Understanding the Thai Political Crisis

On Monday, September 19, Thailand will commemorate the fifth anniversary of the military coup that ousted the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra. That fateful coup has changed Thailand’s political landscape.

Political developments that took decades to come to fruition elsewhere before they could become visible have been compressed into a brief period of five years in Thailand. The country has seen many tragic incidents and thus fallen deeper into a state of polarization.

Watching many incidents in Thailand in the last five years is like watching a surreal soap opera. The plot is replete with heinous stories. The old elites have gone all out to eliminate their challengers, apparently by unlawful coup. They wanted to get rid of their number-one enemy, Thaksin, and eventually kick him out of the country.

But when Thaksin’s opponents returned to politics in 2008, they upgraded their strategies. This time, they seized the House of Government. They occupied the Suvaranabhumi International Airport, during which good food and good music could be found. They declared war with Cambodia so as to delegitimize the pro-Thaksin regimes. Thai upper class became more royalist that the royals themselves. The military walked into politics and threatened to stage another coup should the Thaksin cronies refuse to step down.

It seemed that they won in the first round, with the formation of the pro-elite regime under Abhisit Vejjajiva. As a posh, Oxford-educated baby-face premier, Abhisit had no time for the underprivileged. What he cared was how to defend the interests and power of the elitist class. When the underprivileged defied his legitimacy, he collaborated with the military and launched a most deadly crackdown against their opponents on the streets. As a result, 91 people were killed, over 2,000 injured.

But the killing of the protesters did not stop the Thaksin faction from coming to power yet again. In many ways, it made them stronger in pushing their agenda to remove the old status quo that only benefitted the elites. On July 3, 2011, Yingluck Shinawatra, youngest sister of Thaksin, arrived in power—a big slap in the face for the establishment.

Throughout the past five years, the political stalemate that has shaken the nation - playing with the Thai people's emotions and deeply polarising our society - has unveiled many dark secrets in politics. For one thing, it has revealed the anxiety on the part of the old establishment about a more open society. This has now clearly emerged as a threat to their power position. From this view, Thaksin is not really a menace to the Thai elite - an open political space is.

Thus, it is crucial to look back over the past five years and examine the changes in politics since the coup of 2006.

Accordingly, a one-day conference entitled "Five Years After the Coup: Thailand's Political Developments Since Thaksin's Downfall" s being held Monday at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. The primary aim of the conference is to discuss the lessons learned (or not learned) from the coup, to explore the role of the key players, and to investigate issues that generated the legitimacy crises in Thailand.

I have brought together leading experts on Thai politics to provide an in-depth examination of Thailand's unending political and social crisis. The first session will deal with the impact of the coup in the political domain. Federico Ferrara, an assistant professor from the City University of Hong Kong, will kick off the conference with his talk on "Unfinished Business: The Contagion of Conflict Over a Century of Thai Political Development." This talk will be followed by one from Pitch Pongsawat from Chualongkorn University entitled, "Four Forms of Democracy in Thailand's Current Democratization."

The second session will focus on the theme, "Defending the Old Political Consensus: The Military and the Monarchy." James Ockeys of Canterbury University will elaborate on the role of the military in the political turmoil. His paper is entitled, "Broken Power: The Thai Military in the Aftermath of the 2006 Coup."

The next two speakers will touch upon a sensitive subject: the monarchy. Thongchai Winichakul of the University of Wisconsin-Madison will present his thought-provoking paper, "The Monarchy and Anti-Monarchy: Two Elephants in the Room." Meanwhile, David Streckfuss, an independent scholar, will deliver his speech on "Freedom and Silencing Under the Neo-Absolutist Monarch Regime in Thailand, 2001-2006."

In the third session, the discussion will concentrate on new political discourses and players. Michael Nelson from Thammasat University will speak on, "Vote No! The PAD's Decline from Powerful Movement to Political Sect?" Nick Nostitz, a journalist who has followed the red-shirt movement closely since its inception, will give a talk entitled, "The Red Shirts: From Anti-Coup Protesters to Social Mass Movement." Andrew Walker of the Australian National University, also a founder of the New Mandala website, will present a discussion entitled "Is Peasant Politics in Thailand Civil?"

For the final session, the attention will move over to the legitimacy crises in the wake of the 2006 coup. Marc Askew from Melbourne University will speak on the crisis in the South, "Shooting Themselves In the Foot: The Army and the South After the Coup." I will close the conference with a talk on the Thai-Cambodian conflict, "From Marketplace Back to Battlefield: Thai-Cambodian Relations in the Age of Militarised Politics."

Details of the event can be found at http://www.iseas.edu.sg.

I recommend that the traditional elite and the military send their representatives to the conference in order to understand that the outside world has changed much and that the idea of a military coup is obsolete.

(Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Follow Pavin at www.facebook.com/pavinchachavalpongpun)