Does Thailand’s democracy have a future?

Letter from Asia: The stalemate that leaves Thailand’s future looking increasingly hopeless

 

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The photograph of the two men was nothing less than remarkable.

One of them was Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister and leader of the protesters who for months have been demanding the ousting of Thailand’s government. The other was Surachai Liangboonlertchai, an appointed member of the upper house of the parliament. Behind closed doors, these two unelected individuals sat and discussed the future of Thailand’s democracy.

In a way, the image summed up the strange, sad situation Thailand finds itself in: while the elected government works from makeshift offices because protesters have prevented them getting to their official premises, the leader of the demonstrators dropped into the parliament building for a private conversation he hoped would help bring down the faltering administration.

Many times in recent years Thailand has been faced by a crisis. But the current situation may be different because there appears to be no obvious way out.

Last week, the protesters secured a prized scalp when a controversial court ordered the ousting of Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and nine members of her cabinet after finding her guilty of abuse of office. The court said the remainder of the government could stay on until elections scheduled for July 20.

But that was not enough for Mr Suthep, 64, and his supporters in the so-called People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC). He demanded that Ms Yingluck’s successor resign immediately and said he wanted the senate to appoint a premier to head a “people’s council”. That was why he has been seeking the intervention of Mr Surachai.

While Mr Suthep continues to make his demands, the supporters on either side are refusing to back down. The PDRC’s crowds have now taken up a protest site outside of the UN office while the Red Shirts, who largely back the government, are also camped out and similarly refusing to go home. The official in charge of security has warned of the prospect of civil war.

The crisis playing out on the streets of Bangkok dates back to the ousting of Thaksin Shinawatra, Ms Yingluck’s elder brother, who was first elected in 2001 and forced out by a military coup in 2006.

While he had earned widespread support from large numbers of rural Thais, especially in the north and north-east, who had benefited from his education and heatlh-care schemes and taken advantage of small loans that were made available, the telecommunications tycoon also had many enemies.

His opponents, who loathe him with as much passion as his supporters embrace him, include the upper middle classes of Bangkok, army officers and elements with the establishment that surround Thailand’s royal family. They accuse him of corruption and nepotism. Having watched, helplessly as he was reelected in 2005, his opponents held repeated protests, urging the military to step in until it did so when Mr Thaksin was visiting the UN.

Since then, three more governments led by allies of Mr Thaksin have been elected and three times these administrations have been forced out by the controversial Constitutional Court, established by the coup regime in 2007.

One might assume that a solution to the stand-off would be to hold another election. But the leaders of the PDRC appear to have given up on electoral politics. Even though international observers have given a general thumbs up to recent elections, they insist there is no point taking part in further polls until there are reforms because the process is rigged.

They have demanded that the current parliament be replaced by the unelected people’s council and have suggested that a series of reforms – of the electoral system, of the police service and of the constitution – go ahead under the supervision of this body, which could then hold fresh elections.

“Our fight against the Thaksin regime is necessary and just,” Mr Suthep told his supporters on Tuesday evening. “In order to ensure a better future for our children and grandchildren, we must uproot and eradicate the regime.”

What makes the situation more hopeless is that Thailand’s main opposition party, the Democrat party, which is Thailand’s oldest and was founded in 1946, also appears to have given up on parliamentary democracy.

Under the leadership of Abhisit Vejjajiva, an Eton-educated former prime minister, the party has been allying itself with the PDRC and boycotted an election in February this year that Ms Yingluck had called. He has said he does not think the election in July should go ahead.

All the while, Mr Thaksin, 64, also unelected and unaccountable, continues to pull the strings of both the Red Shirt movements and the Pheu Thai party with which it is aligned, from exile in Dubai. He knows that if an election goes ahead, his side will almost certainly win.

Although the ongoing stand-off has hit tourist numbers, thousands of foreign visitors pour into Thailand every day, attracted by its friendly people, clean beaches and intoxicating culture.

Yet beneath this shiny surface of normality and ease, things can very quickly go wrong. In 2010, when Red Shirt protesters occupied the centre of Bangkok, more than 90 people were killed by security forces dispatched by Mr Abhisit and Mr Suthep. The two men have been charged with murder for what happened.

And the violence continues. Since last November, when the latest series of protests were sparked by the government’s effort to pass an amnesty bill that would have permitted Mr Thaksin to return to Thailand, at least 25 people have died and many more have been ainjured. The fear is that with no solution in sight that figure could increase further.

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