Thailand has experienced turmoil in the last decade due to volatile political forces which have led to massive protests by pro and anti-government forces. Tensions further increased as the now former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has been removed from office by the Constitutional Court. While current attention has been focused on the military, many questions still remain:
What does the future hold for Thailand?
Will recent events herald in a further downward spiral that will lead to more serious economic and political problems?…
There are several issues and players involved in the current turmoil. While most analyses seem to focus on the division between the rich (Bangkok elite) and the poor (north and northeast rural populations) as drivers behind the instability, there is more at play than meets the eye.
The first is the high level of corruption exhibited by both the Pheu Thai party and its counterpart the Democratic Party which has overseen the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PRDC, the formal name for the anti-government protestors referred to as yellow shirts). Manipulation of the courts and the political appointment of senators have stymied the ability of Yingluck Shinawatra, the former prime minister who was recently ordered out of office, to successfully rule the country.
Although it has not helped that she bungled the response to massive flooding, advocated a flawed rice buying program, and attempted a controversial political amnesty bill. The use of anti-government protestors whose ability to campaign has almost certainly been funded and led by anti-Pheu Thai elites has caused crisis after crisis, most notably during the recent election where they actively worked to prevent voting and candidate registration. Overall, there has been an increase in illicit financial flows of nearly 600% from 2002-2011 (according to data from Global Financial Integrity). Corruption increasing on this scale has undermined the process of democracy and the legitimacy of actors that are both for and against either party.
In addition to corruption, the inability of the Democratic Party to come up with a viable policy platform to include rural voters has undermined their ability to get elected. Given the consistent preference of rural Thais for Shinawatra’s policies, it seems short-sighted to simply ignore them. At the same time, the use of politically motivated subsidies (I’m talking about the highly distorting rice-buying scheme instituted by the Pheu party) is hardly a useful method for redressing the urban-rural wealth imbalance. However, whether these policies are good or not do not rest on me to decide, but rather the Thai people, who have been repeatedly denied the ability to vote on these issues themselves. Instead, rural people are told that their votes are misguided, ill-informed, or bought. These insults amount to excuses levied by the Democratic Party that cannot adapt to the demands of the people so instead play dirty politics which further undermines the process of democracy that they purport to uphold.
In the background of this political drama lies the problem of succession in the Thai monarchy. Currently King Bhumibol is old, ill, and withdrawn, leaving a large question mark as to who his successor will be and what kind of government the next king (or queen?) would back. The most likely candidate is Prince Vajiralongkorn who is well known for his debauchery and hedonistic lifestyle. It is quite likely that he favors the Shinawatras given his provision of soldiers to former PM Yingluck and the payment of his gambling debts by Thaksin. From what I gather, the opposition is incentivized to pick a different candidate more amenable to their interests. But that means they need control of the government to smooth out the succession (most likely Princess Sirindhorn). Regardless, the uncertainty has lent urgency to the actions of both parties which has further intensified the political wrangling.
From my perspective I can see four possible outcomes: 1) one of the political parties wins and crushes the other, 2) each side keeps tensions high but muddles through for a couple more years, 3) the military reasserts power, or 4) the country descends into chaos.
The key factor seems to be how the actors decide to address their problems. I believe that a return to undemocratic rule with the blessing of the military seems likely. What I have trouble guessing is whether this will provoke a violent reaction from the Pheu political party. I can’t see violence having any sort of beneficial effect for Yingluck or Thaksin, so I don’t imagine that they would advocate for that. However, violence can often be triggered by a small spark when tensions are high making it difficult for either side to back down. Further, unknown leaders can be catapulted into the limelight which usurp party control and give a movement a life of its own. Also, considering that any violent uprising could be fueled by smuggled arms from the United Wa State Army in Burma, this makes it easier for rebels to start a fight. If a military backed government was to address the concerns of rural Thais more systematically then it could ameliorate some of the tensions.
I can’t see the political crisis being resolved in any way that is satisfactory to one party or the other given the tactics pursued. The only foreseeable resolution will come through the assertion of control through political power since the Democratic Party is totally uncommitted to abiding by democratic outcomes.
That’s all for now. Watch for my next post next week where I’ll explore some ways that this crisis can be resolved…
Featured Photo by Mike Behnken.