The New York Times

April 14, 2009
Op-Ed Contributor

What Shirt for Thailand?


HONG KONG — In Thailand, the forces that sowed last year’s wind are now reaping the whirlwind. The ferocity shown by the “red shirts,” supporters of the ousted and self-exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, is more dangerous than that of the “yellow shirts” who last year paralyzed the pro-Thaksin government and brought a military- and monarchist-backed government to power.

Meanwhile, the supposed peacemaker of Thai politics, King Bhumipol Adulyadej, is apparently ailing and silent.

The events of the past few days have demonstrated just how much Thai politics have been radicalized since the coup that overthrew Mr. Thaksin in 2006.

Now the red shirts are confident enough of their numbers and rural and urban working-class support to confront a military nervous of using too much force against civilians. The red shirts have taken their protests to the doors of the royal palace itself, in the form of the king’s principal adviser, an 88-year-old former prime minister, Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda.

Class and rural-urban tensions have thus become intertwined with the issue of the proper role of the monarchy at a time when succession to the generally respected King Bhumipol draws nearer. While the yellow shirts were heavily middle class and in quiet complicity with police and military, the red shirts are angrier and prone to violence.

The situation is not beyond retrieval. Thailand has always flourished on pragmatic compromises, domestic and international. Ethnic homogeneity and the economic interests of a society with few big corporations but many small businessmen and independent farmers all make it unlikely that there will be widespread bloodshed.

But there remains a fundamental divide over the rules of the political game. Social divisions must be bridged if Thailand is to return to the promise of 1997, when elections and a new constitution seemed to put the nation on a path of liberal democracy.

Mr. Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon, undoubtedly abused the power he acquired when his party won a landslide victory in 2001. He engaged in a populist authoritarianism familiar in Southeast Asia, subverting constitutional checks and balances and using government contracts to reward and punish. But his economic policies helped the rural areas and the poor, and were not fiscally irresponsible.

He had already been forced to trim his autocratic sails following his loss of many seats in the 2005 election. But his downfall was engineered by unelected power centers upset by his centralization of power at their expense. The military stepped in and overthrew him.

Despite Mr. Thaksin’s absence, corruption allegations against him and a new constitution that greatly increased the power of appointed officials, senators and judges, a party loyal to Mr. Thaksin still won the election in late 2007.

That was too much for the military, bureaucracy, Bangkok middle class and self-proclaimed monarchists. They used the courts to disbar one prime minister and yellow shirt demonstrators to paralyze another.

This paralysis caused parliamentary defections that brought Abhisit Vejjajiva and his Democrat Party to power. But the commitment of the Democrats, Thailand’s oldest political party, to democracy had been sullied by its links to the military and to yellow shirt leaders who openly reviled democracy, calling for government by “wise men” appointed by the king.

The monarchists badly overplayed their hand, linking the palace ever closer to the military and conservative elite just at a time when all Thais were worrying about the future of the institution of monarchy.

Despite lčse-majesté laws forbidding criticism not only of the monarch but of his advisers, which long made any public debate about the monarchy taboo, the future role of the institution is now being widely discussed.

In the short run, the current government, with military support, may well survive and bring order back to the streets of Bangkok. In the longer term, however, the red shirts may have the upper hand. In exile Mr. Thaksin has become a potent symbol, somewhat like Argentina’s Juan Perón. The royal succession still lies ahead.

A compromise with Mr. Thaksin is still possible. Though the charges against him have substance, their political motivation is clear enough, and money politics is not exclusive to his side.

There could yet be a silver lining to the crisis. It might still convince enough of the yellow shirts that demands for a full democracy will not go away, and enough of the red shirts that democracy unchecked by law easily leads to tyranny — and both of them that Thailand needs a monarch who is symbol of the entire nation.