SOON IN JASON MAGAZINE: THAILAND’S CURRENT CRISIS – A DEMOCRATIC REVOLUTION?

SOON IN JASON MAGAZINE: THAILAND’S CURRENT CRISIS – A DEMOCRATIC REVOLUTION?

The June issue of JASON Magazine will be dedicated to Revolutions in Europe, South-America, Middle-East and Asia. Ralphaela Kormoll analyses in her article the protests in Bangkok against the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his successors and their demand a return to democracy.

By RAPHAELA KORMOLL

On January 21, 2014 the Thai government declared a 60-day state of emergency in Bangkok and the surrounding areas. This was the response to increasing violence between protesters and security forces that had caused at least 23 dead people and hundreds of injured since October 2013.[1] Demonstrations led by the Democrat Party (DP) and the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) are directed against the present government and urge the current Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, to resign.

In this article, I will look more closely at the current crisis and the links to Thailand’s democratic history. After outlining how it came to the current crisis and how it unfolded, I will assess whether Thailand is undergoing a real democratic revolution.

THE 2005 ELECTIONS AND THE THAI PARTY LANDSCAPE

The current round of protests may be traced back to the election that took place in Thailand in February 2005. It led to a landslide victory of Thailand’s ruling Thai Rak Thai Party (TRT; 1998-2007) and confirmed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in his office. The TRT had been absorbing smaller parties since being in government in 2001, producing an unbalanced two-party system with the DP in opposition. Continuous expansion basically resulted in a one-party state, as the 2005 election showed. These ‘new politics’ posed a threat to the absolute authority of the Thai King and left the opposition without the required seats to launch a vote of non-confidence against cabinet and ministers.[2] This vote had been the principal tool to restrain the ruling party since 1980. Moreover, it gave the TRT greater control over government appointments and afforded Thaksin immunity from parliamentary censure (1997 constitution).

Since coming into office, Thaksin had dominated the state, controlled the media and taken a heavy-handed approach to the border issue with Cambodia.[3] This was a thorn in the flesh of the DP, large parts of royalist upper and middle-class Bangkokians and Southerners, some factions of the Thai army and members of state-enterprise labour unions. The electoral outcome led to the development of the coalition of anti-Thaksin powers at the political and societal levels.

One of Thaksin’s strongest opponents at the political level is the DP. The DP is the longest established party in Thailand (1946-present) and promotes constitutional democracy based on checks-and-balances. It accuses the TRT of being a monopolistic ‘parliamentary dictatorship’ and calls for a regime change, which took place the year after the election.[4] 

COUP D’ÉTAT AND EMERGENCE OF TWO SOCIAL MOVEMENTS

On September 19, 2006 a coup d’état was staged by the Thai army. It brought an end to Thaksin’s regime, caused Thaksin’s flight after a court verdict and resulted in the setup of a junta government under the leadership of Surayud Chulanont. The coup was undertaken on behalf of the Thai population which was dissatisfied with Thaksin’s alleged vote buying, amongst others. The junta promised to lift martial law and to reinstall democracy.[5] Yet, dissatisfaction with the regime did not fade away. It indeed continued at the societal level through two social movements – the so called Red and Yellow Shirts. These are groups of pro- and anti-Thaksin supporters with ties to Thailand’s political parties.

The Red Shirts are the National United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD). It is a political pressure group composed of farmers and workers from rural areas, which fights for a full representative democracy and supports deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the People’s Power Party (PPP, 1998-2008), now Pheu Thai Party (PTP, 2008-present).

Opposed to Thaksin and his successors are the Yellow Shirts, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which has loose ties with the DP. This pressure group is mainly composed of members of the middle class, is concentrated around Bangkok and supported by the business elite. The Yellow Shirts regard Thaksin as “highly corrupt, manipulative, and authoritarian – a major threat to the country’s democracy, monarchy, and national security as a whole” and seek to remove his influence from Thai politics.[6] As the coup did not have the desired impact, the conflict between pro- and anti-Thaksin supporters flared up again between 2008 and 2010. In 2013 a new round of protests emerged, as Thaksin’s influence had not faded away yet.

THE AMNESTY BILL

In August 2011, Yingluck Shinawatra from the PTP, Thaksin’s sister, was sworn in as Thailand’s Prime Minister. Subsequently, the Thai society was drastically polarised politically. This resulted in protests by the PAD, which accused Yingluck of being a puppet for her self-exiled brother and of corruption. The protests fed into the current crisis, which was triggered by an amnesty bill proposed by the Pheu Thai MP and UDD activist Worachai Hema.

