Thailand's Political Crisis and the U.S. Policy Response
April 30, 2010
Thailand stands at a historical juncture in its political history. The last seven weeks of street protests by antigovernment, self-proclaimed pro-democracy protesters known as the “Red Shirts” has resulted in violence and deaths and uncovered fissures and conflicts that run deep in Thai society and politics for the world to see. This is not a comfortable place for the proud citizens of the Kingdom of Thailand, yet resolution of the conflict remains elusive. Indeed, recent events suggest a hardening of positions among the key actors. During past spasms of confrontation and violence, the king of Thailand intervened by employing sublime powers emanating from his revered status to send irrefutable signals to reconcile opposing parties. Whether he can again play that role given the nature of the current impasse remains in question. If he cannot, the fundamental issue is how will Thais resolve it without him?
Q1: What is the nature of the present impasse? Why is it different from other political crises in Thailand?
A1: In some ways, all Thais knew that the questions being asked in the streets today would have to be answered eventually. They touch the very core of what it is to be Thai and the identity of the country. They involve multiple layers of competition between geographic regions of the country, economic and social classes, business and commercial rivalries, politicians and their factions, and last but not least models of governance. For that reason, they are hard to write about and discuss, particularly for Thais but also for officials and analysts who have covered Thailand in depth and have respect for the country and its people. This fact has made sharing understanding of the crisis difficult. The role of the monarchy as the key pillar of Thailand’s identity had been an untouchable subject, but it has been put in play by the actors involved, and that fact has raised the stakes making this standoff different from any in recent Thai political history.
After the Asian financial crisis, which began in Thailand in the late 1990s, Thaksin Shinawatra decisively won elections defeating the Democrat-led coalition government who had the unwelcome task of implementing the austere IMF-mandated measures to right the badly damaged economy. Implementing an innovative populist political model perfectly timed for a nation wanting to recover its pride, respect, and economic prosperity, Thaksin built enormous support, particularly among the rural population in the north and northeastern parts of the country. A U.S.-trained policeman from an entrepreneurial Chinese-Thai family in Chiang Mai, he used his wit, guile, and work ethic to certain effect, initially in building the country’s dominant telecom company and then as a politician. In traditional circles of power in Bangkok, especially among the Royal Court, he was considered an outsider, nouveau riche. As he built his base, he and his supporters, including his family and its businesses, challenged traditional centers of Thai political and economic power. Eventually, serious allegations of corruption against him, his family, and key associates began to emerge. These charges came to a head and Thaksin was ousted by a coup in 2006.
Since then, parties on either side of Thailand’s political, economic, and societal fault lines began to diverge, resulting in today’s seismic crisis. Thaksin, unwilling to accept his ouster by coup, challenged the predominant political architecture of the last eight decades, sparking a movement that has by most reasonable measures moved beyond him into a systemic challenge of the status quo.
Q2: Who are the key players?
A2: The key players now include the current government, led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the military, the police, the Royal Palace, the Red Shirts, and the Yellow Shirts. Complicating matters exponentially is the fact that each of these groups is internally divided at varying levels, making near-term resolution seem unlikely.
Abhisit is the 45-year-old Oxford-educated leader of the Democrat Party. He rules as the head of an unstable coalition of political parties several of whom have threatened to abandon him if he ignores protestors’ calls for dissolution of parliament and new elections. Abhisit has hardened his stance toward the Red Shirt protests in recent days, employing rhetoric describing the protestors as “terrorists” and suggesting an antimonarchy plot has been launched, implicating Red Shirt leaders and an extensive network of others. Such allegations are among the most serious that can be made in the Thai political context and suggest further divergence rather than a negotiated settlement.
Anupong Paochinda is the commander and chief of the Thai Army. He has been carefully resisting enticements by Abhisit and his government to crack down on the protesters and clear them from their entrenched positions in central Bangkok. Although 27 are dead—including protesters, onlookers, and members of the military and police—the two crackdowns to date on April 10 and 22 have been relatively measured. The Thai military is also divided about how to respond. Divisions are complex and based on loyalties forged among classmates in the military leadership academy, regional alliances, and others.
