Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser

Article

Thailand - A Fragile Democracy
Corriere della Sera - April 14th 2009

To a visitor, Thailand can seem such a peaceful place, where Thais greet you by putting their hands together as if in prayer. Admittedly, most tourists see the less graceful aspects of the country, with its bars, sex clubs and massage parlours, but two things still stand out above that sleaze: Buddhism and a deep reverence for the Thai monarchy. When I was there a month ago, the peace, the Buddhism and the reverence were plain to see. Nowadays, however, something else also stands out: political conflict.

This past weekend riots in the resort town of Pattaya forced the abandonment of two major regional summit meetings, which were due to be attended by leaders of all the big powers of Asia, and then the capital Bangkok was paralysed by protests that descended into violence, as Thai soldiers opened fire on the crowds.

            It is not the first time that the apparent peacefulness of Thailand has turned nasty. Last November, protesters occupied Bangkok’s international airport and brought tourism to a halt. In 2006 a military coup forced the country’s popular prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, into exile, accusing him of corruption and of abusing his power by ordering extra-judicial executions during a campaign against drug-dealers. That was the 15th military coup in Thailand since 1945. Yet when democracy was restored through elections in December 2007, a party supporting Mr Thaksin won overwhelmingly and so governed the country until the Bangkok airport protests. Then the Thai courts suddenly decided the ruling party was illegal, dissolved the party and forced a change of government.

            Such chaos would be farcical if were not so tragic. Thailand’s problem has an immediate explanation but also a deeper, more long-term cause. The immediate explanation is that the country is polarised between supporters of Mr Thaksin and his opponents, and that neither side is willing to respect the legitimacy of any of Thailand’s political institutions if they rule against it.

A good analogy would be the famous electoral stalemate in the United States after the 2000 presidential election contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Finally, when the Supreme Court ruled in Mr Bush’s favour, Mr Gore and his Democratic Party accepted the verdict, because in America respect for the constitution comes above all other political considerations. Not in Thailand. The protests last November by anti-Thaksin “yellow shirts”, and this past weekend by pro-Thaksin “red shirts” are rather as if Mr Gore had decided to continue his battle with street protests in Washington, and then as if once he had taken over as president Mr Bush’s supporters had occupied the streets in his place.

This lack of respect for Thai political institutions, be they parliament, elections or the law courts, arises in part from the fragile history of Thai democracy. With a military coup on average once every four years, and constitutions being regularly rewritten, it is not surprising that Thai institutions are not respected. But this is where the deeper, long-term cause must be brought in to the analysis. It arises from the role of the seemingly revered monarch, the 81-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has been on the throne for more than 62 years.

The anti-Thaksin “yellow shirts” claim to be royalists. They even claim to be supported by members of the royal family. They accuse Thaksin Shinawatra of trying to build up his personal power while he was prime minister, at the expense of the monarchy. When Mr Thaksin, one of the country’s richest businessman, was elected in 2001 his party won an absolute parliamentary majority and he became the first Thai prime minister to serve a full term in office.

The king himself, however, remains silent, supposedly above politics. Yet that silence is itself tremendously noisy. For by failing to condemn the “yellow shirts” who brought down the elected government last year, the king has thereby undermined Thailand’s democracy and allowed extra-parliamentary tactics to succeed. It is no wonder that the pro-Thaksin “red shirts” have now used exactly the same tactics.

There is only one person who can solve this situation, and that is the king. He has to speak out, but must also find a way to reach a compromise with Thaksin Shinawatra, perhaps even bringing him back to the prime ministership under new and agreed constitutional restraints. Opinion polls suggest that if new elections were held today, Mr Thaksin would win them again. The king must not ignore that political reality. The alternative is continued chaos, quite possibly revolution.

           


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