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Thailand's political 'Groundhog Day'
Publication Date : 17-12-2013
With the dissolution of its Parliament after weeks of protest, Thailand is living through a political Groundhog Day, the Bill Murray movie in which the hero has to relive the previous day over and over again.
But in Thailand, Groundhog Day is either Red or Yellow Shirt Day – depending on the political season.
Whoever’s day it is, both sides are equally destructive and childish.
This time around (and much like in 2010), protests have paralysed Bangkok, choking precious economic growth and leading to fatalities.
The lines between the two groups – the Red Shirts and the Yellow Shirts – are stark and the next polls, regardless of how decisive they might be, are unlikely to close the gap.
The country’s Yellow Shirts (generally urban-based, conservative and royalist) loathe the upstart Shinawatra clan.
Needless to say, the feeling is mutual for Shinawatra’s Red Shirt supporters.
Of course, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra is the royalists’ ultimate bogeyman and they suspect that he is still pulling the strings despite having spent most of the last decade abroad.
It’s certainly true that Thaksin has transformed Thailand’s socio-political landscape, shattering the power of the Bangkok elite and polarising Thais over his policies.
Even the increasingly desperate calls from the ailing yet still revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej for stability and security has had little impact.
A temporary lull was observed for his birthday, but strife has quickly resumed.
Clearly, the old sources of authority are losing their force. What will replace them is not clear.
The current cycle of violence was sparked when Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (the younger sister of Thaksin) attempted to introduce a political amnesty bill which would have prepared the ground for her brother’s return.
This ill-timed initiative set off a political firestorm.
The Yellow Shirts, emboldened by the fallout of her miscalculation, are now endeavouring to remove a duly elected leader.
I should add that even though I am a close friend of both Abhisit Vejjajiva and Korn Chatikavanij – two key opposition Democrat Party leaders – I cannot agree with this self-styled “people’s uprising.”
Yingluck – who was denounced by her predecessor Abhisit as the “centre of comprehensive corruption practices” – has called for a snap election scheduled for February 2014, ostensibly to let voters decide how the crisis should end.
It’s likely that – as in the past – Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party will emerge victorious.
However, it’s just as likely that the Yellow Shirts will still be determined to be rid of the Shinawatras: leaving Thais back at square one.
It has been seven years since Thaksin was removed by a military coup and two general elections have taken place.
Yet Thailand remains crippled by unresolved political tension.
This is just the latest example of the extreme polarisation Thailand faces. Has democracy in Thailand failed?
The problem starts when players confuse the concept of “democracy” with political parties and elections.
In effect, it becomes “democratic” if I get my way and “undemocratic” if I don’t.
But it’s wrong to conflate “political parties” with “democracy” as the two are at times very much at odds.
Political parties are built on an emphasis of difference, while democracy is about how a society can successfully reconcile them.
The tragedy for Thailand is that it is increasingly difficult for either the Red Shirts or Yellow Shirts to agree on anything important at all.
One key lesson can be drawn here: politics and democracy involves much more than just parties.
It’s not enough for a country to simply hold free and fair elections – although no country can call itself a democracy without these.
Rather, societies must accept that people will not always agree and that no government can ever be accepted wholesale by the entirety of its people.
This not only means that opposition parties have to accept legitimate election results.
It also means that no government, regardless of their electoral majority, has the right to run roughshod over the rights of minorities – especially in societies undergoing fundamental change.
At the end of Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character grows as a person and eventually escapes the time warp cycle he is trapped in.
It remains to be seen if Thailand can likewise achieve a similar breakthrough, but you can bet your last baht that the February 2014 elections won’t bring the impasse to an end.
Thais certainly deserve much better than this.