Thailand: Calming the Political Turmoil
Asia Briefing N°82
22 Sep 2008
Street protests are threatening to bring down the government led by the People Power Party (PPP) just nine months after it won a decisive victory in general elections. Clashes between pro- and anti-government protesters have left one dead and 42 people injured. Mass action is hurting the economy, including the lucrative – and usually sacrosanct – tourism industry. The replacement of Samak Sundaravej with Somchai Wongsawat as prime minister is unlikely to defuse tensions. The immediate need is to restore the rule of law and authority of the government – not because it is perfect, but for the sake of stability and democracy. In the medium and longer term, the priorities must be to resolve political differences through democratic processes and to address the root causes of the current divisiveness, including the gap between the urban rich and the rural poor. Overthrowing the government – by street protesters or a military coup – will do nothing to resolve the political polarisation that is tearing Thailand apart.
The coalition of opposition forces in the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) demanded that Samak, whom it views as a puppet of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, step down. When he refused, the Constitutional Court disqualified him from office on a supposedly unrelated allegation of conflict of interests. However, the confrontation is far from over. The PAD has said that it opposes any leader from the six-party coalition government and is continuing its campaign of mass action, including by illegally occupying Government House. The rivalry reflects a deep polarisation between forces that favour and oppose Thaksin – the former supported by the rural poor in the North and North East, and the latter bringing together the royalist establishment, Bangkok middle classes, the military, intellectuals and some pro-democracy activists.
Whatever the government’s failings, it would be a serious blow to Thai democracy if it were forced out by extra-constitutional action, in clear violation of the wishes of the majority of the electorate, expressed as recently as December 2007. The Bangkok elite may not like the PPP-led government, but the majority have spoken clearly and repeatedly. Their democratic aspirations deserve respect.
Complaints of government incompetence or malpractice can and should be pursued through democratic and constitutional means, including the courts and parliament. But the PAD’s proposals for a “new politics” – essentially a reversion to government by the elite, with only 30 per cent of parliamentarians elected – is profoundly anti-democratic and a recipe for dictatorship. Even the current constitutional settlement – imposed by the military government last year – gives the courts and bureaucracy too much power to thwart and undermine an elected government for relatively minor failings. Samak has already been disqualified from office for an offence which in most countries would be regarded as trivial, and the future of the PPP-led government is under nearly as much threat in the courts as from the streets.
The political crisis raises the spectre of another military coup, which would be the eleventh since 1932 and the second in as many years. But, as in 2006, a coup will solve nothing, and would be a blow to Thailand’s fragile democracy. A return to military or elite rule should worry the international community, especially within the region as Thailand is often a bellwether for the state of democracy there. The current turmoil is undermining its chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
A political and constitutional solution is urgently needed. The cycle of political crises in Bangkok is diverting attention from other key issues including the stumbling economy, the insurgency in the South and Thailand’s relations with its neighbours, particularly Cambodia.
If Thailand is to step back from the brink of further political chaos, several actions are required:
All parties should commit to resolving their differences through peaceful and democratic means.
Senior establishment and army figures should cease sending mixed signals and make clear their support for Thailand’s elected government and the rule of law.
The PAD should respect the rule of law and cease its illegal occupation of Government House, and the nine PAD leaders for whom arrest warrants have been issued should surrender.
Army leaders should negotiate with the PAD to end the occupation and remove the protesters, emphasising that the PAD’s legitimacy is undermined by its failure to respect the rule of law. The negotiations should be backed by graduated steps by the police – short of force – to end the occupation. If those techniques are exhausted but protesters remain and the negotiations stall, the police should make plans to evict them, if they are sure it can be achieved without bloodshed.
A consultative and inclusive process should be instituted to amend the military-imposed constitution with the aim of finding a balance between giving the executive sufficient power to govern and ensuring effective checks and balances.
The international community – including Thailand’s ASEAN partners – should make clear to all parts of the Thai elite that another coup would meet with international condemnation, and that it would not continue to do business as usual with a government which came to power in such circumstances. ASEAN countries should emphasise the discredit which such a development would bring on the association at a time when Thailand holds the ASEAN chair.
Bangkok/Brussels, 22 September 2008