Thaksin’s other sister

A week before the Philippines achieved its first investment grade status, credit ratings agency Fitch upgraded Thailand’s ratings three notches higher than non-investment levels. The said upgrades were in recognition of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s ability to maintain political stability just a couple of years after divisions created by his brother Thaksin almost succeeded in tearing Thailand apart.

A farang expert on Thai politics once described Thaksin as a Thai Mussolini. The erstwhile mogul and former police chief built a patronage system that rivals that of the monarchy’s. His strong support base, composed mostly of the rural poor in the kingdom’s Isan region, made him a formidable alternative power pole to King Bhumibol Adulyadej‘s circle. His populist economic policy– dubbed by ex-Presidet Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as Thaksinomics– gave Thailand its first economic turn-around since the Asian Financial Crisis; but his tenure was marked with alleged corruption, human rights abuses, and authoritarian tendencies. In 2006, he was ousted in a military coup that was widely believed to have been engineered by the President of His Majesty’s Privy Council, General Prem Tinsunalonda.

Since then, Thailand has been in a protracted political war between the Thaksinite forces and their Red Shirt street army on one hand, and the coalition among the Palace, the royalist mandarins that make up the ammart and their allies in the military, the Bangkok elite, and the Yellow Shirt middle class activists on the other.

When the post-Thaksin junta was forced to call for elections in 2007, the Thaksinites succeeded in getting Samak Sundaravej to rule as Prime Minister on Thaksin’s behalf. The ammart responded by having him impeached for appearing in his cooking show on TV. Just the same, the Thaksinites replaced him with Thaksin’s brother-in-law, Somchai Wongsawat, prompting the royalists to resort to a judicial coup: The Constitutional Court had Prime Minister Somchai and the pro-Thaksin People’s Power Party banned from politics, and the military brokered an anti-Thaksin minority government led by British-born Abhisit Vejjajiva. Meanwhile, Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt protests became a constant sight on the streets of Bangkok, culminating in destructive occupation of public buildings like the Suvharnabumi Airport and violent riots that, at one point, caused the evacuation of heads of state in town for a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The ruckus subsided with the landslide election of Thaksin’s sister, the charming Yingluck, as premier in 2011. Aware of the enormous costs of the paralyzing street protests that embarrassed the kingdom and turned investors away, the Thaksinite forces and the Yellow coalition seemed to have agreed on what I’ve called a testy truce, under which the Prime Minister and her allies would keep Thaksin abroad and the royalist order intact, and the army won’t launch a coup.

But Thaksin didn’t have to return to Thailand to rule. Observers marvel at how the fugitive ex-premier has employed the Internet to run the government in Bangkok: He presides over Cabinet meetings and give instructions to officials and members of the ruling Pheu Thai party through Skype, and holds court in Dubai and Hong Kong, summoning party leaders and receiving politicians eager to get Cabinet portfolios. Even the parliamentary debates on the controversial two-trillion-baht infrastructure bill is being supervised by the former prime minister via remote control.  As a result, Prime Minister Yingluck has taken to insisting, at almost every possible occasion, that she, not her brother, runs the government.

Meanwhile, political maneuverings continue. Every now and then the Thaksinite government would introduce bills that aim to change the military-imposed 2006 constitution and issue a blanket amnesty on all offenses prior to the coup, while the royalists would have the Constitutional Court thwart the said actions. Last year, in an interesting ploy, the Thaksinite forces had former Prime Minister Abhisit indicted for murder in connection with his government’s handling of the Red Shirt protests of 2009. It was obviously designed to get the opposition Democratic Party to support the blanket amnesty bill– after all, Abhisit, not just Thaksin, would benefit, too.

Perhaps in retaliation, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) started this month an inquiry into allegations that Prime Minister Yingluck had misdeclared her financial statement. The message from the ammart is clear: If we could boot Prime Minister Samak out of office for cooking on TV, we can boot Prime Minister Yingluck out over false financial statements, too. This is classic political brinkmanship, to which Thaksin won’t succumb: One of his minions, Kasem Nimmonrat of Chiang Mai, has resigned from parliament, paving the way for Thaksin’s other younger sister, Yaowapa Wongsawat, wife of former Prime Minister Somchai, to run for the seat.