The original amnesty bill aimed to absolve civilian protesters, excluding protest and government leaders and the military. In its revised form, it presented a ‘blanket amnesty’, covering the years from 2004-2013. This included the coup d’état in 2006 and murder charges against the Thai politicians Abhisit Vejjajiva and Suthep Thaugsuban. Moreover, it could have paved the way for the self-exiled Thaksin Shinawatra to return to his country as the bill would have whitewashed corruption charges against Thaksin.

When the bill was passed by the PTP in the lower house on November 1, 2013, protests by the DP and anti-Thaksin supporters re-emerged. Suthep and eight other Democrat members subsequently decided to turn their backs to parliament and to lead the protests, which gradually got a general anti-government stance. Protests were supported by several groups, and triggered concern at the national and international level about renewed violence and political stability in Thailand.[7] When the Constitutional Court rejected a controversial government-proposed amendment to the 2007 constitution protests became even louder.

CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT

The constitutional amendment proposed by the PTP would have transformed the Senate from a partially appointed to a fully elected body (as it was before 2006). This would have made it harder for courts to disband political parties in future. [8] Moreover, the proposed amendment represented a direct criticism of the current constitution, which dates back to 2007. The constitution is regarded as being undemocratic by the PTP because it was created after the coup. According to Weng Tojirakarn, activist of the UDD, the constitution “is a joke drafted by a council of puppets.”[9] The opposition, on the other hand, considers it to be an important check against former Prime Minister Thaksin and is against its amendment. When the Court ruled that the proceedings and contents of the amendment were unconstitutional (20 November 2013) the PTP rejected the Court’s decision. It claimed that the court had no jurisdiction over the case.

OCCUPATION OF SEVERAL BUILDINGS

Five days after the court’s decision, on November 25, anti-government protesters began marching into several government offices and forced their closure. In consequence, Yingluck extended the reach of the Internal Security Act (ISA), which gives the government greater power to take action against protesters, e.g. by arrests, route blocks, prohibiting public gatherings. Interaction between protesters and security forces remained peaceful until the end of November. Following the death of four protesters and large numbers of wounded, the UDD ended their rally on December 2. However, anti-government protests led by the former Democrat MP Suthep Thaugsuban and the newly created People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC; founded November 29, 2013) sought to further escalate the protests.

The PDRC (literally in full ‘People’s Committee for Complete Democracy with the King as Head of State’) is an umbrella pressure group which is supported by various organisations, including the DP, the PAD, student activist groups, state workers unions, pro-military groups, mainly from Bangkok and the South. It aims at removing the influence of Thaksin, urges Shinawatra to resign and calls to replace elected officials with an unelected ‘People’s Council’. The latter shall oversee political reforms that are deemed necessary for ending corruption and money politics. Yingluck rejected this demand, arguing that suspending the democratic process would be unconstitutional. Thus, protests continued.

On December 8, 2013, 153 Democrat MPs resigned in order to put further pressure on the government. In response, Yingluck dissolved the House of Representatives the day after and proposed a general election for 2 February 2014, confident that she would win the latter. She hoped that this would end the protests. Yet, on 21 December, the DP announced that it would boycott the elections. The situation subsequently escalated, putting both pro- and anti-government protesters and the country’s stability at risk.

STATE OF EMERGENCY AND ELECTIONS

In order to re-establish order, the government declared a 60-day state of emergency on January 21, 2014. This gave the government and police forces more power, increasing international concern about the security situation in Thailand. On February 23rd, the spokesperson of the Secretary-General of the United Nations stated that “The Secretary-General […] urges the parties to respect human rights and the rule of law, prevent any new attacks and engage in meaningful dialogue toward ending the crisis and advancing reform”.[10] The same day Thailand’s army chief ascertained that the military would not intervene with force and protect the protesters.[11] Nevertheless, tensions remained high and concern about the upcoming elections was voiced.

On February 2, the elections took place and confirmed Shinawatra as head of a caretaker government with limited powers. Yet, many Thais were prevented from voting by protesters. New elections were supposed to be held in the respective constituencies in the end of April 2014, yet the general election had been declared void by then. To date it is unclear when a new election will take place as the situation in Thailand stays tense. According to Thailand reporter Lefevre, “there is a growing risk that the ‘red shirt’ supporters of Yingluk and her brother, ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra could confront their opponents in the streets, plunging Thailand into a fresh round of political violence”.[12] 

DOES CURRENT CRISIS REPRESENT A DEMOCRATIC REVOLUTION?

