Election Preview: Thailand 2014
There might – or might not – be an election in Thailand on February 2, 2014. The House of Representatives (สภาผู้แทนราษฎร) has 500 seats, 375 of which are elected by FPTP in single-member constituencies with the remaining 125 elected by parallel party-list proportional representation in eight regional constituencies. Voters have two votes, and the results of the direct vote in constituencies has no impact on the distribution of the remainder of the seats. The House sits for a maximum of four years, but the King has the prerogative to dissolve the House before the end of its term. The House is the lower house in the bicameral National Assembly (รัฐสภา), which consists of the House and the Senate.
The Senate (วุฒิสภา) is entirely non-partisan and serves for a fixed six-year term. 77 members are elected directly to represent Thailand’s 76 provinces and special administrative district (Bangkok), the remaining 73 seats are appointed by a commission made up of the president of the Constitutional Court, the chairs of the Election Commission and State Audit Commission, and one judge from the Supreme Court of Justice and the Supreme Administrative Court. The commission selects senators from the academic sector, the public sector, the private sector, the professional sector and ‘others’.
The House has exclusive powers as the primary legislative chamber (only House members may initiate legislation – legislation initiated by individual members must be backed by 20 MPs) and holds the government to account by electing the Prime Minister (appointed by the King) and removing the Prime Minister and ministers from office. Legislation must be passed by both houses, with the Senate considering the bill after the House as passed it. If the Senate amends or vetoes a bill, a joint committee will submit a new bill to both houses, both of which must approve it or it it withheld. The House may reconsider withheld legislation after a lapse of 180 days (or immediately, if it is a money bill), and if it passes it with an absolute majority of its members, it is deemed to have been passed by the National Assembly. When the National Assembly passes legislation, it is sent to the King for Royal Assent within 20 days. If Royal Assent is not granted, the National Assembly must re-deliberate the bill. If it reaffirms it with a two-thirds majority in both houses, the bill will effectively be granted Royal Assent even if the King still opposes it.
That is the theory of it all. In practice, Thailand is a flawed democracy. While it is a constitutional monarchy, the King is ‘enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated’ (Section 8 of the Constitution) and retains power as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the appointment of the Privy Council and assent to legislation. Strict lèse-majesté laws are enforced; in Thai political culture, the monarchy and the person of the King is revered and any accusation of lèse-majesté leveled against a politician is very serious. The worst insult one politician can make to another is to call him a republican!
Democratic institutions and basic democratic rights are subject to change at a moment’s notice. Since 1932, there have been over ten military coups in Thailand, the most recent one in 2006. Since 1932, Thailand has gone through seventeen different constitutions or charters – running the gamut from military authoritarianism, absolute monarchy, constitutional democratic monarchy or limited democracy. Freedom House ranks Thailand as ‘partly free’ and the press as ‘not free’.
Nowadays, when elections do go ahead, they are considered free and fair. Nevertheless, the democratic system is undermined by the lingering threat of military intervention to forcibly remove elected governments and widespread corruption. Thailand ranked 102 out of 177 countries in Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index. Many political parties are personalist shells, founded and led by one man or a powerful political family, promising populist policies. Smaller parties tend to be corrupt, venal and directionless outfits led by provincial bosses who rake in their provinces’ seats, and seek to use their power in the House as king-makers. They may side with either major party, even if the two major parties hate one another.
Lèse-majesté laws limit the freedom of expression, as they are used to target anybody critical of the monarchy or even the government. Access to some websites is banned in Thailand. The constitution explicitly prohibits discrimination based on religious belief, but the monarch must be Buddhist and Buddhism may often be treated as a de facto state religion. Muslim minorities in southern Thailand face some discrimination and have been locked in a bloody conflict with the central government for years. Muslim insurgents limit Buddhist monks and teachers’ freedom of movement. A combination of martial law and emergency rule remains in effect in the four southernmost provinces, and the governments have indiscriminately detained suspected insurgents and sympathizers and there are credible reports of torture and human rights violations.
Since 2005, political debate has been poisoned by the polarization of Thai politics and society around the controversial figure of Thaksin Shinawatra, the Prime Minister between 2001 and 2006 (his sister, Yingluck, has been Prime Minister since 2011). The unending deadlock and polarization is at the roots of the current political crisis.
If February 2’s elections will be uneventful and bring about no resolution to the crisis, this post focuses on the history of Thai military intervention in politics since 1932 and the roots of the polarization of contemporary Thai politics.
Thai military intervention in politics
The June 1932 coup is often cited as the beginning of the Thai (then Siamese) military’s intervention into politics. In 1932, a group of young army officers and Western-educated civil servants grouped in the Khana Ratsadon (People’s Party) seized power in a bloodless coup which abolished the ages-old absolute monarchy and created a constitutional monarchy. The coup leaders, known as the “promoters”, were representatives of a new, young generation of Western-educated elites who had grown to find the Siamese absolute monarchy and the conservative aristocracy which surrounded the king to be archaic. Indeed, while Siamese monarchs since the 1860s had modernized and ‘Westernized’ the country as a calculated means of escaping Western colonization, they by and large remained opposed to democracy and the aristocrats had blocked moves to adopt a constitution.
The new ruling class soon found itself divided into four factions: a conservative civilian faction led by Phraya Manopakorn Nititada (Phraya Mano), who became Prime Minister; an old-line senior military group led by Phraya Phahon, whose followers joined the coup to oppose cuts in military appropriations during the Depression; a junior military faction led by Luang Plaek Phibunsongkhram (Phibun) and a civilian reformist faction led by Pridi Phanomyong, a talented French-educated lawyer who supported economic reforms. It did not take long for the divisions to lead to a crisis. In March 1933, Pridi’s plans for economic reforms – favouring state intervention, progressive taxation, welfare and redistribution of wealth – were rejected by the elites and nobility, and in June 1933, Phraya Mano was overthrown in another bloodless coup led by Phraya Phahon.
A monarchist reaction failed in October 1933, when a counter-coup attempt led by Prince Boworadet was unsuccessful. The coup attempt, however, strained relations between King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) and the government, eventually leading to his abdication in 1935. King Prajadhipok claimed the government was undemocratic and failed to respect individual freedoms. He was succeeded by young Prince Ananda Mahidol, who was at school in Switzerland and did not return to Thailand until 1945.
The Khana Ratsadon and Prime Minister Phahon’s government continued to be torn by divisions between Pridi, recalled from exile, and Phibun’s military faction, which increased military expenditures while defense minister after 1934. When Phahon resigned in 1938, Phibun succeeded him – although Pridi became finance minister. Phibun’s regime marked a nationalist and authoritarian period, during which Siam became known as Thailand (land of the free) and the government ran a demagogic campaign against the Chinese commercial class. The regime promoted Western cultural norms and customs, but in foreign policy it revived irredentist claims against France in Cambodia and Laos and cultivated close ties with Japan to counter the French. Phibun was a dictator, who used imported European propaganda tools to promote his regime’s Thai nationalist agenda and create a cult of personality around him, while cracking down on opposition and downplaying monarchist symbols.
