Thailand's democratic crisis

Tyrell Haberkorn
9 April 2009

Thai citizens are again living under a state of emergency and the threat of bloodshed. The successive mass mobilisations by supporters of the "yellow" and "red" camps could in other circumstances be seen as evidence of a vibrant engagement with democratic politics; in the context of the near-meltdown of Thailand's constitutional order, they are more symptoms of a dangerous crisis. Where does Thailand go from here?

Tyrell Haberkorn is a research fellow in the department of political and social change at the Australian National University

Also by Tyrell Haberkorn in openDemocracy:

"Thailand's state of impunity" (3 June 2008)

"Thailand: the misrule of law" (1 December 2008)

The most recent events are part of a series that began in 2005-06 when members of the fledgling Peoples' Alliance for Democracy (PAD) first donned yellow shirts and called for the removal of the elected prime minister and head of the Thai Rak Thai party, Thaksin Shinawatra. The demonstrators had their wish when (in September 2006) the military ousted the populist Thaksin, who had already left the country amid outstanding conflict-of-interest charges (on which he was to be convicted in October 2008) but who has retained much of his popularity among Thailand's rural and poor people.

An inconclusive period of military rule was followed by elections in December 2007 that brought to power the People Power Party (PPP), a rebranded version of Thai Rak Thai. The "yellow" camp persisted in campaigning against this outcome; its activities reached a new peak when PAD demonstrators laid siege to Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi international airport (and the smaller Don Muang domestic airport) in November-December 2008. A court decision that ended the siege led to the resignation of the government and the appointment on 17 December of a new prime minister from the Democrat Party, the England-educated Abhisit Vejjajiva.

This did nothing to still the tumult; Thai politics have moved from the chaos of December to the deep crisis of April.

The meaning of chaos

The rhetoric has sharpened alongside the polarisation. From his exile, Thaksin Shinawatra addressed the red shirts on the evening of 12 April 2009 and commented: "Now that the military has brought tanks out on the streets, it's time for the people to come out for a revolution." It is reported too that Thaksin "has promised to return and lead it" (see "Thailand's ugly crisis", Economist, 13 April 2009).

The dangers of escalation are evident - even if a show of strength by the Thai military on the streets of Bangkok on 13 April defused the immediate protests. The most spectacular of these was in the resort town of Pattaya on 11 April, when the red-shirt activists calling for Abhisit's resignation invaded the site of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean's) annual summit. In forcing the summit's cancellation and the attending regional leaders' evacuation, the demonstrators followed the example of the airport siege in exposing Thailand's breakdown to an international audience.

Among openDemocracy's articles on Thailand:

Sulak Sivaraksa, "Thailand: a return to the ideal?" (21 May 2002)

Ratchada Chitrada, "Krengjai" (7 October 2004)

Jan McGurk, "Bambi vs Godzilla in Thailand" (27 April 2005)

Jan McGurk, "Thailand's endemic insurgency" (28 November 2005)

Jan McGurk, "Thailand's rising tide" (27 February 2006)

Jan McGurk, "Thaksin Shinawatra: the end of the affair" (4 April 2006)

Jan McGurk, "Thailand's king and that democracy jazz" (12 June 2006)

Nick Cumming-Bruce, "Thailand: a coup for democracy?" (20 September 2006)

Nick Cumming-Bruce, "Thailand's high-stakes gamble" (9 October 2006)

Nick Cumming-Bruce, "Thailand's postponed democracy" (26 March 2007)

Robert Semeniuk, "A chronic emergency: on the Burma-Thailand border" (10 October 2007)

John Virgoe, "Thailand's southern fix" (17 November 2008)

Abhisit responded to the summit humiliation by declaring a state of emergency on 12 April covering Bangkok and the surrounding areas. This placed prohibitions on public gatherings and gave greater powers of arrest to the government. The red-shirt protestors were defiant: they continued to storm government buildings, surround the seat of government, and remain in the streets. At least some sought to go further, by confronting opponents and seeking to destroy buildings and vehicles. The army and other state forces responded with tear-gas, tanks and live bullets. Amid reports of government cover-ups and restriction of information, the precise number of the dead and injured on all sides is unknown.

