Can Yingluck End Thailand's Chaos?

If the reactions to Sunday’s stunning electoral win by Yingluck Shinawatra in Thailand’s general elections hold, perhaps the nation has finally found a way out of the mess created by the 2006 military coup that ousted her older brother, Thaksin Shinawatra.

All sides, it seems so far, are willing to accept the Puea Thai party’s majority win. “I can assure that the military has no desire to stray out of its assigned roles,” General Prawit Wongsuwan, a former army chief close to the leaders involved in the 2006 coup, told Reuters. “The army accepts the election results.”

This is a very good thing.

Regardless of what one thinks of Thaksin, the one-time populist strongman pulling the Puea Thai strings from his exile perch in Dubai, even the Thai army and the royalist insiders who orchestrated the coup must see the futility of trying to battle the popular tide by now.

A tycoon with a dismal human rights record and little regard for the niceties of independent media, courts or regulatory bodies, Thaksin redrew the map of Thai politics with his direct populist appeal to a rural population that had long been taken for granted by the establishment in Bangkok.

Having learned his craft building a virtual mobile phone monopoly that saw nearly every Thai chipping a few baht a day into his corporate coffers, Thaksin knew something about marketing. With his background as a police officer and a strong regional business family from the northern city of Chiang Mai, he also knew something about raw power, which he wielded with a heavy hand in shooting drug dealers and sending the army into the restive southern Muslim provinces to enforce a get-tough policy that backfired.

However, his strong-arming, coupled with pro-poor policies, was — and is — popular. Just how popular the past five years have shown as the state and the Bangkok royalist elite have failed miserably to put together a government that could win a victory at the polls, instead using the courts and the army to get their way. Now, finally, it appears that everybody has decided to calm down and accept the Thaksin reality after five years of pointless chaos.

If the Thais had simply gazed south at Indonesia, they might have arrived at this conclusion before they sent the tanks into the streets on Sept. 19, 2006.

Indonesia is a country where ethnic, religious and geographic divisions are taken seriously and have frequently threatened to upend the fragile ties that bind the nation together. There were fierce battles to hold the country together after independence in 1949 and the anti-communist bloodletting that followed the failed — and still murky — coup against Sukarno in 1965 proved how hideously wrong things could go when the guns are unleashed.

In the aftermath of the ouster of former dictator Suharto in 1998, the country quickly frayed at the edges. It seemed that whole regions might break away or the army might step in or Islamic terrorism might run out of control.

The Indonesians held it together, though. They quickly instituted broad political reforms, held a series of successful elections that kept the military at bay and gradually became accepted as an island of stability in the region. The country is now the most successful democracy in Southeast Asia while Thailand’s political reputation has plummeted.

By contrast, the Philippines — having had a successful and understandable extra-legal ouster of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 — opted for no particularly good reason other than the anger of the Catholic church and the Makati elites to stage a de facto coup against Joseph Estrada in 2001. An inept, crooked and embarrassing drunk, Estrada was replaced for a decade by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, whose government was accused of much more efficient corruption and massive human rights abuses. By contrast, Estrada would have been gone for good in 2004 had the elites kept their powder dry.

That Thailand’s elites chose to follow the Philippine model and rid themselves of a presumed curse without the benefit of legal procedures sent the country into a tailspin that accomplished nothing.

Now there are reports that the same people who organized the ouster of Thaksin are negotiating a way out of the dilemma and are willing to accept having his baby sister run the country. It seems possible Thaksin will be granted an amnesty from the corruption conviction that forced him to flee the country, and in exchange he and his allies will promise not to go after the Democrat Party and the army over the bloody crackdown on so-called Red Shirt protesters last year.

This is an outcome much to be wished for, despite the bitter irony. The NGOs, liberals and small “d” democrats who supported the overthrow of Thaksin in 2006 have to accept that they cannot simply engineer a democracy that runs in their favor. The shadowy Bangkok royalists who apparently feared that Thaksin’s power could undermine the monarchy have to accept that he — or at least his proxies — will not go away.

If anything, their actions — censorship, coups, crackdowns — have undermined the royal institution more than Thaksin ever did.

One hopes, for Thailand’s sake, that all those who must be terribly humbled by this five-year failed experiment in government by coup and fiat will follow the lead of defeated Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, whose quick concession on Sunday was both classy and calming. On the other side, Yingluck and her big brother would be wise to follow through on promises of national reconciliation and avoid a return to past bad practices. Gloating would be a bad idea.

Perhaps Thailand has finally learned what Indonesia knows only too well — tearing up the rule book is messy and destructive. The country is lucky to have a chance to make things right.

(A. Lin Neumann is a senior adviser to the Jakarta Globe. He is also a co-founder of Asia Sentinel. Reprinted from the Jakarta Globe.)