During World War II, Phibun sided with the Japanese to avenge the loss of territory to the French in 1893 and 1904. Following the Franco-Thai War (1940-1941), Japan mediated by ceding three Cambodian provinces to Thailand. Phibun basked in glory, but on December 8, 1941, the Japanese invaded Thailand and, within hours, Thailand gave in and allowed Japan to pass through the country to invade Burma and Malaya. In January 1942, Phibun declared war on the US and Britain.
Seni Pramoj, the Thai ambassador in Washington, a conservative aristocrat, refused to deliver the notice to the State Department and organized, with Pridi inside Thailand, a Free Thai resistance movement. In 1944, Japanese arrogance and Allied bombing crippled the economy and made the war and Phibun quite unpopular. The new government, led by Khuang Aphaiwong and infiltrated by the Free Thai, played a precarious game of remaining friendly with Japan while evacuating British territories in Malaya which Japan had allowed Thailand to occupy. By the end of the war, Thailand repudiated its alliance with Japan. While Britain held Thailand responsible and wanted to treat it as a defeated enemy, the US – hostile to British and French colonialism – supported the new government.
Khuang led a fractious civilian government which included Seni and Pridi, who was now regent for the absentee monarch. In September 1945, Seni became Prime Minister and restored the name Siam. Seni, who joined the newly founded monarchist and conservative Democrat Party, developed a personal animosity towards Pridi, whose party won the first partisan elections in 1946. Seni was forced out of office by Pridi in January 1946, the victim of rising discontent over inflation, reparation payments to the British and territorial concessions to the French (France’s precondition for Siam to join the UN). In March 1946, Pridi himself took office. Seeking to entrench a civilian parliamentary democracy, Pridi’s cabinet drafted a constitution – promulgated in May 1946 – which created a bicameral legislature composed of a directly-elected lower house and an upper house elected by the lower house.
In June 1946, King Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII), who had returned to Siam in December 1945, was found dead at the palace, in circumstances which remain mysterious and sensitive to this day. Three palace officials were later arrested and eventually executed (in 1955), although even the current king has since said that they were not guilty. A commonly-accepted alternative version is that the monarch accidentally shot himself while cleaning his pistol, but other theories still swirl. Prince Bhumibol Adulyadej, the deceased monarch’s brother, became King as Rama IX. Bhumibol Adulyadej was born in the US, went to Thailand for the first time in 1945 and returned to Switzerland to complete his studies, only returning to Bangkok in 1951.
In the immediate aftermath, Seni and the Democrats began a vicious smear campaign against Pridi, claiming that he had been behind the king’s death. The accusations compelled Pridi to resign on grounds of ill health in August 1946. The civilian government, headed by a rear-admiral close to Pridi, was plagued by divisions in the civilian leadership, corruption and an increasingly bold military.
In November 1947, a coup group led by Lt. General Phin Choonhavan and backed by Phibun seized power. The ‘coup group’ had the support of the palace, Seni, the Democrats and up-and-coming military officers such as police chief Phao Sriyanond, Colonel Sarit Dhanarajata, Lt. Colonel Praphas Charusathien and Phin’s son Captain Chatichai Choonhavan. The military, itself divided, would rule under various rulers until 1973. Khuang became Prime Minister with the coup group’s blessing, while the military and the palace agreed on a constitutional charter which increased royal powers.
In April 1948, the coup group pressed Khuang to resign and Phibun returned as Prime Minister. Phibun had briefly been held and tried as a war criminal, but the trial ended quickly and allowed the former leader to rebuild his popularity. Phibun’s new regime played on nationalist sentiments, renamed (for good) the country as Thailand while Phibun recycled himself from a pro-Japanese fascist admirer into an anti-communist well perceived by Washington. Thailand participated in the Korean War, Phao Sriyanond’s ruthless police was financed by the CIA, Thailand backed the French against communist rebels in Indochina and Bangkok gradually became Washington’s loyal ally in tumultuous Southeast Asia.
In 1949, Phibun called on Seni and the Democrats to help draft a new constitution. The 1949 constitution restored most of the monarch’s powers which he had lost in 1932.
Phibun’s rule ushered in stability, but in his first years in power, he faced several failed coup attempts – by Phibun’s army rivals in October 1948, a plot sponsored by the exiled Pridi in 1949 and one by naval officers in 1951. The 1951 revolt was put down by the army and the air force, increasing the military’s power against the civilian Democrat/palace axis and Phibun himself. Increasingly powerful military men such as Phao, Phin and Sarit disliked the 1949 constitution, which granted important powers to the monarch or a Senate made up of palace appointees. In November 1951, the coup group staged the so-called ‘silent coup’, pressuring Phibun into cancelling the 1949 constitution in favour of the 1932 constitution, under which the palace was far less powerful. A revised constitution was promulgated in February 1952, abolishing the Senate in favour of a unicameral National Assembly (half of which was appointed, and filled with military men).
The 1951 coup strengthened the military’s place in the government, which now rested on a triumvirate made up of Phibun, Phao and Phin. The government continued instrumentalizing anti-Chinese sentiments (now disguised as anticommunism) and it remained a strong US ally. In 1954, Thailand was a founding member of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and Bangkok – SEATO’s HQ – offered the use of its military bases to SEATO and the US. Economically, the government broke with a long tradition of liberal laissez-faire by intervening in the economy, setting a restrictive export tax on rice in a bid to discourage rice exports, nurture nascent industries and selling rice stocks on the domestic market at low prices to hold down the cost of living.
In 1955, Phibun allowed for a façade of democracy, loosening press censorship, allowing some public debate, allowing parties to register and halting the anti-Chinese campaign. In February 1957, the ruling party, controlled by Phao and Phibun, won the elections (although it suffered important loses), which Sarit and student protesters denounced as rigged. In response, Phibun appointed a new government, which shelved the democratic reforms. Sarit’s influence grew – he was now commander-in-chief of the army, and in September 1957, Sarit – with the King’s support – deposed Phibun and Phao in a bloodless coup. Sarit, on grounds of ill health, did not form a government himself, allowing SEATO secretary-general Pote Sarasin and then Thanom Kittikachorn to rule and supervise a free election in December 1957. In October 1958, Sarit – with his deputy Thanom’s support – staged another coup, this time installing himself as Prime Minister.
Sarit, who ruled until his death in December 1963, was part of a new generation not influenced by Western political ideologies. Instead, Sarit and his ally Thanom were traditionalists whose creed was order, hierarchy and religion. Under Sarit, the monarchy regained a much larger public role, with Sarit arranging for Bhumibol to attend ceremonies, champion development projects and raising the monarchy’s stature to that of high reverence. At the same time, however, heavy American presence in Asia with the Vietnam War made Western culture, hitherto reserved to an elite, accessible to the bulk of society. The 1960s saw the modernization and full westernization of Thailand, shaking traditional rural family units and leading to massive urban growth. However, economic growth did not trickle down to everybody. The impoverished regions of the north and northeastern Thailand (Isan) remained poor, and were subjected to military harassment and bureaucratic corruption.
