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Five questions you want answered about Thailand's political tumult


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Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has called elections for early February, but opponents on the streets of Bangkok want to derail the process.

 

Christian Science Monitor
By Simon Montlake December 27, 2013 4:49 PM

Besieged by massive street protests, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra called early elections for February that polls suggest she would easily win. But her decision to seek another mandate has not ended the political unrest in Thailand, a US military ally with the second-largest economy in Southeast Asia.

Protesters have tried to prevent the registration of candidates for the election; two people died and dozens were injured on Dec. 26 in clashes between police and protesters. The country's election commission later called for a delay in holding the poll.

The chief of Thailand’s powerful army, which staged a coup in 2006, has called for calm but as of Dec. 27 had not ruled out a military intervention in the current crisis. The protest movement has vowed to keep up its campaign into the new year.


WHAT WAS THE SPARK FOR THE LATEST PROTESTS AND WHAT DO THE PROTESTERS WANT?

The protests began in November after the ruling party tried to pass an amnesty bill for participants in political violence within the last seven years. The bill would also have exonerated Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled former prime minister and Ms. Yingluck’s elder brother.

Political opponents and some government supporters called the bill a whitewash. Human rights groups argued that politicians and security forces have ducked accountability for past wrongdoing and that an amnesty would undermine the rule of law in Thailand.

The controversy killed the bill: it was rejected by the upper house of parliament. Opponents then seized on the anger to organize protests in Bangkok seeking to topple the government.

Up to 200,000 people joined the demonstrations, which led to occupations of government ministries and other provocative stunts. Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister turned protest leader, called on police and other government workers to disobey orders from Yingluck’s administration.

Mr. Suthep, who himself faces criminal charges over a lethal 2010 crackdown on pro-Thaksin supporters, wants Yingluck to step aside and allow an unelected council to take power and reform Thailand’s electoral system. Suthep claims that Mr. Thaksin, a wealthy businessman, has subverted democracy by using money to buy off voters and steer taxpayer funds into populist schemes.

WHY IS THE SHINAWATRA FAMILY SUCH A LIGHTNING ROD FOR CRITICISM?

Thaksin, a former police colonel, made a fortune in telecommunications in the 1990s. He parlayed his fortune into building a political party that swept the polls in 2001 and became the first prime minister to serve a full parliamentary term in Thailand, where unstable coalitions were the norm.

As Thaksin amassed more influence, old-money families and royalist elites pushed back. His premiership was tainted by several corruption scandals and brutal tactics for drug suppression, but his policies proved popular with many Thais, including in the northeast, where one in three voters live.

Amid protests, the military seized power in 2006 and a constitutional court dissolved Thaksin’s party, but his allies have contested and won all subsequent elections. By contrast, Suthep’s Democrat Party, which has not registered for the upcoming poll, has not won an election since 1992.

In 2011, Yingluck campaigned on a platform that explicitly linked her leadership to her brother’s. Critics say the family has created a corrupt, nepotistic dynasty.   

WHO DO THE PROTESTERS REPRESENT AND TO WHAT EXTENT IS THEIRS A REGIONAL REVOLT?

The protesters are drawn from Bangkok’s middle classes, Democrat Party strongholds in southern Thailand, and elements of the bureaucracy. They represent a minority voice in Thailand that is used to having its way in how the country is run and where the spoils lie.

The protests have not spread outside the capital, unlike in 2010 when pro-Thaksin activists in northeast Thailand stormed town halls and blocked roads. The campaign has no traction in the north and northeast Thailand, underlining the country’s north-south fault line, as well as the urban-rural divide that has long been a factor in electoral politics.

What is the role of Thailand’s constitutional monarchy in the crisis?

King Bhumibol Adulyadej has in the past adjudicated political crises, both directly and using behind-the-scenes influence, but his declining health and disengagement from affairs of state make any repeat intervention highly unlikely.

Protesters have invoked the constitutional monarch’s name and put a royalist spin on their campaign, accusing Thaksin of disloyalty to the throne and to Bhumibol, the world’s longest reigning monarch who took over in 1946. Thaksin has repeatedly denied these claims.

Thailand has strict defamation laws that forbid public criticism of the monarch and his family, but the taboo against such criticism has begun to fade. Some of Thaksin’s allies have republican leanings but Yingluck has made no move to challenge the crown.

IS THE PROTEST MOVEMENT LIKELY TO EFFECT SIGNIFICANT CHANGE IN THAILAND?

The movement’s anti-democratic arguments are unpalatable to a majority of people, so any move to suspend democratic rule could tip Thailand into chaos. Many protesters would welcome a coup that removes Yingluck and drives out her family and allies.

Notwithstanding the ambiguous comment by Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, the military is reluctant to wade into the political conflict.

A more sustained focus on corruption and good governance that goes beyond the fixation on the Shinawatra family may emerge and become a more potent force, but not under the movement’s current leadership.

Simon Montlake is the Deputy International Editor of the Monitor and a former correspondent in Thailand.

 

My own observation: From 2008 to 2011, there was bloodshed and turmoil in Thailand's politic. It stopped Thailand's growth. 2013 going on foward: same thing! This time it's more grave: 37 countries advised their citizens not to visit Thailand. 8% of Thailand's GDP comes from tourist, and another 8% is tourist's related. Most foreign companies hesitates to invest in Thailand, they took a wait and see position; all of thoese things makes the Baht drops in value.....  Thailand may not be the land of smile next year.

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Yingluck's blunder was in November when she tried to force the Amnesty Bill through the Senate, which would have let Thaksin, convicted of graft, to return to Thailand a free man.

 

The first two years of Yingluck's government had been relatively smooth, until her party miscalculated in November and tried to push an amnesty bill through parliament that would have allowed her brother to return home a free man. (source)

 

Thaksin won over the electorate of the North and Northeast through his pro-poor policies.  Meanwhile, during his tenure as Prime Minister, he was a billionare telecommunications tycoon who practiced the unscrupulous use of his political authority for personal gain.  

 

Around 2003 or 2004, Thaksin's government had Thai airways commission a study to see the statistics of where the tourists were visiting.  This was a supposed to be a government report with the findings released to the public.  Thaksin got the report first, used it to place his businesses where the tourism traffic was, and then released it to the public.  This is just one of many examples of such graft.

 

I emphasize with the Democrats in this situation because regardless of the voting population, this is cause to remove Yingluck and Thaksin regime from power and reform the country before moving forward with the next democratic election.  It's unfortunate that there's so much violence and that this isn't being handled more peacefully.  It'll be interesting to see if there's another Coupe d'etat.

 

What's interesting here, and what I find unique to other slowly developing nations, is the Phue Thai Party, while having the the majority of the electorate behind them, the rural North and Northeast poor, the major management centers and governmental parliamentary agencies are within the Bangkok Metropolitan area, and that where the educated and elite Democrats are.  Yingluck's blunder was in November when she tried to force the Amnesty Bill through the Senate, which would have let Thaksin, convicted of graft, to return to Thailand a free man.

 

It's clear that Phue Thai (the red party) is going to win, but I from what I'm reading, the purpose of the People's Reform Party is intended to be temporary, with intent to clean house based on Thaksin's influence from Dubai and Yinglick's failed attempt to push through the Amnesty bill on her brother's behalf (a.k.a. to remove the "Thaksin regime"), and return to democratic elections with a clean untainted slate.

 

Yes, as the OP states, this isn't good for business, investments, and tourism in the near term, but the Democratic Party is thinking longer term and is pressing forward on reform as a top priority.

 

It will be interesting to see if military leaders decide to intervene in the near future.

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