Thailand Update: Debate Continues, Uncertainty Looms

Protests Resume, Parliament Dissolved, Elections Scheduled

It’s been a busy few weeks in Thailand. Since Tristan Thibodeaux’s December 7th post, opposition MPs have resigned en masse, protesters returned to the streets and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved the lower house of Parliament and called for elections on February 2nd, a move later endorsed by King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Resisting demands by protest leader and former MP Suthep Thaugsuban for her immediate resignation, Yingluck stated in an emotionally charged press conference that she had already “retreated so far” and could go no further. Protesters cut power to Government House on Thursday, and the Supreme Commander of the armed forces met with Suthep over the weekend but refused to choose sides in the political standoff. This morning, less than a week after being indicted on murder charges in connection with the military crackdown against protesters in 2010, Abhisit Vejjajiva was reelected to another term as Democrat party leader.

Last Monday protesters returned to the streets in force, as an estimated 150,000 people gathered outside Bangkok’s Government House to express their displeasure with those in power. In an effort to assess their mood and better understand the concerns and demands of protesters, I joined the throng. For the most part, there was no evident tension. The mood was upbeat, even carnival-like at times. Were there not so many visible signs in English, a casual tourist bumping into the scene might have deemed it a massive celebration of Thai sovereignty or perhaps the king. Flags and royal portraits were inescapable. While reports did surface of theft and property damage at a government complex nearby, there was little sign of violence or property destruction. The streets were packed and traffic a mess, but people remained orderly and calm.

Throngs of protesters assemble outside Bangkok's Government House on December 9th.Throngs of protesters assemble outside Bangkok’s Government House on December 9th.

A protest leader rallies the crowd near Rama VI Road in Bangkok. A protest leader rallies the crowd near Rama VI Road in Bangkok.

Protesters fill Phetchaburi Road in Bangkok. Protesters fill Phetchaburi Road in Bangkok.

This police vehicle (damaged prior to December 9th) was the only visible sign of property damage in the area. This police vehicle (damaged prior to December 9th) was the only visible sign of property damage in the area.

Justifying resistance Although the messages were often confrontational, the general mood amongst protesters was relaxed and upbeat.

Word amongst Protesters on the Street

Of course, despite the mood, the crowd was assembled as a result of deep dissatisfaction with the ruling Pheu Thai Party (PTP). Asked about their reasons for participating, numerous protesters unsurprisingly cited corruption and vote buying. There were remarks about subverted democracy, complaints about court rulings being ignored and condemnations of the government’s rice subsidy program, a scheme that has cost taxpayers billions and Thailand its crown as the world’s leading rice producer. (And as the protesters were quick to point out, it may have something to do with the PTP’s strong support in rural areas.)

More interesting were responses to questions about democracy and the opposition’s proposal to create an unelected people’s council to push through constitutional reforms. Critics have pointed out the apparent hypocrisy of a democratic movement making such a pitch, yet while protesters don’t deny that the PTP continues winning elections, they do contend that widespread vote buying undermines election legitimacy. Few, however, strongly embraced the plan put forth by the opposition. Several people made statements about Suthep and the opposition being “almost as bad” or “just as corrupt” but still deemed replacement of the existing “kleptocracy” worth pursuing, in a sense embracing the lesser of two evils.

My longest conversation involved a retired professor. Thai academics have been divided on how to best handle the current impasse, but this former Thammasat professor was clearly in favor of deposing the existing regime and starting anew. She insisted that western media have failed to portray the situation and public sentiment accurately. By relying too heavily upon reports from government spokespeople and “official” sources, she claimed, CNN, the BBC and others present a biased view. They fail to capture and communicate the true sentiment felt by a majority of Thai people, she alleged.

When asked by one protester what I thought of recent events, I responded that as an outsider I found them worrying but fascinating. He took issue with my noncommittal response: “It’s not ‘fascinating,'” he said. “It’s very important.”

Photos of King Bhumibol, who turned 86 this month, were held aloft by many. The king is widely revered, and Thailand's political factions often seek to exploit his popularity to build support. A bill granting amnesty to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and those involved in the bloody protests of 2010 was the initial impetus for the popular revolt.

Photos of King Bhumibol, who turned 86 this month, were held aloft by many. The king is widely revered, and Thailand's political factions often seek to exploit his popularity to garner support. Photos of King Bhumibol, who turned 86 this month, were held aloft by many. The king is widely revered, and Thailand’s political factions often seek to exploit his popularity to garner support.

Before you hit the streets, it seems, you'd better find a whistle. They are so common (and shrill when blown in unison) that the current protests have been dubbed the "Whistle Revolution." Before you hit the streets, you’d better find a whistle. They are so common (and shrill when blown in unison) that the current protests have been popularly dubbed the “Whistle Revolution.”

A Look Ahead

From our perspective, stability of the country is a key concern. We’re seeing increased signs of negative economic repercussions – growth forecasts being cut, increased currency volatility, tourist arrivals falling – primarily resulting from uncertainty about the future. The opposing factions in the current impasse have wisely avoided violence thus far (with a few notable and tragic exceptions), perhaps reflecting lessons gleaned from the past. Yet resolution is hardly imminent. Given recent history and statements made by party leaders, we do not expect the Democrats to contest the February 2nd election. Without their participation, the political deadlock will persist, and frustration with the process with increase.

While we do not think opposition concerns are unwarranted (quite the contrary – corruption might be the biggest impediment to progress in the country and is rarely addressed with any conviction), we are concerned that the proposed resolution goes too far. Constitutional reform may well be in order, but having a small group of unelected leaders determine the form and substance of that reform clashes with Thailand’s democratic values. It is dangerous and easily abused. “Tyranny of the majority” is a valid concern in a democratic state – the world’s most lasting and respected constitutions generally include safeguards against it – but there is danger in casting aside majority will haphazardly. And while accusations of corruption against the PTP are well-founded, there is also a fine line between implementing policy that benefits constituents and “buying votes.” Not all corruption is equally blatant or even clear.

We believe that in comparison to what the opposition has proposed, there are various ways to achieve constitutional reform that more directly reflect the will and input of the Thai people and are less threatening to the country’s political and economic stability. Unlikely as it has been, Mr. Suthep has moved many by standing up for admirable principles, yet his rhetoric now causes concern that what positive results may still come from this messy exercise in democracy will be missed if he oversteps his mandate.

We remain optimistic that peaceful resolution is achievable in Thailand. An election alone will not end the impasse, but it would be nice to see someone compete against the PTP at the ballot box. Vote buying or not, voters can still be swayed by the truth every time they cast a ballot. Give up on that and you’ve given up on democracy.

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