Sarit’s regime proved exceptionally harsh, outlawing parties, jailing opponents, dissolving Parliament and centralizing powers. However, Sarit’s government also brought stability and economic growth. Although the military remained in charge, a la Pinochet, Sarit brought in liberal technocrats and allowed for foreign direct investment.
Upon Sarit’s death, his ally Thanom succeeded him in office, and continued Sarit’s foreign and domestic policies. The notable departure from Sarit’s policies was Thanom’s relatively more liberal stance on democratic reforms. A 1968 constitution restored a directly-elected House, created a royally-appointed Senate and parties were legalized; however, the constitution shored up Thanom’s powers by confirming repressive legislation and maintaining martial law (imposed in 1958). Thanom’s party won relatively open elections in 1969.
The government remained heavily involved in supporting the US against communist rebels in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, permitting US troops and aircraft to use Thai bases as launching-pads for attacks into Cambodia and Vietnam and sending a division of Thai troops to South Vietnam. Thailand was worried by Washington signaling that it was considering drawing down its presence in the region. Bangkok faced regional unrest: in the south from ethnically Chinese communist guerrillas and Muslim insurgents, in the north and northeast from peasants and communist rebels backed by the Pathet Lao, North Vietnam and China.
In November 1971, Thanom executed a coup against his own government, centralizing power in a triumvirate composed of himself, his son and his brother-in-law/deputy Praphas Charusathien. The new regime dissolved Parliament, cabinet, abrogated the constitution and declared martial law.
As the regime became increasingly corrupt and the economy declined, even harsh repression failed to quell rising popular discontent in universities, the countryside and middle-classes but also with civilian politicians and the palace. In October 1973, a new wave of protests spearheaded by students rallied hundreds of thousands in Bangkok. Initially, the army responded with force, firing on the demonstrators, but the palace – and the king himself – used the protests to move against Thanom. On October 14, the king arranged for Thanom’s removal and the safe passage of the triumvirate to foreign exile. Law professor Sanya Dharmasakti, a conservative sympathetic to the students’ demands, was appointed Prime Minister.
Sanya appointed a committee, which produced a constitution in 1974 and led to general elections in January 1975. In a context of disenchantment with the new civilian democratic government, which was extremely cautious in its decisions so as to not alienate the military, the general elections saw only 47% turnout and a very divided electorate. Seni Pramoj’s Democrat Party won 72 seats out of 269, followed by the right-wing Social Justice Party (a party which was backed by the military brass, including commander-in-chief Kris Sivara, and led by former Thanom-Praphas ally Thawit Klinprathum) with 45, the pro-military Thai Nation Party (led by Chatichai Choonhavan, the son of former army commander Phin Choonhavan) with 28 and Kukrit Pramoj’s centrist Social Action Party with 18 seats. Seni formed a government, which lasted 27 days, and was followed by a more centrist cabinet led by Kukrit Pramoj, which governed until the April 1976 elections.
The new democracy disappointed many of the more radical student leaders of 1973, but the new democratic system allowed voices which had until then been silenced by state repression to speak out and air their grievances. The 1973-1976 era saw an increase in peasant mobilization in northern and northeastern Thailand, demanding government intervention to improve their conditions. The economic growth under military rule had widened the gap between urban and rural areas, with urban areas becoming increasingly richer at a quicker pace while incomes in rural areas increased at a much slower rate. Phibun’s old rice premium, now the main source of government revenue, imposed low incomes and limited access to credit for poor farmers. The 1970s also witnessed an increase in the domestic communist insurgency, and nationalist sentiment hostile towards the US’ large role and military presence in Thailand. However, the victory of communists in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in 1975 was of far greater concern for Bangkok’s conservative elites. The government sought to improve ties with the new communist governments and China (Thailand recognized the PR China in 1975), but it also became increasingly anticommunist at home, targeting radicalized students who were labelled as foreign communist plants. In 1975 and 1976, political violence in the form of clashes between leftist students and workers and rightist paramilitaries (openly supported by the police) increased.
The April 1976 elections saw the right strengthened: Seni’s Democrats gained 42 seats, winning 114 seats, while the Thai Nation Party – led by Chatichai Choonhavan’s brother-in-law Pramarn Adireksarn and campaigning on the slogan of ‘right kill left’ – won 56 seats. Seni returned as Prime Minister, with Pramarn as Deputy Prime Minister. Pramarn and the deputy interior minister, Samak Sundaravej, both supported a coup or at least harsh repression of student protesters and Pramarn’s clique had contacts in the military and the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC, the body in charge of ‘national security’ – killing opponents). Pramarn and Samak, over Seni’s head, arranged for Thanom to return, ostensibly as a Buddhist monk without political motives. Seni tried to resign but was blocked, while students protested at Thammasat University against Thanom’s return. Conservative newspapers published a photo of student demonstrators re-enacting the hanging of two student protesters by police the previous month. The photo, which was later found to have been altered, showed one of the students as being made up to resemble the Crown Prince, a grave act of lèse majesté. Pramarn, who had plotted Thanom’s return to provoke and then kill the students, used the photo as a pretext. Police and paramilitaries (backed by the police, ISOC and parts of the palace) attacked Thammasat University and brutally lynched, tortured, murdered or burned students. Independent sources claimed over 100 were killed, the government’s numbers cited 46 while Samak, who became Prime Minister in 2008, said “only one” student had died – and only “by accident”!
Admiral Sangad Chaloryu, the head of the military and defence minister, led a coup which blocked Pramarn’s extremist faction from seizing power. Thanin Kraivichien, an ultraconservative judge, became Prime Minister. Thanin’s government was extremely repressive – censorship of the press, tight control of the unions, purges of the civil service and education, banned all parties, dissolved Parliament and confiscated blacklisted books. The October 1976 massacre strengthened the Communist Party of Thailand’s (CPT) insurgency, expanding their fighting force to 6,000-8,000. Thanin’s policies alienated even the military, which was already unhappy with Thanin’s relative independence from the military. In October 1977, Sangad removed Thanin in a coup and General Kriangsak Chomanand became Prime Minister.
Kriangsak’s military regime was more liberal, promulgating a constitution in 1978 which allowed for a directly-elected lower house and promised a transition to civilian rule by 1983. The military remained in power, but it allowed for relatively free elections and the resumption of parliamentary politics. In 1979, the centrist Social Action Party emerged as the largest party in legislative elections, albeit with only 82 out of 301 seats.
