The military route

Published : Jun 18, 2010 00:00 IST

At a time when people power is on the rise in East Asia, in countries as far apart as Indonesia and Japan, Thailand has placed a premium on military power in domestic politics. The issue is whether Thailand's current circumstances will justify this course. An answer is not easy because the Thai Army, long used to exercising control over civilian politics, did allow the protesters much time and space before moving against them.

At a time when the Filipinos were electing Benigno Aquino III, son of Corazon Aquino, a people power icon, as their next President, Thailand's military-backed civilian Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, took the military's help for a crackdown on thousands of protesters in Bangkok on May 19. And, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was not pleased at the way Thailand, a key founder-member, went about sorting out its crisis this time.

Powerful interest groups within Thailand tend to see the current crisis far from resolved as this is written, in a uniquely Thai way, of course. This unique way flows from: (1) the rich-poor divide; (2) the democracy-stability debate in a context of some political role for the military bloc; (3) the social ethos of the Buddhist majority in a country with an increasingly vocal Muslim minority; and (4) the sanctity of national unity as preserved by the healing touch of the revered constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

In trying to sort out the latest crisis, Abhisit and Army chief Anupong Paochinda have navigated, for most part, in the context of the rich-poor divide and the democracy-stability debate. The occasional efforts by the protesters to appeal to the King were not encouraged by the royalists, who often team up with the elite in the civil-professional and military hierarchies to run the country. And, given the general direction that the protest took, there was no scope for the social ethos to come into play. Although an unexplained massacre took place in or near a Buddhist temple shortly before curfew was enforced following the crackdown, there were no suggestions from any quarter, as of May 24, that the latest crisis had anything to do with the country's social fabric.

Clearly visible, though, after the crackdown, was the potential danger of a further polarisation of forces along the rich-poor divide. Most protesters came from Thailand's poor sections in the countryside. Regardless of the intensity of the campaign rhetoric of a “class war” in the making, protest leaders such as Jakrapob Penkair have said that there is not much time left for reconciliation across this national divide.

Another potential danger is that of mismanaging the democracy-stability debate. As experts such as Pavin Chachavalpongpun point out, there are already signs of “a seismic shift in the people's political thoughts” towards a more pluralist democracy in societal, rather than party-statistical, terms. The people in focus here are the non-elite sections.

P.S. Suryanarayana

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