Backgrounder on Thailand’s Political Crisis

Another year, another massive protest. Poor Thailand. In recent years, this little tourist haven has become known more for its political instability than exotic attractions. The “Land of Smiles” is eliciting more frowns again after 100,000 protesters stormed the capital and Pattaya, forcing the cancellation of ASEAN and the declaration of a state of emergency. Since Thaksin was deposed by coup in 2006, the reigns of government have switched hands 3 times in as many years. With an anti-Thaksin government in place, this time the political pendulum threatens to swing in favor of pro-Thaksin supporters. The leaders of the late March-early April protest ended their demonstration April 14, 2009, but the tensions did not end there. Simmering resentment over perceived economic and political injustices will keep the young democracy plagued with social instability in the future.

To help you gain some footing on Thailand’s fast-changing political environment, RGE has set up this guide to the country’s institutional upheaval – the players, the stakes, the events and outlook.

The Players

Dr. Thaksin Shinawatra – Billionaire telecom tycoon cum Thailand’s former prime minster (2001-2006), now sixty. PhD, Criminal Justice, Sam Houston State University. First job: policeman. Founded Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party in 1998 and swept the government from the Democrat Party. As PM, he alleviated poverty, cracked down on drugs and paid off the country’s debt but was accused of corruption, extrajudicial killings and political repression. Despised by urban elites and military as a populist Machiavellian Prince, a “strongman”, but loved by Thailand’s poor rural majority and urban working class (mostly recent migrants from the countryside). Deposed in September 2006 coup and has been in self-imposed exile since then. Bought Manchester City United football club and inject new talent but tripled the club’s financial losses. Sold 90% stake in the club to Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi. Wife convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to jail in 2008. Thaksin convicted of conflict-of-interest charges in October 2008 for failure to declare and divest assets before serving as PM. Thailand moved to extradite Thaksin but he eludes capture from country to country. UK revoked his visa. After years on the run and $2 billion of his remaining assets frozen, he’s running low on cash. Divorced in 2008. Last seen in Dubai. Issued Nicaraguan passport in April 2009 – may head there next. Keeps in touch with his 2 children and myriad supporters through phone and video link.

Abhisit Vejjajiva – Current PM of Thailand (December 2008-Present). Leader of Democrat Party and heads the coalition government formed after the two previous pro-Thaksin governments were dissolved by Constitutional Court on election fraud convictions.

Samak Sundarajev – Former PM of Thailand (January 2008-September 2008) under first post-coup democratically-elected coalition government headed by PPP (People Power Party). Removed from office by Thailand Election Commission on conflict of interest charges due to his work as a TV chef while serving as PM.

Somchai Wongsawat – Thaksin’s brother-in-law and interim PM (September 2008-December 2008) selected by PPP-coalition government after PM Sundarajev was removed from office. After PPP’s electoral fraud conviction in December 2008, the PPP was dissolved by the Constitutional Court and its executives – including Somchai – banned from politics for 5 years.

Sondhi Limthongkul – Millionaire media/telecom tycoon famous for his rants about Thaksin on his Thailand This Week talk show. Former friend of Thaksin. Along with several foreign assets, he owns ASTV, the only thai media station allowed to operate during the state of emergency in April 2009. His M Group owns Asia Times. UCLA history major.

General Sonthi Boonyaratglin – Commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Army who presided over Thailand during the 2007 junta. Multimillionaire. Bigamist (though illegal).

Jakraphob Penkair – Former spokesman for Thaksin and Office Minister under Samak government. Resigned May 2008 on lese majeste charges after speech insulting the monarchy at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand. Reads Jacques Rousseau and John Stuart Mill. According to schoolteachers, rhetorically sharp but intellectually blunt. Leader of the Red Shirts. Arrest warrant for Jakropob in effect for his leadership of the Red Shirt protests.

General Prem Tinsulanonda – Former PM of Thailand back in the 1980s. Now Privy Councillor to the King. Accused by Thaksin and his supporters of masterminding the 2006 coup. Red Shirts demand his abdication.