Since Chiang Mai is a Thaksin bailiwick, Yaowapa will surely be in parliament by this month, ready to replace Yingluck should the NACC oust her. Thaksin’s other sister, therefore, is also his spare tire.

Another showdown in Thailand?

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.

Thailand after Bhumibol

As the pompous Coronation Day celebrations in Thailand climaxed yesterday, I was reminded of an old Thai prophecy that says the present Chakri dynasty would only last for nine generations—King Bhumibol Adulyadej is the ninth Chakri monarch—and that a tenth one would be disastrous. Given the current political context in Thailand, this prediction has become nine times more believable today.

King Bhumibol is without a doubt the most notable Southeast Asian monarch since King Chulalongkorn the Great, who modernized Siam and kept it free from colonial control. Ascending to the then largely irrelevant throne by accident in 1946, he saved it from extinction and, through his charisma and political acumen, revived it to become one of the few politically relevant monarchies in modern times. Skillful in dispensing patronage and influence, he became powerful to the point that he could make national leaders come on their knees, literally, when summoned.

Continue reading “Thailand after Bhumibol”

Thaksin is back

Well, his allies are.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajiva of the Democrat Party has reportedly conceded defeat to the opposition Pheu Thai party after exit polls projected a landslide victory for the pro-Thaksin opposition. Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, is certain to be the next prime minister. Reports seems to suggest that her party will be able to form a government without the need to negotiate coalitions with smaller parties.

The election results is a repudiation of the Royalists, the Bangkok elite and the military establishment and their Yellow Shirts supporters, who had ousted Thaksin, a legitimately-elected but arguably autocratic prime minister who had dared to challenge the power of the Royal Court yet remains popular among the rural poor, in a royally-sanctioned military coup in 2006. The ouster of Thaksin has deeply divided the country between the Yellow Shirts and the Red Shirts– the marginalized constituents of Thaksin’s populism.

For the short term, perhaps the Thai-Cambodian border dispute could subside, now that the Democrats are no longer in power; afterall, it is the Yellow Shirt constituency that has been beating the nationalist drums over the otherwise already-resolved dispute. Or perhaps the Yellow Shirts could use the dispute to try to topple the new Shinawatra government?

Would this election lead to improved political stability in Thailand? I see no reason to be optimistic.

Abhisit a democrat?

I know it’s common for ambassadors everywhere to kiss their prime minister’s ass, but the remarks made by Thai envoy in Manila Kulukumut Singhara Na Ayudhaya made me squirm. In an interview with the Inquirer, Kulukumut said: “Our prime minister is too much democratic. He wants to solve the situation in a democratic way. He wants to use soft measure to make people come together”

I wonder if democratic and “soft” measures have different meanings in Thailand, because in other places leading a government devoid of electoral mandate and letting the army shoot on the protesters are neither the”democratic way” nor a “soft measure.”

Continue reading “Abhisit a democrat?”

Double standards.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajiva has declared a state of emergency in Bangkok in an effort to quell the violent protest actions by the red shirted supporters of ousted leader Thaksin Shinawatra. The emergency declaration empowers the police and the military to disperse a gathering of five people, make warrant-less arrests and even censor the media. Abhisit’s deputy, Channel News Asia reported yesterday, appealed on the army to impose this emergency declaration.

The army heeded his appeal. A while ago, troops fired rubber bullets and threw tear gases on the protesters, who vowed to continue their protests until the government calls for an election. The confrontation is poised to turn bloody in the next hours, and many countries, including Japan and the Philippines, have issued travel advisories urging their citizens to avoid Thailand.

Continue reading “Double standards.”

Thailand: A banana kingdom, thanks to PAD.

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.

Continue reading “Thailand: A banana kingdom, thanks to PAD.”