Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

A New Era for Thailand?

The landslide victory by Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai Party promises to usher in a period of reconciliation. But the country is still deeply divided.

Luke Hunt

Thailand began a new era Monday, with the tantalizing prospect of an end to the violent strife that has wracked the country for more than five years, following Yingluck Shinawatra’s overwhelming victory in Sunday’s general election.

Her win was an embarrassing defeat for Thailand’s urban elite and military, widely blamed for last year’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests that left 92 people dead, and a resounding vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his Democrat Party over their handling of the economy.

Importantly, though, it was also a win for Yingluck’s older brother Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted from power by the military, and sentenced in absentia to two years imprisonment for corruption. Thaksin is widely expected to receive an amnesty, paving the way home from a life in exile in Dubai.

‘This is a slap in the face to the establishment for what they’ve done since the military coup in 2006,’ says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist with Chulalongkorn University. ‘This is a new Thailand that they must learn to deal with.’

Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party (PTP) secured 262 seats in the 500-seat Parliament. This will be further boosted to 297 seats with Yingluck’s decision to enter a coalition with three minor parties – Chart Thai Pattana with 19 seats, Chart Pattana Puea Paendin with nine, and Palangchon with seven.

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The Democrats won 160 seats, while their allies Bhum Jai Thai held 24 seats at the final count.

There were some allegations of vote rigging, an issue that dogs most Thai elections. But Yingluck’s clearly overwhelming mandate rendered such claims meaningless, and will limit any attempted bullying by the military of minor parties – or interference by the electoral commission.

‘The scale of her victory creates a lot of optimism that the forces that have traditionally created instability will have nowhere to go,’ says Keith Loveard, a Jakarta-based regional security analyst with Concord Consulting. ‘Nevertheless, being elected is one thing and governing to satisfy all elements of society is another. It remains to be seen whether Yingluck can succeed in bridging the gap between the urban elites and the majority of the population.’

Abhisit conceded defeat and wished Yingluck the best, while the military has said it will accept the result. Pre-election media reports suggested that preliminary negotiations were already under way for Thaksin's return if he agrees not to become directly involved with the running of government.

The amnesty would also be broadened to include elements of the military involved with last year’s crackdown, and ensure that pro-establishment military chief Prauth Chan-ocha would remain in his position until retirement, due in three years’ time. This could allow reconciliation between Thaksin's Red Shirts, who have been in direct confrontation with the Yellow Shirts of the pro-establishment and self-anointed defenders of the monarchy for much of the last five years.

‘From the point of view of stability, any steps that reduce that gap between urban elites and the majority will be positive. So on balance the outlook is good,’ says Loveard.

Thai stability has been as much an issue abroad as it has been at home. Bangkok is enduring difficult relations with its neighbours, in particular Cambodia, with which border skirmishes have been fought around the 11th century temple ruins of Preah Vihear since mid-2008.

With this in mind, Yingluck’s win was a cause for smiles all around in Phnom Penh, where the Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong said: ‘It’s true, we can’t hide that we are happy with the victory by Pheu Thai Party in Bangkok.’

Cambodian sovereignty over the temple has long been recognized by the international community, with the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling on the disputed territory in Phnom Penh’s favour in 1962. Observers suggested the Democrats, however, had sought to minimize their problems at home by inflaming border tensions around Preah Vihear and feeding nationalistic sentiment in the hopes of securing more votes. Fire fights and the use of cluster bombs resulted in the deaths of at least 20 soldiers around the temple earlier this year alone.

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‘What we want is a peaceful resolution,’ Hor Nam Hong said. ‘We want to resolve the problems fairly and peacefully, in accordance with international law and the court’s 1962 ruling.’

However, Gavin Greenwood, a regional political analyst with Hong Kong-based security firm Allan & Associates, had a more sober analysis. He argues that any period of stability should be seen as temporary, allowing opposing forces to re-group, and adds that Yingluck’s victory isn’t all that remarkable after all.

‘Rather, it points to the near delusional belief from much of the old elite that they can somehow reverse what Thaksinism has wrought and return to their variant of a golden age of emerald rice fields tended by a respectful and sturdy peasantry, kept in order by the analects and a feudal respect for their betters,’ he says.

Greenwood says relative calm will be difficult to maintain as Red and Yellow Shirts remain radically opposed, and any pre-election promises or deals between Thaksin and the military should be treated with scepticism.

As such, a Thai equivalent of a Mexican Standoff will likely persist, while in the background two events are looming that could substantially alter the political landscape – again.

The first and most obvious issue is the monarchy and issues of succession. The second is the use of an external threat to help address local problems, namely the row over the Thai/Cambodian border.

‘The military, perhaps seeking popular relevance and reverence, has the capability to create conditions for what they may see as a containable conflict on the principal that a short war could trump a coup in terms of unifying the nation until a better idea comes along,’ Greenwood says.

Such a scenario is bound to cause anxiety among the Cambodians, while closer to home, Yingluck’s pledges of reconciliation, peace and economic growth could prove to be little more than superficial election promises.    

And for Thaksin – who is no doubt planning a homecoming befitting that of a triumphant hero badly wronged – genuine redemption might still prove elusive.