The Wheel Begins to Turn: Weekly Rallies and Disapproving Academics

From Thairath, June 2, 2013
Cartoon title: Anything can happen in this country.
On the octopus’s face: Claim to be a decent person with morality
On the octopus’s tentacles, from top left: [a boot the represents the force of the military]; the Constitutional Court; NACC [the National Anti-corruption Commission]; selected senators; hooded figure [on the figure: order to suppress the people, 100 dead bodies (referring to the May 2010 military dispersal of the Red Shirt protest)]; Mob [meaning protesters against the government]; double standards
Over death: Strike open the truth, but tell lies.
On knife’s blade in hand of man: Have connections.
On papers around PM Yingluck: Reconciliation bills; amnesty bills; constitution amendment; 350 billion baht worth of water management projects; borrowing 2.2 trillion baht for Thailand; 2020; ’14 budget
At bottom left: Mouse man: Demons in disguise [The mouse man is artist Sia’s caricature of activist Sombat Boongamanong, whose nickname is Nuling (or Mouse). He always appears at the edge of Sia’s cartoons calling on human rights and reform.]
Mouse: nominees of the dark power

Who would have guessed that the government’s most persistent critic, whose website has been the source of nearly every Thaksin scandal over the years, could be killed, with the murderer immediately confessing, and the website finally offline–all within a few days? Well, it happened this week in Thailand.

It certainly could be the case that Akeyuth Anchanbutr’s chauffeur was “pushed too far” in the Thai style by an arrogant and over confident “big man” (which Akeyuth certainly was). However, it is not surprising that there is skepticism over the details considering the case has been hastily wrapped up by a police officer who once flew to Hong Kong to personally thank Thaksin for his posting. And Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm’s immediate statements that politics was not involved can be taken no more seriously than his confident assertions on almost any other subject.

Murders by disgruntled lackeys as well as political killings by the Royal Thai Police are both integral parts of Thai culture. Also integral is that the public will be resigned to never really being sure about the truth of the situation. Whatever the reason, Akeyuth’s death comes at a time when political tensions are rising once again.

Earlier this month Noppadon Pattama, who serves as Thaksin’s spokesman in the Thai-language world, was quoted as saying he noticed “unusual movements of news” as well as “rumors.”

He was right. It started with academics and the heightened rhetoric of the “white mask” anti-government demonstrations (Thaksin’s populist policies blamed for rifts in societyThe Nation, June 1, 2013).

What is the significance that academics are passing judgment on the government? What is the significance of weekly organized rallies against the government?

In Thai culture in general, it is expected that the elite and educated pass judgment on others. The city dweller (assumed to be the elite and educated) passes judgment on the hoards of country people who bring regional tycoons to power. In politics these elite are one of the unelected and informal checks that are expected to temper the activities of the elected. The elected are held with some suspicion, as it assumed that they will inevitably seek to benefit themselves and their status by harnessing the supposedly uneducated voter.

When seminars begin again that include academics passing judgment on a sitting government, it means the classic Thai cycle in the lead up to a coup is starting. It will later include the “Chula doctor’s letter” where, again, elite physicians from Thailand’s most prestigious university present a letter to the government saying it has engaged in overreach. This trend includes expressions of disapproval and concern from military figures, those in the state bureaucracy, and elder statesmen (like Anand Panyarachun who this week spoke out against the government). We can already see a ramping up of media scrutiny (this time being conducted on the internet as the mainstream Thai papers are considered, rightly or wrongly, to be already co-opted by the Pheu Thai) and regular ongoing protests. This is the significance of the sudden regular white mask protests–to create either a genuine groundswell of public opinion or at least the appearance of it.

The English-language press has joined in as the government is referred to as a “regime” and even the Nation has decided to begin referring to Thaksin as the “defacto leader” of the government.

It is important to note that the military cannot take open action without feeling confident that there will not be widespread protest or dissent. They must be able to claim that they have support for any action. The pro-Thaksin camp can rest assured that they can make things sufficiently painful for the military. The military has always been inept at governing and their humiliating outing after the coup in 2006 means there is little real stomach to act against Thaksin amnesty with tanks on the street–even if it were assured a Red Shirt siege threatening Bangkok would not happen again.

The courts are a much better weapon to use against the government. Warnings about a “judicial coup” have not aroused the same alarm as when there are actual tanks on the streets. Government and Red Shirt calls for the court to be abolished or judges resign to make way for those friendly to Thaksin simply do not play the same way to the public as when the military is abrogating a constitution.

What has caused all this now? After years of delay, two amnesty bills are being pushed by the Pheu Thai–full amnesty and partial amnesty. The only reason for this double-barreled approach is to give the government the cover it needs to get a full amnesty passed. The pledge to “bring Thaksin home” has long been a rallying cry of the government as well as the Red Shirts leadership connected to the Pheu Thai Party. Amnesty and constitutional reform have been perennial issues that are undoubtedly the real priorities behind this government directed from afar (now more or less openly) by Thaksin.

While amnesty appears to be first up, the rewriting of the constitution would be just as dangerous for the powers that be. Promises to eliminate the power of the courts to check government action and the creation of a fully-elected senate, in particular allowing MPs’ husbands and wives to serve in the senate as they did during the Thai Rak Thai years, would once again stop the senate’s ability to temper the popularly-elected MPs.

