When General Prayuth Chan-ocha, chief of Thailand’s army, cancelled peace talks yesterday between the nation’s feuding factions, locked up their leaders and imposed army rule, the expressions of surprise were not convincing.
Over the past months, Thailand has been sleepwalking towards the biggest crisis of its modern history. The central issue is both simple and outrageous. The Red Shirts, whose core support comes from relatively impoverished farmers in the north and east of the country, were disproportionately benefited by measures enacted by the billionaire former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. In return, they have repeatedly returned Mr Shinawatra, and, most recently, his sister Yingluck, acting as his regent, to power, in elections conducted freely and fairly.
But the Yellow Shirts have refused to accept those democratic verdicts. The social elite in Bangkok, the courtiers of the ailing 86-year-old king Bhumibol Adulyadej and the mass of people in the south of the country oppose Mr Shinawatra so fiercely that they have refused to allow him or his sister to exercise their democratic mandate. And two weeks ago they found allies in the justice system when Ms Shinawatra’s government was brought down by the judges.
There is plenty wrong with having a democratic system forced out of kilter by men of vast wealth. Italy’s dismal experience with Silvio Berlusconi over the past 20 years is proof enough of that. One might deplore the existence of such a politician. Mr Shinawatra has been living in exile in Dubai since his removal from power by the army in 2006, following accusations of corruption and abuse of power. But the fundamental objection of the Yellow Shirts is not that he is corrupt: it is that he is too popular. They simply refuse to allow the result of free and fair elections to be implemented. So entrenched is their opposition that in the past week there has been serious talk of the impasse leading to civil war.
That such a development should even be discussed is less a measure of the differences between the two sides than shocking evidence of political immaturity. Civil wars have broken out in countries such as the former Yugoslavia, where communism papered over ancient historical and religious divides, and in Sri Lanka, where Sinhalese chauvinism threatened to reduce the Tamil minority to second-class citizens. Always tragic, such conflicts are comprehensible. But in Thailand, which has had many years of relatively smooth economic development and whose people now enjoy a decent level of prosperity, and which, with the exception of a discontented Muslim minority in the south, has all the advantages of relative ethnic and religious homogeneity, a slide into civil war would be tragic, absurd, farcical.
The abrogation of democratic rule is always to be deplored. But although the Thai army shows signs of preference for the anti-Thaksin forces, it is notable that as long as Yingluck Shinawatra’s democratically elected government remained in power, it stayed its hand. Only with her legalistic overthrow has the army taken this drastic action. It is lamentable, and for Thailand it is humiliating.