Bangkok Elites Win Government Dissolution

The Yingluck Shinawatra government this morning called for dissolution of parliament, paving the way for a fresh election to be held within 45 days, ostensibly to seek a way to stop the continuing political violence that has shaken Bangkok for the past month.

After weeks of relentless protests organized by the former lawmaker Suthep Thaugsuban, the prime minister has waved a white flag, claiming the need to prevent Thailand from slipping into another bloody confrontation as the demonstrators announced a “final crusade” should the government resist their demands.

The opposition from the Democrat Party had culminated in a series of seizures of state offices and continuing rallies. So far, at least five people have been killed and at least 289 injured. But their demands remain absurd, and indeed essentially undemocratic.

The anti-government forces have wanted the Shinawatra family to leave Thailand for good. They have also wanted a so-called “People’s Council” be set up to replace the current parliamentary system. Members of the People’s Council would be appointed, supposedly from all walks of life. Yet, the initial suggested members reveal several, if not all, anti-Thaksin personalities. Ironically, Thailand might be the only place on earth where demonstrators have striven to establish a non-democratic regime.

The latest dissolution of parliament is eerily reminiscent of what happened in early 2006 when Prime Minister Thaksin, Yingluck’s brother, sought a way out of a similar political deadlock by calling for a snap election. What followed unveiled another kind of deadlock when the Democrat Party refused to participate. This successfully created a situation of ungovernability which eventually allowed the military to intervene in the form of a coup in September of that year.

How has Thailand arrived at this point yet again? The dissolution of parliament must serve as a valuable lesson for the ruling Pheu Thai Party as it has continued to engage in a tussle with its opponents in the traditional elite camp.

First, the proposal of the controversial amnesty bill seriously lacked legitimacy from the beginning and at the same time offered a justification for rejection on the part of the Democrat Party. It afforded the opportunity to Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the Democrat Party and former prime minister, and also to Suthep, to point to the self-centrist characteristics of Thaksin, a billionaire tycoon who would exploit the blanket amnesty bill to pardon himself without concern for the consequences.

It is ironic because had the bill been approved and enacted, both Abhisit and Suthep would be acquitted from their responsibility behind the killing of as many as 90 of the Red Shirt opponents of their unelected government at Rachaprasong in May 2010.

In other words, the amnesty bill provided a platform for Abhisit and Suthep to declare their moral authority, obscuring their own wrongdoings in the name of a witch hunt against Thaksin. But the amnesty bill caused more damage than Pheu Thai ever thought about. It helped to prolong the protest despite the fact that Yingluck shelved the controversial bill when she began to realize its potential for damage.

Subsequently, the anti-government forces rode on a new theme, even when it is inherently old; that is, the evil of the “Thaksin regime”.

Working to eliminate the regime, which is supposedly corrupt, Suthep mobilized like-minded Bangkok middle and upper classes to come out to demonstrate against the Thaksin-backed government his sister led. The call was met with favorable responses from a well-to-do segment of Bangkok because of their interests involved in the crisis. Thaksin has always been a threat to the powerful in Bangkok.

But a sense of resentment has even gone deeper due to the fact that these rich and powerful have always failed to compete with Thaksin over the ballot box. Mobs in the streets, together with other tools like the military and judicial coups, are therefore their preferred medium.

The dissolution of parliament may also help Suthep walk free from the treason charges. In his mind, he is a winner. Surely Suthep and his supporters would not perceive the parliamentary dissolution as a personal effort of Yingluck to avoid further violent confrontations. But it will be interpreted as the moral forces defeating the evil regime of Thaksin.

In addition, the fact that Yingluck opted for house dissolution could signal that she has succumbed to pressure from her opponents using extra-parliamentary tactics, thus boosting confidence among them in further challenging the Pheu Thai in the future. It is a pity that, as a group of leading academics in Thailand earlier recommended, in the wake of the parliament dissolution, the government should have organized simultaneously a referendum on charter amendment in order to gain a new legitimacy should the Pheu Thai return to power in the going-ahead with a serious amendment of the troubled constitution. But Yingluck has failed to do so.

At the end, nothing will guarantee that the opposition will come back and abide by the democratic game. Already, Suthep said that he wanted more—not just parliament dissolution, not just election, but the elimination of Thaksin’s political legacy, once and for all. Therefore, it is likely that the Democrat Party will boycott the polls once again.

Throughout this crisis, the Pheu Thai has been regarded as fighting for its life alone. Institutions like the monarchy and the army, while paying lip service of their fondness for democracy, have either stayed away from the protests or engaged in rhetoric about the need to maintain unity in society. In time of crisis, an elected government was left dealing with its enemies alone. This well sums up the political situation in Thailand.

In the meantime, Pheu Thai’s agenda has been too personalized—all depend on the well-being of Thaksin. This is something that his supporters must live with. The party has underestimated the power of the traditional elite in Bangkok, naively believing that 15 million votes from its supporters in the north and northeast regions would automatically strengthen its political position. Thaksin is wrong.

On the part of pro-democracy Thais, they have long lived under a kind of politics which has never benefited them economically and politically. The Thaksin regime, deemed promising at the beginning, has ended up being another self-serving regime caring mainly the interests of the Pheu Thai leaders.

There is a famous Thai political proverb: rural residents choose their government only to be overthrown by Bangkokians. Perhaps, it might be time for the rural residents to increase the scale of their political visibility, in a bottom-up manner, to defend the legitimacy of electoral politics. Do we hear a mass revolution?

(Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.)