Analysis: The Political Calm and the Weakness of the Establishment

(Source: Daily News)

From Daily News, February 12, 2012
The caption reads: Being delighted — Privy Council President and statesman General Prem Tinsulanonda speaks with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra cordially at the the “Rak Muang Thai Doen Na Prathet Thai” [love Thailand, move Thailand forward] at Government House.

At the beginning of 2012, the Pheu Thai had experienced a rocky four months. Paralyzed by flooding, stymied on military reform, and experiencing yawning cracks between the Red Shirt leadership and the government, it seemed as though another period of strife might be likely if the government showed signs of weakening and had to act fast… but what a difference a couple of months makes.

In January, the government regrouped and once again began to display the teflon quality Thaksin always had of salvaging situations where he was at a seeming disadvantage. Events started flowing strongly in the government’s favor.

The pieces stated to fall into place:

* The government signaled its intentions by attempting a rapprochement with Prem (who has long been vilified as the Red Shirt’s and Thaksin’s arch enemy).

* There were confident moves from the government to contain garrulous Reds and align Red Shirt goals again with the government. Overall both the government and red shirt message became clear and untied–amend the constitution. (Notwithstanding some comments from factions like Kon Rak Udon and Chalerm about bringing Thaksin back.)

* Day by day the expectation has been growing that the government has staying power and that Yingluck is growing more popular–confounding normal Thai political trends that governments become less popular over time. This is despite inflationary pressures on daily staples that impact grassroots people and tend to doom other governments. Continued government popularity means that winning the Bangkok governorship is a possibility.

* This political landscape means the 111 Thai Rak Thai executives, who will soon be free of their political ban, will be firmly in Thaksin’s camp instead of moving to join or form new political blocks. Pheu Thai seem to be, like Thai Rak Thai once was, the only political game in town.

* There is an almost universal disdain for the Democrat Party which is seen as a spent force and unable to compete. Even comparing the popular vote totals from the last election (which were closer than the final MPs count reflected), the key is the overwhelming popularity of Thaksin in the growing population centers of the Northeast. It is increasing looking like, going forward, there is little political opposition to Thaksin momentum.

* The PAD has vowed to return to the streets once constitutional amendments are put forth to absolve Thaksin, but this equation is different now that the government can call on the Red Shirt movement.

In 2008 a Thaksin-controlled government also made a headlong move to amend the constitution. At that time the Red Shirts did not exist as a organized street force so it was the PAD on the ground vs the People Power Party-led government. The present government is in a much stronger position and can call on a highly organized force of Red Shirts who–despite being forcibly removed from their Bangkok redoubt in 2010 and pilloried with a multitude of charges–have been able to have their revenge by getting turns at positions in the cabinet. This time around there is no way an anti-Thaksin group would be allowed to march to the airport unopposed on the ground.

Above: An exhibit showing a Red Guard wielding a slingshot. His shirt reads: Peasant
From a Pheu Thai Party exhibition lauding the Red Shirts for resisting the military in 2010: “7 Days, 7 Pains of the People”

Many analysts were transfixed by the widely read article Thailand’s Thaksin prepares for war. However, in light of recent political events, the revelations of the article do not seem intended to smear Thaksin, but to warn off the establishment from acting against the government during this time (whether the insular Thai-language world realized English-speaking insiders would pick these rumors and report them in English is another story).

It is likely the establishment realizes that there is no way to face off against both a sitting government and an organized Red Shirt rally on the streets of Bangkok. Even when the Democrats were holding the reins of power, the Red Shirts were able to deploy with relative impunity for a long period of time–and showed the state in near disarray as it fumbled to react.

The present calm could also indicate that real opposition to the government’s moves on the constitution will wait until after “Thaksin’s revolutionary season” of March to May when it is not as easy to field thousands of country people on the streets of Bangkok.

Comments from Thaksin these days are less confrontational and more focused on policy details. As the government’s position become stronger, the more the media turns to Thaksin as de facto government head for salient comments on future government policy.

Thaksin’s return has been on the table for years now. However, his political role is the sticking point. From recent comments, it seems Thaksin is willing to embrace a “shadow premier” presence behind the government and outside the country for the time being. If Thaksin can accept this reality, it would mean he essentially has everything he desires–the reins of power to enact the reforms as he pleases and thwart the mitigating interference of other non-political institutions.

The problem is the psychology of the Thai “big man.” This dictates that Thaksin must go too far and overplay his hand. Thus Thaksin dominance might again begin to create an atmosphere where the media is silenced on political issues and where a business’ stock market performance depends on which business leaders are seen playing golf with the prime minister.

