The current truce between Thailand’s royalist elite and the populist government led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose brother Thaksin was ousted in a royally-sanctioned coup in 2006, has been a refreshing respite from the taxing instability that the Kingdom had to endure during the latter part of the last decade. Unfortunately, a storm that could disturb this fragile peace seems to be brewing in Bangkok.
On one hand, the Parliament and the Constitution Court are on a collision course over the ruling Puea Thai Party’s moves to have the military-imposed 2006 Constitution replaced. The Court, invoking its judicial review powers, has issued a restraining order against parliamentary debates on the proposed charter change measure; but the ruling party insists that the Court has no jurisdiction, citing a constitutional provision that says judicial review of parliamentary bills must be prompted by the Attorney-General first. Nitirat, an organization of law professors from Thammasat University, has urged the Parliament to defy the high court.
On the other hand, the debates in Parliament over the National Reconciliation Bill are bringing the colored crowd back to the streets. The bill, authored by 2006 coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, contains a blanket amnesty provision for all political offenses committed from 2005 to 2011. The opposition Democrat Party, which instigated an embarrassing brawl during a parliamentary session, alleges that the bill will pave the way for Thaksin’s return. The royalist Yellow Shirts have launched an “Occupy Parliament” protests against the bill, while the pro-Thaksin Red Shirts are mobilizing “to protect” the Parliament.
These two developments could severely test the mettle of Prime Minister Yingluck, whose heavyweight allies have recently returned to the scene following a five-year political ban. The onus is for her to diffuse these crisis-provoking tensions without undermining her own support base.
Backing off on these two measures could greatly undermine the Prime Minister’s authority among her Red Shirt supporters, especially in light of her refusal to amend the country’s draconian lese majeste laws, and of Thaksin’s widely-criticized insinuations— which he subsequently denied– that he’s willing to work with the royalist elite. But conversely, defying the Constitution Court could result in the banning of her political party, while ramming the reconciliation bill could provoke another Red Shirt-Yellow Shirt street confrontation that might invite extra-constitutional interventions from the army or the Palace.
It’s true that there’s currently an arrangement of sorts between Prime Minister Yingluck and the royalist elite led by the President of His Majesty’s Privy Council, General Prem Tinsunalonda, and the army chief, General Prayuth Chanocha. This arrangement calls on the government to keep the royalist order intact, on Thaksin to stay in Dubai, and on the army to stay in their barracks. So far, the Prime Minister is keeping her end of the bargain; but would the King’s men keep theirs?
For now, they have to. But in the event of another major ruckus in Bangkok, or a crippling constitutional crisis between the Legislative and the Judiciary, I’m sure they will– at the very least– be tempted to intervene.
The royalists know that they can’t really keep Thaksin away indefinitely, and that they would all be finished as soon as the ailing King passes away. This is why I think the army and the Palace would find any opportunity to write the rules of the post-Bhumibol era extremely appealing.