Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Democracy Under Stress in Thailand

Thailand is unique among South-East Asian states for having not been a colony of any Western power. The Thais managed to pull it off by playing the English against the French and later the Japanese against the French. Thailand follows the civil law system (as opposed to the Anglo-Saxon common law system) and has a highly respected and well entrenched monarchy. The King is so much respected that any hint of criticism draws a quick backlash. Journalists and even bloggers have received very long jail sentences for tarnishing the image of the monarchy.

Until 1932, Thailand was directly ruled by the King. A military coup resulted in a constitutional monarchy and military rule lasted for an uninterrupted 41 years. Even after that, the Thai military has remained a major power broker in Thailand.

Thailand has always had a sharp divide between the middle-classes and the poor who are concentrated in the north of the country. Traditionally, Thai political parties did not really cater to the poor. All that changed when Thaksin Shinawatra, a self-made multi-millionaire and telecoms Mughal floated his own party (Thai Rak Thai or Thais love Thais) and became the prime minister in 2001. Though a very rich man, Thaksin instituted many pro-poor policies, especially pro-farmer policies and consolidated his power base in the north of the country. Thaksin was also successful in cutting red-tape and making the administration much more efficient. It must be added that Thaksin was never a saint and the whiff of corruption was never too far away.

In the 2005 elections, Thai Rak Thai (TRT) did even better than in 2001 and won 60.7%of the popular vote. It got 374 out of 500 parliamentary seats as against its previous tally of 296 seats.

The middle-classes never took the pro-poor Thaksin to heart and towards the end of 2005, large scale street protests erupted in Bangkok over allegations of corruption. The middleclass protestors wore yellow, to symbolise their support for the monarchy (an indirect accusation that Thaksin was anti-monarch). The protests were coordinated by the main opposition party, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) led by its new leader, UK-born, Eton and Oxford educated Abhisit Vejjajiva. Thaksin was accused of a plot to overthrow the monarchy.

In 2006, Thaksin ordered a snap election which the opposition boycotted. In 38 constituencies, the minimum quorum of 20% votes was not available and this resulted in a constitutional crisis. Thaksin was forced to step down, though he continued as a caretaker prime minister.

In September 2006, the pro-middle class military staged a coup when Thaksin was overseas. The Junta that took over power banned TRT on the grounds of corruption and drafted a new constitution which is supposed to be harsher on corruption and politicians with vested interests (read Thaksin). Despite all that, when elections were held in December 2007, the opposition PAD could not come to power. The People’s Power Party (PPPP), a front for the banned TRT, won the elections. The PPP formed a government in January 2008 and in February 2008 Thaksin returned to Thailand.

Soon however, the yellow-clad Bangkok middle-class protestors returned to the streets to lead widespread protests against the PPP. Government buildings were occupied, trains were disrupted and even Bangkok airport was not spared. The government was paralysed and not allowed to function.

The street protestors (organised by the opposition PAD) wanted to replace democracy with a system where not every adult can vote and certain sections of society alone have the right to nominate representatives to Parliament. Not for them a democracy where the poor from the north would have a say in government!

Thaksin and the TRT continued to be plagued by corruption charges, especially the charge that they paid money for votes and tried to bribe Supreme Court judges hearing corruption charges against Thaksin. In the summer of 2008, Thaksin went to Beijing for the Summer Olympics and did not return. Instead he went to the UK and sought asylum.

Towards the end of 2008, several government M.Ps joined the opposition PAD. The military is supposed to have forced or coerced them to do so. In December 2008, the PAD had sufficient numbers to be able to form the government. Abhisit Vejjajiva became the prime minister on 15 December 2008.

In the last week of March 2009, taking a page from PAD supporters, Thaksin’s supporters from the north, dressed in red to symbolise their support for democracy, jammed the streets of Bangkok, trying to paralyse Vijjejiva’s government, doing to the PAD what the yellow-clad PAD supporters had earlier done to TRT and PPP when they held power. A summit of Asian leaders in Thailand had to be cancelled after anti-government protesters broke into the venue in the resort of Pattaya. The poor protestors in red wanted Abhisit Vejjajiva to stand down from office and hold elections, calling him a puppet of the military. However, after 3 weeks of protests, the army was successful in forcing the protestors off the streets.

In a sense, the temporary failure of the redshirts (as opposed to the success of the yellow shirts during the agitation against Thaksin’s government a couple of years ago) clearly exposes the army’s bias. The military did almost nothing when confronted by the yellow shirts, but was strict and firm towards the red shirts.

My sympathies are instinctively with the red-clad protestors from the poor villages in the north who are fighting for democracy. I am sure the protestors will return to the streets pretty soon. It is surprising to see that in the 21st century, a large section of the Thai middle-class is willing to violently agitate to turn the clock back and rein in democracy. Thaksin is no saint, but he is no more corrupt than the average Thai politician. I hope that he is able to return to Thailand and form a pro-poor government as he so richly deserves.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Support Thai PM Abhisit".

The main cause of all riots and chaos in Thailand is Thanksin Shinawatra. It is amazing how much damage has been done to our country by only a single man. These Red-shirts have been asked to fight for him while he is hiding. He told his supporters that they are using Gandhi’s style for their fighting! Shame for Thailand that so many people are fooled by his speech.

Abhisit is a good and capable man. He has handled the situation as best as one possibly can. Given the situations that these Red-shirts created, they deserve much more severe punishment. Abhisit is just trying to avoid further political division among Thais. "