King Bhumibol – 81-year-old King of Thailand. Bore a son and 3 daughters. Has stayed out of public view throughout the protests. Ostensibly neutral, but has encouraged intervention by the courts, whose judges ruled against the PPP-led government in 2008. Queen Sirikit, also possibly partisan, attended the funeral of a PAD demonstrator in 2008

PTP, or Phue Thai Puea – Political party consisting of former members of the pro-Thaksin PPP, which was formerly known as TRT under Thaksin.

Democrat Party – Ruling party of Thailand

PAD – People’s Alliance for Democracy, a.k.a. the Yellow Shirts. Anti-Thaksin protestors who blockaded Thailand’s airports for 10 days in November and December 2008 to demand dissolution of the House.

UDD – United Democratic Front Against Dictatorship, a.k.a. the Red Shirts. Pro-Thaksin protestors who stormed the ASEAN summit and caused its cancellation in April 2009. They demand the resignation of PM Abhisit and royal councillors who allegedly orchestrated the September 2006 coup against Thaksin. Treason is illegal and punishable by death in Thailand.

The Stakes

Democracy – Which democracy? Or, whose democracy? Both sides demand ‘true democracy’, which means different things to different people. Thaksin supporters want to maintain the ‘one person, one vote’ form of electoral democracy. Thaksin opponents want a system where ‘one educated person = one full vote, while one uneducated person = one partial or no vote’. This thorny proposition is based on the premise that uneducated citizens’ votes are easily bought. Thus, until all citizens can make ‘rational’ decisions on their own, democracy just boils down to mob rule – oppression of the minority. But of course, even what’s ‘rational’ is disputed. It could be argued that it’s rational for a farmer to support policymakers, such as Thaksin, that helped them out the most.

Constitutional amendment – The current constitution was drafted in 2007 by the junta. It is less democratic than hoped – half the Senate will be elected, half not. The constitution gives too much control to unelected officials of the bureaucracy and judiciary. Article 237 of the charter stipulates that if any executive member of a party perpetrated or allowed electoral fraud, then the Constitutional Court may dissolve the whole party and ban the executives from politics for five years.

Economic inequality – One could reduce the conflict to that of the age-old battle between the rich and the poor. Thaksin sympathizers consist of the rural poor and urban working-class. His opponents consist of royalists, the military and the urban middle-class and elite. True, Thaksin’s background would seem to put him in the ‘elite’ category in terms of financial and political clout. In this light, Thailand’s upheavals seem to be just battles between elites, each controlling their own pliable and unwitting hoi polloi. Regardless of his true intentions though, Thaksin symbolizes the hope of Thailand’s rural and/or poorly educated majority for a fairer distribution of wealth and the de-concentration of political power in the hands of those who don’t hold their interests at heart.

Economic growth – Political instability has deterred investors and tourists from this country already on the brink of recession. Public spending has been delayed by frequent regime change and domestic demand has been weakened by political uncertainty and now a deteriorating income and employment outlook. With a global recession underway, Thailand can’t even rely on external demand to keep its economy growing. No investments. No private demand. No exports. Only public demand is left to drive economic growth in Thailand but may face disruptions from political turmoil. A ratings downgrade – as forewarned by Fitch, Moody’s and S&P – would raise the interest rate on Thailand’s public debt when spending needs to increase.

Royal succession – Royal Privy Councillor Tinsulanonda can choose between Bhumibol’s legitimate heirs to succeed the king. Some people would prefer the Princess Sirindhorn (a charity worker) as successor, but Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn is first in line. The Prince does not enjoy popular favor due to his purported thuggishness and controversial love life. He has married at least twice but fathered children with many others. Of his 3 sisters, 2 married commoners which made them ineligible for the throne, leaving only the unmarried and second eldest daughter Sirindhorn eligible. A 1974 constitutional amendment allowed women to ascend the throne. Perhaps as a compromise between the people’s preference for Sirindhorn but the law’s recognition of Vajiralongkorn as the legitimate heir, the King sought in the 2007 constitution to attenuate the king’s political influence

Justice – An arbitrary concept used by both sides to embody their demands. Suffers from chicken-or-the egg conundrum: Conspiracy to overthrow the government is illegal but both Thaksin’s supporters and opponents committed treason. Who was wrong first? The military that seized power from Thaksin? The Yellow Shirts? The Red Shirts? Should justice be dealt to the first wrong, all wrongs, or only what is considered wrong by the current rulers?

