Opinion

Thailand’s fight over who should rule

Return to electoral democracy key to the country’s future

March 17, 2014 9:00AM ET
An anti-government protester and riot police at a barricade near the Government Complex in Bangkok, Feb. 14, 2014.
Kerek Wongsa/Reuters

While the world’s attention has been focused on upheavals in the Middle East and, most recently, Ukraine and Venezuela, less attention has been given to the political impasse in Thailand. For nearly a decade there have been large-scale protests, primarily in the capital, Bangkok, with supporters of royalist elites confronting those who favor representative democracy.

The current protests calling for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s resignation began in November. Amid fears of impending civil war, tensions have eased in March through a combination of pressure from the army and negotiations between representatives of the protesters and the government. Nonetheless, the deep divisions in Thai society will continue. At stake is whether Thailand can remain a democracy and, if so, what kind of democracy.

Rule by moral people

For the past five months, protesters assembled under the banner of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) have rallied in the center of Bangkok. The movement’s leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, is a former deputy leader of the Democrat Party, the oldest political party in Thailand. Despite constant references to democracy, Suthep and his followers are far from seeking democratic reforms.

In December, the 150 Democrat Party representatives in parliament resigned en masse from their positions, and the party refused to participate in early elections last month called to resolve the ensuing political crisis. Suthep and his allies in the PDRC are insisting on Yingluck’s withdrawal from politics and for her democratically elected government to be replaced by a royally appointed committee that could properly guide the Thai democracy. 

Given the large turnouts at opposition rallies, there is no question that a significant number of people support the PDRC’s vision of a government under “khon di” — meaning rule by moral people — appointed by the king. However, as majorities in the last five elections have demonstrated, they prefer a democratically elected government that is held accountable in periodic elections.

The Democrat Party and its middle-class and royalist backers dismiss Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party supporters as ignorant peasants whose votes were bought primarily through populist government programs. In contrast, villagers in the north and northeastern parts of the country — Pheu Thai’s stronghold — are committed to democracy and believe they should have an equal say in determining Thailand’s political order.

Cosmopolitan villagers

I have been following the political evolution of rural people in northeastern Thailand, a region that constitutes more than one-third of the country’s population, for a half century. During my fieldwork in the early 1960s, the lives of Thai villagers in northeastern Thailand were primarily agrarian and centered on festivals at village Buddhist temple-monasteries. The northeast has seen dramatic changes over the last 50 years.

From the 1950s to 1970s an increasing number of northeastern villagers began to seek temporary or permanent nonagricultural work, mostly in Bangkok. Since the 1980s, many have gone to work in the Middle East, East Asia and Singapore. Their remittances home led to a substantial increase in household income. Over the same period, the villagers attained more education, with most today completing secondary school. Far from remaining peasants, they have become cosmopolitan villagers, with a sophisticated understanding of the larger world. Still, until recently, the villagers had little influence on shaping the policies that affect their lives. 

The current stalemate threatens to degenerate into tit-for-tat violence, if not civil war.

After several upheavals from the early 1970s through 1990, the urban middle class gained power through parliamentary democracy, wresting power from the military. The Democrat Party became the primary vehicle for advancing their interests. However, the Democrats never succeeded in gaining much support among rural dwellers, especially in the north and northeast, because the party always championed the interests of their primary supporters in Bangkok and the upper south, where livelihoods are based on commercial fishing and rubber production.

The disgruntled villagers from northern Thailand found their voice in parliament through the Thai Rak Thai party, founded in 1998 by Thaksin Shinawatra, a media mogul from a Sino-Thai family and Yingluck’s brother. Since the 2001 elections, villagers from the north and northeast voted overwhelmingly in support of Thai Rak Thai and its successor, Pheu Thai. The new parties championed policies such as universal health care, a village loan program, agricultural subsidies and devolution of power to locally elected councils that have strong approval among its constituents in the northeast and north.

Unfortunately for these constituents, Thaksin and his family, including Yingluck, have generated widespread disapproval, even hatred, from the old royalist and bureaucratic elite, the middle class and many nongovernmental organizations. The rancor stems in part from legitimate concerns about Thaksin’s presumed corruption in using government power to favor companies owned by his family or cronies, majoritarian rule that ignored the grievances of the minority parties and civil society organizations and hostility toward labor unions as well as dismay over populist policies that favor villagers.

The Red Shirts

In 2006 after a series of anti-Thaksin demonstrations, the military staged a coup and installed an interim government. The military-backed government replaced the country’s 1997 liberal constitution with one that placed significant constraints on electoral politics, the most significant being a senate with half its members elected and the other half chosen by a committee made up of judges and representatives of state agencies. The military’s actions triggered protests by supporters of Thaksin, mainly from the north and northeast and urban workers with roots in the rural northeast. These supporters subsequently coalesced into a movement popularly known as the Red Shirts.

New elections were held in early 2007 on the basis of the new constitution. Its outcome exacerbated the standoff between Thaksin supporters and opponents. His opponents succeeded through legal maneuvers to ban pro-Thaksin parties, including Thai Rak Thai, and to restrict its leadership from political participation for five years. But the Peoples Power Party (PPP), which replaced Thai Rak Thai, won a plurality of seats in parliament. Although the PPP, in alliance with several smaller parties, managed to form a government, its support dwindled as legal decisions compelled two prime ministers to resign, barred several other politicians from politics and saw the withdrawal of coalition party members. In December 2007, anti-Thaksin protesters took over the international airport. The PPP government resigned under pressure and was replaced by the Democrat Party, led by Abhisit Vejjajiva, an Oxford-educated upper-class politician.

Thaksin’s supporters were incensed by what they saw as a legal and parliamentary equivalent of a coup. After months of sustained protests, Red Shirts occupied Bangkok’s central business district from March to May 2010. The Abhisit administration ordered a military crackdown on the protesters. The violence left at least 90 people dead and hundreds injured. The protest ended with Red Shirt leaders under arrest and most of their followers returning to their homes, mainly in the northeast.

The Democrats called for new elections in July 2011, assuming the backlash against the violence associated with Red Shirt protesters favored the Democrats. Much to the surprise of many, Pheu Thai, led by Yingluck, won a clear parliamentary majority. This result once again enraged the middle and upper classes. They alleged Thaksin and his associates rigged the election through vote-buying fraud. However, two prominent academics — Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker — recently characterized such an assessment as a “dangerous nonsense.” Impartial observers also found the election fair and transparent. The villagers voted for Pheu Thai and its predecessors because it was in their interests to do so. 

Threat of civil war

In November the Pheu Thai party overstepped its electoral mandate by promoting a highly unpopular amnesty bill for those involved in the protracted conflict from 2006 to 2011, including Thaksin. It triggered another round of demonstrations on the streets of Bangkok, and the bill was removed from consideration.

The current stalemate threatens to degenerate into tit-for-tat violence, if not civil war. The civil society is deeply polarized. There is a lack of moderating voices with moral authority that can transcend the political schism. Several Buddhist monks led by the respected Phra Paisal Visalo have called for the end of hatred and revenge.

At the moment, the standoff has mostly moved from the streets to the courts. Regardless of the legal outcomes, which could mean the removal of Yingluck from office or the arrest of Suthep and other protest leaders, the street confrontations could well resume. However, an increasing number of Thais, led not only by monks but also by civil rights leaders and academics, embrace a shared identity and commitment to the country’s integrity that transcends the political divide. The country’s future hinges on the manifestation of these differences in electoral democracy, not confrontations on the streets.

Charles Keyes is a professor emeritus of anthropology and international studies at the University of Washington and the author of “Finding Their Voice: Northeastern Villagers and the Thai State.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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