From Manager, March 8, 2012
Left: [Worajate, head of the Nitirat Group, says] The King must take an oath in parliament to uphold the constitution!
Right: Before you scold the twins [who beat up Worajate], ask yourself whether you would like to punch the face of someone who says something like this.
[This reflects fears that the Nitrat Group proposals to amend laws regarding the monarchy would result in a monarch pledging to parliament in front of MPs. It also reflects the reality that the Thai political world sees little necessity to abjure violence in certain circumstances.]

The establishment is clinging to the lese majeste issue as we predicted previously. It will continue to be pushed as the one issue the establishment (particularly the military) can openly harangue the government on. The government, and the upper echelons of the Red Shirts, have little need to push the issue further as it has always been a bargaining chip to be played if the establishment blocks efforts to bring Thaksin home. Even those with real aspirations for reform on this issue can rest assured that [redacted].

Other levers the government has is public reconciliation committees and reports that will lay blame at “high levels.” These must be seen in the context they are offered–as threats and warnings. The warning is that truth-telling and laying blame is open confrontation and the worst thing that can happen. Thus, if amnesty or absolution is not put forth, the threat of open blaming will occur.

Thai reconciliation is defined by both sides as “forgive and forget.” The only issue that remains is if Thaksin can return and head his party. In the same way everyone walked away from the events of Black May and no one was culpable for the Tak Bai incident, the optimal solution will seem patently unfair to non-Thais–forgive and forget. Restore peace to the village without anyone being culpable.

(Source: NBT screen grab)
Above: April 25, 2010: Then Prime Minister Abhisit (middle), Commander-in Chief Anupong (right) and an interviewer during a televised discussion. The interview was noted for the uncomfortable posture of the C-in-C as both the Democrats and military positioned themselves not to be blamed for the outcome of the Red Shirt protest.

There was a time, during the height of the Red Shirt protests in 2010, that it seemed that the old paradigm of Thai politics would return–political forces battering each other and resulting in a resurgence of the military into civil and political life, applying physical force against politics “for the good of the nation.”

However, since 2010 it has become clearer that the non-elected centers of power that acted as self-styled counterbalances against the corrupt political class have become moribund. In the absence of popular support–or the popular illusion of public support–there is little space for non-elected powers to flex their muscles (except on lese majeste issues as noted above).

Viewing the Red Shirt siege of events of 2010 from this perspective, the initially hesitant reaction of the military, state bureaucracy, police, and Privy Council becomes more apparent. All spent weeks jousting with the government to ensure they were not blamed for any reaction to the protests. The roles each took in the final dispersal were only allowed by the promise and delivery of epic budget allocations from the government.

The weakness of non-elected centers of Thai power also reflects a generational change. Thai circumspection about many issues has been eliminated by the ubiquity of media that allows frank comments (the internet, SMS messages) and open sharing of taboo ideas. The younger generation is distant from the conventional Thai mindset that the military and monarchy are necessary to offset greedy elected politicians.

There is also the rise of expectations that political parties must make promises and achieve, rather than just being “good administrators.” All the old truisms of Thai political life are slipping away. The old balance of power between the elected political world and the multiple spheres of the non-elected world appears to be tipping in favor of the elected.

Above: This billboard suddenly appeared on February 27, 2008. It reads: Welcome home, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. From Bangkokians.

At the highest levels, there is increasing resignation that the present elected government cannot be tempered and that a one-party state is evolving. Another sea-change is the feeling from some of the most strident anti-Thaksin foes that a one-party government might be desirable to confront the military on issues where they steadfastly refuse to follow plans by the civilian government. Across the political spectrum, the military is widely seen to be purposely agitating the situation in the Thai deep south over budgetary issues. All this under the cover of their prerogative to act independently, “for the nation,” outside of political direction.

Despite the talk of coups, the military has little space to act with overt force as it once did. Coups only happen after a long public period of warnings and inducements for a government to step down–supported by a wide range of organizations and power centers–thus there is little groundwork already laid for a military move.

Meanwhile, in the most traditional circles, there is still the belief that the government “can’t really do anything” to bring Thaksin back. For all their rabid fear of Thaksin, the traditionalists can easily dismiss the red villages phenomenon and feel confident that, while the process for constitutional amendment is underway, it can be stalled indefinitely by procedural and legal moves.

None of this is to contend it will be an easy road ahead. There will be many attempts to stop Thaksin and extreme statements on all sides to create political leverage. It may be that a government overreach in taming the media or the extreme enrichment of prominent political families could once again create a popular backlash. Late-night “political intimidation bombings” might be staged as so often happens in times of political stress. External economic shocks might also slow government momentum.

However, with the lackluster performance of both the political opposition as well as other centers of power in recent years, there is some resignation that Thaksin’s “Thailand Corp.” might once again start stepping on the toes of the elite as it drives its reforms to make the nation a regional leader.

Notwithstanding the flooding that slowed the drive for constitutional amendments, the message of the 2011 election for Thaksin is valid once again–that he can have everything back–his money and position as PM–on his own terms.

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