Martin McCauley writes: Thai politics is like a boxing match. Queensbury rules are ignored and it is a fight to the finish. We have now got to round four. Round one started in February 2001 when Taksin Shinawatra became Prime Minister after winning a general election. One of the reasons why he won was that he presented himself as the champion of the rural poor. This did not go down well with the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a loose grouping of monarchists, middle class businessmen and trade unionists. In 2006 they began street protests to bring down the government.
In September 2006, the military stepped in and removed Taksin from office in a bloodless coup.
Round one was won by the PAD.
In May 2007 Taksin’s party was banned, along with over a hundred party executives. In July 2007 Taksin’s supporters joined the People’s Party of Power (PPP) and it won the general election of December 2007. It formed a six party coalition and Samak Sundaraveij became Prime Minister. He made no secret of the fact that he was a close ally of Taksin.
Taksin returned to Thailand in February 2008 and prepared to re-enter politics. He was then indicted for corruption and fled to Britain. He has remained abroad ever since.
Street protests, organised by the yellow clad supporters of PAD in August 2008, quickly turned violent. The Prime Minister’s official compound was occupied and railways and airports were paralysed. The government declared a state of emergency but the military declined to enforce it. Eventually Prime Minister Samak resigned. He had been paid for a TV cookery programme and the courts ruled that this was a conflict of interest. He stepped down in September 2008.
Round two was awarded to the PAD.
The new Prime Minister was Somchai Wongsawat, who just happened to be Taksin’s brother- in-law. This was like a red rag to a bull, and PAD stepped up its protests. The streets became battle grounds. Savarnabhumi international airport was closed down by protesters. Thousands of foreign tourists found that their vacations were ‘extended‘ by goodness knows how many days.
On December 1 the Constitutional Court ruled that Prime Minister Somchai had to step down. His People’s Power Party and two other coalition parties were to be disbanded. They were accused and found guilty of vote buying and electoral fraud. Somchai was excluded from participating in national politics.
Round three was again won by the PAD.
The yellow clad PAD supporters are now confronted on the streets by the red clad pro-government supporters. It is getting ugly.
So we are now in round four of the struggle to the death between the democratically elected government and the PAD. The latter are wary of another general election. The banned People’s Power Party would simply reconstitute itself under a different name. If the election were fair it would almost certainly win because the have-nots will vote for it. And there are plenty of them in Thailand.
The PAD is neither popular nor democratic. It objects strongly to the redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor. It thinks that the peasants have been bamboozled by false promises. In other words, it does not think dozy peasants should decide who rules Thailand.
In order to ensure that the rich hang on to power, the PAD suggests that the constitution be amended. Only 30 per cent of MPs should be directly elected. The other 70 per cent will be nominated by employers’ associations, trade unions and so on.
Pro-government supporters will fight to prevent this happening. Be prepared for much more violence. If you are thinking of spending your holidays or doing business in Thailand in the near future, forget it. Thailand will descend further into chaos.
So what is the solution? They are two key institutions: the monarchy and the military. The King is a revered figure but all he can do is to appeal for calm. He may do so if things get much worse.
The military do not want to become embroiled in the present struggle. They do not want to rule a fractured, discontented Thailand. The PAD is trying to win over the military because that would give them victory. Democracy would then take a backseat.
Meanwhile the country is collapsing economically. All the gains of the last decade are being frittered away.
The King might ask the military to take control until a civil government can be formed. If it is formed by the present government’s supporters or by the PAD this will lead to a renewal of class war in Thailand.
If no civil government is capable of ruling, the military will have to remain in power. That is not a promising prospect. Just look at what has happened in neighbouring Myanmar (Burma).
A weak Thailand enhances the influence of China in South East Asia. Beijing does not favour a democratic model but one in which political power is concentrated in the hands of one party.
Democrats everywhere will hope that Bangkok can resolve the present crisis because the only alternative is dictatorship.