Thailand: New developments, same old problems


Image: Paul_the_Seeker

Less than a year ago, in May 2014, a meeting at The Thai Army Club between the various political factions ended abruptly when army chief General Prayuth Chano-ocha, decided that Thailand could no longer endure further instability, announcing that the country was once again under military rule. The rationale behind this latest coup d’état, Thailand’s 19th in 83 years, was to bring “society to love and be at peace again”. Prayuth broke this solemn vow last Friday when former Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who had enjoyed mass popular appeal, was impeached by the junta-appointed legislature (ironically from a position she no longer held, under a constitution already repealed). Her accompanying five-year ban from frontline politics means she cannot contest the next general election, widely expected in 2016. Ms Yingluck also faces a criminal charge that could result in a jail term of up to ten years. With her supporters furious and rumours rife of deep division within the military, the prospect of calming the troubled waters in Thai politics and society looks more remote than ever.

Whilst current developments centre on Ms Yingluck and her recent administration, it is really her brother who the lit the flames. Thaksin Shinawatra’s populist vision of free market reforms for social mobility and a strong economy posed a distinct threat to the moneyed classes and, while the former PM regularly professed in office his undying love of the monarchy, his charismatic authority was depicted by opponents as having an inherent republican nature, one that threatened the status of the widely revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej as well as the institutions many associate with entrenched privilege in Thai society. While analysts point out that Thaksin had no interest in being a President, in fact he knew it was royalty which held the power, allowing him to pursue his democratic mandates to rule pragmatically over Thailand, in much the way Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew did for decades. By the time of Thaksin’s ousting in 2006 he was already the longest-serving democratically-elected Prime Minister of Thailand; having been elected in 2001 with an outright parliamentary majority, a first in Thai politics, and winning every subsequent election. Ultimately, the 2014 coup took place because Thaksin’s ‘red’ politics, though the man himself this time was exiled in Dubai, were centred on wholesale social and economic reform targeting the poor. The elite had been unable assert their interests through democratic means as the right-wing parliamentary opposition, the Democrat Party, provided no credible alternative, having failed to win a national election in over twenty years. Thaksin’s policies provided the rural poor with a taste of what politics could do for them, while the Democrat Party continues to represent old politics, where a corrupt elite in Bangkok begrudgingly give the masses only the crumbs of economic growth from the capital, nothing more. Barely 10% of government spending went outside Bangkok thirty years ago, by the end of Ms Yingluck’s administration it had more than doubled to around 25%.

Yingluck Shinawatra had won at the polls in 2011 with a landslide victory, having promised to continue Thaksin-like policies – rejuvenating the economy, but in a way that was focused on delivering prosperity for the regions traditionally ignored by development, while also seeking to restore national pride after the 2010 Bangkok massacre. The Bangkok-based royalist and business elite resented the new PM’s policy directives, eventually staging a shutdown of the capital and infiltrating government ministries. A snap election held in January 2014 intended to end tensions resulted in escalating them, seeing Yingluck Shinawatra deposed through judicial means in May, whilst allowing a zombie caretaker government to continue for months; giving the army cover to advantageously impose martial law and force “peace talks” between the sides which then ended in the coup.

Since the coup the position of General Prayuth and the shadowy figures behind him has hardened. The indication is that unlike previous coups this one portends longer and potentially more permanent change to the democratic order in Thailand, with General Prayuth seemingly determined to finish the job he started, aided by martial law, severe restrictions on the press and arguably sufficient competence. After the impeachment verdict on January 23rd, Ms Yingluck was set to hold a press conference but army tanks rolled into the building car park and the military stormed the hotel to prevent her from speaking. Forced to Facebook, she commented that the National Legislative Assembly ruling has death knelled democracy and the rule of law in Thailand. Her pledge “to fight until the end” suggests she won’t be seeking an easy way out in exile. If correct, a public battle between Ms Yingluck and the royalist army looks inevitable, to all extents symbolising the continued division that exists within society. General Prayuth has said “don’t ask me for democracy… I cannot give you that”. Sadly, democracy is the one thing that Thailand needs if it is to find a way out of its troubles.


  1. 28 Jan ’15 at 4:00 pm

    A bit biased?

    Sorry, but depicting the political situation in Thailand as a simple issue of totalitarianism versus democracy is hugely reductive. Firstly, you have suggested Thaksin was a champion of the poor and a beacon of progressive progressive politics , when he was a massively polarizing figure beyond just Bangkok. Thaksin’s war on drugs resulted in around 2500 extra-judicial killings and the Thai Rak Thai government’s treatment of the insurgency in the South was similarly brutal. You could have mentioned the corrupt sale of Shin Corp, or vote buying etc (the list goes on) to give a more balanced picture of the individual.
    As for Yingluck, whom you have similarly portrayed as a popular prime minister deposed for reasons of self interest, she presided over one of the most ineffectual and corrupt governments seen in recent years. The rice subsidy scheme lost the government billions through mismanagement and it is worth noting that around the time of the coup, thousands of rice farmers from the Northeast (the base of most of Pheu Thai’s support) were also protesting in the capital. The criminal charges you allude to are the result of her complicity in the corruption of this policy. You also failed to mention the hugely contentious ‘amnesty bill’, which sparked the protests that eventually unseated the government. Certainly, the junta is odious in a number of ways and there is more to be said about the influence of the royalist elite over politics, but it seems quite certain that Thailand will not be able to reconcile its political differences while any of the Shinawatra family are involved in politics.

