Opinion
Pornchai Kittiwongsakul / AFP / Getty Images

Thailand on the brink of civil war

The royalist conservatives’ attempt to seize power is a recipe for political crisis and large-scale violence

May 17, 2014 12:00AM ET

Thailand’s Senate, the country’s only functioning legislative chamber, convened an informal meeting last week to deliberate on ways to end that country’s six-month-old political stalemate. On May 7, the Constitutional Court removed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and a number of her Cabinet ministers from office. This judicial coup was followed by a decision from the National Anti-Corruption Commission, which indicted Yingluck for dereliction of duty in handling a controversial rice-subsidy program. Despite their judicial semblance, both rulings were carried out without any due process of law. They call into question the credibility and impartiality of Thailand’s judicial system in the eyes of the majority of the Thai public.

Royalist conservatives are rejoicing at the rulings. But the deeply polarizing nature of the verdicts testifies to the weakening of the royalist establishment. Both the constitutional court and the anti-graft commission were created in 2007 by a royalist government following the 2006 military-backed coup. The court has since sacked three elected governments, dissolved a dozen political parties and nullified elections certified as free and fair. The country’s Senate and Constitutional Court have repeatedly blocked attempts by elected parliamentarians to amend the constitution. The anti-graft commission now wants to join forces with the Senate to resolve the country’s political impasse. The royalists’ relentless scheme to usurp power by undermining the rule of law now threatens to degenerate into civil war. 

The current crisis in Thailand began last November when royalist conservatives in Bangkok began occupying public squares demanding the ouster of Yingluck’s democratically elected government. More than 25 people have been killed and hundreds injured during street protests. Thailand’s onetime budding electoral democracy is now increasingly besieged. A would-be royalist government might attempt to overrule the dissenting public using a combination of force, fear and coercion. However, as both pro- and anti-government activists gather for yet another showdown, the street protests are likely to proceed beyond its control.

Meanwhile, the court and pro-royalist military continue to provide impunity and shelter to the protesters, who use violence and intimidation, including obstructing an early election in February that would have ended the ongoing tension. In addition, the court has reaffirmed the power of the hand-picked Senate, and expanded its own power even beyond existing constitutional limits.

Jubilant protesters

The royalist conservatives, who are behind the anti-democracy protests, have lost every election since 2000. They are declining in popularity and political legitimacy. However, they continue to dominate the judiciary, the military, the state bureaucracy and universities.

Thailand is at a dangerous crossroads. Buoyed by the prime minister’s ouster, jubilant protesters are demanding all branches of the state apparatus transfer power to them. The People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), which represents the protesters, is now pressing the Senate to replace the caretaker government with an appointed administration.  

The Senate itself is a bastion of the royalist elite. Half of its members are unelected but selected by the judiciary and appointed by the king. They only need a small number of the elected members, the other half, to form a majority. Working closely with the PDRC, the Constitutional Court, the anti-graft commission and the Election Commission, the Senate is attempting to create a power vacuum by sacking the entire caretaker government. To that effect, members of the Senate convened informal consultations in the past few days to end the political crisis. The meeting between appointed senators and their allies was boycotted by most of the elected senators on the grounds that the consultation session was illegal.

A free, fair and democratic election is the only way out of the current turmoil.

The royalists want the Senate to forward its nominee for prime minister to the king for approval. The royalist establishment knows this process is not only undemocratic but also illegal under the constitution they helped create. They face growing public pressure, a pending legal challenge and a petition to the king to reject a Senate nominee for prime minister. But despite its previous roles in blocking elections and constitutional amendments, the Senate remains the only functioning body to carry out this plan. Frustrated by the Senate’s reluctance to select a new prime minister, PDRC leader Suthep Thaugsuban has warned about taking “matters into his own hands.”

Jatuporn Prompan, Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party supporter and leader of the pro-democracy Redshirts movement, has indicated that any attempt to replace the caretaker government without an election would mean the outbreak of civil war. Instead, he urged the caretaker government to call an early election. General elections are scheduled for July, but the PDRC and Election Commission continue to obstruct the process in order to delay the vote. Meanwhile, as tensions between the two sides mount, the situation threatens to spiral out of control. 

The royalists’ reliance on the military or fear of the draconian lese majesty law — which forbids offending the royal family and is punishable with up to 15 years in prison — will likely backfire. In fact, signs of this are already emerging. Resentment with the royalists and the monarchy has evidently increased on social media, and the number of charges under the lese majesty law spiked in the past few years. The royalists hope the appointment of an unelected prime minister by the king would quell possible unrest. But doing so would validate a widespread belief that the palace was in fact behind the ongoing scheme all along. This puts the future of the monarchy in jeopardy. Since the late 1970s, the king’s charisma has been the linchpin of stability in Thailand. But overreach by the royalists has brought the monarchy’s legitimacy into question. Not long ago, it was unimaginable to even ponder the demise of Thailand’s monarchy. If it comes to an end, the royalist conservatives will only have themselves to blame.

A free, fair and democratic election is the only way out of the current turmoil. The royalists’ stubborn insistence on finding a “virtuous” leader — an appointed prime minister whom they approve — will only exacerbate an already acute situation. Their unconstitutional and highly unpopular scheme faces widespread resistance from the Redshirts. For their scheme to succeed, therefore, the royalists will likely purge a large number of the Redshirt leaders, resulting in potential large-scale unrest.

Given Thailand’s limited strategic importance, the international community has largely been tight-lipped so far. But violence and an undemocratic path for the country could have spillover effects in the region The United Nations secretary-general, the U.S. and a few other countries have recently called on all stakeholders to observe a peaceful and democratic transition. The U.N. and other Southeast Asian nations must continue to insist on a return to electoral democracy. 

Thongchai Winichakul is a professor of Southeast Asian history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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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