Change Coming in Thai Political Crisis?

After four months of turmoil, Thailand has lapsed into a holding pattern, awaiting the results of a postponed election and an Anti-Corruption Court verdict on whether Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was responsible for misusing an ill-starred rice subsidy scheme to win farmers’ loyalty.

There is plenty of turmoil behind the scenes, however, and indications are growing that a denouement of some sorts might be in the works. Sources who have met privately with Yingluck’s fugitive brother Thaksin, who continues to run the country through surrogates from his exile in Dubai, say he is confident that Pheu Thai will be able to form a new government in the coming weeks, following elections scheduled for this Sunday.

Thaksin has been wrong before, and his geographical isolation from the scene in Bangkok could be hampering his ability to make informed political judgments. But a Thai banker told Asia Sentinel that the prevailing mood in Bangkok is changing, that the months of protest that have roiled the city have led to disillusionment and that the general public has largely had enough. There are still protests, however.

Protests have dwindled to a few hundred people encamped in Lumpini Park in the middle of the city. The stock market has been trending up, by 5.91 percent from the first of the year, which some political observers believe is an indication that the business community knows what is going on politically – and Thailand’s courts are notoriously political – and expects a not guilty verdict from the Anti-Corruption Court.

As another indication that the institutional forces that have opposed Yingluck’s government are backing away from confrontation, the caretaker government reportedly has been allowed to transfer the equivalent of US$620 million to the Bank of Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives to pay off restive farmers who have been threatening to bring down the government from an entirely different side. The money is to be paid to 150,000 to 200,000 farmers who have been demanding payment. A farmers' rally was held on March 21.

The government basically has come to a stop since Yingluck dissolved the parliament in December in the face of huge protests involving tens of thousands of people led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a southern Thailand warlord backed by an amalgam of a majority of the palace of the ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej, retired senior army brass, parts of the serving armed forces, most of the Democrat Party and unknown businessmen and bankers. So far, 22 people have died and 750 have been injured since the violence began last October after the Pheu Thai government botched an amnesty plan that would have allowed Thaksin to come back to Thailand without serving a two-year jail sentence for abuse of office when he was prime minister.

From the start, Suthep and his backers have been counting on the courts to bring down the government, as the courts have done several times since the coup that brought down Thaksin in 2006.

Under the banner of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, Suthep is demanding that democracy be scrapped in favor of a council of elders that would clean up politics and remain as a caretaker until a corruption-free election could be held. A controversial figure himself, Suthep once brought down the Democratic Party over corruption charges he faced. He faces charges of murder for ordering rural protesters cleared out of Bangkok in May of 2010, which led to the deaths of 90 people and injuries to hundreds.

It is unclear to political observers how the forces ostensibly backing Suthep leads interrelate or if anyone has a senior coordinating position among them. There are reports in Bangkok that a significant portion of these forces are now concerned about the damage the months of continuing protest have done to the economy.

“It would seem a reasonable assumption but on the other hand, nothing that is happening here is reasonable,” said a western banker. “One needs to be able to positively identify what these businesses are. The hotels, airlines and anything that has to do with tourism are hurting, plus anyone planning a major investment has held off. But it seems to me that the little guys may be getting hurt more than the big guys.”

If the Anti-Corruption Court verdict goes against the 46-year-old head of the Pheu Thai Party, it is almost certain to bring the northern Red Shirt supporters of the embattled regime to the streets. The military have prepared for that eventuality by installing 176 bunkers manned by soldiers throughout the city in case the Red Shirts come armed for trouble.

Bangkok domestic businesses are believed to have been behind funding the meals, sanitary facilities, tents and entertainment that has kept tens of thousands of people on the streets in an attempt to bring down the democratically elected Pheu Thai Party, the latest and longest-lasting surrogate put in place by remote control by Thaksin from his exile post in Dubai.

The country appears irredeemably split, with Thaksin’s rural supporters aligned against Bangkok and the amalgam that makes up Suthep’s shock forces. A nascent separatist movement has appeared, calling for a reconstitution of the 14th century Lanna kingdom that ruled the North and Northeast for 200 years. But military chief Prayuth Chan-ocha has sternly ruled that out, threatening arrest for anybody who raises the issue.

The country’s tragedy is that only two public figures today can mobilize and motivate the country’s 70 million people and “they are both venal and dangerous for the country,” a source said. Mediation between the two is impossible. “Both men have been offered a chance to achieve greatness, and both of them have screwed it up because of their egos, lust for power and greed.”