Thailand Set to Cool Off

Less than two weeks after it was appointed, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's young government is already being watched closely for signs that the Red Shirt movement that helped bring her to power will become disaffected at being frozen out.

Nonetheless, most of the signs point to a series of compromises that will give Yingluck, her Pheu Thai Party, her brother Thaksin Shinawatra and the country a year or so of breathing room while things cool down from the five years of tumult that began with his 2006 ouster by a military coup.

There have been some ominous – from the Red Shirt point of view – developments that may well signal that a deal has been made with the military. At the head of the list is the appointment of retired Army Gen. Yuttasak Sasiprapa as defense minister. Yuttasak, who served as Thaksin’s defense minister in 2004, has indicated he is not going to sack Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the army commander in chief who led the army onslaught that crushed the Red Shirt rebellion in the middle of Bangkok in May 2010.

The arrest on Aug. 5 of Norwet Yotpiyasatien, a recent graduate from Kasetsart University in Bangkok is another. Norwet was arrested on charges of insulting the monarchy on the same day Yingluck was elected prime minister, merely because he had copied an article to his personal computer from the Internet some weeks before.

The arrest can be considered a clear signal of the military’s determination to continue to assert its power. The Thaksin forces may well be signaling that it can do so. Reportedly a secret meeting took place in Brunei between Pheu Thai representatives and the palace even before the election took place. It is said to have resulted in a deal that the military wouldn’t interfere in politics and Pheu Thai wouldn’t seek revenge against the perpetrators that ousted Thaksin or remove Prayuth from his position.

Despite a long series of democratic constitutions, some reportedly written by the US Central Intelligence Agency, the Thai military has been the real power in Thailand since the 1932 coup that ended the absolute monarchy, delivering up coups d’état when elected governments got too noisy, or too corrupt. That has been the case over the recent period when the Democrats, headed by former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, were in power, and when they allowed the military to purchase a wide panoply of weapons, some of them useless, like a bogus mine detector that clearly didn’t detect mines, and an observation blimp that is easily shot down.

But, as a Thai observer pointed out in a telephone interview with Asia Sentinel, despite the violent confrontations that have taken place over the last two years and have given rise to fears of additional violence after the election, Thailand historically has been a society that deals in compromise. Yingluck and Thaksin – “if he has learned his lesson,” the source said, appear to be actively seeking to move the country back to that philosophy.

Thaksin’s premiership from 2001 to 2006 was marred by a bruising style that earned him criticism on allegations of outright dictatorship, human rights violations, a crackdown on Thailand’s freewheeling press, usurping royal authority and other offenses, not to mention corruption in the sale of his Shin Corp. assets to the Singapore sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings. Nonetheless, he clearly remains very popular in the country, hence the strong majority won by his sister’s Pheu Thai Party in the national elections in July. He has stated publicly in interviews that he recognizes his mistakes.

“The tension is there on (Yingluck) to try to make some compromises, at least in the short term, to allow (Thaksin)to regain his reputation and popularity and for the country to regain stability, power, whatever,” the source said. “It is hard to know if he recognizes that. It’s best that he stay out of the country for awhile. He doesn’t have to come back right away.”

If indeed he has learned his lesson, Thaksin, at least in the short term, will run the country by remote control from outside, with Yingluck at the controls, in a way that the military won’t oppose as long as the military procurement funds continue to flow. Certainly there will be compromise. The military, the source said, is easy as long as the government gives them money.

There may be some concern on the part of the more radical of the Red Shirts, and for good reason. There is no indication yet that the lèse-majesté laws are going to be relaxed soon, or very much, and indeed they may not be. Thailand is a country in transition from an aging king to a less-than-attractive heir. The institutions are said to recognize that there has to be change, but they don’t know how to do it.

One sign was the seizure of Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn’s airplane in Munich, Germany last month in a commercial dispute between the Thai government and a German construction company. The prince’s statement that he would pay the amount in dispute despite the fact that he had no part in the affair – although he was in effect going to use Thai government money to do it -- is said to be a recognition of his own precarious place in the scheme of things.

Another sign was a decision by the Central Tax Court last week that the Revenue Department had no legal basis to collect nearly Bt12 billion in back taxes from Thaksin’s two children on the sale of a Thaksin company, Ample Rich, because they weren’t the owners of the shares – Thaksin was. The decision leaves open the question whether the revenue department will now try to collect the taxes from Thaksin himself.

The betting is that the Red Shirts will remain relatively quiescent despite the fact that an unknown number remain in jail. They can be expected to make demands, and most of them are likely to be met. A demand by the families of each of the 92 protesters killed in riots last May for Bt10 million (US$335,000) in compensation is likely to be met, observers in Bangkok say. In addition, there are eight Red Shirts in the Parliament, providing a voice for their movement. Nonetheless, the lèse-majesté laws remain a sore point. Anudit Nakorntap, the new Information and Communications Technology Minister, has declared that he will continue to follow a tough line.

The Pheu Thai leadership has also shied away from pre-election promises to resolve the long-running and violent confrontation between Muslims and Buddhists in the extreme south of the country, proposing a limited degree of autonomy and self-government. However, it was Thaksin himself whose policies reportedly instigated the violence in the south in the first place. The signs are not good that the party will follow up on its commitment. Prayuth, the army chief, prior to the election said the army doesn’t favor either autonomy or a political solution. Prayuth remains the army chief, although he has expressed a willingness to work with Yingluck’s government.

Finally it is extremely unlikely that the government will bow to a Red Shirt demand that Abhisit and the army command leaders will be put on trial for murder. Abhisit will remain in the parliament, taking up the Democrats’ long-time role as an opposition party once again. They have had plenty of experience at that.