from Asia Unbound

Thailand Headed for Political Meltdown—Again

October 30, 2013

An anti-government protester wearing a Guy Fawkes mask holds a picture of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej during a protest in Ban...x-premier Thaksin Shinawatra return from exile without having to serve a jail sentence. (Athit Perawongmetha/Courtesy Reuters)
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Thailand, which has gone through one political crisis after the next for nearly a decade now, appears poised for more political turmoil. Most of the factors that have caused previous periods of unrest are now locking into place once again. The ruling Puea Thai Party, though democratically elected, has taken its mandate as a license to operate like an elected dictatorship, and now is trying to push through parliament a misguided, potentially damaging amnesty law. The law, as Human Rights Watch notes in a summary, would prevent prosecutions of nearly everyone involved in political protests and counterprotests in Thailand in recent years. The amnesty would apply to members of the security forces who killed at least seventy protesters in Bangkok in 2009 and 2010 and the leaders of the government at that time who oversaw these massacres.  The law also potentially would make it easier for the return to Thailand of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the leader—though in exile—of the Puea Thai party and a potent symbol to Thailand’s rural voters, who have continued to back Thaksin and his party for more than a decade. With the law, Thaksin could potentially return to Thailand without having to face any accountability for his time as prime minister, when he oversaw a “war on drugs” that led to thousands of unaccounted for deaths, or any accountability for corruption charges that were laid against him after he was deposed from office.

The amnesty bill is opposed by many of the same groups that have attacked Thaksin and Thaksin’s parties for nearly a decade—a coalition that includes royalist and right-wing Bangkok-based groups, several elite media organizations and, possibly, many in the Bangkok bureaucracy and in the armed forces. This loose coalition, mostly comprised of middle and upper-class Bangkokians, has little concept of democracy either. Its members seem committed to using the amnesty law as a pretext to hold public protests in Bangkok that would potentially shut down the city’s functioning and, possibly, lead to further violence. Some 10,000 protesters are expected in Bangkok later this week. A similar coalition took over Thailand’s main international airport in 2008, all but shutting down the economy for a time, and creating chaos; yet, their methods were rewarded as they helped bring down the pro-Thaksin government at that time.

As in previous Thai political confrontations, compromise—supposedly a trait that Thai politicians excel in—is in short supply. As Human Rights Watch notes, “The government and members of parliament from the ruling coalition … have disregarded recommendations—including from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights—to clearly specify for which actions an amnesty will be granted, and to ensure that those who used violence or committed rights abuses will not be protected from criminal prosecution.” Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra allegedly has told members of her party that they must vote, party-line, in parliament for the amnesty bill, giving no quarter. Similarly, the group of royalist, right-wing protesters is giving no ground. Rather than holding peaceful protests and creating an organization to monitor the government and criticize the amnesty bill, the protesters are becoming more and more aggressive, as they did in the airport seizure.

And why not? As both sides of the Thai political divide have seen over the past decade, compromise delivers little results in Thailand today, while force and political extremism ultimately can work—at least for one side, for a short while. Meanwhile, the once-stable political system continues to disintegrate.