Thailand: Land of Snarls

The leaders of the 100,000-odd protesters who blocked some of Bangkok’s key intersections Sunday are said by knowledgeable political analysts to be deeply involved in not just a battle for political primacy but for control of the looming succession of the country’s monarchy.

Bhumibol Adulyajej, the 86-year-old king, has been seriously ill for more than two years, spending extended periods in hospital before regaining enough equilibrium to be moved to the summer palace in Hua Hin nearly 200 km south of Bangkok. The forces behind fiery protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban appear to be trying to control the succession. They have repeatedly demanded that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra step aside and allow a council of elders of some kind to run the country for a year or more while vague “reforms” are put in place.

If the king is as frail as he appears, a succession could occur at any time. What the elites and upper classes in Bangkok – and some of the armed forces, reportedly including Anupong Poachinda, the former commander in chief of the Royal Thai Army – do not want is for ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawata or his political apparatus to be in charge of the political process when the king finally dies.

Thaksin, now in self-exile in Dubai after being deposed by a coup in 2006, has long been regarded as a threat to the established royalist elites, largely because he is popular and created a power base not completely beholden to the entrenched establishment. A onetime policeman in the northern city of Chiangmai, he is regarded as a newly-rich upstart, a telecom tycoon whose rise to power in 2001 set in motion a process of trying to stop him that continues to this day.

The enormous wealth in the hands of the monarchy and the cozy imprimatur the king bestows on the system could be upended if Thaksin or his proxies control what will certainly be a wrenching period of mourning once the truly revered Bumbibol passes away. The situation is made more fragile because Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, the presumed successor, has in the past been regarded as close to Thaksin.

It seems virtually certain that the crown prince, assuming he takes the throne, would begin his reign as a weak monarch unable to command the kind of respect that his father earned over decades on the throne.

The current situation has been repeatedly described as a class war pitting relatively poor rural northerners against Bangkok, and there is little doubt that is exactly what it is although the Bangkok elites behind the protests have the help of cannon fodder from the rural peasantry in southern Thailand, a traditional stronghold of the opposition Democratic Party and Suthep’s home region, where he and his family are power brokers and virtual warlords in Surat Thani province.

Should a street showdown occur, which has yet to happen, the southerners would likely be outnumbered by northerners, usually known as red shirts, in league with Thaksin. If the current protests fail and the Thaksin forces remain in power, the impact on Thailand’s monarchy could be enormous, many believe.

After having lost the 2010 general election decisively, the Democrats first reluctantly accepted having to put up with Thaksin’s telegenic younger sister, Yingluck, and the Pheu Thai Party for the foreseeable future. Yingluck turned out to be a surprisingly able leader, cooling off tensions and mollifying both the palace and the military.

It appeared that the Pheu Thai government would easily stay in command until 2015 elections since the main opposition party, the Democrat Party, hasn’t won a majority in more than two decades and has little of the broad appeal outside Bangkok that the Thaksin forces have. Thaksin, however, lost patience and pushed Pheu Thai to vote through a disastrous blanket amnesty bill that allowed the anti-Thaksin coalition to regroup and regain its energy. That led to a crisis that is once again playing itself out in Bangkok’s streets.

The decision on Saturday by Abhisit Vejjajiva, the opposition leader, to boycott the snap election Yingluck has called for February 2 sets up a potentially dangerous confrontation. Army Chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha, in remarks last Saturday, characterized the situation as possibly carrying the seeds of civil war.

Suthep’s People’s Democratic Reform Committee has begun to issue its own “governmental” diktats, including issuing an arrest warrant for Yingluck and seeking to act as an alternative authority, heightening the danger of confrontation.

It appears that any solution is well into the future. The King is too weak to demand a compromise as he has in past confrontations. His traditional December 5 birthday message was almost pitiful and he nearly didn’t finish,

In any case, democracy is now under serious threat. Successive coups have always been marked by a return to democracy, no matter how distorted. The clear aim of the elites, as has been reported widely, is to forestall the near certainty that the Thaksin forces will prevail once again at the ballot box. Thaksin remains a potent force from his exile perch in Dubai, though it appears he badly miscalculated in pushing for the amnesty bill.

Thaksin’s longstanding populist policies like cheap health care, microlending to stimulate economic activity in villages and a wide range of other such measures have left his opponents unable to break his influence despite the Democrat Party’s installation in power by the military after 2008. Abhisit and the Democrats own attempt to replicate such populist programs cut no Ice. Eventually discontent led to the bloody riots of 2010 when the military cracked down on street protesters allied with Thaksin. More than 90 persons were killed and one of the city’s most upscale shopping centers was set ablaze.

The turmoil this time appears to be an ominous sea change from the past decade, especially in view of the King’s obvious infirmity. His feeble birthday speech and the palace’s immediate approval of Yingluck’s snap election plans, have been flatly ignored, as have previous palace pronouncements including one by Prince Vajiralongkorn. Suthep’s forces responded by ratcheting up the rhetoric and demanding Yingluck step down.

The goal of Suthep and whoever is above and behind him, including some powerful local businessmen, is to eradicate all influence by Thaksin, his family and his allies and to drive them from the country, presumably following the former prime minister into exile.. The idea that widespread corruption in politics is Suthep’s prime motivation is difficult to stomach, given that Thai politics for decades has been a banquet for enrichment on the part of politicians – including Suthep, who was once kicked out of his party for steering land meant for redistribution to the poor in his district to wealthy families among his backers.

Yingluck’s December 9 decision to dissolve parliament did not calm the waters. Despite Prayuth’s disavowal of military action, if the situation grows truly chaotic, the pressure will be there to act. There is also the danger of yet another decision by the judiciary against the Thaksin forces, perhaps to void the election. That would leave the vacuum Suthep and his backers presumably are looking for, to run the country through the passing of the king.

The issue is not whether the election will take place, but whether it would resolve the crisis. There appears little chance of that now that the Democrats have pulled out. If it doesn’t take place, the Pheu Thai’s Red Shirts could once again descend on Bangkok looking for revenge. It is hard to see any upside anywhere.