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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.