In passing amnesty and rewriting the constitution, the popular concept of democracy is employed. “We have the most votes” and “we are overwhelmingly popular” translates into “we can rewrite the laws.” That perhaps represents well the nascent definition of Thai democracy. From the government perspective, only a single party-based government without fear that unelected sources of power can check it gives it the freedom of action needed to make reforms and then make them last.

Last year in May 2012, Prime Minister Yingluck was brought forward for the last major amnesty push. Then she insisted that the reconciliation bill (judged an amnesty bill by critics) was urgent and that the government “got the clear mandate from the people.” At that time Thaksin faced a backlash after telling Red Shirts to forgive and forget so an amnesty for all could be passed. He quickly mended fences and reversed himself as the Red Shirts are essential to protecting the government from street protests.

At that time the push fell apart due to strong-arm due to tactics in parliament (the opposition rushed the house speaker to physically prevent him from introducing the bill) coupled with behind-the-scenes military “advice” that tricked the government into thinking another long delay was the wise move.

Now Thaksin foes think they have the government significantly weakened. PM Yingluck was drawn into the fray in April with her speech praising the Red Shirts and Thaksin and the courts successfully weathered attempts at intimidation while wracking up an impressive list of cases that can be used to shake up the government if necessary.

The Red Shirt movement is transforming as well. It was initially designed to meet force with force to halt another PAD-like siege of the government. However, as months pass, some Red Shirt factions appear to be gradually following their own agendas, more based on regional power plays of their leaders and becoming less reliable allies in demanding reconciliation defined as “amnesty for all.” A partial amnesty bill not including Thaksin would be disastrous as it would take the pressure off those in the movement who are continually hounded by criminal charges. Each month lost means the movement might continue to be distracted by local political issues. Local disputes and power grabs continue to divide them while more radical factions play into the hands of those who want to smear Thaksin with accusations of revolution and disloyalty to the monarchy.

All those who would lose from a Thaksin return–essentially every politician who is not a Thaksin relative–will tend to drag their feet on amnesty, but still try to look like they are not doing so. Factions within the Pheu Thai will be dreaming of a future premiership–an impossibility if Thaksin returns. An open break with Thaksin is unlikely of course, as Thaksin’s strength has been the vast financial influence that has created a remarkable party discipline unusual for the Thai political world. And any government shakeup that could oust a Shinawatra relative from the premiership would surely see thousands of Red Shirts on its doorstep.

Each failure to push through amnesty diminishes Thaksin’s future chances. This is complicated by an unnameable, but inevitable event that will afford the opportunity for a prolonged time of stately decorum backed up by military order. This means time is running out for amnesty measures. Thaksin has to act. After a possible upcoming cabinet reshuffle (rumored to finally include firebrand Red Shirt leader Jatuporn to placate disgruntled Red Shirts), it should be full-steam ahead on amnesty.

If amnesty is stalled, new elections might be called, followed by an immediate government push for amnesty again. However, despite the Pheu Thai’s popularity, an election is an unknown, a variable, an admission of defeat… and most of all a delay. So new elections will indicate a last resort situation.

What have we seen again and again when amnesty is pushed? A period of high political tension and political theatrics (so MPs can show Thaksin they really want to obey him), followed by a collapse in support and a delay. Whether Thaksin can really bide his time and afford another delay is the question.

The best common outcome for the anti-Thaksin camp is to maintain the government as is and endlessly delay amnesty plans. This is the ultimate solution for now.

This means keeping the Pheu Thai MPs passing legislation and spending money with the expectation that Thaksin influence will be gradually replaced by the ambitious of in-country politicians, like Sudarat and her growing faction (more on this in this earlier analysis: More about why Pheu Thai MPs feel hesitation in risking their comfy positions in a free-spending sitting government by pushing for Thaksin amnesty).

With Pheu Thai still in power there is little reason to call out the Red Shirts which would surely happen if Pheu Thai was judicially disbanded and a new government formed from the remaining MPs. More time passing allows the Red Shirts to devolve into their local power cliques. New elections would certainly return Pheu Thai to power with a fresh mandate. The hope would be that, over time, the natural attrition of fortune will impact the government. This means scandals like the rice pledging scheme might swamp and discredit the government in the eyes of the public.

The political situation, for all its variables, controversies, and conspiracy theories, is stoked by an elected government daring to give its supporters amnesty and even rewriting the nation’s constitution in a way that will surely preserve its power for a generation. Its popularly is powered by a highly popular appeal to a majority that is used to decades of neglect and indirect representation. It is the lure of majoritarianism applied to the definition of democracy–“we can pass anything we want as we were elected.” Not only Thailand, but nations are struggling with this (such as Russia, Turkey, and Egypt) as democracy in some form and definition is assumed to be the ultimate end-state of government in the twenty-first century.

The opposition, having experienced the Thai Rak Thai years when the media and business became political pawns of one-man and one-family rule, fears this future. It works against it by again starting the cycle of academic disapproval, weekly protests, and the threat of judicial sanctions to bring the elected government to its knees.

(Ron Morris’ book on the Thai political universe, The Thai Book: Protest, Democracy, Big Men, Coups, Bombs, Killing People and Forgiveness, will be released by Villefort Publishing in June 2013.)

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15 Responses to The Wheel Begins to Turn: Weekly Rallies and Disapproving Academics

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