, the red shirts have returned to the streets.

The high turnout of last weekend's demonstrators is a reminder that the state should not underestimate the red-shirted movement. On the contrary, although the reds can protest freely now without the emergency decree, they cannot become complacent since the state's security forces stand ready to quell them. Current army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha has let it be known that he has adopted a zero-tolerance policy against the red shirts. If violence breaks out, the army will use force to respond to it. If the situation gets out of control, a military coup is always an attractive option.

The coup will not just be an attractive option, but a lucrative one for the coup-makers. It is an open secret in Bangkok that some past coup makers made a lot of money from staging a coup. Not only did they make money out of a military coup, they usually got away with it legally. Some became highly respected figures in Thai society. This partly explains why a military coup will never be out of fashion in Thailand.

This year, the focus will also be on the role of the monarchy. The stability of the monarchy is intimately linked to the future of Thai politics. Sadly, it remains a strictly untouchable subject. Absolutely for Thais, the issue is a taboo. A series of leaked US Embassy cables allowed many Thais to understand such intimate links. These documents have been banned in Thailand. But the culture of censorship will not last long. Thailand, like many other countries in the world, is fast succumbing to the power of internet. Soon the truth will be revealed.

Lastly, 2011 could prove to be another difficult year in the Thai-Cambodian relations. These bilateral ties have been dangerously erratic. A couple months ago, many Thais and Cambodians thought that their relationship took an upbeat turn when Phnom Penh implemented a friendlier policy toward Bangkok. But the arrest of seven Thais, including one MP from the ruling Democrat Party, who were accused of encroaching into Cambodian territory, spoiled this positive mood. At the heart of the problems lies a great degree of distrust between the two countries. Distortion of history on the part of both has deepened this distrust, and possibly could lead to a new round of armed clashes along their common border.

By Pavin Chachavalpongpun fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Asia Sentinel

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