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Demo-crazy in Thailand
Publication Date : 18-12-2013
A likely coup against Thaksin Shinawatra was the main topic of discussion during a dinner with friends in a quaint Iranian restaurant in Silom, Bangkok, on the night of Sept 19, 2006.
Bizarrely, it happened while we were there.
On the way back from an assignment in India, I had stopped over to catch up with friends whom I had met when I was there as editor of the Asia News Network between 2002 and 2004.
The host, who had overindulged in wine, decided it would be safer to drop me off at the nearest subway station than to drive me to the hotel.
When the train pulled up two stops away, a group of soldiers carrying assault rifles were among those who boarded it.
Shortly after, the host called and said: “It’s happening now. The army has taken over.”
I called my colleague, Philip Golingai, who had just taken over as ANN editor weeks earlier. I stayed back for a few more days to help him cover the events that took place in the aftermath.
What has changed since then? Not much. Beneath the veneer of democracy, Thai politics has been in a state of dysfunction.
Despite being ousted in 2006, the cop-turned multi-billionaire still looms large over the country, dividing the elite and middle class in Bangkok and the southern provinces and the poorer folk in the north and north-east.
Thaksin won in 2001 with micro-credit loans, affordable healthcare and cash handouts to poor villagers.
It was deemed vote buying by opponents but his populism resonated well with the masses trapped in poverty with limited room for social mobility.
But his government was mired in allegations of corruption and human rights abuses, especially after the arbitrary killing of suspected drug dealers.
The first “yellow shirt” protest started after he sold his Shin Corp to Singapore’s Temasek Holdings in a tax-free 73.3 billion baht (US$2.3 billion) deal.
When hundreds of thousands took to the streets to demand his resignation, he called for a snap election in April 2006, but the opposition Democrat Party, boycotted the polls.
The election was nullified because his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party did not get 20 per cent of the votes in the southern constituencies as required under the law. But before fresh polls could be held, the military staged the coup.
Since then, the power of Parliament appears to have been curtailed while that of the judiciary has been enhanced.
Unlike the “People’s Constitution” drafted in 1997 and hailed for its breadth and depth of reforms, the 2007 constitution, drawn up in the wake of the coup, has added much to the political instability.
Two elected governments, both linked to Thaksin, have been ejected by the courts.
Samak Sundaravej, a former journalist and chef who set up the People’s Power Party (PPP) from the ruins of the court-dissolved TRT, served from January to September 2008.
He was forced to quit after the Supreme Court ruled that his appearances on a TV cooking show violated the constitution.
Thaksin’s brother-in-law, Somchai Wongsawat, left two months later along with his Cabinet after the Constitutional Court found the PPP guilty of electoral fraud and barred its leaders from contesting in polls.
Thousands of yellow-shirted People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) who had camped out at the country’s two main airports celebrated his ouster and ended their occupation.
But the pro-Thaksin United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) red shirts were enraged. They saw it as a “judicial coup” to take away their power of votes.
They formed the Puea Thai party with former police chief Pracha Promnok as candidate for the premiership but in the vote to pick the next prime minister, he lost to Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva by 38 votes.
The man in the centre of the current political storm, People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) leader Suthep Thuagsuban, was among Abhisit’s three deputies.
It was the turn of the red shirts of the UDD to hold protests, which quickly turned violent.
Between April and May 2010, more than 90 people were killed and thousands were injured.
Thaksin power was back, via his sister Yingluck, when Puea Thai won the polls by a landslide in July 2011, again after months of festering violence.
Just when a semblance of stability seemed to have set, tensions were reignited by a controversial bill to provide amnesty for political offences since the 2006 coup.
The PDRC protesters demanded Yingluck’s resignation for abusing her powers and wanting to absolve Thaksin of his corruption-related criminal conviction.
The massive protests and storming of government departments, including her office and the police headquarters, continued even after she offered to withdraw the bill.
When opposition MPs added to the turmoil by resigning, Yingluck dissolved parliament and called for a snap election on February 2.
Suthep, who, along with Abhisit, faces murder charges for his role in the 2010 deadly crackdown has made it clear that elections should be suspended and a “People’s Council” be given powers to make political reforms – ironically, in the name of democracy.
The yellow shirts don’t want polls because the Democrats have never won since 1992. How would it end? No one seems to know but most agree that the situation is highly volatile.
On the surface, the generals appear not to be taking sides. Army commander General Prayuth Chan-ocha has insisted that the military is neutral and would continue to maintain peace and social order. But with a country which has seen 13 coups and eight attempted coups since 1912, one can never be sure.