Monday, November 24, 2014

Who Lost Thailand?

TOKYO – Thailand, Southeast Asia’s most developed and sophisticated economy, is teetering on the edge of the political abyss. Yet most of the rest of Asia appears to be averting its eyes from the country’s ongoing and increasingly anarchic unrest. That indifference is not only foolish; it is dangerous. Asia’s democracies now risk confronting the same harsh question that the United States faced when Mao Zedong marched into Beijing, and again when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ousted the Shah in Iran. Who, they will have to ask, lost Thailand?

Much of the world is wondering how such a successful economy could allow its politics to spin out of control. What accounts for the armies of protesters – distinguished, gang-like, by the color of their shirts – whose mutual antipathy often borders on nihilistic rage?

The roots of the current unrest extend back more than a decade, to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s first electoral victory in 2001. Thaksin’s triumph did not represent the normal alternation in power that one finds in a democracy. Instead, his victory heralded the political rise of the country’s poor, long-silenced rural majority. Bangkok’s entrenched elite recoiled in alarm.

But, instead of learning to compete with Thaksin for the votes of Thailand’s rural poor, the country’s urban elite (including the powerful military) sought to delegitimize his rule. When he was re-elected by an even larger majority, his government was overthrown, his political party was banned by the Supreme Court, and he was forced to flee the country after corruption charges against him led to a criminal conviction.

Yet Thaksin’s supporters did not abandon him. When Thailand’s military returned to their barracks, many Thai citizens voted for Thaksin at one remove, with his sister – Yingluck Shinawatra, a long-time executive at Thaksin’s communications firm – becoming Prime Minister, supported by a powerful parliamentary majority.

For much of her term in office, Yingluck garnered praise for her pragmatism, and for seeking to ameliorate the antagonism of her opponents. But that praise and success appears to have bred a form of hubris. She proposed an amnesty law that would have not only pardoned opposition leaders, including Abhisit Vejjajiva, her predecessor as prime minister (who faces murder charges), but allowed her brother to return to the country. And, in defiance of a Supreme Court ruling, she sought a constitutional amendment that would make the Senate, whose members are appointed, an elected body.

The opposition, sensing that its moment had arrived, launched a wave of street protests. Yingluck, in an effort to defuse the situation, called for a parliamentary election in February. But the opposition has rejected this and says that it will boycott the vote. It fears – rightly, most people suspect – that the Thaksin camp will be returned to power in any free and fair vote.

So, in essence, what is happening in Thailand is an attempted nullification of democracy by the opposition and the country’s entrenched elite. Unable to compete successfully with Thaksin for votes, they now want to dilute Thai democracy in order to prevent the electorate from ever again choosing a government that goes against their will.

If Thailand were an insignificant country with little geostrategic weight, its problems might not matter as much as they do to the rest of Asia. But Thailand is Southeast Asia’s lynchpin economy. It is a key partner for Myanmar (Burma) as it makes its own political and economic transition, and it is a hub for trade with neighboring Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.

But the biggest reason that Thailand matters for Asia’s democracies is fierce competition for influence between a rising China and the democratic world. Until now, Thailand has been a firm member of the democratic camp. Its military is mostly trained by the United States; indeed, it was the key staging point for the US during the Vietnam War. Likewise, Japan and India have long regarded Thailand as a democratic bulwark in a neighborhood where some regimes – Cambodia and Laos – are firmly under China’s hegemonic sway. Indeed, its government has proved to be a strong supporter of Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, as he seeks to free his country from China’s tight embrace.

By standing aside as Thailand’s opposition and traditional elite seek to undermine the country’s democracy in the name of a permanent right to rule, Asia’s democracies risk driving some elements of the Thaksin camp into the arms of China, which would happily accept the role of patron to so potent a political force.

But this need not happen. Thailand’s military has long and respectful ties not only with the US military, but with officers in Japan as well. Thailand’s opposition politicians, many of whom were educated at top Western universities, may also be open to quiet advice that they are pushing things too far, not only putting Thailand’s stability at risk, but also jeopardizing regional security.

Just as, a decade ago, the West objected to the efforts of Turkey’s entrenched secular elite to rob Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s mildly Islamist AKP party of its democratic victory, it needs to speak clearly today in defense of Thai democracy. The opposition’s claim that it is acting in the interests of the world’s democracies needs to be rebutted.

Thaksin may be no saint, and some constitutional reform will be needed if political reconciliation is to come about. But Thaksin’s governments, like that of his sister, have kept China at one remove from influence. That is the key strategic interest that is now at stake.

Should Yingluck be ousted in a coup, or should the country’s democracy be hollowed out to preclude her return to power, the Shinawatras may be left with no choice but to seek support from Thailand’s giant neighbor to the north. If that happens, we will all know who lost Thailand. We did.

