Thaksin Shinawatra just can’t be kept down. The Thai military, the minority Democrat Party, and monarchists clad in yellow and other colors all cannot stand the former prime minister. They have jointly kept him at bay after a military coup deposed him in September 2006. But it hasn’t worked. And now his fate has broader implications for Thailand’s democracy than first meet the eye.
Thaksin’s opponents convicted him on a corruption charge, which he denies; seized $1.4 billion of his assets; dissolved his political parties; banned his politicians from running in elections; and repressed his red-shirt supporters. And yet the party he effectively controls, Pheu Thai, resoundingly triumphed in the election last July.
Since then Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s younger sister, has governed. Under her premiership, an uneasy truce has taken hold, but crucial steps are needed before Thailand can arrive at a genuine reconciliation among competing political factions and the military after years of protracted tumult.
Under the current unspoken truce terms, the Yingluck government has gone out of its way not to challenge the army’s high command and to ensure the monarchy remains sacrosanct in Thailand’s hierarchical society. Challenges against the monarchy must be put down through draconian lese-majeste laws. In return, she gets to rule without the crippling street protests by colorful royalists as happened in the recent past and Thaksin has to remain in exile.
This deal is now broadening. Yingluck has proved to be a bridge-builder. As Thailand’s first female prime minister, her even-handed temperament and disarming charm have endeared her to establishment figures and defused tensions between them and her brother.
Thanks to her ability to read and cater to the public mood, Yingluck increasingly has become a force to be reckoned with, leaving potential opponents little choice but to go along. By accepting Yingluck, establishment figures, particularly Privy Council President Gen. Prem Tinsulanond and Army Commander in Chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, have tacitly conceded their inability to put Thaksin away for good.
Yet Thaksin himself may still complicate Thai politics for some time to come. He is already mobilising supporters for a possible return home. Over the traditional Thai New Year celebrations in mid-April, he was in Laos and Cambodia, mobbed by tens of thousands of his red-shirt supporters who crossed over from Thailand. It demonstrated his sticky appeal and the resilience of his populist platform that catered to the rural poor and urban downtrodden.
It might appear as though his opponents have resigned themselves to his homecoming. As Thaksin angles for a return, members of the establishment have sent conciliatory signals. Gen. Prem warmly received Yingluck at his residence late last month. And she was recently awarded one of the highest royal decorations.
But for the Democrat Party, genuine reconciliation would be tantamount to an indefinite period in opposition. Absent any clear policy ideas of their own, the Democrats know they’d have to wage elections on personality – a battle that is simply unwinnable against the charismatic Thaksin. Or they’d have to rely on another judicial dissolution of Thaksin’s party, plus the army’s help to take power, as was the case in December 2008 – an option that would be as destabilising now as it was back then.
And among the rank-and-file, yellow-shirted partisans fear that Thaksin would bring revenge and retribution to those who have opposed him in the past, and a return to his allegedly corrupt ways. Ironically, some of Thaksin’s red-shirt supporters are wary of his return for the opposite reason – fear that a conciliatory deal to end his exile would preclude justice for their comrades who were killed by the military in red-shirt protests two years ago.
While a deal among key Thai elites seems in the offing, the color-coded masses from yellows, reds and other stripes will not stand down easily. These powerful and organic social movements may be beyond deactivation and dismantlement. Thaksin would betray the red shirts if he makes a deal at their expense. Establishment figures would risk the future of the monarchy if they openly succumb to the forces of electoral democracy.
Ultimately, that last point is the key factor – and the underlying problem confronting Thailand as Thaksin plans his return. An open and constructive environment is required to broach and discuss issues such as Thaksin’s fate. That environment isn’t possible so long as the political system operates in constant fear that establishment intervention will short-circuit democratic politics.
Yet right now, strict lese-majeste laws deter the debates Thailand needs to undertake reforms and undergo an inevitable transformation in the twilight of a 65-year reign and thereafter. In recent years, the number of lese-majeste cases has risen dramatically from single digits to several hundred. Such cases have become a weapon against political opponents rather than a way to defend the monarchy’s prestige.
Thailand needs to bring its monarchy squarely within its constitutional confines, pre-empting future coups and extraconstitutional and extraparliamentary power plays. The best window to recalibrate the institution of the monarchy and its attendant privileges and perquisites is during the current reign when King Bhumibol Adulyadej remains popular.
They danger is that these reforms will be delayed too long – past that window when King Bhumibol himself can preside over the process. It is clear now that the royalist establishment has lost the battle. Thailand’s challenge is to ensure that the winner is not Thaksin but the strengthening of democratic institutions and the obsolescence of military coups and extra-constitutional manipulation.