A People’s coup by Thailand’s minority

Author: Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Chulalongkorn University

Never has Thai politics degenerated so quickly from uneasy accommodation to outright insurrection in just a month.

A Thai opposition protester holds up a placard showing protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban hitting prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra during a rally at the Interior Ministry in Bangkok on 1 December 2013. (Photo: AAP)

It started with a broad-based opposition to an expansive amnesty legislation that would have absolved former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from corruption and abuse of power but it has ended up as a civilian putsch by anti-Thaksin forces, led by the opposition Democrat Party and its erstwhile heavyweight MP Suthep Thaugsuban. On an anti-corruption crusade and intent on uprooting what they call the ‘Thaksin regime’, these forces incorporate previous yellow shirts and other anti-Thaksin columns from recent years. Whether they succeed in removing the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s younger sister, from power and installing their own government will determine the direction of Thai democracy.

After sailing through the lower house, dominated by the ruling Pheu Thai Party, the amnesty legislation was effectively aborted in the senate on government instructions. Alarmed by the popular anti-amnesty movement, Yingluck backtracked on support for the bill, a signal for pro-government senators to follow suit. But by that time the anti-amnesty movement had gained traction as the scattered anti-Thaksin columns found common ground and renewed energy to take the Yingluck government to task. Even the red-shirt supporters of the Pheu Thai Party felt betrayed by the amnesty bill because it would have exonerated those they see as the perpetrators of the violent crackdown against their street demonstrations in May 2010.

As the amnesty debacle played out, a constitutional amendment to make the senate from a half-appointed to a fully elected chamber was nullified by the Constitutional Court. However, the Pheu Thai Party has refused to accept the Court’s authority. The same court previously dissolved the Pheu Thai Party’s preceding vehicles twice in 2007–08 and banned 220 elected politicians along the way, not to mention disqualifying a sitting prime minister from power for having hosted a cooking show. Pheu Thai and the Yingluck government would certainly be of the opinion that the Court is biased against them. Constitutional Court judges, who in Thailand swear an oath of allegiance to the King, were adamant against a fully elected senate because it would then be like the money politics of the lower house and unable to perform a checks-and-balance function.

It is now clear from Suthep’s public statements that the anti-government demonstrations and his protest movement are motivated by the government’s refusal to accept the Constitutional Court decision that the senate amendment bill violated the Thailand’s constitution. According to Suthep, the King would come under pressure to either countersign or see the bill become law if government MPs stick to it. In response, Suthep has formed and led the ‘People’s Democratic Reform Committee’ into physically occupying government ministries and state agencies. Their objective is to take back the reins of government and institute political reforms that would elevate the role of the monarchy in Thai democracy. His people’s committee also has told television stations to only broadcast its activities, not the government’s.

For its part, the Yingluck government thus far has matched Suthep’s provocation with so much restraint that it looks inept and impotent. The authorities have allowed protesters’ takeovers of state installations for fear of violence and bloodshed. In 2008, a similar street protest led by yellow shirts against a pro-Thaksin proxy government faced police dispersal after the army refused to follow government orders. Two protesters died, and the police have been seen as the bad guys since. The Queen presided over the funeral of one of the two protesters. This time, the Yingluck government knows that it cannot survive if there is bloodshed of any kind in the streets.

Supported by the roughly two fifths of the voting electorate who have lost successive elections to Thaksin’s parties, Suthep’s civilian putsch has brought Thailand to yet another brink. His anticipation is for a government overreaction and ensuing violence, prompting an outside intervention from the army or the judiciary to restore order and break the deadlock. If he succeeds, the red shirts are likely to come back for more protests, as they did in 2009–10 after their government was disbanded to the benefit of the opposing Democrat Party. If Suthep fails, he will have exposed the chasm between the monarchy and electoral democracy in Thailand’s political future, and further weakened the Democrat Party’s electoral base.

There is now no easy exit option. Thailand’s murky road can only move forward by returning the mandate to the electorate under clearer circumstances. If she survives the immediate hours ahead, Prime Minister Yingluck should apologise for the amnesty bill and accept for now the senate verdict by the Constitutional Court. She can then announce an earlier election, perhaps in mid-2014 which is the third-year mark of her four-year term.

Many Thais want the Democrat Party to do better in the electoral arena and parliament. The Democrats boycotted an election in 2006 and may do so again to lay conditions for an outside intervention. Their core supporters need to revamp the party with new leadership, new policy ideas, and renewed commitment to parliamentary democracy. If the Democrats fare better at the polls, they will be less likely to resort to street-based and extra-parliamentary outcomes.

Elections are not a panacea. Majority rule must accommodate more minority grievances. The lawmaking standards and personal integrity of Thai politicians must be improved. Endemic corruption must be vigorously tackled. The impartiality of checks-and-balance institutions, such as the Constitutional Court and the anti-corruption commission, must be strengthened. If there is a longer-term silver lining, Suthep’s brinkmanship and Yingluck’s ability to survive and to emerge more from Thaksin’s shadows may actually bode well for democratic entrenchment in Thailand.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is Associate Professor and Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok. A version of this article was published in The Wall Street Journal Asia on 2 December 2013.