Report 192 / Asia 3 minutes

Bridging Thailand’s Deep Divide

The Thai government should immediately lift the state of emergency to create conditions for national reconciliation that would allow the building of a new political consensus and the holding of peaceful elections if the country is to return to stability.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

Executive Summary

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.

Bangkok/Brussels, 5 July 2010

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.