No Exit for Thailand

The protest movement led by Suthep Thaugsuban against the government of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatara was never going to be able to overthrow her in the streets. But now it is becoming clear that the street protest phase of the current turmoil has crested.

There is no endgame in sight, however, nor any chance for rapprochement between the warring factions at a time when Thailand needs to pull its government together to maintain its position as Southeast Asia’s premier investment center.

Protest numbers have been falling steadily since the January 13 call for a total shutdown of the city failed, indeed the largest crowds were seen in November and December. And while protests are likely to continue this week, Suthep’s stated goal of driving the family and political forces of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from office and even out of Thailand has largely failed. If that was going to happen, he would have needed the clear backing of the military.

The appearance of army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-Ocha and other top military leaders at the polling booths on Sunday is regarded as an important sign that the army does not want to take over. That protest activities are being consolidated at Lumpini Park in central Bangkok is an indication of declining numbers.

The fact that there is no conclusion in sight shows the considerable danger the country still faces. Having been rejected by the voters in every poll for the last fifteen or so years, the opposition Democrat Party now hopes to take its case to the courts, which in the past has given the Democrats a long string of favorable rulings.

The most dangerous of these now is an impeachment probe and criminal investigation brought by the Democrats’ leader Abhisit Vejjajiva before the National Anti-Corruption Commission into Yingluck’s alleged dereliction of duty for her involvement in the country’s controversial rice subsidy scheme, which apparently is now broke.

That is a hazardous stratagem that could risk civil war. Having won yet another election, albeit with a far lower vote turnout than the 2011 drubbing that Yingluck’s Pheu Thai handed the Democrats, the rural residents of Thailand’s north and northeast may explode with anger if the courts oust Yingluck.

However, the royalist-oriented families and businesses behind Suthep, according to one longtime westerner living in Thailand, resemble the Romanov Dynasty of Imperial Russia just before the Bolsheviks appeared, or perhaps just after. The ruling classes in Bangkok, whatever they rule today, remain locked into the idea that the country remains a hierarchical society governed by reciprocal obligations in which the pi (older brother) look after the nong (younger brother), and in return the nong respect the pi.

Even as the vote went off reasonably well except for polling stations in five of Bangkok’s districts and numerous provinces in the south, many of those aligned with the Democrats were still saying the pro-government Red Shirts and their allies had no real understanding of democracy and had been gulled into voting for the pro-Thaksin regime.

“The supposition [is] that if Thaksin and his family would just fold up their tents and disappear into the shopping malls of Dubai, then the turmoil would cease  the traditional elites and the southerners could be back in control, and the majority of Thais would only have memories of their former hero,” wrote a Western banker and long-time resident of Thailand.

“That is wishful thinking. Short of assassination, it ain’t likely to happen. This is something the protestors and their leaders refuse to recognize. One can say what one likes about Thaksin, but he is not going away. He must be dealt with through offering a better deal and a more attractive alternative candidate. Each coup, military and judicial, each mass protest organized by the establishment, has ignored this fact, and so has further embittered the majority and induced a reaction, whether in the polls or on the streets. “

There seems little likelihood that the opposition will offer a better deal – and neither will Pheu Thai shed Thaksin. Whether Pheu Thai has won the skirmish, it has little hope of winning the wider war – a unified country. Neither Thaksin and his sister nor the Democrats at this point represent the future. Nor does there appear any chance that a third political force will materialize.

Thaksin, according to people who know him, is willing to unleash the Red Shirts of the northeast from his Dubai base if he appears completely thwarted – with part of his motivation surely being to recover the US$2.2 billion in assets frozen by an anti-graft panel in 2007 as part of a corruption investigation into his holdings.

At the same time, the vested interests in Bangkok, including some of the country’s biggest banks, property companies and commercial interests, appear willing to sacrifice Thailand’s position as the industrial and commercial center of Southeast Asia.

The country is home to the region’s largest number of automotive and electronic assembly plants. They were severely damaged during once-in-a century floods in 2012 but the international interests that built them returned. Now doubts are beginning to spread. On January 10, the Japanese Chamber of Commerce said the country is on the verge of losing credibility in the eyes of foreign investors at a time when other Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia are reaching out. Kyoichi Tanada, president of Toyota Motor Thailand, said on January 20 that the company has yet to firm up its expansion timetable.

The country had also embarked on a hugely ambitious plan to upgrade its infrastructure, spending a projected US$64 billion by 2020 to expand rail and road infrastructure. The idea, called “Future 2020,” is to make Thailand the centerpiece of Southeast Asia and, by way of extension, to drive spending deeper into the countryside. The goal is at least partly to keep workers closer to their home bases and end the decades-old migration that has choked Bangkok with economic refugees from poorer areas.

Thaksin and his planners envisioned that rising commercialization would not only uplift a major segment of the electorate out of poverty but would cement them to Pheu Thai as well.

Future 2020 is designed to create a communications and infrastructure network that would connect the country’s four main regions with Bangkok, but also to China’s Yunnan Province and south to south to Singapore and Indonesia, thus making Thailand the indispensable hub to complement China’s expansion into its new hinterland.

Those hopes appear dashed, at least until the country can regain its equilibrium. While the Thai cabinet and parliament have approved the plan, it will require funding from a wide range of foreign investment banks and other foreign financing institutions. With the government preoccupied with solidifying its position, it has little time to think of governing.

With the country in seemingly unending political turmoil, the chance of obtaining such funding appears slim.