Thailand’s Uncharted Waters

The year that has passed since royalist factions of the armed forces ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra by force September 19, 2006, has been fairly predictable.

After tossing out the government in a bloodless coup on a rainy Tuesday night that brought Thailand’s tradition of military rule back into focus, the junta also voided the constitution and the constitutional court.

With strong public support, especially the middle classes and the rich on Bangkok, the junta installed a government of the elite, drafted a new constitution weakening political parties and appointed a new court that ended up dissolving Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party and banning its leaders from politics for five years. It created an investigative body to comb through allegations of Thaksin's corruption and misdeeds, which ended up freezing most of the $2 billion in proceeds from his family's controversial sale of the giant telecom company Shin Corp to Singapore's Temasek Holdings in January 2006.

The generals finally secured a couple of arrest warrants for Thaksin and will ask Britain to extradite the deposed premier to face trial in Thailand – a request that will most likely be rejected.

The biggest surprises were the government's economic miscues, which left the business community, local and foreign, confused and frustrated. In addition, the strong "no" vote on the constitutional referendum in the depressed northeast of the country seemed also to show that Thaksin retains strong support among the poor.

The army leaders claimed the putsch was necessary because Thaksin had divided the country, compromised independent agencies, insulted the king and committed widespread corruption. A year later, the country is still harshly divided between urban elites and the rural poor, independent agencies are compromised junta allies, lese-majeste charges against Thaksin have been dropped and few smoking guns have been found regarding corruption – meaning that either Thaksin was cleaner than we have been told or just very careful.

Although many Thais are looking forward to a new administration, the prospects of a stable government after elections later this year are dim, largely due to clauses in the new constitution that weaken the power of politicians in favor of unelected judges, bureaucrats and soldiers. Many analysts expect the next government to be short-lived as Thailand returns to the revolving-door “buffet” democracy of the 1990s.

What to expect in Year Two? Here are some of the major question marks.

Can the Democrats win the election scheduled for December 23?

With Thaksin living comfortably in London as the new owner of the Manchester City football club, the Democrats have a chance to return to power after five years in opposition and one year on the sidelines. The country's oldest political party was hammered in 2005, picking up only 96 seats to Thai Rak Thai's 374. The prospect of another defeat prompted the party to boycott the April 2006 election, which led to the protracted political stalemate that opened the door for the military to kick Thaksin out. The risky boycott appeared to pay off, even though the next executive will be weakened considerably.

The election outcome remains far from certain, but the Democrats have positioned themselves as frontrunners. Abhisit Vejjajiva, the party's sophisticated 42-year-old Oxford-educated leader, has promised to undo the military government's capital controls and stifling changes to the Foreign Business Act, making him a favorite in the business community. The party has also touted a "People's Agenda" that contains many of the populist elements that proved so successful for Thaksin, including universal health care and cheap loans. But whether that agenda will allow the Democrats to win in Thaksin’s northeastern base is up in the air. The party has recruited a number of popular ex-senators that will bolster its presence in the poorer region. The Democrats have always been popular among in the south and among educated Bangkok residents.

A Democrat win would surely put the country on a more stable footing. In the aftermath of the coup, party leaders immediately blamed Thaksin for leaving the military no choice but to act, and then told followers to approve the junta's constitution in August. Although the party has traditionally opposed military intervention in politics, certainly it is on much better terms with the men in green than its main rival, the People's Power party (PPP).

What would happen if PPP could form a government?

After a military-installed court dissolved Thai Rak Thai in May, many members joined the People's Power party. The party installed as its leader right-wing firebrand Samak Sundaravej, who has vowed to fight for Thaksin and provide amnesty for ex-TRT politicians banned for five years from politics. Besides supporting Thaksin, Samak has also been a strong critic of Privy Council president Prem Tinsulanond, the former army general and prime minister highly respected in the military and widely accused of orchestrating the coup.

A win for Samak and PPP would be disastrous for the junta. After military leaders spent a year denouncing Thaksin, it would put back in power the people the military kicked out. That would raise the possibility of yet another coup, especially if PPP opens investigations into the junta leaders. Many analysts suspect it won't come to that, however, as the bureaucracy, independent agencies and courts are all working against PPP.

Will the army go back to the barracks?

Coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin must retire as army chief by the end of this month, but so far he has not indicated what his plans will be. Some speculate that he may run for parliament in an effort to become prime minister. Back in 1992, bloody street protests erupted when coup leader Suchinda Kraprayoon became prime minister. Political analysts say it will be easier for Sonthi to take a behind the scenes role, possibly positioning himself as defense minister in the next cabinet. This will ensure he can protect himself and the extra 57 billion baht per year the generals awarded the armed forces after the putsch.

The next army chief has still not been announced but reports say General Anupong Paochinda will likely take over. Anupong, a highly regarded general with plenty of command experience, would be a steady hand with three years to go before mandatory retirement. Unlike others in the military, Anupong has passed up lucrative offers to chair state enterprises, preferring to stick to military duties. While another coup can never be ruled out, analysts say it would be more likely to occur with General Saprang Kalayanamitr at the helm. Saprang, who retires next year, is by the far the most outspoken in his hatred for Thaksin.

No matter which general is chosen, he must protect the army's political interests and make some progress in thwarting the insurgency in the southernmost Malay-Muslim provinces, where more than 2,500 have been killed since January 2004.

Will Thaksin return?

This question dogged the junta immediately after the coup, and they didn't seem to have an answer. Right after the junta's investigative body froze Thaksin's assets, Sonthi said "it may not be safe" for him to return to fight the charges. The government has since reversed course after issuing arrest warrants for Thaksin and his wife, claiming now that they can guarantee his safety. The government will file an extradition request from England, where Thaksin is currently living, but practically nobody thinks Britain will hand him over to the Thais.

The increasingly powerful political role of judges makes a trial risky for Thaksin. Judges have become intertwined in politics ever since King Bhumibol Adulyadej told them in April 2006 to solve the country's problems. Immediately afterward, top judges held an unprecedented extra-constitutional forum, and the courts quickly nullified the April 2006 election. Then in subsequent decisions that ignored most Thai legal norms, the judges tossed the old Election Commission in jail, dissolved Thai Rak Thai and enforced an ex post facto junta order to ban the party's leaders from politics for five years.

The new constitution gives the judges even more power, which is frightening given the judiciary's track record of bowing to the powers that be. Indeed, the judiciary could have prevented this entire mess if they had voted to convict Thaksin in an airtight assets concealment case in 2001, which would have banned the telecommunications tycoon from politics for five years. But the courts sidestepped the rule of law in favor of Thaksin then, just as they have during the past 18 months in favor of his opponents.

Will the palace face new threats?

The junta cited lese-majeste as one of the four top reasons for booting out Thaksin. Prior to the putsch, Thaksin entered a war of words with Prem, the king’s top adviser, even warning at one point that “influential people” close to the monarch were trying to topple him. At the same time, Prem told soldiers to be loyal to the king instead of the government, giving a de facto green light for the coup.

After the coup, the military chose retired General Surayud Chulanont, a member of Bhumibol’s advisory council, as prime minister. But even his royal glow could not shield the interim government from criticism, and by January many were starting to question the administration’s competence. Then the monarchy faced a series of more open attacks, including anti-coup protests in front of Prem’s house and an orchestrated rumor campaign against the royal family.

However, the palace doesn’t want public debate on lese-majeste, particularly the cases against Thaksin. In April, the Bangkok Post reported that the lese-majeste charges were dropped because an aid to the king told Surayud “the king would rather not see this kind of case in court.”

Analysts say the amount of criticism directed at the palace has reached new levels, particularly in web forums. “Now you have the Internet and all kinds of illegal criticism,” said Sulak Sivaraksa, a prominent Buddhist scholar and serial lese-majeste offender. “This has never happened before.”

The police have attempted to fight back, reportedly tossing anti-monarchy bloggers in jail. Meanwhile, royal family attacks have gotten YouTube and other video-sharing sites blocked, but new sites constantly pop up.

Also ahead is the question of who will succeed the king. Thailand scholar Duncan McCargo wrote earlier this year: “The greater calamity of the succession lies ahead… The dhammaraja’s powers are waning; in 2006 the royal whisper proved insufficient, and it took a crude military intervention to remove Thaksin from office.”

Celebrations for the king’s 80th birthday in December should keep the country wearing yellow, symbolic for the day on which the king was born. But more dissent seems almost inevitable in next year.

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