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Thailand: Teetering on the Edge

Commentary, 23 April 2010
Pacific
The 22 April bombing in Thailand’s capital underscores the country's deep civil unrest. Dividing lines run through Thai society, threatening even the unity of the Army. The lack of decisive action threatens to heighten tensions not only domestically but internationally as well.

The 22 April bombing in Thailand's capital underscores the country's deep civil unrest. Dividing lines run through Thai society, threatening even the unity of the Army. The lack of decisive action threatens to heighten tensions not only domestically but internationally as well.

Thai red shirt protest

By Brijesh Khemlani for RUSI.org

The political crisis in Thailand is on the verge of boiling point. A month-long stand-off between the United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) and the security forces has erupted in violence. In one of the worst incidents of political violence in almost two decades, the 10 April street battles resulted in twenty-five deaths and hundreds of injuries including a top senior military commander. Deep faultlines between the urban elites and the rural working classes have widened further in the latest bout of violence.

The UDD - commonly known as the 'red shirts' - have occupied the historical and commercial heart of Bangkok in order to force Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government to dissolve the parliament and call early elections. They are comprised of north and north-east based rural workers and supporters of the exiled populist former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin's government was overthrown in a 2006 bloodless coup by the military after which new elections were called in 2007. The emergence of the current ruling government came about after the overthrow of the democratically elected pro-Thaksin People Power Party through street protests by the yellow-shirted People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which shares a close relationship with Abhisit's Democrat Party. These protests were followed by a court ruling that dissolved the People Power Party over voting fraud. Seizing the opportunity, the current ruling government came to power amidst intense negotiations and allegations of military involvement. As a result the 'red shirts' see the Abhisit administration as lacking a popular mandate and a manifestation of the iron grip of the royalists, military and aristocratic elite over Thai politics.

The UDD retaliated by marching to the capital and staging sit-ins outside government offices. Events escalated in April 2009 when the red-shirted protestors forced the cancellation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in the seaside resort of Pattaya. Army troops were mobilised in Bangkok to crack down on the UDD with clashes leaving two dead and several injured. The harsh crackdown and fears of further loss of life prompted UDD leaders to call off the protests. During a year-long hiatus, the UDD has emerged better organised and as determined as ever to topple the government.

The seizure of Thaksin's $1.4 billion in contested assets in February this year by the Thai Supreme Court paved the way for the new round of protests. As convoys of 'red shirts' have poured into Bangkok from the countryside renewed protests have led to a spiralling confrontation. Far from being regular street protests, the 'red shirts' have evolved into a formidable and disciplined social movement, raising their voices against deep-seated political and economic privileges of the Bangkok-based urban elite. With reports emerging of a split in the military and the failing health of the revered Thai monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has traditionally been the stabilising force in the country's turbulent politics, Thailand may be in danger of facing a violent insurrection or a military coup, neither of which bodes well domestically or internationally for Southeast Asia's second largest economy.

Divisions in the army
Consensus is emerging of a split in military ranks as the crisis reaches boiling point. Large numbers of lower ranking soldiers, usually from the same rural background as the 'red shirts', and a few senior officers, sympathise with the UDD's cause. Many of the military's top brass are at the other end of the political spectrum, allied with royalists, business elites and the urban middle classes who wear yellow or pink at counter-protests and broadly back the 16-month-old government.[i] A divorce between the rank and file and the top brass is a frightening prospect as the Abhisit government accuses renegade pro-Thaksin army elements of throwing their weight behind the 'red shirts'.

Within the military leadership, moderate and hardliner elements manoeuvre for influence. General Anupong Paojinda, the current commander-in-chief of the military, has indicated his reluctance to clamp down hard on the 'red shirts' and favours a political solution to the crisis. General Prayuth Chan-ocha, his hawkish deputy and next in line to take the top job after Gen Anupong's retirement in September, prefers a more assertive response to the protests. As internal divisions flare up, fears of an internal coup are rife. Insiders within the royal court reveal that top soldiers had, in recent days, weighed the possibility of launching a 'half coup' that would maintain Abhisit's Democrat party in political power while relieving certain soldiers of their command posts.[ii] With Anupong receiving a lot of flak for his lack of decisive action, a Prayuth-led internal military putsch to depose the current commander-in-chief, purge pro-Thaksin military officers and invoke martial law to deal more sternly with the 'red shirts' cannot be ruled out.

