Friday, April 15, 2011

Thailand: The Calm Before Another Storm? Asia Briefing N°121


Nearly a year after the crackdown on anti-establishment demonstrations, Thailand is preparing for a general election. Despite government efforts to suppress the Red Shirt movement, support remains strong and the deep political divide has not gone away. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s roadmap for reconciliation has led almost nowhere. Although there have been amateurish bomb attacks carried out by angry Red Shirts since the crackdown, fears of an underground battle have not materialised. On the other side, the Yellow Shirts have stepped up their nationalist campaigns against the Democrat Party-led government that their earlier rallies had helped bring to power. They are now claiming elections are useless in “dirty” politics and urging Thais to refuse to vote for any of the political parties. Even if the elections are free, fair and peaceful, it will still be a challenge for all sides to accept the results. If another coalition is pushed together under pressure from the royalist establishment, it will be a rallying cry for renewed mass protests by the Red Shirts that could plunge Thailand into more violent confrontation.

The Red Shirt demonstrations in March-May 2010 sparked the most deadly clashes between protestors and the state in modern Thai history and killed 92 people. The use of force by the government may have weakened the Red Shirts but the movement has not been dismantled and is still supported by millions of people, particularly in the North and North East. Arresting their leaders as well as shutting down their media and channels of communication has only reinforced their sense of injustice. Some in the movement’s hardline fringe have chosen to retaliate with violence but the leadership has reaffirmed its commitment to peaceful political struggle. The next battle will be waged through ballot boxes and the Red Shirts will throw their weight behind their electoral wing, the Pheu Thai Party.

The protracted struggle between supporters of the elite establishment – the monarchy, the military and the judiciary – and those allied with ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra began with the formation of the “yellow-shirted” People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) in 2006. The September 2006 coup removed Thaksin from power but prompted the emergence of a counter movement: the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) or Red Shirts. The PAD’s campaigns to close down Bangkok airports in 2008 created deadlock that was resolved by a court ruling that removed Thaksin’s “proxy” party – People Power Party – from power. This led to the formation of the Democrat-led coalition government, backed by the military. Two years later, the ultra-nationalist Yellow Shirts have apparently split from their former allies and are protesting outside Government House against Abhisit’s alleged failure to defend “Thai territory” in the Preah Vihear border dispute with Cambodia. The PAD’s call for a “virtuous” leader to replace the prime minister has raised concerns that it is inviting the military to stage a coup.

Abhisit has stated he will dissolve parliament in the first week of May after expediting the enactment of legislation to revise key electoral rules. He is moving quickly towards the elections amid rumours of a coup. With the new rules and pre-poll largesse, the Democrat Party hopes to secure more seats and position itself to lead another coalition. Thaksin is still popular with much of the electorate and there is a strong possibility that his de facto Pheu Thai Party could emerge as the largest party. The formation of the government is likely to be contentious. The UDD has threatened to return to the streets if Pheu Thai wins a plurality but does not form the government. Obvious arm bending by the royalist establishment to this end is a recipe for renewed protests and violence. Should the opposite occur, and Pheu Thai has the numbers to lead a new government, the Yellow Shirts might regain momentum; they are unlikely to tolerate a “proxy” Thaksin government.

While elections will not resolve the political divide and the post-election scenarios look gloomy, Thailand nevertheless should proceed with the polls. A well-publicised electoral code of conduct and independent monitoring by local and international observers could help enhance their credibility and minimise violence during the campaign. If installed successfully, the new government with a fresh mandate will have greater credibility to lead any longer term effort to bring about genuine political reconciliation. Bangkok/Brussels, International Crisis Group

1 comment:

  1. Thailand’s Military should not be allowed to interfere in foreign policy

    The latest statement from Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in relation to posting Indonesian observers at the disputed area near Preah Vihear Temple clearly reflects that it is the military, not the government, that controls Thailand's foreign policy toward Cambodia.
    On his weekly talk show, Abhisit said his government had taken the same stance as the military - to not allow Indonesian observers to be stationed on the 4.6 square kilometres area near the temple, which |Thailand believes comes under its sovereignty.
    Nobody should have a problem if the area in question really belongs to Thailand. If the area is truly under Thai sovereignty, then it has the right to decide who does or does not enter it. In reality though, this piece of |land is being clamed by both Thailand and Cambodia, and it |sits at the core of the conflict |between both neighbours.
    The Thai military just raised the issue as a tactic to defer the observation. If the observers are kept out of the disputed area, they will have no knowledge of what really happens. This would make the Indonesia-proposed peace plan meaningless and allow the military to scrap it.
    The government was wrong in believing that it has full mandate on the foreign policy involving Cambodia when it authorised the Foreign Ministry to make a deal with Indonesia and Cambodia in February, during which it was decided that observers would be stationed at Preah Vihear to monitor a permanent ceasefire.
    Indonesia, as chair of Asean, has to lend a hand in resolving the conflict because Phnom Penh took the February border skirmish to the United Nations Security Council. The Security Council then asked Asean to implement a permanent ceasefire.
    Initially, having unarmed Indonesian observers monitoring the border situation sounded fine. Many government officials even claimed |that this was a diplomatic victory to prevent aggressive acts from the |other side.
    However, this sweet victory turned into a bitter pill a week later when the military disagreed with the idea of stationing observers, saying involving a third party was unnecessary.
    Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, who represents the military rather than the government, previously tried to use diplomatic means to defer the deal saying he needed to discuss the terms of reference (TOR) with his Cambodian counterpart in the General Border Commission (GBC). However, when Indonesia called a meeting of the GBC and the Joint Boundary Commission (JBC) in Bogor last week, the Thai military, in a |very undiplomatic response, simply refused to go.
    The government pretended to honour the deal that it had already agreed upon and tried to explain that Thailand needed more time to study and negotiate the TOR, when in reality it already had more than a month to read and study the proposal.
    Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya should have been the one taking care of negotiations with Indonesia and the TOR on observers. Dealing with other countries is his job, not that of the military. As the foreign minister of an elected government, Kasit has the authority to make deals with other countries and honour them.
    The Army should only be consulted on technical matters, such as the terrain in the area and whether it is safe from landmines. If the case of foreign observers is a policy matter, then it's the government's call to make the decision. By Supalak Ganjanakhundee for The Nation, Bangkok