Kriangsak courted moderate union leaders, raised the minimum wage in Bangkok, allowed limited press freedom and amnestied some dissidents from 1976. The communist insurgency died down during Kriangsak’s rule. The 1979 Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia (ruled by the Khmer Rouge) divided the CPT, and drew Thailand – which joined the US and China in supporting the KR against Vietnam – closer to China, which stopped supporting the Thai Communists. Kriangsak offered amnesty to those communists who surrendered themselves.
However, rising inflation, corruption and a 1980 increase in oil/gas/electricity prices led to mounting discontent and student protests in 1980. The military moved in, leading Kriangsak to resign in favour of General Prem Tinsulanonda, the army commander and defence minister. Prem formed a largely civilian cabinet, enlisted the support of the Social Action Party, the Thai Nation Party and the Democrats and could count on the palace’s support. In April 1981, rogue military officers attempted to seize power, managing to capture Bangkok, force Prem and the monarchs to flee town but they relented when they realized that the King was behind Prem. The coup attempt did, however, weaken Prem’s power. Beset by economic problems, Prem’s government faced student and workers protests and farmers demanding higher rice prices. From the military, General Arthit Kamlangek, a deputy commander of a military region who had put down the April 1981 coup, enjoyed a rapid rise to top, becoming commander-in-chief of the army in October 1982. Arthit never attempted to seize power himself, but he proved a thorn in the side for the government, controlling the military and being publicly critical of some of Prem’s policy decisions.
In April 1983, Prem faced a major issue with the expiration of the 1978 constitution’s transitory clauses which would expire on April 21, after which point the Senate would lose a good deal of power, military and civil servants would no longer be able to sit in government and the structure of electoral constituencies would change. Prem was unable to have Parliament adopt an amendment to make the transitory clauses permanent, so he called an election for April 18. He patched together a three-party cabinet with the Democrats and Social Action Party.
In 1985, Prem faced another coup attempt, plotted by the same who had been behind the 1981 coup. It lasted ten hours before it was crushed. Prem also reined in the outspoken Arthit, openly lobbying through the parties for an extension of his term to 1987. The government announced Arthit would be retired on schedule, in September 1986, and in May 1986, the government dismissed Arthit from his military post, a first. General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, a Prem loyalist, became commander-in-chief of the army.
General elections held in 1988 saw the Thai Nation Party, led by retired military officer Chatichai Choonhavan, win the most seats – 87 to the Social Action Party’s 54 and the Democrats’ 48. Prem retired and Chatichai Choonhavan became Prime Minister. It seemed as if Thailand was moving back towards parliamentary politics, with the military – under Chavalit – being increasingly reticent towards direct intervention in the form of coups. However, in February 1991, Chatichai, accused of corruption, was toppled in a coup led by Generals Sunthorn Kongsompong and Suchinda Kraprayoon (the new commander-in-chief since 1990). They formed a National Peace Keeping Council, which drafted a 1991 constitution increasing the military’s powers.
The new junta appointed Anand Panyarachun, a respected businessman well regarded by the business community and the palace, as Prime Minister. Anand’s largely technocratic cabinet implemented economic reforms, aimed at restructuring the taxation system (introducing a VAT) and liberalizing the economy to allow for private investment, simplifying business creation and removing some barriers. However, Anand chose not to challenge the junta on any contentious, effectively turning a blind eye to human rights abuses.
An election in March 1992 was closely contested. The pro-junta Justice Party, led by Narong Wongwan (suspected by the US of being involved in drug trafficking) won 79 seats, followed by the Thai Nation Party (74) and Chavalit’s new populist party, the New Aspiration Party (72). The Democrats took 44, while the Palang Dharma Party, a Buddhist-influenced party led by retired General Chamlong Srimuang, a devout Buddhist and former governor of Bangkok (elected with Arthit’s support in 1985). The results allowed junta commander Suchinda to become Prime Minister.
Suchinda’s appointment as Prime Minister led to major protests on May 17-20, 1992. The government initially responded with force and violence was escalating. On May 20, the King met with Suchina and Chamlong, the protest leader, and demanded that they end their confrontation. The televised footage of the two politicians bowing to the monarch made a powerful impression, and Suchinda resigned on May 24.
Democracy was restored, and Thailand became a functional constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary regime once more. In general elections in September 1992, the Democrat Party, led by Chuan Leekpai, won 79 seats and narrowly defeated Chamlong’s Palang Dharma Party, which took 47 seats. Former Prime Minister Chatichai’s National Development Party, which rallied various politicians from old outfits including Chatichai’s former Thai Nation Party, the junta’s old Justice Party, won 60 seats. The Thai Nation Party, now led by the pro-junta and pro-May crackdown Banharn Silpa-archa, won 77 seats and the New Aspiration Party won 51. Chuan Leekpai formed a government with the Palang Dharma and one small party, leading a fairly competent administration until 1995, when he fell on a corruption scandal.
This led to new elections in July 1995. Banharn’s Thai Nation Party won 92 seats against 86 for Chuan’s Democrat Party. New Aspiration won 57, the National Development Party won 53 and Palang Dharma, divided over the participation in government and devoid of its founder (he handed the party over to a businessmen and political newcomer, Thaksin Shinawatra), took only 23. Banharn, a notoriously corrupt provincial strongman, became Prime Minister in a seven-party coalition including Thaksin as Deputy Prime Minister. However, Thaksin pulled the party out of the coalition in August 1996, leading to early elections in September 1996. Chavalit’s New Aspiration Party won 125 seats, two more than Chuan’s Democrat Party. Banharn’s party lost 53 seats, winning only 39, while the Palang Dharma Party collapsed entirely, winning only one seat.
Chavalit became Prime Minister in a coalition with the Thai Nation Party and four smaller parties. Chavalit would soon face the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which began in Thailand. Since 1985, the Thai economy had been growing rapidly, at an average rate of 9% per year and inflation was kept low, but Thailand contracted a huge foreign debt and an economic bubble grew. In May 1997, the Thai baht was hit by speculative attacks, but Chavalit and the central bank insisted on protecting the bank by spending billions of the country’s international reserves to do so. In July, Chavalit finally allowed the baht (hitherto pegged to the US dollar) to float. The decision triggered the Asian financial crisis, and Chavalit resigned in November 1997.
Chaun Leekpai returned as Prime Minister, heading a difficult seven-party coalition. Chuan brought in IMF-prescribed austerity measures, which led critics to charge that the Democrats protected financial institutions and foreign investors. A new, democratic constitution was approved in 1997.
The January 2001 was one of Thailand’s most significant elections. Chuan’s Democrat Party faced telecommunications magnate Thaksin Shinawatra’s populist Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais, TRT). The TRT had been founded in 1998, built on a populist platform appealing to indebted farmers and rural communities. In the 2001 election, the TRT criticized Chuan’s government for its economic policies, and it campaigned against old politics, corruption, organized crime, and drugs. Thaksin’s TRT won 41% of the votes and 248 seats.
The roots of the current crisis: Thaksin and the 2006 coup
Thaksin has become the polarizing figure at the heart of Thai politics since 2001. He has masses of passionate supporters, but almost equally as large crowds of bitter opponents. Economically, Thakin’s government implemented social policies which have been successful at reducing poverty and income inequalities, particularly in Thaksin’s political base in northeastern Thailand (Isan), the country’s poorest region. His economic policies, branded ‘Thaksinomics’ had nothing especially radical to them and could very well be seen as Keynesian economic stimulus polices. They included, among others, village-financed microcredit development funds, low-interest agricultural loans, direct injections of cash into development funds and the One Tambon One Product local entrepreneurship program. Thaksin also created a proto-universal healthcare system, providing access to public hospitals for the cheap fee of 30 baht (less than US$1) per visit. Considering his policies as left-wing, however, would be quite misleading. At the same time, Thaksin continued Chuan’s privatization agenda, actively supported new free trade agreements and restructured government departments using characteristically ‘conservative’ language about ‘efficiency’, ‘results’ and ‘red tape’. Bangkok also backed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, although it withdrew its troops in 2004 after two soldiers died.
Thaksin’s policies were very popular with poor voters in rural Isan, but the middle-classes and elites in Bangkok and southern Thailand strongly disliked Thaksin, decrying him as a corrupt, demagogic and authoritarian populist. The 2005 election signaled something which has not changed since: in a head-to-head election, Thaksin’s supporters have a clear numerical advantage over the opposition. The TRT was reelected in an historic landslide, with about 56% of the vote and 375 seats to the Democrat Party’s paltry 16% and 96 seats. The TRT won all but 10 seats in Isan, all but 6 seats in the north and even took 32 of the 37 seats in Bangkok. Only southern Thailand, the old Democrat stronghold, resisted: the Democrats won 52 of the 54 seats.
Thaksin faced serious accusations of corruption before, during and after his term in office. In office, some of his infrastructure and economic policies were criticized for benefiting his family’s companies. In January 2006, the sale of his family’s share in Shin Corporation (a leading telecom company) to an investment firm owned by the Singapore government raised controversy, because Thaksin and his wife’s families gained about $1.88 billion in the transaction and did not have to pay capital gains tax following Thai law.
After the January 2005 election, a conflict with Sondi Limthongkul, a media mogul who had formerly backed Thaskin, escalated. The roots the split between the two means appears to be Thaksin’s decision to fire the president of a state-owned bank who had forgiven Sondhi’s debts. Sondhi broke with Thaksin and became a fiery opponent of the government, claiming that Thaksin was limiting freedom of the press. While it is true that Thaksin’s business dealings were suspect to say the least, that he had innumerable conflicts of interest (a la Berlusconi) and that he was showing signs of authoritarianism, a lot of Sondhi’s other claims were silly (see below).
Sondhi organized the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), along with Thaksin’s early political colleague Chamlong Srimuang. The PAD, or yellow shirts, were mostly drawn from Bangkok’s upper and middle class elites, but also attracted civil servants opposed to privatization, civil society activists, hardline monarchists and some factions of the military. The PAD seized on deep-seated reverence for the monarchy and the monarch himself, accusing – often on flimsy or absurd grounds – Thaksin of disrespecting the king, overstepping his powers as Prime Minister and trampling on religion and the monarchy. For example, in 2005, Sondhi accused Thaksin of usurping royal powers by presiding over a religious ceremony at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and in 2006 he accused Thaksin of masterminding the vandalism of the Phra Phrom Erawan Shrine. In March 2006, Sondhi alleged that Thaksin, along with 1970s student leaders and former members of the banned Communist Party, had been plotting (in Finland, of all places) to overthrow the monarchy and establish a communist state. These wild theories – the so-called Finland Plot – were unfounded and probably invented, but they played into the yellows’ claims that Thaksin had insulted the monarchy and was trampling on the monarchy. Some members of the King’s Privy Council expressed their disapproval of Sondhi and the PAD using the monarchy and the King to further their own political aims, but that didn’t stop the yellows from using slogans such as ‘fight for the King’ or ‘return power to the King’.
In early 2006, yellow protests were matched by large pro-Thaksin (red) rallies. Thaksin, in a bid to defuse the situation or divert attention, called a snap election for April 2006, which he was fairly certain to win. Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, along with Banharn’s Thai Nation Party and another small party, boycotted the election. Thaksin’s TRT won 61% of the vote and 460 seats, but 38% of voters used the ‘abstain’ option on ballots to reject the TRT. The ‘abstain’ option swept Bangkok and southern Thailand, leaving the TRT short of the 20% support requirement in 40 unopposed constituencies in those regions. The PAD and the Democrat Party petitioned to have the results declared invalid because of a change in the design of polling stations (voters now had their backs to the public, rather than facing the public, in the booths). The election did nothing to calm the situation, which only worsened. Thaksin proposed a reconciliation commission and said he would step down as Prime Minister when the Parliament reconvened, but the opposition would have none of it. In May 2006, the Constitutional Court declared the April election invalid and ordered a new election for October 15.
In the background, the military began plotting a coup in the summer. On September 19, while Thaksin was at the UN in New York, the military overthrew the government and arrested senior cabinet ministers. General Sonthi Boonyaratglin took power, established a junta – the Council for Democratic Reform (CDR), suspended the constitution and dissolved the Parliament, cabinet and Constitutional Court. The CDR accused Thaksin of corruption, nepotism, dividing society, interfering in independent agencies and insulting the King. The CDR reiterated several times that it sought to restore democracy within a year. The coup and junta had the support of former Prime Minister General Prem Tinsulanonda, who was now the President of the Privy Council.
In October 2006, the junta promulgated an interim constitution which centralized power in a powerful executive branch headed by a Prime Minister appointed by the junta and the junta itself. The legislature would be made up entirely of junta appointees, and a committee would draft a permanent constitution. Retired General Surayud Chulanont, who led the governmnent crackdown on protesters in May 1992, was named Prime Minister. The new government kept some of Thaksin’s popular policies – the 30 baht universal health care program was made completely free – but some other programs and policies were cancelled, including rice subsidies, the One Laptop Per Child program, the telecom excise tax and an asset capitalization program. The government was unable to stem an economic slowdown and its economic record was poor with deficits and capital controls to reverse an appreciation of the baht. The military-backed government continued to impose strict censorship of the media and internet and arrested dissidents and junta opponents. The Council for National Security, the successor of the initial junta (CDR) retained significant power and influence, although there were rumours of strained ties between Surayud and the CNS in 2007.
Meanwhile, Thaksin was now in exile, first settling in London. In December 2006, his diplomatic passport was revoked and a junta-appointed committee later froze his assets. In January 2007, Thaksin and later his wife were charged in a corruption case. In May 2007, the Constitutional Tribunal banned the TRT party (and two smaller parties) for ‘conspiring to gain administrative power by illegal means’.
