Uneasy times in Thailand

When we last looked at Thailand, a couple of weeks ago, I expressed the hope that “with the amnesty off the table, the protests will gradually peter out.” So far they haven’t done so.

But the focus yesterday shifted briefly from the streets to parliament, where the government of Yingluck Shinawatra easily defeated an opposition censure motion, 297 to 134. The controversy over the amnesty bill has done Yingluck a lot of harm, but her parliamentary majority remains intact.

The opposition Democrat Party, however, has moved closer to identifying itself with the street protests and the campaign to oust Yingluck by extra-parliamentary means. Opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva said that the government had lost legitimacy and his “aim is to uproot the Thaksin regime.” According to one report, protesters led by a Democrat Party MP “called on soldiers to stay on their side and to unseat the government.”

Abhisit promised that his members “will not accept any post arising through unconstitutional means” – trying to deflect fears that he aims to profit from another military coup – but it remains unclear what constitutional goal can be achieved by the current protests.

Today’s editorial in the Bangkok Post puts it well:

Any glitches from resistant bureaucracy and unfair laws should be ironed out in a democratic system. Turning back the clock and saying no to electoral democracy – albeit imperfect – will not only rob the country of legitimacy in the international arena, it will also trigger another round of political violence from clashes with the red-shirt movement.

This does not mean the cry for reform and inclusive democracy should not be heard by the Yingluck government. It is undeniable that the country urgently needs reform. But it should be a policy platform for voters to decide.

So far the protests have been peaceful, although it’s said “minor injuries” were sustained in a skirmish yesterday between opposing sides in Pathum Thani. The government has promised not to use force to disperse them and has repeatedly called for negotiations, but the situation seems a long way from resolution. And the longer it continues, the greater the risk of large-scale violence or military intervention.

For those of us who believe in democracy, this is all deeply disturbing. Yingluck is an elected leader with a solid majority; like her or not, she is entitled to complete her term of office unless there are extraordinary circumstances.

It’s hard to see what those circumstances could be. Most observers have given Yingluck credit for governing in a responsible fashion. Certainly the amnesty bill was a false step, but it was defeated and shows no signs of being resurrected. As the censure debate shows, parliament continues to function; there is no sign or the sort of unconstitutional behavior that might justify emergency measures.

No doubt her government is influenced to a greater or lesser extent by her exiled brother Thaksin. But would that have been any sort of surprise to those who voted for her?

There are some very big and obvious differences, but I nonetheless can’t help thinking of the relentless campaign by Tony Abbott as opposition leader to deligitimise the Gillard government. His strategy seemed to be to suggest that there were more than just ordinary political issues at stake, and that his opponent was not entitled to the democratic mandate she had apparently been given.

It may or may not be coincidental that in each case it was the country’s first female prime minister who was under attack.

In Australia the violence was only rhetorical, and both sides shared a fundamental trust in the strength of our democratic institutions. But perhaps that’s part of the problem: that we take those institutions for granted, and don’t give sufficient attention to the way that our rhetoric can undermine them.

Thailand’s recent history contains more than enough unpleasant lessons about where that process can end up.

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