Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Genie Out of Bottle in Thailand

Thailand’s political elites are struggling to cope with the concept of a popular mandate. But Thais are increasingly demanding accountability.

By Pavin Chachavalpongpun for

Last month, Thailand marked the fifth year since the September 2006 military coup that ousted the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra. Although the country is currently preoccupied with a very different threat – devastating floods – it would be a mistake to assume that the Thai crisis has come to an end.

In reality, the protracted crisis has shown no sign of subsiding in the intervening years. Indeed, if anything, it has been intensified by a number of factors. While the crisis is often construed as a conflict between Thaksin and his ‘enemies in high places,’ the real issue is about the resistance among the Thai elite to a shifting political status quo.

Many pro-democracy Thais, mostly allying themselves with the Red Shirt movement, have fiercely resisted the domination of the elites. But the growing strength of this group indicates that the political conflict, now more out in the open since the coup, might no longer be suppressed going forward.

To put it bluntly – the genie is out of the lamp, and she isn’t going back in.

Thais are writing a new chapter in their nation’s history, and what has happened here in the post-coup period is irreversible and etched deep into everyone’s mind. The persistence of the Thai crisis, therefore, rests on the inability of the traditional elite to come to terms with changes in Thai society and politics. They are in a state of denial.

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This is a dangerous state in which to be. While the traditional elites refuse to acknowledge political realities, they employ every possible means – no matter how violent – to defend their interests, while undermining their opponents. They also show little regard for any damage they might be doing to the country’s democratic institutions.

The protracted crisis has brought about two key developments in the political domain.

First, the use of the monarchy as a political tool prompted the anti-establishment forces to violate political taboos that have existed for decades. Thai royalists, in their attempt to topple Thaksin prior to the coup, tried to exploit the monarchy to achieve their objectives. They launched a ‘Fight for the King’ campaign offering the distorted message that any doubters must be anti-monarchists.

But their tactic was bound to backfire. In strengthening their position, they weakened the much revered monarchy, thus opening the door for the anti-establishment forces to question the involvement of the King in politics. Such discussion is prohibited by Thailand’s strict lèse-majesté law, but the fact that the royalists themselves abused the prerogative of the monarchy has invited their opponents to seriously scrutinise the role of the King in the ongoing crisis.

And, as more Thais have become politically ‘enlightened’ or ta sawang in Thai, they’ve begun to challenge the rules. There’s been a certain anti-monarchy sentiment among some of the Red Shirts, and growing evidence of resentment in the form of more open criticism of the monarchy in cyberspace, seditious activities in the form of graffiti seen in some parts of Bangkok, and in the publication of underground publications with an anti-monarchy standpoint.

The irony is that the hyper-royalists are to be blamed for the anti-monarchy phenomenon; they’ve created the anti-monarchists. But even now, they deny the fact that the political system that they have supported – royal democracy – a system that has given them many benefits, has increasingly become incompatible with a new system based on a popular mandate and accountability.

Second, the abuse of the royal institution has led to the emergence of the Red Shirt movement. Early Red Shirts analyses offered the misleading conclusion that they were just proxies of another sort, a pro-Thaksin elite. Yet the Red Shirts have transformed themselves into civil society coalitions, with a specific mission to overthrow the old political consensus.

Civil society coalitions may have existed in Thailand for some time, but the Red Shirt movement is the first organisation that has fought for a larger political space for the Thai masses at a national level while engaging supporters from different sectors of society. This is why the Red Shirt movement is seen as a potential danger to the old power structure.

Red Shirt civil society coalitions are the first real mass movements that Thailand has produced that directly involve the grassroots population. The prolonged protests of the Red Shirt movement have exceeded all expectations and defied the contempt of the Thai urban elite.

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The modern Thai political system is best viewed as a place dominated by an elite that has never been radically threatened from ‘below.’ Now, the Red Shirt movement threatens the old system at its foundations, a challenge from the phrai (lowly peasant) against the amataya (aristocrat) in a deeply divided country. The old style politics of a firm guiding hand at the top is increasingly coming apart.

An old saying goes ‘One cannot un-ring the bell.’ This perfectly describes the nature of the Thai crisis. The establishment is desperately trying to undo something that has already been done.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Follow him at www.facebook.com/pavinchachavalpongpun