Bridging Thailand’s Deep Divide
Asia Report Nº192
5 Jul 2010
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS
The protracted struggle between the royalist establishment and those allied with ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has left Thailand deeply polarised. It sparked the most violent political confrontations in recent times, killing people, injuring nearly 2,000 and inflicting deep wounds on the national psyche. The government of Abhisit Vejjajiva’s unilateral offer of a “road map” to national reconciliation will lead nowhere without the participation of its opposition, including his deposed predecessor. A credible investigation of the violence, enduring legal reforms, and properly addressing societal inequities cannot succeed without the Thaksin-aligned Red Shirt movement. This cannot happen if its leaders are detained, marginalised, or on the run. Fresh elections that are peaceful, fair and accepted by all sides will be the first test to see if the country is back on track or has lost its way. Thailand should lift the emergency decree imposed over large swathes of the country or risk further damaging its democracy, hindering much needed reconciliation, and sowing the seeds of future deadly conflict.
Thai politics changed significantly when Thaksin, a former policeman and telecom tycoon, won successive election landslides in 2001 and 2005. His popularity rapidly rose among the poor who benefited from his populist programs, such as low-cost health care. At the same time, his increasingly autocratic and corrupt rule angered the urban middle classes. Conservative elites also feared that his growing popularity would challenge their dominance. These establishment forces revolving around the King’s Privy Council, the military and the judiciary were supported on the streets by “Yellow Shirt” protestors. Together they worked to remove Thaksin from politics and erode his influence. In early 2006, Thaksin’s government was first challenged by mass demonstrations by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and subsequently ousted by a military coup. While in self-imposed exile abroad, his party was disbanded by a court ruling in May 2007. A proxy party took power later that year, only to be also banned by the courts. Under military pressure and without a fresh poll, a new Democrat Party coalition led by Prime Minister Abhisit took office.
Despite losing power in such an unconstitutional manner, Thaksin was never a spent force. His supporters rallied around the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) that soon became a movement larger than any one person. Led by a divided leadership of members of parliament, banned politicians and even popular radio hosts, the “Red Shirts” drew support from the urban and rural poor. They formed a pivotal force that rallied against the military-installed government and the establishment-backed Abhisit administration. After a court ordered the seizure of Thaksin’s assets in late February, the UDD again took to the streets demanding an election. Their occupation of Rachaprasong intersection in Bangkok’s business heart and storming of the parliament ultimately saw a state of emergency declared in the capital and its vicinities on 7 April, allowing authorities to ban demonstrations, shut down media, and detain suspects without charge. The draconian law, which grants officials immunity from prosecution, was later extended to cover 24 provinces by 19 May – one third of the country. Two major clashes in April and May and a few other violent incidents killed 90 before the streets were cleared in a hail of military gunfire.
In the wake of the crackdown, a triumphant government sees that it has restored order to the streets, but it under-estimates the deeper divisions this response has created. More than a “road map” to national reconciliation is needed; a new political consensus should be built with the equal involvement of all sides. Heated rhetoric needs to be toned down, including abandoning the use of the term “terrorist” to brand Thaksin and Red Shirt leaders. For their part, opposition figures should publicly renounce violence, reject armed elements, and urge their supporters to follow this lead. Those committed to peaceful protest should be given their rights back so they can again become politically active. Past and future criminal behaviour should be prosecuted in an even-handed manner.
In the long run, Thailand needs to think deeply about much broader political reforms of its system of government, including the role of the monarch and military. Wealth needs to be shared, justice delivered equitably, and power decentralised. The recent violence needs to be investigated fully as part of a reconciliation process that will allow new elections as soon as possible, with the polls being the beginning and not the end of the process. This new government, with the legitimacy of a fresh mandate and if accepted by all sides, would be the one to move forward with any agreed reform agenda. To get there, the current administration needs to turn away from authoritarianism and choose open, inclusive and democratic means to solve the nation’s problems.
To the Government of Thailand:
1. Immediately lift the emergency decree imposed in Bangkok and the other 23 provinces.
2. Conduct a thorough, transparent and independent inquiry into the violence of April-May 2010. If the inquiry continues to lack credibility, consider enlisting international assistance to boost confidence in the process.
3. Abandon the use of terrorism provisions against Red Shirt leaders accused of offences as part of the protests, including former Prime Minister Thaksin; instead use other sections of the Criminal Procedures Code covering offences such as assault, arson, or illegal possession of weapons.
4. Apply the law without bias so that criminal charges against disorderly, disruptive, or violent political demonstrations in recent years are pursued with equal vigour, whatever their political affiliation.
5. End sweeping bans on Red Shirt media outlets, community radio stations and websites and expedite the enactment of a law to establish an independent commission to regulate broadcast media so as to prevent the use of media for incitement to violence or hate speech.
6. Recognise that Thailand’s long-term political stability requires talking with Thaksin rather than continuing to demonise him.
7. Introduce amnesties to allow 220 banned politicians to run in elections and reinforce the role of parliament in settling political disputes.
8. Allow international monitoring of the next elections to enhance the credibility of the polls.
9. Conduct fundamental security sector reform with an emphasis on providing necessary training and adequate remuneration so that the police can be made responsible for internal security, including riot control and overseeing demonstrations, with the army’s role restricted to external defence.
10. Improve social services and economic support in a way that empowers and meets the needs of the poor and improves livelihoods so as to lessen socio-economic disparities.
To the Red Shirt leaders:
11. Ensure your followers strictly adhere to non-violent principles in all their future activities.
12. Reject the presence of armed elements in your ranks and condemn any violent acts, even if they are claimed to be for the purpose of protecting supporters.
13. Participate in good faith in the investigation into the violence, national reconciliation efforts, law reform efforts and planning for future elections.
To Thaksin Shinawatra:
14. Encourage your supporters to work towards a peaceful election and explore an acceptable formula for your return to Thailand as part of national reconciliation efforts.
To all political parties, the UDD and the PAD:
15. Sign a pact to keep election campaigns peaceful, restrain supporters and ensure the outcome is respected.
16. Work towards a peaceful national election by toning down confrontational rhetoric, agreeing to acceptable behaviour for campaigning and pledging not to obstruct campaigning.
Bangkok/Brussels, 5 July 2010