Thailand's Disheartening Aftermath
Three months after the Thai government forcibly ended weeks of violent protest in Bangkok, Thailand has to ask itself a vital question: Have there been any positive developments in the political domain?
It is difficult to project an upbeat outlook, simply because the underlying problems have not yet been seriously tackled.
The situation appears to have had little impact on foreign investor confidence, however. The government has embarked on endless publicity trumpeting the success of its economic policy. According to a recent report, exports, the economy's leading growth driver, climbed to a record US$18 billion in June, helped by the recovering global economy. The International Monetary Fund in July raised its forecast for Thailand's 2010 economic growth to as much as 8 percent because of the economy's robust performance, buttressed by a stimulus package implemented last year by this same government.
From this perspective, what has happened since the end of the riots does not really lessen investors' confidence in Thai economy. But the Thai elite must be aware that, at a deeper level, the conflict is far from over and Thailand has not returned to normal. This precarious condition could shape the views of investors as they plan longer-term investment in the kingdom.
The first problem is with the reconciliation roadmap proposed by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Following the outbreak of violence in May, the Abhisit government initiated what it expected to be a healing process through so-called reconciliation mechanisms. Reconciliation has now become a vocabulary discursively used to legitimize certain policies and behavior of the power holders.
For example, the Thai state emphasized the need to reconcile with Thai Muslims in the deep south. It repeatedly said that the country must reconcile with Cambodia to settle disputes over the Preah Vihear Temple, a border flashpoint that previously had led to confrontations between the two governments. Now, the government believes that reconciliation represents the best remedy to cure the current crisis.
But so far the mechanisms designed to ensure the success of the reconciliation roadmap are functioning under stress. Anti-government movements have accused those in charge of the state-led mechanisms of working at the behest of the traditional elite. For example, the "Independent Truth and Reconciliation Commission" is headed by former Attorney General Kanit na Nakhon. Former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun and social critic Prawes Wasi lead the national reform panels.
Should the current government, also a party in the political conflict, be given the right to set up a reconciliation commission and national reform panels? How can the opposition be sure that the healing process is free from state influence and interference? Moreover, none of these handpicked personalities have ever been elected into office. Anand was an appointed prime minister twice without having to go through the democratic process. Clearly, the discourse of "relying on good people [khon dee] in time of crisis" is still a powerful self-legitimization tool. But the so-called khon dee happen to be on the side of the Thai traditional elite.
Undoubtedly, both the opposition Puea Thai and the red-shirt members have disapproved of the line-up of such personalities. Shouldn't the government appoint someone from the red camp to lead one of the panels? The disapproval has reinforced the impression that the government's attempt to reconcile with its opponents is likely to fail. Some red-shirt members are convinced that the reconciliation roadmap is nothing more than Abhisit's delaying tactic to postpone the push for real political reform or fresh elections.
Second, during the past three months, Bangkok has been rocked by sporadic violent attacks with a series of bomb blasts aimed at creating a climate of insecurity and hence the need to depend on the state's protection. A bomb went off in front of Big C Department Store on Rachaprasong Road on July 25, killing one and injuring more than 10 at the exact location of the red-shirt demonstration and where the brutal May 19 crackdown was launched. Five days later, another bomb exploded near the King Power Duty Free Complex on Soi Rangnam in the Phayathai area, injuring one.
Political violence has continued in the Thai capital, allowing the government to maintain the emergency decree by immediately blaming radical elements within the red camp for inciting violence. In the meantime, the opposition and the red-shirt movement condemned the government for being behind such acts of terrorism in order to justify the existence of the decree. Both sides pointed their fingers at each other—another sign of the failure of the ongoing reconciliation process.
Third, the Abhisit government, during the past three months, has been busy indeed, not so much in making peace with its opponents as entrenching itself in political power through a variety of channels. The ruling Democrat Party managed to win a by-election in July, boasting that it had regained the trust of Thai voters and therefore approval of its policy toward the red-shirts. Yet its candidate, Panich Vikitseth, defeated his Puea Thai rival Korkaew Pikulthong, also a core leader of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), by just 14,000 votes. After all, this was a fight within a Bangkok constituency, the Democrat's stronghold. Only about 50 percent of the voters were enthusiastic enough to turn out.
Prime Minister Abhisit also had his hand firmly on recent reshuffles within the army and the police. He has picked two royalists and pro-government figures, General Prayuth Chan-ocha as a new army chief and Police General Wichean Potephosree as a new police chief. The opposition considered such appointments a part of the establishment's plot to strengthen its power position, especially in a possible post-election period in which those associated with the red shirts might form a new government.
Along the way, the Abhisit regime has solidified its rule in other ways, such as through the curbing of freedom of expression. More anti-government websites are blocked every day. More have been arrested for insulting certain institutions in Thailand. One wonders if the freedom of expression in the era of Democrat government, the so-called defender of democracy, is to a certain extent worse than that during the Thaksin Shinawatra period.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a Fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. The views expressed here are his own.