After a year of military-imposed political order, the specter of instability is rising again in Thailand. As self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra and coup-maker premier Prayuth Chan-ocha trade barbs and threats, including sensitive accusations involving the monarchy, new rounds of confrontation seem more likely than long-term reconciliation.
The controversy was sparked by Thaksin’s claim in a May interview published by a South Korean newspaper that the royal advisory Privy Council was instrumental in staging the anti-government street protests that served as pretext for the May 2014 military coup that toppled the beleaguered remnant of Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra’s elected administration.
Prayuth has denied that palace advisers played any role in his putsch, which the former army commander has consistently insisted was launched to restore stability after months of debilitating, and at times lethal, protests. Those convulsions were launched in response to a proposed political amnesty by the Thaksin-aligned Peua Thai party that would have allowed the criminally convicted Thaksin to return to Thailand a free man.
Prayuth’s government said Thaksin’s allegations of royal palace involvement in last year’s street turmoil threatened national “security, safety and pride” and responded with moves to cancel Thaksin’s passports, revoke his official police titles and strip his royal decorations. Thaksin also faces possible anti-royal charges, which under Thailand’s draconian lese majeste law carry possible 15 year prison terms. (Privy councilors, however, are not shielded from public criticism under the law.)
Thailand’s post-coup stability has been underpinned by a military-calibrated combination of accommodation and repression. While Thaksin’s political allies, including top ‘Red Shirt’ protest leaders, have been largely silenced by threats to their personal assets and interests, the business interests of Thaksin’s family have been left largely untouched. Grass roots activists have faced severe repression and surveillance, including firmly enforced bans on political activities and speech.
As the political temperature rises, Bangkok-based analysts wonder whether Prayuth’s recently declared ‘war on corruption’ will take aim at Thaksin’s family, including his son Pongthongtae’s Voice TV news station and the SC Asset property company where Yingluck previously served as chief executive officer and Thaksin’s youngest daughter’s husband is now a top executive involved in new property launches. Purges to date have centered on Thaksin allies in government, including transfers aimed at severing his influence among the police force.
Prayuth’s government has come under steady pressure from top royalists, including influential Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda, to ramp up anti-corruption measures. Some analysts believe those pressures contributed to the Attorney General Office’s decision to pursue criminal negligence charges against Yingluck for her loss-making rice price subsidy scheme, even after she was retroactively impeached and banned from politics for five years by the military-appointed National Legislative Assembly on a similar charge in January.
Although Yingluck has maintained her innocence and vowed to fight her case in court, Bangkok-based analysts and diplomats believe the threat of ten years in prison and questions of judicial independence under military rule will, barring an eleventh hour political compromise, likely drive her into exile alongside her elder brother. Scores of Thaksin’s harassed Red Shirt supporters have fled into exile since the coup, with groups in Europe, Japan and the Philippines.
Some analysts believe Thaksin may have broken his post-coup silence in frustration over the new draft constitution and perpetually postponed elections, which were most recently pushed back to September 2016. Several charter provisions, including a new mixed representative voting system, allowances for an unelected prime minister and measures to weaken political parties and politicians, appear designed to prevent Thaksin and his Peua Thai party from resuming their past political domination.
Thaksin had not openly criticized the draft charter while his Peua Thai allies, including former justice secretary Pongthep Thepkanjana, negotiated with charter drafters for amendments to key points. However, Thaksin’s view of the charter was put succinctly in a recent LINE message to a foreign interlocutor involved with reconciliation efforts. The message: “Nobody trusts this constitution. Lizards cannot lay swan eggs.” In a subtler message on his now reactivated Instagram feed, Thaksin wrote he felt “compassion” for the military government but lamented its recent actions would cause “disunity.”
Indeed, future stability will hinge on how Thaksin and his until now quiescent political camp respond to the threats and narrowed prospects under a new charter. There were already hints of dissent. Last month monitoring authorities shut down Peace TV, a Red Shirt-affiliated satellite news station, for violating junta censorship guidelines on acceptable news. Military and police raided the station in April after former army commander, ex-prime minister and Thaksin ally Chavalit Yongchaiyudh denied on-air responsibility for a car bomb attack on the tourist island of Koh Samui.
Authorities have pinned blame for a spate of small scale bombings, including one in front of a high-end shopping mall in Bangkok and another at a criminal court, on rogue Red Shirts. Other analysts believe supporters of the military regime may have manufactured certain low-grade blasts to justify the maintenance of Prayuth’s tough security regime, previously defined under martial law and currently under Article 44 of the junta’s interim constitution. Prayuth has repeatedly said that new elections could be postponed for reasons of security.
Earlier it was believed Thaksin was content to wait on the political sidelines and allow Prayuth’s military government to oversee the delicate royal succession upon the passing of ailing 87-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Many felt the coup, led by troops loyal to Queen Sirikit, had served to consolidate her long-held wish that her heir apparent son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, will be crowned the next monarch. It’s also the succession scenario Thaksin and many of his Red Shirt supporters are known to favor.
Last year’s public revelations of an extensive criminal network run by Vajiralongkorn’s former consort’s royally decorated family members, however, renewed speculation about possible alternative outcomes. In turn, the mass popular outpouring in celebration of Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn’s 60th birthday on April 2, marked by an officially sponsored proliferation of purple flags and garments bearing her royal symbol, has signaled many Thais would embrace her accession to the throne.
That may explain why Thaksin took aim at the Privy Council rather than the coup-maker government’s constitution and election timeline in breaking his post-coup silence. In certain succession scenarios, the Privy Council is legally empowered to appoint a princess as successor to the throne, a move the current military-appointed National Legislative Assembly would likely endorse. In alleging royal advisors played a role in last year’s democracy-suspending coup, Thaksin has hinted his camp could yet challenge the council’s authority and legitimacy when the time comes to crown the next king.