I have long feared that the political instability in Thailand would one day spill over and affect the rest of the ASEAN. And it happened yesterday.
The East Asia summit– and along with it the signing of an agreement allowing the members of the ASEAN to receive about $10 billion in infrastructural loan from China– was aborted after angry demonstrators trooped to the hotel where the leaders of the region were staying.
A while ago, the embattled prime minister of Thailand, Abhisit Vehjajiva, addressed his deeply divided nation, vowing to restore order following one of the biggest embarrassments his country had in recent years. He began by arresting one of the leaders of the protesters, a singer-activist named Arismun Pongreungrong. But the protests are continuing and it is doubtful that the government in Bangkok can contain it, unless it uses violence or heeds the demands of the protesters.
The demonstrators belong to the United Front For Democracy, Against Dictatorship (UDD), which are more commonly known in Thailand as the red shirts. They are supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister who was ousted in a coup in 2006. They demand that the present government step down and call for another elections.
A report by the Inquirer this morning says that the red shirts initially intended to hold their demonstrations peacefully until the pro-government blue shirts arrived on the scene. “There were at least two cases of shootings aimed to harm our red-shirt supporters, a clear evidence of government supporters possessing guns and using them directly at us,” the UDD said.
The blue shirts are practically the same as the yellow shirts. They are anti-Thakisn supporters of the King of Thailand and the government of Abhisit calling themselves the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD).
Ironically, what the People’s Alliance for Democracy wants are hardly democratic.
In 2006, they led massive demonstrations in Bangkok’s Lumpini Park and welcomed a Royally-sanctioned coup instigated by the powerful military that ousted Thaksin. They claimed that Thaksin was corrupt and lambasted his government for favoring a Singaporean firm in a controversial telecommunications deal.
But Thaksin, whose Thaksinomics was credited for the revival of Thailand’s economy in the early 2000s, remains popular with the poor, especially in the rural areas, because of his pro-poor programs that many say adversely affected the interests of the ruling elite.
After the coup, the military junta promulgated a new constitution and called for fresh elections. The result surprised the PAD and their pro-coup allies. Supporters of the ousted prime minister won majority of the seats in parliament in spite of the many legal obstacles the junta laid out for them, including the dissolution of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party. Samak Sundaravej became prime minister.
The PAD did not accept the results of the elections. Again, they led massive demonstrations in Bagkok, this time more violent. They were able to get Samak dismissed by a Thai court for appearing on a television cooking show (Samak was a celebrity chef before he entered politics), which they say is against Thai law. The charges were a stretch. This is because Thai law prohibited only “partnership with an organization carrying out business with a view to sharing profits or being an employee of any person.” Samak did not receive renumeration in his appearance in the cooking show.
The court’s decision to oust Samak conspicously came after he declared a state of emergency, which the police and the military practically ignored, to quell the violent protests. The PAD by that time had occupied the Government House and other major areas in Bagkok. They have publicly refused to heed to lawful authorities.
Nevertheless, Samak’s dismissal didn’t lead to the ouster of the pro-Thaksin government. In fact, Samak was replaced by an even closer Thaksin associate, his brother-in-law Somchai Wongsawat. This infuriated the PAD more, and they continued their violent protests.
The PAD’s demands were ridiculous for a group calling itself commited to democracy. They insisted that majority of the members of parliament be appointed instead of elected. This is because they claim that the majority of the Thai people are illiterate and are unable to make good choice of candidates in elections.
Late last year, PAD paralyzed the country by occupying and closing down the Suvarnabhumi Airport, demanding the ouster of Somchai and saying that the only man they can accept as prime minister is Abhisit Vehjajiva, leader of the Democrat Party, which was allied to the PAD. The police and the military refused to disperse the demonstrators, and political confusion ensued, leading to the dissolution of the pro-Thaksin People’s Power Party (PPP) and the appointment of Abhisit as new prime minister.
The supporters of Thaksin and the PPP, who happen to comprise the real majority, was of course unhappy with the appointment of Abhisit. And, like the PAD before them, they led violent protests– including a deadly assault on Abhisit’s car and culminating in the siege of the hotel in Pattaya that led to the cancellation of the East Asia Summit.
What’s happening in Thailand now is a political battle between the rural poor backing Thaksin, and the ruling elite- composed of the royalists, the urban middle class, the upper class and the military- backing Abhisit. It is somehow similar to the 2001 battle in the Philippines between the urban poor that backed (or is still backing) Joseph Estrada and the ruling elite- composed of the Catholic church, the urban middle class, the upper class, the Left and the military top brass, that then backed Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
In the Philippines, an extra-constitutional conspiracy by the ruling elite led to the fall of Estrada. It was followed by an urban insurrection led by his followers, which was cleverly quelled by Arroyo through sheer force. While the rift between the masses and the elite is still there, the struggle now is between Arroyo and her ilks (mostly local political dynasties) on one hand and the rest of all the political players (the middle class, the upper class, the urban poor and the Erap-identified political opposition, the reformist and progressive religious groups, the Left, the Rightists in the military, and the marginalized politicians) working separately on the other hand. But although threats of military intervention still float occassionaly, Arroyo’s Machiavellian shrewdness was able to paint a Philippine political picture that is somehow better than Thailand’s.
In Thailand, the political players’ disregard for due process has led to the country dangerously tilting towards becoming a banana kingdom. I say this is dangerous because if left unchecked, ASEAN’s regional instability could be affected. Last year, for example, the conservative element in PAD had a part in forcing the Thai government to turn more hawkish in its border dispute with Cambodia, despite the fact that, prior to PAD’s protests, Bangkok had always recognized an ICJ ruling that favors Pnom Penh.
Although both groups- the PAD and the UDD- are guilty of disregarding due process, the PAD should be at the receiving end of the greater blame. This is because, firstly, PAD was the one which forced the military back into the coup-staging business after more than a decade and, secondly, PAD was the one which set the precedence of pursuing political ends through mob rule by taking over the Government House and the Suvarnabhumi Airport last year.
In the case of UDD, they resorted to violence because, like the anti-Arroyo forces in the Philippines, they could not express their views through all legal means available. True, the PAD forces can never win in an electoral battle with the UDD, but such is democracy. In a democracy you persuade your fellow citizens into accepting your view. You don’t call those who disagree with you stupid. You don’t impose your will upon the majority.
I don’t claim to know more about the Thai political landscape than the Thais themselves, of course. I’ve only been to Thailand once. But as I see it, the best way to solve their crisis is for their King to intervene. But in doing so he must not be dependent on his advisers (who are practically all pro-PAD). He must ask all to calm down and settle their differences peacefully. The government must be dissolved and fresh parliamentary elections must be held. And the King must appeal to everyone to respect the result of such an election, and to enforce the law against those who seek to undermine it.