The silence of the monarchy
The ill-health of King Bhumibol, the world's longest reigning monarch, has sparked fears over the political trajectory of Thailand in the post-Bhumibol era. The palace has maintained a stony silence in the aftermath of the 10 April violence. The UDD has asked for the intervention of the monarchy in resolving the dispute, replicating the famous role played by the royal palace in reconciling political divisions in 1992. That may not be forthcoming. Royalists have placed their bets on the Abhisit administration, as suspicions loom that the 'red shirts' may harbour republican leanings. In this volatile climate, a smooth royal succession from Bhumibol to his heir-apparent son Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn will be hailed both within and outside Thailand.

The failure of negotiations between the government and key UDD leaders over the timeframe for dissolving parliament and the increasing defiance of the 'red shirts' highlights the division between the two sides. The 'red shirts' have fortified their stronghold of Ratchaprasong as heavily-armed troops with shotguns and assault rifles have taken-up positions to prevent any spill-over of protests into the adjacent financial district of Silom.

In an indication of how unpredictably and dangerously events are unfolding, a series of blasts have rocked Silom killing one person and injuring at least fifty people at the time of writing. One of the blasts reportedly struck the elevated sky-train station nearby, frequented by thousands of locals and tourists daily. The blasts are a part of a series of explosions that have struck the capital city in recent months as the crisis has intensified. Tensions are likely to escalate as the 'red shirts' and security forces remain entrenched in their heavily-guarded positions and the blasts may trigger a second round of violence. In another ominous development, the pro-government PAD has announced its intention of taking to the streets in seven days if the government fails to arrest UDD leaders and restore law and order. The clock is ticking as the Abhisit government runs out of options.

A 'half coup' engineered to consolidate Abhisit's hold on power and purge the military of Thaksin loyalists would inflame passions and push Thailand to a point of no return. Similarly, an unwillingness to address the grievances of the 'red shirts', while failing to bridge the intractable gulf in Thai society and prolonging the vicious colour-coded rivalry that has plagued the political process, could ignite a violent insurrection. In the face of rising stakes, Abhisit may have no option but to dissolve parliament and announce a swift election timetable to veer Thailand off the course of disaster. Dissolving parliament and announcing new elections would be a painful decision for the current prime minister. With Thaksin's enormous electoral base, a new election would most likely herald the victory of the pro-Thaksin Puea Thai Party - something that the current coalition government and the military abhor and have attempted to prevent. Whatever the outcome, the game of political brinksmanship is set to escalate in the coming days as two bitter factions face-off - the biggest casualty of which is going to be the unity of Thailand.

International implications
On a regional level, the Thai political crisis has rattled the nerves of ASEAN member-states. ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan issued a statement expressing 'serious concern over the deteriorating situation in Thailand between demonstrators and government security forces in Bangkok among ASEAN member states and the world at large' He added 'ASEAN stands ready to extend any appropriate support to help defuse the situation without interfering in the internal affairs of Thailand, if requested'. For an organisation that has adopted the policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states, the statement comes across as rather unprecedented. As ASEAN leaders grapple with the stark realities of a politically-divided Southeast Asian landscape, a crisis in one of the region's most economically advanced states is of pressing concern. The Thai political crisis is likely to have a fall-out on Thailand's relations with neighbouring Cambodia whose Prime Minister Hun Sen appointed close friend Thaksin as an economic advisor last year much to the Abhisit government's chagrin. Allegations of Thaksin using Cambodia as a launch-pad for anti-government activities in Thailand have fuelled tensions between the two embittered neighbours, sparking fears of a military conflict along their disputed borders.

The breakout of further violence or a military coup is likely to damage Thailand's reputation on the world stage. While international reactions to the 10 April violence have been guarded, further deterioration could provoke negative reactions from major international players such as the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union (EU). Despite Thailand being a major American non-NATO ally, relations between the two countries have been strained in recent times over security and trade issues. A military coup would set back Thai-US relations, much like in 2006, while also inviting condemnation from the EU. US economic aid and military assistance to Thailand could be cut. This development would push Thailand further into the arms of China. US hedging strategy against China in Thailand would be damaged as China may seek to exploit strains in US-Thailand relations by offering economic incentives and investment opportunities without making this conditional on the maintenance of the current polity.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

NOTES [i] Bangkok Post, 'Threats, lies and videotapes', http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/politics/36256/threats-lies-and-videotapes
[ii] Shawn W. Crispin, 'Thailand mulls a half coup', Asia Times Online http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/LD17Ae01.html

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