May 2013 was a month where Thaksin strengths and ultimately weaknesses were on display.
Most stunning was the emergence of Prime Minister Yingluck into the political sphere with her speech on democracy praising Thaksin and the Red Shirts. Her continuing popularity across the political spectrum has been largely due to her being a “non-political” PM. She has proven popular even among those who oppose Thaksin and his political aspirations.
As someone with no political background and leading no political faction, Yingluck usually reads prepared statements and is kept away from any contentious measures related to Thaksin’s return. The decision to have her give the speech in Mongolia, obviously in the buildup to pressure the courts, was seized upon by the opposition to demonize her. The frantic response indicated the long pent up animosity that was waiting for an opportunity to smear Yingluck as a Thaksin dupe and not the non-partisan PM image presented to the public.
The events of May came about because the government was under existential legal threat once again. The direct accepting of petitions by the Constitutional Count short-circuits the traditional control of justice by a sitting government (the reason why Red Shirts get prosecuted under the Democrat-led government and why Democrat party leaders find themselves under siege by a Pheu Thai-led government).
The Pheu Thai and the Red Shirts have tried hard to make sure the public sees the courts as a threat. Unlike when there are tanks on the streets, it has been more difficult to paint a pending and nebulous court judgment as an imminent threat to democracy. Court judgments against political parties are a way of the mainly unelected anti-Thaksin establishment to threaten the party if it goes ahead with wholesale constitutional amendments and amnesty that merely cement its power and allow a triumphant Thaksin return.
Against this backdrop was weekly ramping up of pressure on the court. This included government assurances that it was not necessary to break up the anti-court protest with the ISA, calls that the government ignore court rulings, and the Yingluck speech on democracy in Mongolia. With so many legal booby traps set up for the government to prevent Thaksin amnesty, there was no choice but to act fast and push hard to preserve the party and government from possible dissolution.
What happened to the May press on the court? Like all these events on the street, the protest was a projection into the physical world of things going on behind the scenes. Support was not there and the push fell apart.
The best interpretation of what happened is also Thaksin’s biggest challenge–the reticence of MPs, already in power and able to spend money, to jeopardize their hard fought position and popularity by continuing to push for amnesty for Thaksin. This led to the courts once again dangling perilous legal consequences over the head of a Thaksin-directed political party–a threat that wholesale rewriting of laws that only increase a sitting government’s power must not take place.
Once again those already elected and in power were being asked to risk it all. Despite the overwhelming popularity of the government that allowed it to spend freely, they were being asked to acknowledge it was all for one overriding purpose–bring Thaksin back. Thaksin’s return to Thailand would be a return to political power and a long period of rule which would mean a shakeup of politics. Anyone with a place on the political ladder would risk seeing themselves pushed down a notch as the Thaksin clique reasserted itself–and that is assuming a coup or other conflict did not remove them from power long before Thaksin could return.
Keeping MPs motivated has been the challenge since the days of the People Power Party government in 2008. That government was also led by a prime minister who initially, like Yingluck, had no identifiable power base–Samak Sundaravej. He was also a prime minister kept away from party business, but who maintained the party line that no governing of the country could take place until constitutional amendments (assumed to absolve Thaksin) were tabled. At the time, government MPs quietly fumed. They had already reached power in a sitting government–normally the ultimate goal. However, they were forced to wait while the continuing conflict over Thaksin’s future was played out on the streets of Bangkok.
Passing bills gives a sitting government a font of money and influence it can apply to negotiating with potential foes. In 2008, when the People Power Party government fled to exile in the north as Yellow Shirts occupied the airport, its refusal to enact legislation meant it had little to offer to pacify its enemies. The Pheu Thai-led government fixed this problem by having a raft of populist policies to implement to show they were a real government that had the intention of governing.
In the last weeks in May 2013, the confusing flip flops on the various amnesty bills–who would support what and who should be covered–also exposed the growing cautiousness of MPs to jeopardize their positions by pushing a Thaksin agenda.
Quick action in parliament probably remains Thaksin’s best hope. The unelected powers that check political overreach by the elected (within the logic of the Thai political worldview) can only go so far against a fair vote in parliament. The military would only act once it is assured that public opinion is behind it. Thus, Pheu Thai’s majority with the threat of snap elections will likely be used to make sure sometimes gets passed.
The opposition and the courts will respond with delaying tactics and legal challenges. With any luck, distracting events, such as the floods of 2011, Red Shirt disaffection, blackouts or violence in the south might slow the government as it is forced to return to governing the country. And it all depends on the willingness of government MPs to participate in the risky business of providing Thaksin amnesty.
The safest impulse will continue to be that government MPs laud Thaksin and ride his popularity, but drag their feet on bringing him back.
Notes on Red Power, May 2013
The major Red Shirt Publications always reflect the coming expected struggle and foreshadowed the sieges of Bangkok in 2009 and 2010.
The May 2013 issue of Red Power shows the revving up of public opinion to fight the battles that were expected to be fought against the Constitutional Court in May. There is article after article examining the excesses of monarchies and the desirability of revolution for the oppressed.
The purpose of this? It is most important to understand that Thaksin and his clique have no overriding desire for revolution and even less desire for truth telling such as pointing out that the military killed people.
Comments that military transfers should be politicized, the Privy Council should be reorganized, or even Chalerm’s pronouncements that the truth will be told about the events of May 2010 are not meant as admirable expressions of reform and transparency (as we might interpret from the Western perspective), but as threats that these sacred cows would be sacrificed if the anti-Thaksin establishment does not accede to his amnesty.
The May 2013 Red Power, along with being a rousing call for the “peasants” to resent the ruling classes, is a threat that indicates how far one side might go in violating taboos if the ruling party is threatened with dissolution by the courts or if amnesty is stalled.