The protests that have affect Thailand since October 2013 seem to represent a democratic revolution as the political movement claims to be striving for people’s empowerment and democratic reforms in order to end corruption and to uphold the democratic order. Yet, the reality is that protesters seek to topple a regime that had democratically been elected. What is happening in Thailand at the moment is a struggle for the own advantage by different societal groups. Democracy became an ideological tool to this end. [13]

Raphaela Kormoll graduated from the University of York (Bachelor) and Leiden University (Master) in International Relations. She is now taking up doctoral research at Durham University, where she focuses on the India-Pakistan conflict and reconciliation at the regional level. Further to her interest and expertise in peace and conflict studies and (South) Asia, Raphaela is the co-founder and president of the MAIS Alumni Association Leiden University and works on career development.

IN DEPTH: THE THAI SYSTEM IN A NUTSHELL

The ‘democratic revolution’ if 1932 transformed Thailand from an absolute monarchy into a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary system. Since the launch of the first constitution, Thailand has declared 18 constitutions and underwent 23 coups d’état. Of the 18 constitutions some were democratic (e.g. 1974, 1997), others semi-democratic (1968, 1978) and again others non-democratic (e.g. 1959, 1976, 1977).

A hereditary Monarch, since 1946 King Bhumibol Adulyadej (or Rama IX), is the head of state and army. Although his powers are largely constrained, the king has a great deal of popular respect and moral authority, which can be used to influence the government.

The government is headed by the Prime Minister, who is usually the leader of the largest (coalition) party in the lower house of Parliament, gets selected by the latter and then officially appointed by the King.

The Prime Minister is the head of the Cabinet or Council of Ministers which is responsible for the formulation and execution of policies. It is composed of 35 Ministers of State and Deputy Ministers who primarily belong to the lower house of the National Assembly.

The National Assembly comprises the Senate and the House of Representatives and has 630 members in total.

The current Senate or Upper House has 150 members of which 76 are elected by province and 74 by a selection commission for a term of six years. The Senate has little legislative power, yet it retains powers of scrutiny and appointment. It is a non-partisan chamber which cannot be dissolved. The Senate has been the stronghold of the military and the elite for most of its history.

The House (of Representatives) has 500 members of which 375 are directly elected from single-seat constituencies and 125 are selected through party-lists, using proportional representation. MPs gets elected for a term of four years, however, a dissolution of the House is possible at any time. The House is led by the Speaker, who is also the President of the National Assembly. As the primary legislative body, the House has the power to remove the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers through a vote of no confidence. It is a partisan chamber composed of Thai parties.

[1] Thai court rules general election invalid, on website BBC, March 21,2014: www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-26677772

[2] Chen, P.-H., The Vulnerability of Thai Democracy: Coups d’état and Political Changes in Modern Thailand, in Liamputtong, P. (ed), Contemporary Socio-Cultural and Political Perspectives in Thailand, 2014, pp. 185-208

[3] Askew, M., Thailand: Thaksin’s Election Triumph: Re-packaging Old Politics?, 2005: www.afgventuregroup.com/asian_analysis/Thailand-%2…

[4] Ibid.

[5] Rivers, D., We did it for the people: Sonthi, in The Nation, November 25, 2006: www.nationmultimedia.com/2006/11/25/politics/politics_30019940.php

[6] Sinpeng, A., Party-Social Movement Coalition in Thailand’s Political Conflict (2005-2011), in Liamputtong, P. (ed), Contemporary Socio-Cultural and Political Perspectives in Thailand, 2014, pp.157-168

[7] Protests as Thailand senators debate amnesty bill, in The Guardian, November 11, 2013: www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/11/thailand-pro…

[8] Constitutional Court of Thailand, Constitutional Court Decision No. 15–18/2556, November 20, 2013: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Constitutional_Court…

[9] Tangwisutijit, N. & Khaengkhan, B., THAMMASAT DEBATE: Thumbs down for the next charter, in The Nation, January 15, 2007: http://nationmultimedia.com/2007/01/15/headlines/h…

[10] United Nations, Statement Attributable to the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General – on Thailand, February 23, 2014: www.un.org/sg/statements/index.asp?nid=7479

[11] Thailand crisis: Army rules out intervention as blast toll rises, on website BBC, February 24, 2014: www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-26319058

[12] Lefevre, A. S., Thailand in limbo after election annulled; economy suffering, on website Reauters, March 21, 2014: www.reuters.com/article/2014/03/21/us-thailand-pro…

[13] Lee, A., For Kind and Country’? Thailand’s Political Conflicts as Dynamics of Social Closure, in Liamputtong, P. (ed), Contemporary Socio-Cultural and Political Perspectives in Thailand, 2014, pp. 169-184