Bouncing back

Print edition : October 22, 2010

A peaceful rally by the pro-Thaksin Red Shirts is seen as a sign of a possible re-transition to a democratic order.

recently in Bangkok

A Red Shirt protester holds a portrait of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra during a rally in Chiang Mai, the hometown of Thaksin.-APICHART WEERAWONG/AP

THAILAND is bracing for a future with measured hopes and guarded dreams four years after the most divisive military coup in the country's contemporary history. The key South-East Asian state has an abiding familiarity with army interventions in civilian politics.

Unsurprisingly, the military-backed civilian Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, is still figuring out how best to seek the people's mandate, as different from Parliament's confidence that he enjoys, to lead the nation into that future.

Looming large on the Thai political landscape is the unfading shadow of Thaksin Shinawatra, a twice-elected Prime Minister who was removed from office in absentia in a bloodless military coup on September 19, 2006. Thaksin, who is in self-imposed exile, is now a proclaimed fugitive who leads or instigates his followers from his changing bases.

It is also four months since the Abhisit administration ordered what turned out to be an effective military crackdown on pro-democracy and pro-Thaksin protesters and sundry advocates of other causes. The controversial May 19 security clean-up of the commercial hub in Bangkok is still a hot-button topic in the country. Abhisit has consistently rested his defence of that action on official intelligence and visible evidence that some proactive protesters were actually prone to anarchist tendencies.

The May 19 security operation was certainly not the equivalent of an atomic explosion in Thailand's domestic political domain. However, Thai society, not used to a culture of 24/7 political activism, is still coming to terms with the event that shook the country to its subatomic core, as it were.

There are positive signs that Thailand is managing its bounce back to normality very well indeed. Clearly visible, during a recent visit to Bangkok at the time of the fourth anniversary of the September 19 military coup, were signs of a new maturity in the continuing standoff between the pro-democracy and pro-Thaksin protesters, on the one side, and the government, on the other.

Anti-Government protesters gather at the Ratchaprasong intersection, the site of their former encampment and the recent bloody clashes with the security forces, in Bangkok's shopping district on September 19.-SUKREE SUKPLANG /REUTERS

The pro-Thaksin United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), whose supporters are commonly called Red Shirts for the colour of their attire, mobilised thousands of protesters in the heart of Bangkok for the anniversary. The rally, held against the backdrop of a show of preparedness by the security agencies, was conspicuously peaceful. Thai and foreign observers were quick to note that the current agenda of the UDD was to demonstrate its willingness and ability to stay peaceful. This was considered essential in the post-May 19 context in which the authorities, armed with video evidence of the violence triggered by some protesters at that time, kept harping on that the UDD was transgressing its constitutional right to stage peaceful demonstrations.

Whatever the reason, the latest peaceful rally by the Red Shirts is a positive sign of a possible, but not yet potential, re-transition to a democratic order outside the ambit of the military's political reach. Equally recognisable is the fact that the Abhisit government allowed the coup anniversary protest and did not resort to any action that could have led to a confrontation on the streets of Bangkok. Outwardly, a single peaceful event of this kind is by itself no great political premium for Thai-style or Western-style democracy in a grand measure. However, even a relatively minor event like a peaceful protest rally is a step in the right direction. Another relatively minor, but potentially important, fact is the manner in which the Thai authorities have by and large restored the iconic places that suffered damage in the arsonist vandalism that some protesters resorted to in May.

As this is written, Bangkok is still under the emergency decree that was proclaimed at the height of the prolonged protest that ended with the May 19 crackdown. This, however, is a matter of political statistics rather than a cumbersome ground reality. Except for a few spells during the several phases of protest by the Red Shirts and by the anti-Thaksin Yellow Shirts on a parallel political track, Bangkok was hardly a no-go area for Thai citizens and foreigners alike. Those few spells of protests had caused only a partial shutdown of some pockets of the city. Viewed from this perspective, the latest signs of Bangkok and Thailand as places at peace with themselves and the outside world may not be the best guide to the future. Nonetheless, these signs cannot be dismissed as inconsequential.

Spelling out the government's thinking on the possibilities of a new dawn in Thailand's public life, Ong art Klampaiboon, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, said in Bangkok on September 20 that the termination of the emergency decrees would be decided by the existing crisis-busting panel and not the Army itself. The panel, inclusive of the military and civilian authorities as also the intelligence and other agencies of state, was constituted at the height of the last wave of protest by UDD activists.

Alluding to the UDD's one-time attempt to seek the good offices of Thailand's constitutional royalty, Ong art affirmed that the highly revered and the world's longest-reigning monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, was, as always, above the din and bustle of politics. He said the Thai judiciary, as an integral part of the political system, was independent under the present military-crafted 2007 Constitution as well.

Abhisit, who withdrew an offer of a snap poll when it was rejected by the UDD during its protest movement in April and May, was now insistent that Thai society should [first] calm down so that a crisis-resolving general election could be held as soon as possible. Outlining this game plan, Ong art said Abhisit had, at one stage recently, found himself in a minority of Cabinet Ministers who favoured a quick lifting of the emergency decrees. The way forward in the government's stated view, as at the time this is written, is to try and hold a general election whenever it is deemed possible and to do so without necessarily linking this to the larger issue of constitutional reforms.

A relevant question, in the eyes of some independent observers among the Thais and foreigners in Bangkok, is whether Abhisit and his political supporters, including the military leaders, are in a state of denial about the true or perceived depth of crisis in Thai public life. The question is triggered by the tendency of the pro-Abhisit camp to dismiss the argument that his government lacks political legitimacy in the absence of a popular mandate in his favour.

PRIME MINISTER ABHISIT Vejjajiva.-PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP

The pro-Abhisit argument runs on these lines. He has been just as duly chosen on the floor of Parliament as two of his successive predecessors, both pro-Thaksin politicians, were under the 2007 Constitution. It is further argued that there is, therefore, no constitutional requirement that Abhisit should go to the polls before the due date, in the normal course in December 2011.

However, such a tidy, matter-of-fact argument misses a central political point. The pro-Abhisit camp will need to address the issue that two of his successive predecessors were disqualified for high office through judicial pronouncements. Consistent with genuine respect for the independence of the Thai judiciary, it can be noted that Abhisit's pro-Thaksin predecessors, both chosen as Prime Ministers by the present Parliament in the first place, were not actually voted out of office by the people's elected representatives themselves.

To this extent, the argument of the pro-Abhisit camp has led to an interesting line of thought among some Thai analysts. Under the existing constitutional law and practice in Thailand, the judiciary can order the disbanding of a political party when one or more of its candidates or leaders are found to have been guilty of electoral malpractice(s) or of wrongdoing in cases relating to conflict of interest while in office. In a parallel move, the courts can also order the disqualification of the top executives of such a party for high constitutional positions, including that of Prime Minister. This is exactly what happened to both the pro-Thaksin Prime Ministers since the restoration of democracy by the coup masters who had overthrown him.

Right now, a final court verdict is expected over the issue of whether Abhisit should be disqualified and his party disbanded in a case relating to charges of malpractice at a level not directly linked to the present Prime Minister himself.

Drawing attention to political speculation in these circumstances, Tulsathit Taptim, Editor of the Bangkok-based newspaper The Nation, portrayed a possible scenario if the court ordered the disqualification of Abhisit. Should he cease to be Prime Minister in such circumstances, the pro-Thaksin camp will lose its talking point against the present system. In the event, a new government can be formed under a new leader, perhaps a former Prime Minister from Abhisit's own political bloc, Tulsathit pointed out. In his view, it might then become possible to consider genuine constitutional reforms in a level-playing-field atmosphere.

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