A committee directly and indirectly appointed by the CNS drafted a constitution. Under the new constitution, the legislature remained bicameral, with the directly-elected lower house (House of Representatives) being made up (initially) of 480 members, 400 of which were elected in constituencies (originally multi-member) and the remainder by party-list proportional representation (parallel system). The Senate, non-partisan but entirely directly-elected for the first time under the 1997 constitution, retained 76 directly-elected but non-partisan seats while the other 74 were to be appointed by a committee. The Prime Minister may serve no more than two consecutive terms. The new constitution also made it easier for the Prime Minister and ministers to be removed from office by the House.
The constitution was criticized on a number of fronts: the fairly extensive powers granted to the King, an article granting amnesty to the leaders of the 2006 coup, excessive powers granted to bureaucrats and technocrats leading to fears of a ‘bureaucratic state’. The Thaksinites opposed the constitution, but the Democrat Party’s Abhisit Vejjajiva considered it an improvement on the 1997 constitution and supported it. For the first time, the constitution was to be approved by the electorate in a referendum. However, the junta banned parties from campaigning in favour or against the draft and made criticism of the draft a criminal act – but at the same time, the CNS and the military heavily campaigned in favour of the draft. Under those constitutions, the draft was approved with 57.8% on a turnout of 42.2%. The constitution received over 90% support in six provinces in southern Thailand, but it was rejected by 24 provinces in the north and northeast of the country – the Thaksin bastions.
Thaksinism without Thaksin and the unending cycle
New elections were held in December 2007. The dissolved TRT was reincarnated as the People’s Power Party (Phak Palang Prachachon, PPP), led by seasoned politician and political chameleon Samak Sundaravej, who had presided over the October 1976 massacre. The PPP and Abhisit’s Democrats tied in the proportional vote, but the PPP won 199 FPTP seats to the Democrat Party’s 132, for an overall total of 233 and 165 respectively. Banharn’s Thai Nation Party won 37 seats and a new party, Pheua Phaendin, formed by TRT defectors, won 24. Samak’s PPP formed a coalition government with the Thai Nation Party, Pheua Phaendin and three smaller parties (the Neutral Democratic Party, the Pracharaj Party and the Chart Pattana Party) – venal parties which sold themselves to the highest bidder. Samak became Prime Minister, beginning the process of ‘Thaksinism without Thaksin’.
Samak was seen by the anti-Thaksin as a proxy for Thaksin. The deposed Prime Minister returned to Thailand in February 2008, although charges against him were not dropped and Thaksin later returned to Britain in August 2008. The new political dispensation led to the recreation of the PAD (yellow shirts), still led by Sondhi. The PAD said their concerns were prompted by the government’s moves to amend the 2007 constitution (notably to remove an article necessitating the dissolution of a political party if one of their leaders was convicted for vote buying; the PAD and anti-Thaksinites in general claim that Thaksin won through vote buying) and the government dismissing members of the judiciary and law enforcement investigating Thaksin. The PAD organized major rallies and protests in Bangkok, paralyzing the city; they laid siege to Government House and in late November, PAD protesters seized and occupied Suvarnabhumi International Airport for about a week.
Samak’s government faced other challenges besides the PAD. In July, the Constitutional Court ruled that the foreign minister and the cabinet as a whole had violated the constitution by failing to ask for parliamentary approval for an agreement with Cambodia, in which the foreign minister agreed to support Cambodia’s bid to seek World Heritage status for the Preah Vihear temple. The site of the temple has been the subject of a long-running border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia, which has come to further poison political debate in Thailand as the yellows used nationalist and anti-Cambodian rhetoric to drum up opposition to Thaksin. The PAD considered that the government was violating Thai territorial sovereignty, and tensions began to flare between Thailand and Cambodia. As the PAD called on Samak to resign, the situation deteriorated further as the PAD stepped up its protests.
Pro-Thaksin protesters began organizing themselves as the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), or ‘red shirts’. The UDD was made up of pro-Thaksin activists, often drawn from Thaksin’s strongholds in Isan, which heavily criticized the ‘elites’ and the ‘aristocratic’ political system. One target of UDD ire was Prem Tinsulanonda, the President of the Privy Council, who they claimed was the mastermind of the 2006 coup. The UDD’s attacks on Prem and the political elites led to their opponents, the PAD, branding them as anti-monarchist and republican – an extremely serious accusation in Thailand.
As the UDD began clashing with the PAD, Samak declared a state of emergency in Bangkok on September 2 2008. On September 9, the Constitutional Court found that Samak had hosted two cooking shows on TV while he was Prime Minister (it is illegal to be under employment of another person under the constitution) and therefore terminated his premiership. The PPP vowed to renominate Samak, but ultimately they successfully nominated Somchai Wongsawat – Thaksin’s brother-in-law – as Prime Minister. The PAD continued its protests: the sit-in and siege of Government House continued and in October, the PAD laid siege to Parliament, led to violent clashes with police.
In December 2008, the Constitutional Court order the dissolution of the PPP, the Thai Nation Party and the Neutral Democratic Party on vote buying charges. Under the law, non-executive MPs of the parties could remain in Parliament by switching parties within a limited amount of time, but executive MPs were disqualified and lost their political rights. The PPP decried a judicial coup, and began reorganizing as the Pheu Thai Party (PT). While the PT tried to reorganize a coalition around itself and the PPP’s five ex-partners; within days, the Democrats won the backing the five ex-PPP partners and a PPP splinter around corrupt provincial boss Newin Chidchob (who founded the Bhumjaithai Party, BJT). General Anupong Paochinda, the Commander in Chief of the Army, allegedly coerced Newin’s MPs into backing Abhisit.
Abhisit, a young, polished Oxford-educated politician with an elitist reputation, became Prime Minister. Abhisit had opposed the 2006 coup but cautiously supported the 2007 constitution, and as opposition leader he had personally opposed the PAD’s tactics but many Democrat MPs supported the PAD’s aims and tactics very openly. The PAD, although lacking formal ties to the Democrat Party, cried victory; but just as they did, the UDD organized against Abhisit in March 2009, after Thaksin claimed via video broadcast that Prem was behind the 2006 coup and that Privy Council members, including former junta-appointed Prime Minister Surayud had conspired to make Abhisit PM. The UDD called for a revolution to overthrow the amatayathipatai (government by elites, bureaucrats and nobles), again using language which made them appear very much anti-monarchist in the eyes of the yellows. The UDD protests grew in size and intensity in April 2009. There were violent protests at an ASEAN summit in Pattaya, at the interior ministry in Bangkok and the capital’s main arteries. Abhisit briefly declared a state of emergency; UDD rioters and law enforcement both used violence, resulting in over 100 injuries and a handful of deaths on the UDD side. By the end of April 2009, the UDD wave of protests had died off.