How to characterise this chaos? The most convenient and perhaps plausible way is to see what is happening in Thailand as a straightforward contest for power between Abhisit Vejjajiva's government and Thaksin Shinawatra, symbolised in the colourful struggle between yellow and red shirts. The problem with this view is indicated by the fact that both groups claim to be supporting and embodying "democracy". The passionate appeals to principle and ideals cannot be ignored or dismissed. Thailand's crisis is about more than power alone.

Indeed, much more is at stake, even if it is hard to define exactly what. The historian Michael Montesano has identified the current situation as revolutionary, arguing that "neither an election nor a mediated process of reconciliation" will resolve it. But he leaves the content of this revolution unnamed, instead commenting that "the real significance of [the] debacle at Pattaya may lie in its prompting Asian leaders, along with the rest of us, to anticipate the process of revolutionary change on which Thailand now seems to have embarked" (see Michael Montesano, "On the brink, again", Straits Times, 13 April 2009).

The implication that Thailand's now lengthy series of protests represents a larger social movement is echoed by the political scientist Giles Ji Ungpakorn - now also (since February 2009) living abroad after accumulating threats to his freedom - who identifies growing republican tendencies within the red-shirt phenomenon that express a demand for participation in democracy by all Thai citizens (see "The Reds' Fight for Real Democracy", Guardian, 13 April 2009). The argument is that while some red shirts are mainline supporters of Thaksin, others are criticising the disproportionate role of elites in governance.  The bus-drivers, workers, and young people protesting in Bangkok and in provincial centres have taken to the streets to stake their claim for a role in a future Thai society. 

In this perspective, Thailand's disorder might be seen in terms of a longer view, where many of its people - under great economic pressures, and amid rooted structures of power - are seeking a transformation in the underlying social and political relations of rule. The warning contained in Antonio Gramsci's Prison Notebooks seems apt in this respect: "The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appears."

The colour of change

The morbid symptoms include a tide of repression - in particular, the curtailment of free speech - under Abhisit Vejjajiva's leadership. The conviction of the Australian novelist Harry Nicolaides has received the most international attention (which contributed to his release); but many more such cases of lese-majesté being prosecuted or investigated in 2009 of which Thais themselves are the main targets. 

It was anticipation of a heavy sentence for alleged lesè majesté in his book on the military takeover of 2006 - A Coup for the Rich - that led Giles Ji Ungpakorn to flee to England. Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the editor of the online newspaper Prachatai, was arrested in early March and her offices searched under the "computer-crimes" law of 2007; her alleged offence was vague and unspecified: not removing comments that contained content threatening to national security. Chiranuch is at the time of writing out on bail. 

Suwicha Thakhor, an engineer, was sentenced to ten years in prison on 3 April 2009 on charges under both Article 112 of Thailand's criminal code (the lese-majesté law) and the computer-crimes law. Suwicha's alleged crime was posting an image insulting to the monarchy. Even after his conviction, the image or even a description of it has not been released. The expanded use of these two legal measures to silence any questioning, let alone criticism, of the royal institution in Thailand indicates a profound insecurity about its stability as well as the power of its political allies.  

The repression of speech, the reconsolidation of the royal institution, violence in the streets, and a descent into bitter factional enmity - these morbid symptoms of Thailand's dysfunctional and unstable polity clearly have the potential to become mortal wounds.

Do they offer other potentials? Philip Bowring sees a possible "silver lining" in the current crisis: "It might still convince enough of the yellow shirts that demands for a full democracy will not go away, and enough of the red shirts that democracy unchecked by law easily leads to tyranny - and both of them that Thailand needs a monarch who is symbol of the entire nation" (see "What Shirt for Thailand?", New York Times, 13 April 2009). This assessment, however, leaves unquestioned the relationship between the enduring royal institution and the possibility of full democracy or the just use of law in Thailand. A lesson of this now lengthy crisis is that scrutiny of the sources and uses of power in the interests of strengthening democracy in Thailand and the participation of all citizens in governance is now needed.

The red shirts or yellow shirts alone will not provide an answer to Thailand's deep-rooted problems; neither will its existing elites and power-structures. The future of the country - whether that will involve a reconsolidation of the royal institution, a republic, or a not-yet-articulated third option (as Pavin Chachavalpongpun suggests) - is in the balance. What is clear amid much uncertainty is that any longer-term solution must find a way to accommodate the interests and voices of the mostly poor and working-class Thai citizens who have filled the streets in Bangkok and the provinces. The hour is late, but in the commitment of Thais to "democracy" lies a slender reed of hope.    

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