The police, like the military, are playing a complicated and careful hand, trying to maintain order but assiduously trying to avoid being manipulated by competing political forces. There are also factions within the police leadership, complicating the role of the police in the drama unfolding in Bangkok.
The Red Shirts movement includes several different leaders and cliques who are pursuing various agendas ranging from hard-core Thaksin loyalists to committed democracy advocates to those motivated by more personal objectives, including business and commercial opportunities and the benefits of political power.
The Yellow Shirts are generally political conservatives, including Royalists, who tend to support the status quo ante. They too are a divided lot. Some of their leaders are strong supporters of the Democrat-led coalition government, while others have harshly criticized Abhisit and the military for not taking more decisive action against the Red Shirts. Hardliners in the Yellow Shirt movement have threatened to go into the streets of Bangkok to remove the Red Shirts if the military and police do not take action.
Q3: What are the prospects for resolving the crisis?
A3: Near-term prospects for resolution are not promising. Negotiations between the government and the Red Shirts have not yielded results. The Red Shirts demanded dissolution of parliament and new elections, but the government rejected these proposals arguing that free and fair elections would not be possible given the current polarized situation in various parts of the country, particularly the northeast. Hopes that the king might intervene seem to have been dashed when the 82-year-old monarch addressed the nation on television on April 26, but speaking from his hospital in a strained voice, he directed his remarks to new judges instead of the parties standing at the brink of civil war.
Another possibility is that the opposing sides step back from the abyss. The Democrat Party is under new pressure due to allegations made against it by the Thailand Election Commission related to political fraud. The party could be legally dissolved and its leaders banned from politics for five years if it is found guilty. The case has been transferred to the Office of the Attorney General (AG) and could land in the Constitutional Court if the AG decides not to pursue the charges. On the other side, the Red Shirts have spent nearly two full months in the steaming streets of Bangkok and will eventually need to retrench. This scenario does not constitute resolution however, since the fundamental disagreements of the parties would remain unaddressed.
If precipitous rhetoric and apocalyptic allegations continue, violent confrontation could return. This could take the form of the military deciding to move against the protesters, or if the Yellow Shirts follow through on their threats, they could try to remove the Red Shirts themselves. Either scenario risks more deaths and violence and could undercut the credibility of key institutions. If the military has to move to break up a clash between the Reds and Yellows, would it also take control of the government, and if it did, how soon would it move to hold elections and under what conditions?
Q4: What are the implications for the United States?
A4: The situation presents serious challenges for the United States and Thailand’s other international partners. With the issues at stake in Thailand so close to the core of national identity, most diplomats and policymakers have reasonably tread very carefully, recognizing that the nature of the conflict means that Thais must necessarily find their own answers. However, with 27 dead and nearly 1,000 wounded since the current protests started on March 12—among them foreigners living in or visiting Bangkok—the United States and others cannot stand by mutely. The State Department has issued statements encouraging the parties to return to the table to seek a negotiated settlement, but as noted above, that is not likely.
Thailand and its crisis cannot be ignored. It is Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy, a linchpin of ASEAN, APEC, and other regional organizations, and one of five U.S. treaty allies in Asia. An unstable Thailand would undercut regional stability and undermine ASEAN. The situation has already strained Thai-Cambodia ties, which were under pressure due to border and off-shore energy disputes. Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen recently aggravated the situation by openly supporting former Thai prime minister Thaksin, anointing him as his special adviser on economic affairs and offering him a luxury villa in Phnom Penh.
Americans have long-term and historic interests in Thailand, ranging from close political and security ties to core trade and investment links to strong sociocultural ties. Continued political unrest in Thailand is not in the U.S. interest. Kurt Campbell, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, visited the country in March and called on both the government and the opposition. Continued high-level visits would be well advised, as would visits and signals from ASEAN’s senior officials, the United Nations, and other international partners. Encouragement and outreach to all the key players in Thailand’s crisis should send an important signal to the Thai people that the United States is engaged, cares about Thailand’s future, and wants to see peace and democracy return to its friend and ally. As the United States has seen from its response to the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, not getting it right in Thailand could have historic implications.
Ernest Bower is a senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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