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People power

Published : May 21, 2010 00:00 IST

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Anti-government protesters during a face-off with the riot police in Bangkok on April 23.-CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP

Anti-government protesters during a face-off with the riot police in Bangkok on April 23.-CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP

THE non-ideological notion of people power is back in vogue in East Asia, especially in those democracies that are in distress. Thailand, which hit crisis mode sometime in the middle of March, is not alone in groping for the substance of this idea, which has almost become a political formula of sorts in the East Asian milieu of enormous diversity.

The Philippines, which often claims to have patented this formula nearly two decades ago, is scheduled to elect a new President in May. Malaysia, where the gains of the opposition in a general election two years ago are widely traced to some manifestations of people power, demonstrated in a parliamentary byelection in late April that the ruling coalition, too, can bank on the power of the grass roots.

Japan, which prides itself on being the oldest democracy in geographical East Asia as different from the wider geopolitical region by the same name, witnessed some new signs of people power in April on the issue of Tokyos foreign policy equation with the United States. Elsewhere in East Asia, Indonesia, as of end-April, is back in the political business of assessing the potency of people power as different from the primacy of the countrys President.

The notion of people power, insofar as it is variously invoked in the differing political situations within the state boundaries across East Asia, is not of any uniform standard. For instance, the anger among sections of the Japanese people over the continuing U.S. military presence in Okinawa is qualitatively different from the clamour for people power in Thailand. Nonetheless, an idea emerging in some significant pockets across East Asia is quite unmistakable: that the traditional centres of power must be accountable to the people at large. Within this broad spectrum, Thailand is conspicuous as the new theatre of people power, although the phrase itself is not at all as commonplace as in the Philippines for a number of years or as in some sections of Malaysia in recent years.

As this report was written, the Thai government led by civilian Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and aided by the Army Commander-in-Chief, General Anupong Paochinda, within the domestic arena as different from the foreign-policy front was far from being able to resolve the crisis of governance itself. It was not as if the political battle lines, quite clear since Abhisits ascent to power over a year ago, had changed or become blurred towards the end of April. Yet, if the Thai government found itself hard-pressed to dispel the arguments about its political illegitimacy, the reasons had much to do with the fact that the elected civilian leaders found themselves leaning heavily on the military bloc to stay on in power. Another critical aspect of this political subtext was the argument of the anti-Abhisit camp, inclusive of the loyalists of the military-deposed and now-fugitive civilian leader Thaksin Shinawatra, that the present government had no electoral mandate in its own right.

Anti-Abhisit rallies of varying proportions, even marked by some episodes of an outright confrontation between the protesters and the security forces, were held quite regularly, not as random events, in late March and early April. At one stage during that period, the Thai authorities issued an emergency decree in a bid to end the protest rallies in Bangkok as quickly as possible. Noteworthy during that phase of protest was its remarkably peaceful nature. In a dramatic turn on April 10, the peaceful protest was punctuated by the worst anti-military rioting in Bangkok since 1992. That left a trail of casualties, including the death of over 20 people.

The protest, which gradually acquired the overtones of a political movement against an alleged anti-democratic alliance between the Abhisit camp and the Thai armed forces, became murkier on April 22. Opponents of the anti-Abhisit protesters entered the fray, as it were, on that day. This led to what was described as group clashes as different from the April 10 showdown between anti-government protesters and the security forces inclusive of military personnel. Casualties occurred on April 22 as well, prompting not only Abhisit but also Gen. Anupong to point to the emergence of a qualitatively new threat to the law-and-order environment.

The new refrain at the highest civilian-military echelons was that weapons of war were deployed by some of the protesters, both anti-government activists and their opponents from different strata. While the anti-Abhisit and pro-Thaksin protesters came to be characterised as red shirts after the colour of their attire, their motley opponents included the original anti-Thaksin yellow shirts.

The use of weapons of war was compounded by another disturbing development, the authorities noted. Abhisit was the first to say that anti-Thailand terrorists had infiltrated into the camp of those who wanted him to quit, dissolve the House of Representatives and order a snap general election for the formation of a legitimate government. Following the April 22 group clashes, the Thai Army, too, expressed concern over the new trend of weapons of war being deployed by some persons who might have either belonged to or infiltrated into the camps of the red shirts or the yellow shirts.

Significantly, the April 22 episode served to bring Abhisit closer to the Army as opposed to the April 10 riots, when the Army had sought to distance itself from him. Between April 10 and April 22, the conventional wisdom in Thai politics, based on certain comments by Gen. Anupong, was that the Army might not be willing to stick its neck out in the civilian political arena at the risk of becoming unpopular among the population at the grass roots. That kind of a political inference was drawn from Gen. Anupongs guarded comment, in the wake of the April 10 riots, that a fresh general election could prove to be a crisis-buster. Unsurprisingly, that piece of loud thinking by the Army chief was no political music to Abhisit.

Following the April 22 violence in Bangkok, Abhisit sought to raise the political stakes yet again by insisting that a snap general election could not be held in an atmosphere of unrest, such as the one prevalent at the time of writing this report. In his view, his opponents were in fact seeking a new Thai state and not just a change of guard at the helm of the civilian government. As for unity within the Thai armed forces, Gen. Anupong emphasised that the militarys mandate was to serve the country, the [highly revered constitutional] monarchy and the people, without taking sides. It was, however, possible that some individuals [within the military ranks] may think differently. Their number, in any case, is not such as to cause disunity within the organisation.

He disclosed that some of the individuals backing the anti-government protest are still in the military but they have no forces under their command. Some retired military officers with experience and training were also suspected to have backed the anti-Abhisit camp. At the same time, the weapons used by the protesters did not come from military units.

In such an utterly fluid political situation, there was hardly any clarity among the lead players within the civilian-military complex of the Thai establishment either about the true nature of the crisis or about a winning formula for genuine democratic governance.

While the new Thai debate on people power started losing direction towards the end of April, although the protagonists were by no means pressing the mute button, the Philippines was coming back into new focus in the democracy debate. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, whose ascent to power and stay at the helm have remained mired in controversies about her political illegitimacy, cannot seek re-election. Her presidential office has promised a smooth transition to a new presidency in June on the basis of the result of the relevant election in May.

In Malaysia, no questions whatsoever are in the air about the political legitimacy of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, who assumed office over a year ago. His immediate predecessor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, was actually the one who paid a political price on an issue of people power. He led his ruling coalition to a perigee of a below two-thirds parliamentary majority in a snap election as compared with the apogee of a 90 per cent parliamentary majority, which he had secured in the previous general election.

Interestingly, Najib has now ensured a parliamentary byelection victory in a manner designed to turn the people power debate to his advantage. Political discontent among Malaysias citizens of Indian origin, a minority group, was turned into a people power issue in the snap general election in which Abdullah fell several rungs below on the parliamentary ladder. What Najib has now done is to win a parliamentary byelection by fielding a candidate from among the ethnic Indians in a constituency where they do not count as a swing factor even in a limited sense.

The people power issues in Indonesia pertain to the manner in which President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyonos policies and actions have come under public scrutiny immediately after his recent re-election by a decisive margin.

In Japan, on the other hand, the issue is whether the people of Okinawa, long opposed to the prolonged presence of the U.S. military bases there, can influence Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama to alter the terms of a relevant and critical aspect of the Tokyo-Washington alliance. By Hatoyamas political watch, the issue is to be sorted out one way or another by the end of May.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated May 21, 2010.)

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