Nationalism – Thaksin’s sale of national assets, mostly telecom related, to foreigners angered many Thais. The Shinawatra family’s sale of shares in Shin Corp (Thai telecom group) to Singaporean SWF, Temasek, was just the last straw.

The Events

Prequel 1: Coups Era (1932-2001)

  • 1932: Coup overthrows King Prajadhipok, implements constitutional monarchy with parliamentary government
  • 1947: Coup by pro-Japanese Phibun Songkhram
  • 1973: Military rule ends with student riots
  • 1976: Military regains power
  • 1980: General Tinsulanonda elected PM
  • 1991: 17th coup since 1932. New PM installed.
  • 1992-2001: 3 unstable civilian governments

Prequel 2: Thaksin Era (2001-2006)

  • February 9, 2001: Thaksin elected PM. TRT party wins first outright majority (60%) in Thai history, defeats ruling Democrat party
  • August 2001: Thaksin cleared of charges that he hid his assets while PM
  • 2005: Thaksin re-elected PM. TRT wins overwhelming majority of 75%
  • November 2005: Anti-Thaksin protests begin
  • February 2006: Shinawatra family sells stakes in Shin Corp to Temasek
  • April 2006: PM Thaksin steps down after he loses snap general elections – which he called
  • May 2006: Thaksin returns to office
  • August 2006: Thaksin accuses military of assassination attempt by car bomb
  • September 19, 2006: Military seizes power in bloodless coup while Thaksin is in New York for UN summit

Trilogy: Era of Instability (2006-2009)

Coup

  • 2007: The year under the junta was chock full of surprises for Thai markets, with capital controls, populist rhetoric, economic policy indecision, violence in the muslim south, postponement of elections twice, and the passage with low voter turnout (58%) of a military-drafted constitution that was less democratic than hoped
  • December 23, 2007: Coup ends with democratic election of PPP-led coalition government. PPP fell short of a majority – only 232 seats secured in 480-seat parliament. None of 7 parties won majority

PPP-led Coalition government

  • May 2008: PAD launches protests against Thaksinite PPP-led government
  • May 2008: Jakropob resigns on lese majeste charges
  • September 2, 2008: Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej imposed state of emergency in Bangkok after clashes between anti-government protesters (Yellow Shirts) and supporters of the administration broke out after Thailand Election Commission ruled unanimously in favor of ruling party PPP’s dissolution on account of electoral fraud by PPP deputy leader Yongyuth
  • September 9, 2008: Samak removed from office after conflict-of-interest conviction
  • September 17, 2008: Parliament elects Somchai Wongsawat as PM
  • October 21, 2008: Thaksin convicted of conflict-of-interest charges in Ratchadaphisek land case and sentenced to 2 years in jail
  • November 23, 2008: PAD protestors block airports
  • December 2, 2008: PPP convicted of electoral fraud and dissolved, along with 2 of its ally parties. Deputy PM Chaowarat Chandeerakul becomes interim PM
  • December 3, 2008: Airports reopen
  • December 6, 2008: Democrat Party and representatives of smaller parties form new coalition government of at least 250 MPs. The 3 ruling parties reconstituted under new guises.

Democrat-led Coalition government

  • December 15, 2008: Abhisit Vejjajiva elected PM
  • March 21, 2009: PM Abhisit receives 176 no-confidence votes, 246 confidence votes from Parliament after PTP-led censure debate
  • March 26, 2009: Jakropob and others lead Red Shirts protests
  • April 12, 2009: ASEAN summit in Pattaya cancelled. State of emergency declared
  • April 14, 2009: Red Shirts protests called off. 37 arrest warrants issued.

Sequel: Civil War? (2009-???)

The pro-Thaksin fight may lose steam, if not grievances. Thaksin is running out of cash and he’s due for a stint in jail. The most vocal leader, Jakrapob Penkair, faces trial for lese majeste. The Red Shirts lack institutional support. Unlike the Yellow Shirts before them, they don’t have the backing of the courts, military, police, royalty or the current government.

See related Spotlight Issue: Thailand Political Instability: Tensions Remain