Could Thaksin Shinawatra become the savior of the Thai monarchy? It may seem a ridiculous question at a time when the Bangkok elite of ultra-royalists continues to accuse the former prime minister and his sister, the current prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, of undermining that institution to increase his own influence.
But the extreme, anti-democratic measures being taken by former Democrat Party deputy leader and current rabble-rouser Suthep Thaugsuban and his followers, including many in the Democrat party, now in the opposition, suggest that the divide in Thai society could widen to the point that tens of millions of Thais lose faith in the monarchy and its supposedly unifying role.
The Democrats were to decide today whether to contest the election that Yingluck has called. They have lost every election they have contested over two decades, forming governments with minority coalitions.
The actions of Suthep and his followers in attempting to cause such chaos in the capital as to force the resignation of the elected government, or give pretext for another military coup, show the unwillingness of the elite, and of much of the spoiled Bangkok middle class, to accept any Thaksin-related government.
Many less-than-affluent Thais have felt revulsion at the manner in which the sons and daughters of some of the richest families of the kingdom have been on the streets protesting and calling for the overthrow of the government. A veritable A-List of Tatler socialites turned out to join Suthep in the illegal occupation of government offices.
When, for example, an heiress to the Boon Rawd Brewery, which long enjoyed a near monopoly of beer production and remains by far the largest producer under various brand names, presents herself as a fighter for clean government, one can sense why a large number of red shirts might like to get back to Bangkok and burn down a few more symbols of billionaire privilege, as they allegedly did the Central World Department store in 2010,although the Red Shirts say the complex was set afire by Army tear gas grenades.
The actions of the elite, led by Suthep and enjoying the tacit support of the Democrat party leader Abhisit, were further proof for many that they know they cannot win an election. Indeed, the recent mistakes of Yingluck, which could have cost many votes, have now been overshadowed by the provocations of the Suthep camp.
The prime minister’s mistake, having reportedly gained the confidence of both the army and the palace, was to press for the amnesty which would have allowed the return of Thaksin. Bangkok political analysts say the 46-year-old Yingluck, a political novice until her brother pushed her into the limelight as Pheu Thai leader, has been carving out her own following aside from Thaksin’s. His impatience in pushing through the amnesty bill has undermined her at a time when in the palace and business groups – and the army – would be happy for her to continue if the brother could be reined in.
Having accepted the defeat of that move, Yingluck had good reason to feel she retained majority support. Likewise, Pheu Thai’s costly and ill-considered rice price support scheme, accompanied by corruption and incompetence, having done little for the many it is supposed to help, should have lost many votes. But the attitudes and actions of the elite protesters in Bangkok have now superseded those failings and reminded voters of the class basis of the political struggle.
Reasonable opposition to the inefficiency and corruption of the government has been taken over by elements whose own history is one of longstanding, deep corruption and opportunism. Although Thaksin’s record on those scores is appalling, it was at least accompanied by some genuine attempts to spread wealth around the country.
The elite saw in that just an attempt to buy votes at their expense but given the extreme income disparities that Thailand exhibits, it is clear to most neutral observers that efforts to use the machinery of the government to redress the balance was more than justified. Even if the tools were the wrong ones, people appreciated the effort.
The right-wing protesters have made so much of their royalist role that they have begun to cast some doubts on the system, making it seem a potentially divisive rather than uniting force. That may not seem to matter much at present as King Bhumibol Adulyadej enjoys a personal popularity and respect that transcends political divides. But this is loyalty to the man more than the institution and cannot be inherited, least of all by a Crown Prince of whom too much is known.
This perhaps explains why the military, so long the stoutest defender of the monarchy, is showing itself more even-handed than previously in the struggle between the Thaksin camp and the opposition. The Crown Prince himself may sense that too, apparently keeping his own links to Thaksin’s people. For the future, genuine monarchists – rather than those who use the monarchy as cover for their own interests – see that the nation cannot afford to continue its current divides under a new monarch associated with one side, and the minority side at that.
It is probably inevitable the future monarch will have the same minimal power that King Bhumipol did when he first came to the throne in 1946. The monarchy then was indeed used by strongman Sarit Thanarat to bolster his own position and promoted the slogan “nation, religion, monarch” to counter leftist and democratic forces. As it is, the near silence of the king during the last four years of turmoil has added to existing uncertainties. Yet so long as he is alive his silent presence provides a modicum of constraint.
Take away that constraint and the new king will find that he can’t afford to be the captive of the right without arousing the Thaksinites and the left to anti-monarchist fury, demonstrating that current nationwide commitment to the royalism is owed to Bhumipol, not the palace or the elite cohorts.
At that point the return of Thaksin not just to Thailand but to office may be the prop that the new king needs. Or, to put it another way, he may be used by Thaksin as Sarit used the young Bhumipol.