BANGKOK - Thailand's politics have returned to the streets, threatening new rounds of instability amid a contested parliamentary push for national reconciliation. While the return of protestors opposed to former premier Thaksin Shinawatra may on the surface signal a repeat to the run-up of the 2006 coup, the latest mobilization at least initially lacks crucial military support.
Establishment forces, including the opposition Democrat Party, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protest group, and a section of the royal palace, stand opposed to four national reconciliation bills they believe aim narrowly to give amnesty to, and restore the court-confiscated assets of, the self-exiled Thaksin, who is the real power behind his sister Yingluck's Peua Thai party-led government.
An attempt last week to rush the bills' passage was upended when the Democrats violently disrupted parliament, and PAD and aligned multi-colored street protestors surrounded parliament to block Peua Thai politicians from entering the building.
At the height of the commotion, the Constitutional Court ordered parliament to suspend the bills' third reading until it could review a petition challenging the legality of a related charter change bill.
Thailand's courts have played a prominent political role since the 2006 military coup, including rulings that disbanded two Thaksin-aligned parties and dissolved two of his aligned governments, and last week's controversial order was viewed by Thaksin and Peua Thai as an attempt to usurp power. They claim the move violated separation of power provisions in the constitution and are now threatening to impeach the court's seven judges.
It all sets the stage for a potential violent showdown, including clashes between rival pro- and anti-Thaksin protest groups, when the bills are eventually reintroduced into parliament. Thaksin has bid to rally his red shirt United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) group, imploring in a fiery speech on June 2 to fight back against attempts to "steal" power from the people.
During the same speech, Thaksin said he had been "betrayed", though without saying by whom, and regretted that red shirts had been "forced to drink their own blood". He also lambasted a 2010 Supreme Court decision that confiscated US$1.4 billion of his wealth and served as a spark for the red shirt protests that paralyzed Bangkok's commercial hub and degenerated into violence in April-May 2010.
The rousing oratory harked back to earlier speeches where Thaksin urged his followers to stage a "social revolution" and marked a notably hard turn from his more conciliatory May 19 message, where he called on red shirts to put aside their grievances, including demands for justice for those killed during the April-May 2010 clashes between protestors and troops, for the sake of national reconciliation and his return from exile.
That speech alienated many red shirts, revealing more clearly lines between genuine progressives fighting for political change and those aligned with Peua Thai's and Thaksin's more narrow political and personal agendas. Cognizant of that widening split, Thaksin and other red shirt instigators are now trying to unify his fractured movement by manufacturing the threat of a possible military coup against Yingluck's elected government.
Few military observers, however, believe that a putsch is imminent. Instead, they say, Thaksin's camp and the top brass led by army commander Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha have found common cause in the four reconciliation bills' amnesty provision. Significantly, the provision would not challenge the legal basis of the 2006 coup and would absolve soldiers of responsibility for the killings of presumably scores of civilian red shirt protestors during the 2010 crackdown.
The apparent agreement comes amid a complex negotiation of carrots and sticks. A broached military reform bill aimed to give more discretionary power to civilian politicians over future personnel reshuffles, traditionally the preserve of top commanders. State prosecutors, meanwhile, have in recent weeks said they have compiled enough evidence to implicate the military in as many as 18 of 92 protest-related deaths.
"Military leaders feel they can't move forward without an amnesty. The top brass and all generals in line for promotion have blood on their hands," said one military insider who requested anonymity. "They want the reconciliation bills to work."
Significantly, earlier pressures on military interests waned in the run-up to last week's legislative push for reconciliation. So, too, did earlier widespread rumors that soldiers aligned to Thaksin were plotting a counter-coup aimed at ousting Prayuth and his top deputies to pave the way for Thaksin's safe return. Both sides have in recent months reportedly established secret "war rooms" to monitor each others' movements.
Thaksin claimed in April without naming names that at least four different assassination plots had recently been hatched against him. Analysts and diplomats believe that the former premier would not feel secure enough to return to Thailand as long as Prayuth and other staunch royalists command the top tiers of the armed forces.
While the Democrats, PAD and parts of the palace remain vehemently opposed to Thaksin's return, an emerging analysis is that the military feels it could keep closer tabs on Thaksin's movements and meetings if he was based inside rather than outside of the country. Amid these maneuvers and apparent recalculations, Prayuth twice reaffirmed his support for Yingluck's government during last week's fracas inside and outside of parliament.
That stance has exposed establishment divisions, pitting conservative groups once allied in their opposition to Thaksin into pro- and anti-amnesty camps. "The commander-in-chief of the army is with Thaksin now," said Sondhi Limthongkul, a co-leader of the PAD, soon after his group closed down parliament on June 1. "[Prayuth] is only interested in keeping his post and getting lots of budgets from the government."
Tacit military backing was crucial to past PAD street movements, including the 2005-06 mobilization that paved the way for Thaksin's military ouster. Many observers also saw the military's hidden hand in the PAD's week-long airport seizure in 2008 that created the chaotic backdrop for the judicial intervention that toppled Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat's Thaksin-aligned government.
One military insider believes the top brass is opposed to staging another coup because of the risks it would entail to the royal succession from King Bhumibol Adulyadej to Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. Any military intervention in politics, the insider believes, would likely be resisted by proliferating red shirt villages, which by some estimates now account for 20,000 of 77,000 villages nationwide, concentrated in Thaksin's stronghold north and northeast regions.
Many of the villages have been indoctrinated from above specifically to protect democracy against a future military coup. One researcher who recently visited red shirt villages in northeastern provinces quoted residents as saying their areas would become bastions of resistance similar to Homs, in Syria, in the event of another military intervention. Others, the researcher said, invoked the possibility of launching a "Thai-style Arab Spring".
In recent weeks, Prayuth has held meetings with various colonels to assess the leanings of battalion commanders and glean their assessments of the security situation in the geographical areas they oversee. Rather than allowing colonels to read prepared assessments, as they have in similar meetings in the past, Prayuth reportedly led probing question-and-answer sessions that at times challenged their security assessments through his alternative sources.
The combination of a promised amnesty and the threat of a red shirt uprising that could complicate the succession appears to have influenced the top brass's position. The military insider predicts that even if the situation in Bangkok descends into chaos, with rival red and (pro-PAD) yellow shirt protestors clashing violently, the military would step in only briefly and return power to Yingluck once order was restored.
That puts the military at seeming odds with the Democrats and the PAD, which have mobilized around the notion they are fighting for rule by law and against a white-washing of Thaksin's conviction. It's a theme they argue is consistent with King Bhumibol's recent speeches to high-level judges in which he has urged them to rule with righteousness and in the national interest. They also note that earlier red shirt pleas for a royal pardon for Thaksin have been met with silence from the palace.
To be sure, both the Democrats and the PAD would benefit from an amnesty for their roles in recent political confrontations. Former prime minister and Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, however, has stood consistently on the legal argument that troops under his command used proportionate force during the 2010 lethal crackdown.
His political and palace supporters argue that any full accounting of those events will reveal that Thaksin and his renegade military allies instigated the violence through armed attacks on security forces, including the first salvo grenade attacks launched by mysterious "black shirts" that killed foot soldiers on April 10, 2010.
Abhisit, whose supporters believe he narrowly survived a red shirt assassination attempt in April 2009, now travels in an armored car due to fears for his security, according to a person familiar with the situation. Fears of Thaksin's return and rehabilitation are also wrapped up in a post-reconciliation election, a contest in which Thaksin would potentially run and the Democrats would stand to lose substantial ground. One party member believes that Thaksin's ultimate aim is to drive the Democrats into "extinction".
Yingluck and Thaksin have so far executed an effective double game, with the former frequently bowing to royal authority while the latter moves from behind the scenes to consolidate power at the expense of establishment interests. It's still unclear if Thaksin's carrot-and-stick tactics have worked to split conservative camps, or rather they have moved apart naturally due to a divergence in their perceived medium-term corporate interests and survival.
While the Democrats and the PAD are known to be aligned closely with the palace's current Bhumibol-led configuration, some believe that connection will diminish after Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn takes the throne. The military frequently mobilizes defense of the monarchy themes to justify its outsized political role, and thus has a strong interest in the continuation of the royal institution's current central role in Thai society after the succession.
It has been lost on few observers that King Bhumibol has recently resumed a more prominent role after over two years of hospitalization. Some observers read special significance into the fact the revered monarch wore military fatigues punctuated with a Special Forces red beret during his recent historic visit to Ayutthaya province, the site of an ancient royal capital and various pivotal battles against invading foreign forces. Special Forces carried out the 2006 coup and played a key role in the 2010 suppression.
Royal family members and top advisors have announced in recent months that the monarch will soon have recuperated enough to walk again after being confined to a wheel chair and could soon leave hospital to resume residence in one of his royal palaces. It's a message that has been cheered by loyal royalists and serves perhaps as a reminder to those making preparations and cutting backroom deals that the sun has not set yet on Bhumibol's righteous reign.
Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor. Joyo News Service