Thailand’s Turbulent Year

Thailand saw flooding, criticism over its lese majeste laws and its first female premier. Its been turbulent year.

Three issues made 2011 an interesting but turbulent year for Thailand: Yingluck Shinawatra, the three-month flooding disaster, and lese majesté.

Yingluck made history when her party dominated the elections this year, which allowed her to become Thailand’s first female prime minister. Her critics, though, accused her of being a mere proxy of her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted from power in 2006. Yingluck’s victory didn’t impress many feminists, but it’s still a significant gain for the political opposition identified with Thaksin.

Still, it was the deadly flooding tragedy, not Thaksin, which proved to be the first serious challenge to Yingluck’s leadership. As expected, her enemies portrayed her as a weak and incompetent leader who failed to handle the floods properly. Massive floods hit most countries in Southeast Asia this year, but Thailand suffered the most when floodwaters submerged a third of the country’s provinces, including major industrial estates, 4.4 million acres of agricultural land, and 470 areas of Bangkok. More than 600 people died in the floods, while 2.4 million families have been displaced from their homes in the past three months.

However, Thailand’s international image suffered not only because of the country’s flooding woes, but also because of the government’s aggressive efforts to implement its very strict and rigid lese majesté laws. Aside from convicting a 61-year-old man to 20 years in prison for sending text messages that insulted the royal family, Thailand’s harsh laws attracted global attention when authorities banned 761,416 webpages that are deemed offensive to the King.

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Thai politics certainly seemed less bloody and violent as the year went on compared with the Yellow Shirt airport takeover in 2008, the Red Shirt riots last year, and border clashes with Cambodia earlier this year. But as in previous years, they are still more divisive than ever. The flooding disaster, which was reported to be the worst in 50 years, is also expected to generate a political backlash in the coming months if the government is unable to provide immediate and sustained assistance to flooded communities.

It can only be hoped that when the monsoon rains return next year, Yingluck will be better prepared to minimize flooding casualties. But she should also start addressing the other contentious political issues in the country, such as rising inequality, erosion of democratic values, creeping censorship of online media, and corruption in high places.