Thailand: Caught out

Thais of all political creeds -- or none -- must be looking towards the next few months with mounting concern. Recent events have even further undermined key institutions in a political estate already lacking many of the buttresses and channels that define civil society and good governance.

In particular many Thais believe that the country’s legal and constitutional safeguards have demonstrably become a tool to preserve the interests of a self-perpetuating elite and a weapon to be used against those who threaten the status quo.

This perception can only increase the likelihood that the next moves in what appears to be a puzzling cycle of self-destructive acts will only serve to deepen and harden divisions between classes, regions and even races.

Over the past few weeks the country’s judiciary has demonstrated its seeming partiality in politically sensitive cases. The Constitutional Court’s decision to twice rule on the narrowest of technicalities that it was unable to judge whether the Democrat Party had contravened electoral funding regulations has damaged its own credibility.

The court’s willingness to swiftly dismiss cases against the unelected ruling party after effectively removing three of its predecessors on often highly contentious grounds is set to strengthen the opposition. Further, the Constitutional Court and by extension the wider judiciary has to many Thais sacrificed its role as neutral adjudicator without protecting anything other than the immediate interests of the governing class.

Such decisions have garnered fresh support for the opposition United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) “redshirts.” Under a new leader they have vowed to start a campaign of twice-monthly rallies in Bangkok to press for the release of their detained leadership. This mirrors the regular rallies held by the yellow-shirted People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) when they began their campaign to oust from power allies of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a royalist coup in 2006.

It can be no coincidence that the UDD announced its new strategy only days after the Constitutional Court issued its second dismissal of a case against the Democrats, using the widely perceived legal partiality to widen the redshirts’ anti-government posture beyond its identification as device to serve Thaksin’s interests.

The redshirt position was further strengthened, and that of the inner core of the Thai establishment placed under what may yet become intolerable pressure, a few days later with the release of classified cables between the US Embassy in Bangkok and the State Department in Washington on 15-16 December via the Wikileaks group and Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

As noted by Asia Sentinel (Thailand and the WikiLeaks Cables, 16 December), one cable expounded at length on highly sensitive succession issues that revealed the attitudes of three senior state officials towards the monarchy that would draw – and may yet – accusations of lèse majesté and even treason or sedition by less illustrious citizens.

While the mainstream Thai media, unsurprisingly, creeps around the issues raised by the cables, the details will be disseminated through the Internet, coffee shops, bars and markets and raise expectations over how the government now proceeds.

Few believe that lèse majesté or other serious charges will be levelled at those named in the US cable: head of the Privy Council General Prem Tinsulanonda – quietly described by some as King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s ‘representative on earth’ – and former prime ministers Anand Panyarachun and Siddhi Savetsila. Instead, the likely official response will be to dismiss the views of US Ambassador Eric John, who signed off the cables, as ‘gossip’ or ‘cocktail chatter’ – presumably without going into any detail of what the allegations may be.

However John, unlike many other US ambassadors given prestigious or interesting posts on the basis of their loyalty to or generosity towards their domestic political parties, is a career diplomat who has specialized in East and Southeast Asia. The nature of his questions and record of the answers from prominent Thais indicates US concerns over the country’s future. That concern, in common with many other countries and commercial interests, is now focused primarily on the succession and the extent to which the five-year political crisis either reflects or will determine the outcome.

The humiliation and anger the cables will have generated within the Thai government and key institutions may now also shape their response to this deeply unwelcome exposure of the teeming intrigue barely beneath the surface of a national narrative rooted in regal propriety and unity.

If the recent legal decisions and the bonus of the leaked cables do serve to re-energize and legitimise the opposition, the elite would appear to have two broad options: to move forward using all means at their disposal to deflect, deter or suborn their opponents - or fall back on emphasising unity based on a largely mythic shared past in a bid to regain authority.

The first would require the military to be either unified or sufficiently fragmented that a strong counter-force could not develop to challenge any efforts to impose terms and conditions on a significant percentage of the population. This option may have been compromised by recent significant changes in the command structure of the Thai army.

The emergence of the so-called ‘Eastern Tiger’ faction, closely identified with Queen Sirikit and by extension the presumptive heir Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn to the exclusion of other army classes and cliques has created a degree of resentment and instability in the service that could be amplified by events and even threaten the military’s cohesion.

The second option, corresponding to the king’s long-promoted model that Thailand should follow a Buddhist-inspired but technically ill-defined ‘sufficiency economy,’ may be promoted for the redshirts’ northern rural heartlands. Any effort to promote such a return to what many Thais may view as a neo-feudal relationship without the authority of the present king would be unlikely to succeed and would probably add greater distance between the countryside and the city. That has dangerous political and even ethnic implications. For the embattled establishment the decision may well be that either of these paths represents the necessary price for retaining their privileges and status.

Gavin M. Greenwood is a security consultant.