Yingluck’s Out. Now What, Thailand?

The court-ordered ouster of Thailand’s caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on Wednesday opens a new and dangerous chapter in the implacable eight-year struggle between an amalgam of royalists, businessmen and the Bangkok elite on one side, and the political empire headed by Yingluck’s brother, fugitive tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, on the other.

The removal of the 46-year-old Yingluck, arguably the most popular politician in the country, raises a bigger, and in many ways more disturbing question. She also faces corruption charges in the country's Anti-Corruption Court over her stewardship of the country's ill-starred rice subsidy program. If she is convicted, she could face being either imprisoned or forced to flee the country as her brother did, an eventuality the anti-Thaksin forces would like to bring about. It would also enrage the millions of northern and northeastern Thais who are her followers.

As had long been expected, the Constitutional Court ordered the embattled premier to step down along with several cabinet ministers on charges she had acted illegally by transferring Thawil Pliensri, the national security chief, who was appointed by the opposition Democrats during the party’s brief turn in power in 2011. Yingluck rejected the court’s contention that the Pheu Thai Party, which she heads, had unfairly benefited Thawil’s removal. The court, however, said a relative had been a beneficiary.

"Yingluck can no longer stay in her position acting as caretaker prime minister," the court said in a statement issued after the decision. The finding was widely expected with political analysts expect the pro-royalist court to use any pretext to end Yingluck’s political career.

The decision was telegraphed on Tuesday when the anti-corruption tribunal ruled that Yingluck would not be allowed to bring seven witnesses to testify on her behalf on charges she had mismanaged the rice subsidy program. Sources have said both Thaksin and the Pheu Thai Party have long expected Yingluck to get the judicial boot. The party announced it would appoint Commerce Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan to act as caretaker prime minister.


To elect or not to elect

The Election Commission has set July 20 as the date for new national elections but there is no indication whether the Democrats, who have been buried repeatedly by voters siding with Thaksin and his proxies, will participate. They boycotted snap polls held in February, helping to throw the process into chaos and stalemate.

Once seen as in the vanguard of democratic governance in Southeast Asia, Thailand now seems to be run by mobs in the street backed on the royalist side by biased courts, businessmen and bureaucrats and on the Thaksin side by his money and the bombast of his own mobs.

Neither side is very wholesome. Thaksin is popular because of his rural uplift programs but his own rule was marked by charges of corruption and human rights abuses. The royalists and their allies are staid, conservative and used to having the country to themselves. The marathon battle has begun to cost the economy, with gross domestic product now expected to significantly lag the region it once led. Thailand is the industrial center of Southeast Asia, with huge plants producing cars and electronic gear.

The biggest question is whether the court’s ruling will bring Thaksin’s rural “Red Shirt” supporters down from the north and northeast into the streets of the capital again. They have long regarded the Bangkok elites as having repeatedly stolen their franchise by using the judiciary to oust a succession of elected governments after Thaksin was driven from office by a royalist coup in 2006.

In recent weeks, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship – the largest Red Shirt organization – has publicly said it is training militias to guard against the possibility of the government being taken away from it again. After staging massive protests in 2010 that ended in bloodshed, the Red Shirts have become more militant and militarized, say some observers.

There are major concerns that the country, which is sharply divided between the rising rural poor and the urban elites, could descend into civil war. Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha has repeatedly warned that the country could be torn in half by the conflict.

The army, which has largely defined the government from behind the scenes since a coup in 1932 that ended the absolute monarchy, has very visibly placed 175 bunkers throughout Bangkok to thwart the kind of violence that blew up in May 2010 with the deaths of 90 protesters, most of them Red Shirts. Hundreds of CCTV cameras have also been seeded throughout the city.

Amnesty and then chaos

What started as a relatively short-lived battle last October over a failed amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin back into Thailand and pardoned others has turned out to be a marathon contest for the soul of the country even as the numbers of anti-government protesters have fallen from tens of thousands to small numbers today. The ham-handed amnesty move was just the pretext the anti-Thaksin people wanted.

Suthep Thaugsuban, the southern warlord and thug who leads the protesters in Bangkok, is considered nothing more than a figurehead acting on behalf of some of the country’s biggest banks and corporations. These companies supplied food, sanitary facilities and entertainment to the protesters for months, allowing the rallies to at one point paralyze the city. A steady and disquieting stream of low-level violence has accompanied the unrest, with bombings directed at the protesters and assassinations targeting Red Shirt figures.

The ostensible mission of Suthep’s People’s Democratic Reform Committee is to rid the country of the Pheu Thai government and all traces of the Shinawatra family’s political machine on the theory that the government is irretrievably corrupt – although it is difficult to tell how Pheu Thai corruption differs from institutional corruption in the parliament going back decades.

The real aim is to drive every vestige of Thaksin from the country out of a deeply rooted feeling that the northern bumpkins empowered by his radical social uplift programs are not qualified to run the country. Thaksin and his allies have won every election since the former Chiang Mai policeman turned telecommunications magnate came to power in February 2001.

Thaksin fled the country in 2008 ahead of a two-year jail sentence after being convicted on charges of abusing his power to help his wife buy public land at an auction. He has since ruled by remote control from Dubai and airports around the world, staying close to his followers via closed-circuit television appearances on huge screens at rallies. He is in near-constant communication with Bangkok by mobile phone, he says.

The autumn of the monarch

At the same time, Bangkok is increasingly concerned over the internal palace struggle to replace the aging and infirm King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 86. On one side, royalist forces are believed to back the crown princess, Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, 59, while Thaksin’s forces are felt by many to be close to Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, 62, who is widely viewed as unsuitable for the job and possibly too influenced by the 64-year-old Thaksin.

Succession law is unclear on whether a female monarch can reign but conservative royalists who do not approve of the crown prince continue to push for her enthronement, while at the same time hoping to create enough chaos to force a reluctant military to take control of politics – an eventuality the military seems to want no part of.

On Wednesday, Supreme Commander of the Thai Armed Forces General Thanasak Patimaprakorn denied rumors he was supporting a political reform road map that former Democrat Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has been pushing. The military is still smarting from the backlash brought on when Abhisit and Suthep, then Deputy Prime Minister, ordered the army into action in May 2010 to clear protesters from the center of Bangkok.

There appears no endgame. The next move will be up to the Red Shirts but if the conflict grows violent, an unenthusiastic military may step in again, this time out of necessity rather than a demand for power.