By: Pithaya Pookaman

As a cold war continues to rage between pro-democracy forces and semi-authoritarian ones in Thailand, the government led by former general Prayuth Chan-ocha is hard-pressed in trying to cling on to its legitimacy, starting with the prime minister’s omission of the oath to uphold the Constitution during the swearing-in ceremony of his new regime. 

He has also been embarrassed by the behavior of Thammanat Prompao, whom he named on September 19 as deputy minister of the Agriculture and Cooperatives Ministry of Thailand and chairman of the National Water Resources Committee despite spending four years in a Sydney, Australia jail for conspiracy to import 3.2 kilograms of heroin. Paradoxically, at the recent ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA), Prayuth called on the members to increase efforts against narcotics. 

Prayuth’s tenure as premier will be weighing in the balance when he and his cabinet and his razor-thin majority, which was created by legerdemain out of a failing election in March, face tough grilling by the opposition bench during the upcoming budget debate, which begins on October 17. His lack of a mandate in the lower house will put him in a precarious situation in a no-confidence vote, should the budget bill fail to pass the House. 

Perhaps Prayuth has already seen ominous warnings and he may already be relying on the courts, a subservient state apparatus and the so-called ‘Independent Organs’ to initiate legal cases against the opposition parties and MPs and even to dissolve the Future Forward Party, which came out of the election with unexpected popularity. At the same time, his political machinery may have used both velvet gloves and incentives to induce defections of Pheu Thai Party MPs or ‘political cobras’ to the government side in order to buttress the government’s thin majority in the House.

This is the face of the struggle that is now underway in Thailand as contending forces wrestle behind the scenes. In such a cold war, the combatants won’t be annihilated and the ‘Berlin Wall’ dividing the Red and the Yellow factions won’t come down as long as Prayuth or the disguised authoritarian regime is still in power. 

The last five years of Prayuth’s rule have not produced any meaningful national reconciliation or reform. Social cleavage and political polarization have instead deepened due to the use of arbitrary power by the junta to trample on the people’s fundamental rights and civil liberty and to stamp out any opposition to the regime. Still, the pro-democracy forces cannot be cowed as the majority of the Thai people have already tasted democracy and can never settle for less.

In a coup-prone country like Thailand, the favorite justifications for staging coups d’etat, of which there have been at least 21, have been to prevent political conflict and social cleavage. The 2014 military putsch to oust the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra did serve to pacify the country from the devastating and destabilizing violent street protests of the whistle-blowing Yellow Shirt royalists and the counter-protests by the pro-government Red Shirts. 

However, the coup didn’t erase the ideological fault line between the Yellow Shirts and the Red Shirts that sent tremors through the Thai political landscape from 2007 to 2014. Despite the junta’s promise of reconciliation, the political polarization in the post-election era has never been so pronounced.

Since the coup of 2014 and the farcical election in March 2019 that laundered the authoritarian power of the military junta under Prayuth into a shaky and unwieldly 19-party coalition, the social fissures and the ideological struggle between the Yellow Shirts and the Red Shirts are being fought in the parliament, the courts, and the media rather than on the streets. 

Contrary to prevailing perceptions, the political conflict in Thailand is not between the conservatives and the liberals or between the ultra-nationalists and the progressive internationalists. It is not a class conflict between the rich and the poor. It is not based on geographical or generational orientations. Rather, it is fundamentally the clash between the Red camp who favours democracy and the Yellow camp that prefers semi-authoritarianism, militarism, and bureaucratic polity.

The democratic camp in the parliament is composed of the Pheu Thai Party, Future Forward Party, Prachachat Party, and Seri Ruam Thai Party, among others. Outside the parliament, there are pro-democratic groups such as United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), the We Want Election group, and the June 24th group, named for the political transformation from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy that took place on June 24, 1932.

The pro-military or semi-authoritarian camp consists of Palang Pracharat Party, the Democrat Party (the name is a misnomer), and the Action Coalition for Thailand Party. Although Phumjai Thai Party, Chat Thai Pattana Party, and Chat Pattana Party are part of Prayuth’s government coalition, they are the middle-of-the-road parties that have no clear political ideology and can oscillate in either direction depending on where their interests are served. 

Outside the parliament are various Yellow groups that have mutated or rebranded from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) such as the Multi-Colored Group and the “Whistle Group” of firebrand Suthep Thaugsuban, a veteran of Democrat Party. These groups have now lost their significance as some of their leaders have joined the pro-government parties. However, they are not the spent force and can be resuscitated to disrupt any government formed by pro-democratic parties.

Ideologically speaking, the Yellow Shirts tend to cling to the vestiges of a feudal society where the bureaucrats and the military establishment reigned supreme. Even after the political transformation of 1932 from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, the country has hitherto been controlled by the oligarchy with the military, its main component, retaining a special prerogative in staging numerous coups to maintain its stranglehold on power. 

The elitist establishment, comprised of the urban middle class, bureaucrats, the military and big businesses, cannot conceal their condescending attitude towards the rural population, particularly in the North and Northeast, whom they regard as “hordes of deplorables” and who should only have a marginal role or no role at all in the country’s political process. Understandably, they loathe democracy because it would enfranchise the rural mass in the political process.

The Red Shirts, on the other hand, are generally supportive of constitutional monarchy enshrined in the 1932 political transformation that institutionalized electoral politics and representative government. They see Thailand as a modern state on par with its democratic Asian neighbors with equal rights for all citizens regardless of their geographical regions, educational background, religions, and economic and social status. They vehemently oppose coups as a way to solve the country’s problems.

In fact, Pheu Thai is a conservative party as well as the standard bearer of democracy and its key members are ardent royalists, former bureaucrats, and military brass. Its pro-democracy ally, Future Forward Party, is more left-leaning in the political spectrum and attracts more youths and leftists.

The pro-authoritarian or Yellow camp, as represented by the pro-establishment Democrats and the pro-military Palang Pracharat and Action Coalition for Thailand Party, has many leftist elements and has pioneered many extravagant populist policies for the rural poor which are diametrically at variance with the conservative thinking.

In the pro-democracy camp, Pheu Thai Party is often seen as the party of the Left and of the rural poor while the Democrats and Palang Pracharat are widely viewed as the parties of the Right identified with the elite establishment and the military. Thus common misconceptions abound in this cold war.

Pithaya Pookaman is a retired former ambassador in the Pheu Thai government. He is a resident of Bangkok and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel