Jun 1, 2014 1:01 PM ET
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Thailand’s military and its backers have yet to map out a solution to political instability that’s produced five prime ministers in eight years. Their challenge is addressing a dynamic that began with an ex-cop two decades ago.
Thaksin Shinawatra, a police officer from the north of the country who ran a business selling computers on the side, won a monopoly license to set up Thailand’s first mobile-phone network. As his wealth swelled in the 1990s, he broke with fellow newly minted tycoons by entering politics — and in so doing posed the biggest threat yet to an elite of army officers, civil servants and executives centered in Bangkok that extols the monarchy.
With a platform of expanded public services and aid to the lower-income households in the northeast, Thaksin’s political organizations achieved a lock on electoral majorities that’s been unbroken since 2001. After repeated coups and judicial ousters of governments linked to him, one option for the interim leaders may be a game-changing revamp of voting rules.
“Here we go again — the military comes in with support from the royalists — it’s like Groundhog Day,” said Paul Chambers director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai, referring to the film where Bill Murray’s character repeatedly relives the same day.
Among the reasons for the angst over Thaksin, 64, is that he was “kind of heavy handed,” said Chambers, editor of the 2013 book “Knights of the Realm: Thailand’s Military and Police, Then and Now.” “The way that he put his cronies on the election commission and tried to dominate a lot of the monitoring agencies — Bangkokians did not like this.”
Since seizing power on May 22 to end a seven-month political deadlock that led to the ouster of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, the junta has enforced a curfew and ordered more than 250 politicians, activists and academics to report to the military.
Coup leader Prayuth Chan-Ocha said it may take at least a year to return the country to civilian rule because the junta needs to implement electoral reforms and unify the country.
“It will not happen if there are still protests without a true understanding of democracy,” Prayuth said in an official transcript of a nationally televised speech delivered in Thai on May 30. “Give us time to reform in order to mend our democratic system.”
The nation’s 12th coup since 1932 comes eight years after the military ousted Thaksin’s government, dissolved his party and banned some 200 political allies from holding office for five years. Thaksin later fled abroad to escape a 2008 jail sentence from charges brought by a military-appointed panel. Thaksin could not be reached for comment.
The efforts failed to stem Thaksin’s appeal among Thai voters, who gave a party linked to him victory in elections in 2007. The resulting administration was removed through judicial rulings and the next election, in 2011, brought his sister Yingluck to power. Her Pheu Thai party won 265 of 500 parliamentary seats, campaigning on the slogan “Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai acts.”
Looming over the current political tug-of-war is the question of royal succession. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 86, has served as head of state since taking the throne in 1946 and is the official head of the armed forces. The king, whose portrait hangs in most homes, is the epicenter of Thailand’s elite, which includes senior military and civil officials like Pridiyathorn Devakula who was appointed last week to the junta’s advisory council. Officially, the king is not involved in politics.
“This is about the elite trying to take control of the political situation, including their political future, which could be linked to the royal transition,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, author of “Reinventing Thailand: Thaksin and His Foreign Policy” and an associate professor at Kyoto University. “The kind of political structure that they have been building in the past few decades, linked to the current king, could come to an end soon.”
The current turmoil is rooted in Thaksin’s rise, first as a businessman and then as a politician who challenged the established order. Born in Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand, he founded what were once two of the five most valuable companies on the Thai stock exchange by market capitalization — Advanced Info Service Pcl and Shin Corporation Pcl.
Unlike other self-made billionaires, such as Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, Thailand’s richest businessman, Thaksin used his wealth to gain political sway. He resigned from his companies around 1994 and by 1998 had set up his own party, Thai Rak Thai, or “Thais Love Thais.”
He united many poorer voters in the most populous north and northeast provinces with promises of support for farmers and universal, limited-cost health care and swept to power in 2001. He went on to become Thailand’s first elected prime minister to serve a full term.
Over time, Thaksin’s ambitious and forceful style fueled resentment among the aristocracy and Bangkok’s middle class. Rights groups accused him of infringing on media freedom and said his war on drugs led to extra-judicial deaths. Royalists complained he was putting himself above the king, while army chiefs bristled at his attempts to exert civilian control over the armed forces.
His opponents responded with a series of allegations of corruption, tax-evasion and vote-buying against him and his government. Within a year of his re-election in 2005, Thaksin was ousted by the army.
“The country’s elite sees Thaksin and his networks as forging a new Thailand that would diminish their capacity to control things,” said Michael Connors, an associate professor at the Malaysia campus of the University of Nottingham. “The Thaksin network’s ability to secure large blocs of voting among poorer Thais has made the old establishment look afresh at democratic politics as something dangerous.”
“After the coup in 2006, they engineered a new electoral system that was meant to diminish the impact of the pro-Thaksin vote,” Connors said. “But it didn’t work.”
The new military rulers will probably delay elections until voting rules and maybe the constitution are rewritten “so no Thaksin party can ever be elected again,” said Kevin Hewison, director of the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University in Perth. There will be “tougher repression” because “this junta does not want to ‘fail.”’
In an interview in 2012, Thaksin said that any future coup would meet with more resistance than the 2006 putsch that ousted him. “If it were to happen again, it would not be a quiet coup, no blood,” he said. “The people are aware. The last coup made their life worse so they know they would not allow it to easily happen again.”
The current junta has taken steps to try to defuse trouble, relaxing a curfew in place since the coup and promising to speed up spending on infrastructure and rice payments to farmers — which were hallmark initiatives of Yingluck’s administration. At the same time, the army has threatened to prosecute people who spread divisive comments and shutter social media sites that don’t censor “provocative” content.
The military closed parts of Bangkok’s elevated train system yesterday as small groups held demonstrations against the coup in the heart of the capital’s tourist district.
In the longer term, the challenge for the elite remains finding a way to break the Thaksin camp’s support in the north and northeast, especially in his home province.
“I love Thaksin because he takes good care of the people,” said Noi, 49, a housewife who attended a candlelit vigil against the coup on May 24 in Chiang Mai and whose family name has been withheld to prevent any possible repercussions. “There’s no government has ever offered so many good things to poor people like us.”
The junta may opt for a more tightly controlled parliament with many of the seats filled by appointed representatives that support the elite, said Connors, author of: “Democracy and National Identity in Thailand.” “We might see Thailand transition towards a more guided democracy, one say that looks like Hong Kong with a mix of occupational and appointed representatives.”
Another possibility might be the development of extreme regional autonomy such as in the U.A.E. or Switzerland, according to Chambers.
“A short-term solution would be an illusion.” said Kyoto University’s Pavin. “The traditional elites still look at Thai politics as a zero-sum game — either they win or Thaksin does.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Anstey in Tokyo at email@example.com Adam Majendie Tony Jordan