The Personalization of Thailand's Crisis
Hollywood would love this plot: A populist leader falls from grace, overthrown in a military coup, on the run from Thai law as a fugitive, and now charged for his alleged role as the chief operator of a terrorist network. This is not fiction. It is real life: The life of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
This week, Bangkok residents returned to work and sought to resume their normal lives. While they are trying hard not to look back to last week's horrific events, the buildings gutted by an explosion of violence as the United Front for Democracy Against Leadership -- the Red Shirts – were driven out of town stand as a reminder of the gravity of the political situation.
The government of Abhisit Vejjajiva has quickly revived a reconciliation plan designed to heal the rifts in Thai society. But the plan looks suspicious. There are many questions with no immediate answers. With whom will the government seek to reconcile? The detained Red Shirt leaders? The moderate voices in the UDD? The radical UDD? The Thai poor in the north and northeast regions? Or the terrorists who, as the government has claimed, are still on the loose?
Amid this obscurity emerges a renewed certainty in Thai politics; that is the perception that Thaksin must be held responsible for all the upheaval that has happened to Thailand during the past few months. The Bangkok elites are certain that Thaksin has been behind the so-called terrorist network, which not only aims at destabilizing the political power of the ruling government, but also challenges the much-revered monarchy.
To political analysts, the arrest warrant issued for Thaksin on terrorism charges does not come as a surprise. After all, the government will need to legitimize its crackdowns on the street protests, which resulted in the deaths of more than 80 people on both sides.
This article does not seek to prove or disprove Thaksin's innocence. In fact, it would be almost impossible to find the truth behind his involvement in last week's fatal clashes between the authorities and the rioters. But the government and the Bangkok elites should have known better than to believe that charging Thaksin, just like alienating him in the past, will solve the crisis. Indeed, it could intensify the deep-seated anger among his supporters in the remote provinces.
If the powerful elites on both sides would step back and try to tackle the root causes of the crisis, then Thailand might have a chance of getting out of the political mess. Yet, the chance of getting out of such a mess is elusive because the conflict among opposing factions has become so personal. I call this the personalization of political conflict. The danger lies in the fact that opposing groups have been held back by their personal hatreds and have only attempted to get their revenge. By doing so they ignore the possibility of resolving trouble through the state's mechanisms.
Examples of personal revenge overpowering rational solutions to the Thai crisis are numerous. Sondhi Limthongkul, a media mogul, was once a close ally of Thaksin. After the two men fell out, Sondhi planned to topple Thaksin by calling for mass protests against his government. In the process, he proclaimed himself to be the defender of the Thai monarchy. He led the yellow-shirted People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), using mob politics to delegitimize Thaksin.
The PAD's achievements included the occupation of the Government House throughout 2008 and the seizure of Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang Airports. None of the PAD have been prosecuted.
But the most sensational match is the fall-out between Thaksin and Kasit Piromya, the current Foreign Minister. Like Sondhi, Kasit was a one-time confidante of Thaksin. They met and forged ties while Kasit served as Thai ambassador to Berlin. Thaksin then offered Kasit to become his personal assistant. A few months later, Kasit packed his suitcases and landed in his new job at the Government House. But soon the love between Thaksin and Kasit was lost. Reportedly, he was kicked out of Thaksin's office and had to seek refuge at the Foreign Ministry, assuming an inactive post of Ambassador-at-Large. Kasit was furious.
With the help of colleagues in high places, Kasit was sent to Washington DC where he served as ambassador until he retired. Since his retirement, he has become known as a key anti-Thaksin figure. He has continued to hunt down Thaksin through the making of a series of extradition treaties with countries where Thaksin is said to be residing.
Kasit was willing to jeopardize Thailand's relations with Phnom Penh when he labeled Cambodian premier Hun Sen the "gangster of Southeast Asia." This was simply because the Samak Sunadaravej government, seen as a proxy for Thaksin, supported Cambodia's bid to have the Preah Vihear Temple listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Kasit and the PAD claimed that the Thai support was in exchange for Thaksin's business concessions in Cambodia.
In a recent interview, Kasit branded Thaksin a "terrorist". His Foreign Ministry is now seeking assistance from Interpol to pin Thaksin down and send him home to serve his sentences. Surely, the personal detestation between them plays an important role behind the publicity about Thaksin on the global stage.
Thaksin himself also possesses much anger against certain personalities in the old establishment. His extreme dislike of General Prem Tinsulanonda, the former Prime Minister and now president of the Privy Council, partly sparked the Red Shirts' fury against the Bangkok elites. Thaksin claimed that Prem was behind the coup that ousted him. The UDD members went further by requesting Prem to step down from the Privy Council, just before they stormed into the meeting venue of the ASEAN Summit in Pattaya in April 2009 and closed down the affair.
Thai politics has arrived at a dead end. Personal conflict and the persistent search for ways to retaliate have come to characterize politics during the past three years. Finding the solution to the problems through so-called national reconciliation will fail if key characters do not reconcile with each other first; they must forgive even if they cannot forget.
The fact that they have refused to subdue their personal animosity towards their enemies, but rather allowed these feelings to overrule good judgment, points to the lack of professionalism on the part of those in the government and the lack of maturity on the part of those outside the government.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. This is his personal view. He is the author of "Reinventing Thailand: Thaksin and His Foreign Policy," to be released on June 8.