Abhisit’s government also had to tackle the economic crisis, which put Thailand in recession (-2.3%) in 2009, although by the fourth quarter of 2009, Thailand was recording solid growth and the economy expanded by 7.8% in 2010. Abhisit’s economic policies, certainly in a bid to build popular support and cut into Thaksin’s base, consisted of generous public spending and social spending schemes. Bangkok faced trouble with Cambodia, after Abhisit appointed a fiery anti-Cambodian ex-PAD leader as foreign minister. Large-scale fighting between Thai and Cambodian troops in April 2009, with intermittent clashes in 2011, led to about 20 deaths on both sides. In November 2009, Thailand withdrew its ambassador from Cambodia (which retaliated by doing likewise with its ambassador in Bangkok) after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen appointed Thaksin, now living in Dubai, as a special adviser to his government. The crisis was not resolved until August 2010, when Thaksin resigned his Cambodian gig. In the meantime, in February, the Thai Supreme Court ordered the seizure of part of his assets (46 billion bahts) and the other 30 billion baht remained frozen.
The UDD protests began anew in March 2010, shortly after the Supreme Court’s verdict in Thaksin’s asset seizure case. Protests on March 14 were said to be the largest in Thai history, with another large – and peaceful – march on March 20. Imitating their PAD rivals, the reds occupied intersections, commercial districts and political institutions in Bangkok. On April 10, however, the military opened fire on UDD protesters, killing 24 people. As in the past, the situation remained extremely polarized with intransigent actors on both sides, which hated one another – the UDD demanded new elections and Abhisit’s resignations, while Abhisit and his fiery Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban refused to resign and considered the protesters to be ‘terrorists’ or pawns ‘bought’ by Thaksin’s camarilla. Abhisit, however, did relieve Suthep of his ‘security’ responsibilities and replaced him with army commander General Anupong.
UDD demonstrations, radicalized, continued throughout April but were met by pro-government protests (or neutral protests by those tired of the UDD’s disruption of the city). Uncontrollable elements in the UDD set off bombs and grenades, while the military threatened to use force to dislodge the UDD. On May 14, the army moved in to surround the UDD’s main camp in Bangkok, beginning a bloody crackdown which ended with about 85 deaths by May 22. The military’s bloody crackdown effectively killed the UDD protests, although smaller protests emerged in 2010 and 2011 (with PAD counter-protests in 2011).
Abhisit finally called an election for July 2011. Under new electoral laws introduced by the Abhisit government, increasing the number of seats in the House to 500 – with 375 elected by FPTP in single-member constituencies and 125 elected by party-list PR – changes designed to favour the Democrats, who had narrowly won the list vote in 2007 but lost the constituency vote heavily to Thaksin’s party. The Thaksinite party, Pheu Thai (For Thais, PT), was led by a young political novice with a famous last name – Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s youngest sister and a businesswoman. Although Yingluck was an inexperienced political outsider, she proved a much stronger campaigner than Abhisit. Despite Abhisit’s populist and interventionist economic policies – which dismayed the more radical, elitist and anti-democratic elements in the PAD – he was still associated with the elite and was hurt by his own elitist image. In contrast, Yingluck – backed by her brother and a good team of advisers and consultants, played on her good looks, charisma and smooth talk. She remained positive and consensual, preaching reconciliation and amnesty (ostensibly for both sides) and promising goodies such as free tablet PCs for school students and raising the minimum wage to 300 baht/day. Abhisit’s Democrats tried, without any luck, to use negative scare tactics against the PT, saying that a PT victory would mean ‘mob rule’.
The current crisis
Yingluck’s PT won a landslide victory, larger than the PPP’s victory in 2007. On the list vote, which was tied up in 2007, the PT won 48.4% against 35.2% for the Democrats, leaving only crumbs for the small parties. In the direct seats, the PT won 204 seats to the Democrat Party’s 115 seats. Overall, the PT won an absolute majority on its own, with 265 out of 500 seats (53% of seats) against 159 for the Democrats (31.8% of seats). Newin’s BJT party won 34 seats – 29 of which were constituency seats, reflecting the party’s personalist nature. The Chartthaipattana (CTP), the successor to the dissolved Thai Nation (Chart Thai) party won 19 seats, 15 of which were constituency seats (mostly from Banharn’s province). Chart Pattana Puea Pandin, another populist outfit led by corrupt political chameleons, won took 7 seats; Chonburi Province’s political boss Sontaya Kunplome (a cabinet minister under Thaksin) won 7 seats (6 constituency seats, all from Chonburi); brothel king Chuwit Kamolvisit’s Rak Thailand outfit won 4 seats; 2006 coup leader General Sonthi’s Muslim-based Matubhum Party won 2 seats and three smaller parties won one seat each. Once again, the political map showed a clear polarization between the Thaksinite strongholds and the Democrats’ fiefdoms. The PT won no direct seats in southern Thailand, where almost every single seat when to the Democrats. In contrast, the PT swept the huge majority of seats in Isan and northern Thailand; the Democrats managed to win a number of provinces in the north (bordering Myanmar/Burma), an ethnically Karen region. The Democrats won the most seats in Bangkok, but the PT was dominant in Bangkok’s poorer suburbs, many of which have a large Isan migrant population.
Polarization continued under Yingluck, although there were no major anti-government protests by the yellows in 2011 or 2012. Yingluck has been praised by her supporters for her handling of the 2011 floods in Thailand and her management of the economy; her yellow rivals have derided her administration – for example, poking fun at Yingluck’s poor command of English (despite holding a Masters from Kentucky State University). They widely consider Yingluck to be her brother’s puppet, and they insist that Thaksin runs Thailand through video conferences from Dubai. Indeed, Yingluck’s government explored every avenue to allow her brother to return: in December 2011, he was allegedly granted a Thai passport (until then, he had been using Nicaraguan and Montenegrin passports). He has been said to exert power on her cabinet appointments and sent much ‘advice’ to ministers and MPs.
The Thai economy was badly hurt by the mass floods in 2011. 815 people died, hundreds of thousands of homes were damaged and the floods were said to have been the fourth costliest natural disaster with damages estimated at $45.7 billion. In 2011, the Thai economy grew by only 0.1%, badly hurting Thailand’s rice crops. Yingluck toured the flood areas and offered moral support, but government’s response has been criticized as tardy and ineffective.
One of Yingluck’s landmark economic policy was a subsidy for rice farmers, under which the government buys rice directly from farmers at twice the market price. As a result, the government began stockpiling unknown amounts of rice The populist measure was designed to help poor rice farmers in Isan and central Thailand – fiercely loyal constituencies for the PT; on the other hand, private rice exporters, who support the opposition, were hurt by the policy. Overall, Yingluck’s rice subsidies have been considered rather unsuccessful: the government’s theories and assumptions (that its policies would force up international rice prices) failed to play out and Thailand’s rivals – India and Vietnam – have overtaken it as top rice exporters. The policy costs Bangkok about $15 billion, and there have been concerns of corruption, mismanagement and rumours that criminals have illegally imported cheap grain from Cambodia and Myanmar in a bid to profit from the government’s largess. Yingluck has refused to back down from her landmark policy.