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    • 29 Jan ’15 at 7:29 pm

      Somsak Pakdidech

      You are seemly to be a defender of the coup, if not an agent yourself. Aside from the amnesty bill, there were not much any accusation solid enough for the coup, nor to impeach Ms Yingluck for the electoral rights she had already been forcibly taken away. What you have said here are mere propagandist talking points the Thai junta has been trying desperately to fend off international pressures to return Thailand to democracy.

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  2. 28 Jan ’15 at 7:53 pm

    the voice below

    ” The rice subsidy scheme lost the government billions ”

    Sorry but it’s hard to take anyone stating this seriously.

    A subsidy scheme is supposed to cost a govt money. That’s the entire point. If you can find me any subsidy scheme on earth that makes a profit for the govt who hands it out I’ll eat my hat. So this argument is simply tosh.

    “Rice farmers from the Northeast (the base of most of Pheu Thai’s support) were also protesting in the capital”

    Again, complete tosh. Yes some farmers protested but were mostly linked to middlemen businessmen who’d been profiting from exploiting farmers for decades.

    The entire point is that the electorate chose the rice pledging policy and it should’ve been them who decided to ditch it, or not.

    “The criminal charges you allude to are the result of her complicity in the corruption of this policy.”

    Yet more tosh. There’s not one single piece of evidence Yingluck personally colluded with any corruption whatsoever. That’s why you here can’t reference it.

    Of course there have been lots of “claims” and the entire impeachment process was carried out by a junta-appointed assembly, which completely delegitimises it.

    “You also failed to mention the hugely contentious ‘amnesty bill’, which sparked the protests that eventually unseated the government.”

    That’s absolute tosh as well. The PDRC were stuffed full of people vehemently opposed to ANY kind of democracy and were closely linked to the Pitak Siam movement of 2012 which had the same aims and which came to the streets with the avowed aim of overthrowing democracy when the amnesty bill wasn’t even being discussed. PDRC leaders openly and repeatedly made racist, violent and anti-democratic statements. They weren’t calling for greater democracy to deal with Thaksin but far far far less – as they have done since 2006.

    As for the amnesty bill it was pretty quickly dropped at the end of 2013 so why did the fascistic & violent PDRC stay on the street? Because they were backed by real wealth of Bangkok (the Shinawatras are not even in the top ten richest in Thailand), the worst kind of trashy, greedy and vicious billionaires you could imagine.

    The debate around Thailand perpetuated by comments like this which are stuck on the Shinawatras, which detracts from a proper political analysis and offers nothing but excuses for fascism and dictatorship. The cycle of coups, massacres and fascism started whilst Thaksin was still in shortpants – to blame him for 80yrs of political upheaval is not only fallacious it is idiotic as well.

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  3. 29 Jan ’15 at 9:32 am

    The comment below below

    I don’t think anyone is blaming Thaksin for 80 years of political upheaval. It could be reasonably argued that many of these societal fissures have roots in as far back as the Vietnam war. However, the reality is that the elite (which as you say is a group which needs analysing more thoroughly) in Bangkok will not countenance another government seen to be influenced by Thaksin, even if it is democratically elected.
    As for the rice pledging scheme, it was economic lunacy and quite frankly I find it very difficult to take the author of the above comment seriously in light of this. The thai government has been subsidizing rice for years, but the this scheme went way beyond this by removing thai rice from the market in the misguided hope that it would drive global prices up. It was a typical example of Shinawatra populism that did more harm than good.
    For reference:
    I would be interested to see if you have a source on your claim that farmers were protesting mainly about ‘middlemen businessmen’, because everything I have read has suggested that they were pretty upset about simply not being paid what they were owed:
    With regards to Yingluck’s complicity in the corruption of the rice pledging scheme- as chair of the national rice policy committee, how could she not know the reality on the ground?
    The actions and ideology of the PDRC are largely reprehensible, but to replace their hegemony with that of the Shinawatra family would only further entrench the power of another political dynasty, taking the country further away from reconciliation and, more importantly, democracy.
    Finally, of course the Shinawatras are in the top ten richest families in Thailand:

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    • 29 Jan ’15 at 7:44 pm

      Somsak Pakdidech

      On your point before the final, “would only further entrench the power of another political dynasty, taking the country further away from reconciliation and, more importantly, democracy.”

      Seriously, another political dynasty? You meant one is good enough for you?

      And, now isn’t it descending away from reconciliation already? Not even to mention about democracy is being diminished everyday?

      You too seem to dump a lot of references that are not inclusive to your talking points.

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  4. Vietnam war era, really? It was way beyond that! And, WOW for elite Bangkok to decide what goverment Thais should not have. The rice subsidy program was not even halfway through and you can call it a failure! Whose rice that junta is selling to Chinese these days? Removing Thai rice from international market? Only half of rice production entered this program, and willingly. How can you be happy of #1 sellers when you sell good products for cheap price and the farmers didn’t even benefit from their hard works. And who was it again that protested and barred the government from paying the farmers? Oh, yes, elite Bangkok! There was also a handful of farmers protesting the government, same as just a handful of PDRC on the streets of Bangkok (not even 50% of Bangkok dwellers, let alone comparing to the whole Thailand.

    By the way, where is the PDRC now? Why don’t they come out and help rubber farmers, their own people?

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  5. Pardon me for not adding to this debate, but I had no idea that there were so many experts on Thailand’s politics at the University of York!

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