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    1. CommentedSomboon Kitiyansub

      As a Thai, I sincerely believe that Ms Koike's criticism on the opposing Ms Yingluck Government is unfair. Her conclusion that "So, in essence, what is happening in Thailand is an attempted nullification of democracy by the opposition and the country's……from ever again choosing a government that goes against their will" is purely one-sided judgment, taking into account inaccurate information about what currently is happening in Thailand. If she has received sufficient information and consumed proper media reports, she would see that we are protesting to "oust" a heavily corrupted government and "abusive" politicians, and asking that the reformation of the overall-system are taking place peacefully before the election. Thais have not, and will never, opposed the election. Thais are on street, regardless of Mr Suthep's leadership, to flight against corruption and abuse of power by the politicians. Ms Koike's remark that we attempt to nullify the democracy because of 'dislike' government is also not correct (and is somewhat "insulting"). If she could recall, the Yingluck Government has been freely running its office for 2 years since it won the election, until the 'amnesty bill to free corruption' incident and Yingluck's P PhuenThai Party declared that it would not accept the judgment of the Constitutional Court against it. Thai farmers are suffering from not being paid for their rice sold at above market-proce to pile up as the stock for the Government to export - making Thai Baht half a million million loss. Yingluck's Government also proposed a bill that allows them to use "open-end" budget for mega-infrastructure projects without projects' details and proper review process. To that end, Ms Koike appeared to make a point that the corruption is acceptable to her so long as the government has come from election, and the opposition to this is not acceptable because in her view it is an attempt to nullify the democracy.

      Japan is different from Thailand. Our politics are under-developed due to the lack of professionalism, discipline and good moral of the politicians, who are acting for those financially back-up them, in order to rule the country. I do respect Ms Koike's views as the outsider. Please however she should see the situation from a neutral perspective - because at least Thais need to do the right things to dispose of corruption and to restore our country's peaceful climate. This is nothing related to regional democratic situation and China's factor on the region as Ms Koike's mentioned.

    2. CommentedSuchai Saenghirun

      On behalf of a Thai people, we came out today to march with the main reasons:
      1. Defend the monarchy of Thailand.
      2 To clean the corrupt politicians.
      3. Clearance of the federal government, both now and in the

      We did not march for Mr. Suthep or Democrat Partyt. This is the majority of the people of Thailand is mostly true. But because we are cognizant cunning trickery. We always listen to media from both sides, then analyzed and processed. We have seen that our nation 's vulnerability and the future uncertain. We, in fact, did not want to overthrow the democratic system. But we want to delay the election in order for us to make reforms. (Clean our house) and set up a new political features . Then the members of the parliament to be a candidate without distinction either party under the new rules and qualifications.

      We do not want other nations to get involved with this. Because this is our home and our lifestyle as well as our culture. I believe that no nation will understand the problems that we are facing now. But we know our own problems and how to deal with problems, Please remember that the people of Thailand has undergone a strange and difficult to understand.You can see that we have our own way demonstration, like music festivals. But it bears a strong and resolute. This is characteristic of Thailand.

      Please do not interfere or comment on the issues of our country. Because what you (Ms. Yuriko Koike) have written does not match the facts in Thailand. While we believed your comment is just to protect the benefits of your own country only. It does not create or assist our country at all. Normally Thai people, we do not like to get involve or to interfere with other countries. Meanwhile, we would not like anyone to interfere with our country as well. Otherwise Thai people will immediately resist and violence although that the country is great. Sometimes Thai people seem mellow but may be a mad dog's.

    3. CommentedManee Sunderman

      I am not sure how the author got the story and express her opinion as such. Thaksin is following Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines path. He and his sister - Yingluk won the elections because of vote buying. The current demonstration is calling for reform of the election law before election. There are several million Thai people from all walks of life joining the demonstration. It's not only the country's urban elite as the author understand. Thaksin is paying British P.R. firm to paint the picture just like what the author described. All international media do not really get the correct story. But the fact that several million people deny this administration and Thaksin regime should mean something to the observer.
      By the way, I am nobody. I normally don't response to anybody opinion.

    4. CommentedKevin Lim

      I understand that Thailand is an important industrial base for many Japanese corporations, but it is most certainly not SE Asia's most developed and sophisticated economy (that's Singapore) or SE Asia's lynchpin economy (that's Indonesia).

      As for the remedy, a solution imposed or brokered by the outside world is not feasible. Both sides will try to paint the other as stooges for foreign concerns and try to whip up nationalist sentiment.

        CommentedNRA Borges

        Kevin Lim a nobody? I do not agree. He is a citizen - an individual - expressing an opinion. Is there anything less important?

        CommentedMi OE

        People have different opinions but I find It's funny seeing insignificant people criticized Yuriko's opinion. Let look at her profile "Yuriko Koike is Japan’s former Minister of Defense and National Security Adviser." LOL Now look at yourself, who are you? you're just nobody LMAO

    5. CommentedHao Jing Soon

      It makes no sense how China would be able to lend political support to the beleaguered pro Thaksin camp, especially when it would most likely attempt to reassert democratic processes in Thailand to restore the previous status quo...Ms Koike has not shown how China has the ability or interest to curry favour within Thailand either. It seems that this essay is fueled by a paranoid fear of a China that seems bent on battling Japan on every front.

        CommentedKevin Lim

        The perception is that because Thaksin, during his exile, was cosying up with Cambodia's Hun Sen, and given that Cambodia is friendly with Beijing, so by extension Thaksin is friendly with Beijing. Its flimsy, I know, but as former Japan Defence Secretary she may be privy to intelligence (i.e. NSA Snowden-type intelligence) that this is true.

        Personally, I doubt it. Thaksin is many things, but he is no man's thrall.