The economy grew by 6.5% in 2012 but growth slowed to 3.1% in 2013. Government debt levels, which stood at 37% in 2008 and 42% in 2011, have increased to 47% in 2013 and is projected to hit 53.5% in 2018.
Her promises of ‘national reconciliation’ quickly amounted to nothing. She formed a House committee on reconciliation, with a built-in PT majority although it was chaired by 2006 coupist general Sonthi. Sonthi’s committee proposed a blanket amnesty for all involved in violence since 2006 and to drop all charges against Thaksin. The latter proposal incensed the Democrat Party. The government often acted as it was going through all this with the intention of saving Thaksin, a behaviour which hurt the government’s standing and proved fruitless. Thaksin’s legal standing hasn’t changed since 2011: he still lives in exile, the Thai courts still want his head. The amnesty and reconciliation proposals have been at the heart of the current political crisis.
The opposition has fought tooth-and-nail against the government’s amnesty proposals. Abhisit insisted that Yingluck’s only interest was her brother. In May 2012, a first attempt to pass an amnesty bill aroused enormous hostility inside and outside of Parliament, even in PT ranks, and the government was compelled to back down. The army even had to step in to deny that it was considering a coup. In November 2012, around 10,000 protesters organized by the implacably anti-government Pitak Siam of retired General Boonlert Kaewprasit marched in Bangkok. A draft bill pushed forward by a PT MP and former UDD activist passed a first reading in August 2013 and a committee approved a revised bill in October. The new bill was a blanket amnesty for the period 2004-2013, including corruption charges against Thaksin and murder charges against Abhisit and Suthep. The bill was passed by the House on November 1.
The bill incensed both the opposition yellows and the pro-government reds. The opposition, led by the Democrat Party, decried the bill because it dropped charges against Thaksin. The reds said the bill led those behind the killings and military crackdown of 2010 off the hook. The bill also drops over 25,000 graft cases, many of them involving senior politicians. To appease the opposition and reds, Yingluck sent the bill to the Senate, which unanimously rejected it within days. Despite the Senate’s decision, growing protests in Bangkok – led by the yellows – did not die off. On November 20, the Constitutional Court rejected a proposed constitutional amendment which would have made the Senate entirely elected rather than partially appointed. The government was infuriated, claiming that the court had no jurisdiction and that it was acting in a politically motivated fashion. While the government let the issue slide, but protests swelled.
Former Deputy Prime Minister and senior Democrat politician Suthep Thaugsuban resigned to take the leadership of the protest movement, along with other Democrat MPs. By late November, thousands of protesters had taken to the streets. In Bangkok, protesters seized several ministries. The government invoked special security laws (as is usual in Thai protests) but authorities did not use force against protesters. The movement was organized around the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), led by Suthep. Protests began turning more violent in early December, with a few deaths and many injuries in clashes between PDRC protesters and police or between reds and yellows. Calm returned, briefly, to allow for the celebration of the ailing King’s birthday on December 5. But after that brief pause, protests returned.
On December 9, Yingluck dissolved the House and called for general elections on February 2, 2014. Yingluck’s called the opposition’s bluff, daring them to measure their strength against the PT in an election. The PT was certainly confident that it would win another majority in a new election – just like the Thaksinites have won every election since 2001, despite their opponents’ best efforts. Abhisit, Suthep and the Democrats announced on December 21 that they would boycott the election. Abhisit said that “Thai politics is at a failed stage” and that “people have lost their faith in the democratic system”.
The PDRC and the Democrats know that they would lose an election; instead, Suthep has called on Yingluck to resign for the formation of an unelected (likely technocratic or aristocratic) ‘people’s council’ to reform electoral laws and the constitution before elections can be held. Many of the yellow protesters feel that Thai democracy has failed, citing ‘vote buying’ by Thaksin’s ilk which has corrupted the system. There is little evidence, however, that any of the Thaksinite election victories were rigged or systematically ‘bought’. In many ways, the yellows seem unable to cope with the fact that they represent a perennial minority of public opinion and that the majority of the population continues to support Thaksin’s parties. If democracy has broken down, it is also the fault of the opposition and the Democrats, who have been unable to expand their base or challenge Thaksin’s policies in a way which recognizes the very real support he has in parts of Thailand. Suthep effectively wants the old elites – hostile to Thaksin and his poor supporters – to run the country.
The opposition protesters in Bangkok are, as in the past, drawn from the middle-classes, upper-classes, ultramonarchist circles or bused in from the Democrat strongholds of southern Thailand. They regard the reds as rabble bought off by Thaksin’s wealth. Many pro-yellow commentators or individuals often use disparaging language to refer to Thaksin’s supporters in Isan. Because the dialect they speak (Isan), is a spin-off of Lao written in Thai script, some comment that they should “go back to Laos”.
In boycotting the election, the opposition was widely seen by outsiders as begging for the military to take matters into their own hands, as in 2006. The government, for all its faults, seemed – on paper – willing to negotiate a delay of the election date (which remains scheduled, as of now, for February 2, but nobody knows what will happen between now and then), but Suthep showed no willingness to negotiate. He is hardly concealing the fact that he would prefer that the army does what it knows best and remove Yingluck’s government from office. On December 27, the army commander, General Prayuth Chan-ocha did not rule out the possibility of a coup. Alternatively, the Democrats have pressured the anti-corruption office into charging PT executives and MPs (over 300 of them), including Yingluck, for voting to make the Senate fully elected. If charged, they could be disqualified from political office.
Protests have continued in January 2014. They have largely remained peaceful, but hundreds have been injured in clashes with police. On January 13, the PDRC protesters stepped up their protests, promising to shutdown Bangkok. There have been small-scale, isolated bomb blasts at yellow rallies, without the police being able to catch the perpetrators. A few days ago, Yingluck’s government declared a 60-day state of emergency in Bangkok and its surroundings. The decree gives the government wide-ranging powers, going from a curfew (which will be difficult to implement) to censorship of the press.
It is up in the air whether there will be an election on February 2. The election commission wants to delay the election, but feels it lacks the power to do so. The state of emergency adds to the uncertainty and raises questions about the feasibility of organizing a poll under such circumstances. The opposition has prevent candidates from registering in 28 constituencies, meaning that even if there is an election, it will probably lack the quorum (475 members) to convene. For the time being, Thailand remains in legal limbo. Murmurs of a civil war (in the case of a coup, some reds have been talking of retreating to Isan and the north and fight the coup from there) or even the breakup of the country are likely exaggerated. The army has been surprisingly remote. It likely knows that a coup would only have minority support, and the long-term outcome of the 2006 coup (the election of a Thaksinite government in 2007) likely cools them off.
Thai politics remain hopelessly polarized, with little resolution in sight for the short term. The elections on February 2 will resolve nothing. Hopefully this post provided a thorough background to the current crisis and Thailand’s political history.