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Weekend catch-up: Thailand special

Weekend catch-up: Thailand special
Published 24 May 2014   Follow @SamRoggeveen

Bringing together the best Thailand coverage from The Interpreter.

A change of format this week. Usually we feature a range of our best writing from the previous week, but in light of the military coup in Bangkok, I thought I would highlight some of The Interpreter's best Thailand coverage, not just from this week but this year and before. But let's begin with the drama of this week's coup and our regular contributor from Thailand, Elliot Brennan, who noted that  national unity will be difficult for the army to impose:

The problem remains that the country is divided. Red Shirts have condemned the move that ousted their Pheu Thai government. The UDD warned on Twitter on Thursday that 'Now it is a Coup — Stand by for Retaliation'. The Red Shirts may now act on their earlier pledge to return to Chiang Mai and set up a government-in-exile in the northern city or to regroup and march on Bangkok. Regardless, they will continue their protests in the north and northeast of the country where they have strong support. 

Yingluck Shinawatra, the former PM, hasn't been seen for days and many are asking if she's fled to Chiang Mai or abroad. Her brother Thaksin went into exile after his government suffered a military coup in 2006. What the Shinawatras do next will be important. With tensions high, a call for calm could damage their voter base, but rallying them would damage their international standing and only widen the divisions in the country.

Also on the morning after, renowned Southeast Asia historian Milton Osborne wrote that the Thai military is not equipped to run the country, asking:

Why has the military acted? Considered in the most generous light, it is possible to believe that the coup was mounted to prevent a continuation of sporadic violence between the contending political groups which could have widened into a more serious confrontation, taking many lives. But the military's actions are just as likely to provoke greater violence, as the Red Shirts, who will now more than ever feel disenfranchised, consider whether peaceful demonstrations can ever serve their interests.

We've covered the development of the current Thai political crisis  since protests began in November 2013. Here's is a selection of some of the best analysis. Following the imposition of martial law on 20 May, Pongphisoot Busbarat outlined three possible scenarios, arguing that: [fold]

The army's actions are little different from staging a coup. The intervention by the military may delay confrontation between the two sides, but it does not provide an exit. Further military intervention will arouse pro-democracy supporters and escalate the conflict. Unless Thailand can put itself on the right track now, a civil war awaits.

Elliot Brennan has been tracking the protests in Bangkok for months. This is from 5 December 2013:

An uncertain calm has descended on Bangkok. This follows more than a week of increasingly violent protests in what has marked another chapter in the long-running saga of the Shinawatra family's rule.

The calm began when embattled Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra instructed the security services to tear down the barb wire and barricades that had, until the 3 October, blocked protesters from descending on the prime minister's office and city police headquarters.

The Prime Minister had little to lose by hitting the release valve and defusing tensions reminiscent of those that unseated her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, in 2006 and similarly violent protests in 2010 that were key to bringing her to power.

And this from 20 January 2014, as protests became more violent:

The army, usually seen as bigger supporters of the Yellow Shirts than the Red Shirts, finds itself increasingly in the middle. Protesters are calling on them for protection from further attacks, which should be taken for granted in any democracy. Government and Red Shirt supporters, meanwhile, are increasingly concerned about the army taking sides and the possibility of a coup. 

The powerful military continues to sit on the sidelines, although further incidents like those witnessed over the weekend will justify their greater involvement. A coup cannot then be out of the question.

Milton Osborne noted in December that the protests then occurring in Bangkok were just the latest instalment of a long-running crisis:

The current street demonstrations in Bangkok are best understood as a continuation of a political upheaval dating back to 2006 and the ousting of the elected caretaker government of Thaksin Shinawatra by an army coup. Subsequent events, most notably the Yellow Shirt occupation of Bangkok's airports in 2008 and the bloody suppression of the Red Shirt protests in Bangkok in 2010 have not resolved the fundamental split in Thai politics: that is, the refusal of many of those associated with the Democrat Party to accept that Thailand's government should be formed by the party that wins the majority of votes in an election.

