Yingluck One Year Out
August 16, 2012
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra of Thailand marked one year in office August 9 with many citing the fact that she has remained in office this long as a major accomplishment. Just two years ago, Thailand was embroiled in political turmoil as street protests devolved into violence that left 91 people dead and major sections of Bangkok burning. Yingluck has been dogged by problems in several areas, especially in the economy. But her government has also moved Thailand several steps forward in some areas, particularly in reestablishing its foreign policy and renewing relations with the United States. In others, such as the crucial process of national reconciliation, progress is mixed and where it will lead Thailand in the coming years remains uncertain.
What Has Gone Wrong
Several opposition lawmakers on August 11 called for a no-confidence vote against the prime minister, largely due to the economic situation. Severe floods late last year caused Thailand’s economy to shrink a record 10.8 percent in the fourth quarter, resulting in net growth of just 0.1 percent for all of 2011. The economy rebounded on the back of stimulus measures, achieving record-setting 11 percent growth in the first quarter of 2012, but has since slowed due in part to sluggish demand in the manufacturing sector, which has been hammered by the debt crisis in Europe.
The economic malaise has been compounded by troubles dogging one of the Yingluck government’s signature policies: its controversial rice-purchasing scheme. Under that program, authorities purchased rice at above-market rates in an attempt to bolster the income of farmers. But the scheme is being widely criticized by economists who say it has made Thai rice uncompetitive with Indian and Vietnamese exports, saddled the government with unnecessary debt, and slowed economic recovery. It has also resulted in an estimated 10 million tons of rice sitting in storage throughout the country, which the government may have to sell off at huge losses. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is sending an investigator to Thailand to determine if the scheme creates price distortions and violates World Trade Organization rules.
The Yingluck government is also being accused of failing to respond quickly to last year’s disaster and failing to learn its lessons since. Since the floods, the government has initiated numerous dam and levee refurbishment projects in an effort to prevent a recurrence, but many of these are behind schedule and critics charge that Thailand is not ready for the next flood season later this year.
A recent uptick in violence in Thailand’s southern provinces has raised concerns among both supporters and critics of the government. The Yingluck administration insists that its policies, which include a new coordination center in Bangkok, are effectively dealing with the insurgency in the south. But a series of explosions in April—the largest coordinated bombing incident since 2008—injured more than 300 people and killed 14, casting a pall over the government’s approach. There is currently a debate in Bangkok to enact a curfew in the areas most affected by the violence, but the army has said the current laws are sufficient.
What Has Gone Right
These concerns, in combination with falling commodity prices, have fueled critics of the government. Nevertheless, Yingluck enjoys strong support among Thai people. Her efforts in pushing for a minimum wage have been popular, though some economists have said the economy is not in a position to absorb the inflation that might result. According to a July 27 survey, more than 70 percent of respondents want her to continue as prime minister.
The Yingluck administration made significant strides in revamping Thailand’s foreign policy, which had suffered since the 2006 coup as internal politics dominated Bangkok’s concerns. The prime minister made visits to influential countries in the region, including Japan, China, and Australia, as well as neighboring Laos and Cambodia, and hosted Myanmar’s president Thein Sein in Bangkok July 23. She also completed her first European tour July 22, focusing on economic relations.
The U.S.-Thai relationship has also enjoyed a renaissance under Yingluck, the first democratically elected leader in Thailand since the 2006 coup. U.S. secretary of state Hilary Clinton traveled to Thailand twice, first in 2009 prior to Yingluck’s election and again in November 2011, and the two met again at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Cambodia in July. President Obama met with Yingluck at the ASEAN Summit in Indonesia in November 2011. The prime minister is planning to travel to the United States for the UN General Assembly in September as well, indicating a steady rhythm of diplomatic interaction that had been absent in recent years. The military-to-military relationship remains strong, and trade has increased 21.7 percent from 2010 to 2011. Though there have been some setbacks, such as the Yingluck government’s mishandling of NASA’s request to use the Utapao airbase for a climate study, the overall relationship is steadily strengthening and its importance is again being widely recognized.
What Remains to Be Done
The process of national reconciliation is the most critical and delicate aspect of Yingluck’s premiership and also the hardest on which to pass judgment. She came to power trying to create a balance that would allow her Puea Thai Party, the descendent of her older brother and ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai Party, to move forward while appeasing elites predominantly aligned with the royal establishment. This elite pact has succeeded in keeping Puea Thai in power, but it has come at the cost of harsher enforcement of lèse-majesté laws to appease the royalists, drawing criticism from human rights and free speech groups both in Thailand and abroad.
Attempts to reform the constitution, which was written and promulgated in 2007 by the nonelected post-coup government, have been steady, if slow. Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled July 13 that the government’s attempts to pave the way for a rewrite were not illegal but would require a popular vote before moving forward. Debate continues about whether the ruling itself was even under the Court’s jurisdiction. Meanwhile, the government has formed a committee to refine its strategy moving forward.
While the grand elite bargain has held, there has been no true reconciliation and it is not certain that there will be. The government’s position has instead been one of extreme caution to ensure stability. Yingluck’s relations with the Privy Council are good, and she paid respects to its leader, General Prem Tinsulanonda, in April 2012 in a gesture full of symbolic good will. When the five-year political ban placed on many Thai Rak Thai officials expired in May, Yingluck did not reshuffle her cabinet to include them, though she has brought some into the fold. When the parliament began its current session August 1, pending reconciliation bills, which include a controversial amnesty for Thaksin and anyone involved in the political violence of 2010, were shelved for the time being.
Inevitable change is coming to Thai politics, which raises an important question for the United States: Is the renewed momentum in U.S.-Thai relations strong enough to survive if Bangkok experiences another political upheaval? Furthermore, will Thailand itself be ready for an impending political change?
Reconciliation is necessary for Thailand to move forward. But whether reconciliation means burying the hatchet, or bringing individuals involved in the political upheaval of 2006–2010 to justice, or some unspoken understanding between a popularly elected government and traditional elites that some sacred cows (such as that the military and the monarchy) stay untouched remains to be seen. Each scenario requires both sides of the political spectrum to forfeit some positions, and the third, which best describes the current situation and is the easiest in the short run, will not address the underlying tensions between Thailand’s democratizing society and traditional elites.
Yingluck will likely survive the coming no-confidence vote, and she has said she will face her critics head on as the opposition party calls her in for examination. But the question as to whether Yingluck can mend the deep wounds of Thailand’s political landscape is another matter. The United States needs to consider what Thailand is facing in the long term and how that may affect their relationship in the future. In 2006, Thailand first coup in 15 years put U.S. relations with its oldest ally in Asia in stasis for five years. Given the growing importance of Southeast Asia, and of Thailand in particular, to the United States strategically and economically, neither country can afford another long freeze in the relationship.
(This Commentary originally appeared in the August 16, 2012, issue of Southeast Asia from the Corner of 18th and K Streets.)
Gregory Poling is a research associate with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Kathleen Bissonnette is a researcher with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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