Power play

Published : May 22, 2009 00:00 IST

in Singapore

SOUTH-EAST Asia is witnessing the stirrings of a transition to some form of truly representative democracy in a few pockets. While Indonesia leads the pack of a few countries in such a transition, it is the vivid rumblings from Thailands troubled experiment with the basics of electoral democracy that have captured prime attention.

The strategically located South-East Asian nation, not colonised by Western powers, has gone through intermittent phases of people power since 1932. Absolute monarchy was abolished in that year, and Thailand has survived an estimated 18 military coups since then. The latest crisis, which in mid-April brought into focus the primacy of the military elite in Thai politics, is distinct from the earlier episodes of power struggle.

Sitting comfortably in the eye of this political storm was the entire Thai military elite. No leader from its hierarchy courted the limelight this time, because the real target of the so-called peoples revolution was this elite in its entirety. Outwardly, of course, the key target was the civilian Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Despite his intellectual experience of one-time exposure to the values of liberal democracy in the West, Abhisit has actively sought the militarys help. Sought specifically to quell a three-week-long street protest in Bangkok against his rule, this help was, of course, rendered. Yet, before executing his emergency decree, the Thai Army resorted to a brief phase of keeping equidistance from him and the protesters. Beyond that brief phase, the military elite put up a formidable show of force in his favour.

For now, the peoples revolution, orchestrated from abroad by Thaksin Shinawatra, a leader elected twice but deposed by the military, has fizzled out. Thaksin was toppled in a bloodless military coup in September 2006, when he had gone to New York to address the United Nations. In that context, he opted to remain in self-imposed exile. He returned to Thailand in 2008, in what turned out to be a brief sojourn, after one of his key associates became Prime Minister. The military elite had held a round of democracy-restoring general elections towards the end of 2007.

The elections themselves were caused by the militarys failure to withstand popular resistance. The possible use of arms, aimed at subduing the prolonged resistance, was an action the Thai Army did not or simply could not take. Later, these political nuances would not help Thaksin after he returned home in 2008. So, while he was abroad yet again, he jumped bail in a case relating to his tenure as Prime Minister. Soon thereafter, he was convicted in absentia. In such circumstances, his latest action of orchestrating a peoples revolution came as no surprise.

The reason is not far to seek. The Thai Army, acting in partnership with civilian-elite leaders such as Abhisit, has not so far succeeded in snuffing out Thaksins pro-poor image. However, this reality has not deterred the present-day Thai authorities, in effect a ranking civil-military elite.

Abhisit, according to his critics, has been successfully co-opted by the military elite as its civilian face at the helm. He assumed office as Prime Minister a few months ago, after two successive pro-Thaksin leaders were judicially unseated from that position.

What rankles Thaksins supporters is that both those leaders, like Abhisit, were also elected in the 2007-end general elections. Significantly, the poll was held under a Constitution crafted by the anti-Thaksin military leaders. For traces of democratic legitimacy, it was actually held only after the Constitution was approved by the people in a junta-organised referendum.

The latest peoples revolution, regardless of its genesis in pro-democracy sentiments, has brought Thailand a bad name. And all the players, Thaksins supporters and the civil-military elite, have contributed variously to this crisis of regional confidence in their country. The sequence of events makes this aspect clear, although no long-term solution has been fashioned yet.

Soon after his conviction, Thaksin, a business tycoon-turned-politician, began a calibrated campaign to galvanise his supporters among the masses. Through video calls and phone-in addresses at public rallies, he raised their hopes for an imminent restoration of people power and real democracy. Towards this end, he mobilised supporters across Thailand under the new banner of United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship. The Fronts activists sport red shirts as a mark of identity and revolutionary fervour.

The remote-controlled Thaksin bandwagon acquired momentum during the brief tenures of two of his associates as Prime Ministers in 2008. After their sequential court-ordered exit, he chose to go the proverbial extra mile in his political campaign for real democracy.

The core demand was that the current military-crafted Constitution should be amended into a genuine democracy charter. Related to this was the parallel demand that Abhisit resign and hold unconditional general elections by guaranteeing a level playing field.

All the while, the civil-military elite kept up the heat on Thaksin by first organising the so-called Peoples Alliance for Democracy. The yellow-shirted Alliance activists held rallies and occupied state premises in Bangkok during the rule of the two pro-Thaksin leaders in 2008. The red-shirted Thaksin loyalists point out that the Alliance was never stopped in its tracks by the Army and the security forces. At one stage in 2008, Alliance activists occupied Bangkoks international airport; and the Thai Army did not move in to restore order. In fact, the anti-Thaksin protests ended only when two of his loyalists, one after another, were judicially unseated as Prime Ministers.

Such simmering sentiments among Thaksins supporters, mostly poor masses, boiled over during their mid-April pro-democracy campaign. For a while, the Thai Army did not move in against Thaksins supporters too. Sensing a new sign of political neutrality on the part of the Thai Army, they raised the stakes. A series of East Asian summits, which Abhisit was to host at the resort town of Pattaya on April 11 and 12, were disrupted. Pro-Thaksin protesters stormed the venue, forcing Abhisit to postpone the summits. The visiting foreign leaders, including those from China and Japan as also India and South Korea, were evacuated by helicopter.

Encouraged by this success, Thaksins supporters raised the tempo of the protest, in its third week at the time of writing, in Bangkok. Abhisit declared a state of emergency in the capital and adjoining provinces but the military elite took time to decide its response. Having ignored similar decrees by the two pro-Thaksin Prime Ministers during their months of crises, the military was now in a fix. However, Abhisit, already smarting under the label of the militarys proxy, was not amused. Hours after declaring the emergency, he appeared on national television flanked by top military officials, in a show of common purpose. The military elite took some time to cast its lot conspicuously; a crackdown on Thaksins supporters began in the pre-dawn hours on April 13.

However, the military elite went into overdrive in terms of defensive politics. The troops were said to have acted only after the protesters 100,000 at one stage, by official count turned violent at an iconic monument in Bangkok. Above all, it was emphasised that the soldiers used only non-lethal paper bullets or practice blanks, not live ammunition. Over 100 persons, including protesters and military personnel, were injured. The death of two local residents was blamed on the protesters. With that, the mid-April battle in Bangkok ended, as hard-core protesters at the Government House, the focal point of the campaign, sued for peace.

Since then Abhisit has sent out mixed political signals about restoration of genuine democracy. The military elites latest political defensiveness about its role in civilian affairs is a slim but real moment to seize in the cause of democracy.

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