As the ANU's Andrew Walker has pointed out recently, the Democrats have not won an election since 1992.

It is against this background that opponents of the current government of Thaksin's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, most notably Suthep Thaugsuban, are repeating variants of previous calls for the country to be run by some form of unelected council or assembly. The flip side of this proposal is the unabashed claim that the sort of people who voted for Thaksin were not sufficiently educated to understand the intricacies of national politics.

French academic David Camroux has given us a number of excellent pieces over this period; the first, in January, looked at Thailand's 'multidimensional malaise':

What is occurring in Thailand is not so much a 'crisis' but something far more serious: a profound malaise within Thailand as a whole.

If one were to seek an image, that of Russian dolls comes to mind: inside one manifestation of this malaise are to be found several others.  The longstanding competition for power among elites is eclipsed by social cleavages, economic uncertainty and an almost existential angst linked to a  'fin de règne'.

Particularly since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932, Thailand has experienced constant inter-elite competition for power. With the military stepping into the background (while in reserve to intervene) and the bureaucracy becoming more professionalised, since the 1970s this inter-elite competition became one between politically connected economic elites using the electoral process.

David's next piece, in March, asked whether Thailand could end its 80-year search for a constitutional order:

One way at looking a the evolution of Thailand since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932 is to see the last eighty years or so as a constant search for a political framework (and social contract) capable of ensuring Thailand's sustainability as a unitary state. Eighty years to a century is a similar time-frame to that required after the French Revolution of 1789 for a stable (republican) system to be put in a place, or for the Britain to establish a parliamentary system based on universal suffrage.

In Thailand, the absolute monarchy was shoved aside in a bloodless military coup in 1932. Since then Thailand has experienced at least another ten coups, the last being in September 2006 which saw the overthrow, six months after its re-election, of the government of Thaksin Shinawatra, elder brother of the present caretaker prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra.

Successful military coups (ie. those with the blessing of the monarchy) have become the circuit breakers in Thai political life, allowing one part of the elite to take over from another while preserving the class interests of the Bangkok establishment.

Considering that this is the twelfth successful military coup in Thailand, you could be forgiven for thinking that we've been here before. While The Interpreter's been up and running we've covered a number of political crises in Thailand, and it's worthwhile having a look at some of our coverage from those times. Here's Graeme Dobell on the threat of civil war in Thailand, written just after the July 2011 election:

The depressing reality is that a clear-cut election victory in Thailand may not settle anything. The people have voted decisively but the popular voice is far from decisive.

Politicians still tear at each other, the King totters slowly towards his grave, the military and the elite agonise, and Thailand still confronts the danger of a civil war. After five years of commotion and sometimes bloody contest, Thailand's nightmare is that the election result merely hits the reset button to restart the same cycle of conflict. 

The previous two parties expressing Thaksin Shinawatra's political mastery have been outlawed. Will this third manifestation, led by his sister, be able to avoid the same fate?

This is the great curse of Thailand's distorted democratic deadlock: 'The election winners can't rule and the rulers can't win elections.'

 Also from around the time of the 2011 election, Milton Osborne looked at the role of the 'poor' in getting Yingluck Shinawatra elected:

Certainly 'the poor' have supported Pheu and its new leader, just as they supported Thaksin, but the catch-all term fails to take note of the extent to which the anti-Democrat Party support comes from voters in both the rural and urban regions who do not fit in with any usual definition of people living in poverty.

I can't place the person who first said it, but much of the Red Shirt support, and so Pheu Thai's, comes from people who have been described as 'having some high school education and driving a pickup truck'.

Having been in Thailand at the time of the Red Shirt protests and immediately after (as recounted at the Institute in June of last year at a Lowy Lunch) among the many images that have stayed with me, in addition to the Red Shirt 'camps', the razor wire outside my hotel, and the arson-wrecked buildings afterwards, was encountering a Red Shirt convoy coming into Bangkok as I drove north out of the city. There they were in half a dozen pickups, red banners streaming behind them and loudly chanting slogans and singing songs — a different kind of poverty.

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