Thailand Three Years Later
Sunday marked the third anniversary of the culmination, with 89 deaths, of what has become known in Bangkok as "savage May." Although an estimated 26,000 people assembled at a rally Sunday in Bangkok to mark the occasion, Thailand has calmed down from its long stint of political turmoil and violence.
"We all have little things that fill the Bangkok Post, but the country is doing very well, the economy is going well, the private sector marches on, the stock market is at an all-time high, most people are doing okay," said a banker in Bangkok. While Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is regarded as running the country on orders from her fugitive brother Taksin from his lair in Dubai, she is given considerable credit for doing a good job of it.
Economically, any investors who might have fled during the years of turmoil that ended with the May 19 shootings -- and few did, since business in Thailand is peculiarly divorced from politics -- have long since felt secure about coming back. The economy, coming off a low base after 2011 floods that drowned a huge swathe of industry, expanded by nearly 19 percent annually in the fourth quarter of 2012. Growth is likely to accelerate further with the government's Bt4 trillion (US$134 billion) transport infrastructure program, to be built over the next seven years. Full year 2013 growth is expected to hit 6.8 percent, with external demand starting to kick in as well.
There is the problem of the 15 million-odd tonnes of rice the government has stockpiled as a result of its mortgage scheme to bribe farmers with a price nearly 40 percent higher than rice of comparable quality from Vietnam and India. It must now unload those stocks at a huge loss in government revenues as global rice prices have fallen sharply. Holding the stocks has cost the country its three-decade position as the world's biggest rice exporter.
But generally the situation is a far cry from May 19, 2010, when tens of thousands of protesters organized by the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, known as the Red Shirts, called for then Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to dissolve parliament and hold immediate elections. When Thai Army chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha brought in troops to shut down the demonstration, at least 80 protesters and nine soldiers had been killed, with more than 2,100 people injured. According to a story in the Bangkok Post, the military crackdown involved 67,000 troops and cost Bt3 billion. More than 117,000 bullets were said fired during the conflict. About 25,000 police officers were also involved in the nine-week operation, at a cost of Bt700 million.
As the protesters fled, a flock of banks and civic buildings including Central World, the country's biggest shopping mall, caught fire -- either torched by the Red Shirts, as the government claimed, or set afire by tear gas grenades fired by the military, as the protesters claimed.
Although Abhisit and his deputy prime minister, Suthep Thaugsuban, face formal charges over ordering the attack, the charges have all the hallmarks of a political decision that can be used later to bargain for the return of Yingluck's fugitive brother, Thaksin. More than 1,850 Red Shirts were rounded up and tried. According to their supporters, the majority were subsequently jailed or falsely accused of various crimes.
While, as the banker says, largely there may be no story now, there appear to be a long list of factors that could start a crisis moving again, and it is taking Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's considerable star power to hold things in check. With the 2011 election that brought the Pheu Thai Party and Yingluck to power, Thailand's sullen peace, in which a sharply divided society appeared almost impossible to put back together, appears to have slowly begun to heal despite Sunday's rally.
That isn't to say the country is back to the Land of Smiles, its traditional tourism title. A new royalist demand for deposing Yingluck's government, called "Thailand Spring" after the Middle East protests that brought down several governments, recently got underway on the Internet. It isn't expected to go very far.
Censorship remains very strict, particulalry of of the Internet, on any material that is deemed by authorities to be critical of the royal family, and authorities stretch the "royal family" to include any number of possible topics, including a film partly funded by the Ministry of Culture's own film promotion campaign, allegedly because it could cause "divisiveness" in Thai society.
It is clear that Pheu Thai and Yingluck have made a deal not to mess with the military, which drove Thaksin from power in 2006 and kicked off the six years of political turmoil, despite a closely-watched speech she made in late April at a conference in Mongolia, in which she appeared to blame the military for deposing her brother. Nonetheless, Thailand's 2011 defense budget leapt by 8.2 percent and through 2013 included a 12 Swedish Gripen fighters, 28 Enstrom 480B helicopters and two MH-60S Seahawks. The army has also been guaranteed digital TV channels for its own use for "internal security".
The prime minister, whom the banker source called "probably the best possible choice for prime minister right now," has made it a point to play as many sides as possible and has made quite a nimble game of it. She has been photographed with Prayuth and with Prem Tinsulanonda, the Privy Councillor who remains the closest link to the royal family.
However, the next flashpoint could come when Pheu Thai moves along efforts to amend the constitution. The parliament has set the stage for three bills to establish a fully elected Senate and make it harder for the courts to disband political parties. But the main question the political rank and file pore over constantly is whether somehow the laws will be changed to bring her brother, Thaksin, back from the exile that began 2008 after he was convicted of conflict of interest and sentenced in absentia to two years in prison. Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung recently announced his own version of an amnesty law which would wipe the slate clean for the generals and politicians and would allow Thaksin to return. However, any mention of Thaksin's return starts the fire horses to snorting.
A flock of Red Shirts remain in prison, including Patthama Munnin, Thirawat Satjasuwan, Sanong Ketsuwan and Somsak Prasansap who were given 34 years in prison for their role in allegedly setting fires in the center of Bangkok. That is not true of the royalist Yellow Shirts, the People's Alliance for Democracy, which kicked off the violence in the first place by occupying the Parliament and three airports, virtually shutting Thailand down in 2009. Those who were charged with terrorism remain free.
One of the biggest questions involves the health of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 87, and his wife, Queen Sirikit, 81, who both are said to be fading inexorably. There seems to be a clear and growing consensus in Thailand that their son, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, 62, is not fit to lead, which would throw the question of the monarchy, Thailand's most revered institution, into question.
Although the government last year established a Bt2 billion compensation fund for the Red Shirt families of those killed or injured in the onslaught by the military, with a similar amount was made available to those jailed, many of the victims say they haven't received any compensation and others say the application procedure is complicated and lengthy.