What the Washington analysts are saying

15 04 2009

PPT has received an “inside the beltway” report that includes commentary on the Songkran uprising by Washington insiders. We have made the comments anonymous as the report it draws from has limited but highly influential circulation. Thanks to the reader who sent this to PPT:

THAILAND… First-up, [by a former] ambassador to Thailand … followed by [a seasoned and influential political economist]:

Thailand: Red Shirt Weekend

The weekend’s violent demonstrations in Thailand have again underscored the deep divisions in that society which remain unresolved. Taking a page from the PAD (“Yellow Shirts”) playbook, the pro-Thaksin UDD “Red Shirts” successfully stormed the ASEAN+3 meeting venue in Pattaya, forcing cancellation of the meeting and an emergency evacuation of the participants. The Abhisit Government and ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan were deeply embarrassed by the cancellation of a meeting which had been seen as an opportunity to convince the outside world that Thailand was making progress in solving the twin challenges of a sharp economic downturn and the on-going domestic political crisis.

The ease with which the red shirts broke through security lines to enter the Pattaya hotel was startling, given the relatively small number of protesters and what should have been the lessons of the PAD takeover of the Bangkok international airport in November. The Abhisit Government had successfully hosted the ASEAN ministerial meetings in Hua Hin in February, demonstrating that it could keep order while permitting dissent. The surprising collapse of security in Pattaya raised questions about the reliability and effectiveness of the police. Several senior Thai police generals are known supporters of the UDD.

After the collapse of the ASEAN meetings in Pattaya, the focus of the Red Shirt demonstrators turned back again to Bangkok, where they continued to occupy Government House and staged large demonstrations near the Victory Monument. With incidents of violence escalating in Bangkok, Abhisit again declared a state of emergency, sending units of the Royal Thai Army to confront the demonstrators under the overall direction of respected General Songkitti Jakkrabatra, Supreme Commander. By the end of Tuesday the Red Shirts’ protest effectively ended with the government arresting leaders of the UDD while offering free bus transportation to return protestors back home. The restoration of order in Bangkok was accomplished with relatively little violence, notwithstanding the media images of burning buses and crowds reacting to gunfire.

No winners emerged from the events of the past weekend. Thaksin clearly demonstrated that he still had a large popular following in Thailand. He was successful in stirring his supporters to action through phone messages including his statement that it was “time for the people to come out for a revolution.” However, his indirect criticism of the monarchy by singling out General Prem and his direct criticism of the Royal Thai Army in engineering the coup which ended his government; and the excesses of the red shirt demonstrators in Bangkok make it less and less likely that he will be the beneficiary of some classic Thai political compromise which will allow for his return.

Prime Minister Abhisit and his government have been damaged by these events including the humiliating cancellation of the ASEAN+3 meeting with Thailand in the chair. Some observers have accused the government of weakness or incompetence in allowing the demonstrations to get out of hand and some have predicted that Abhisit’s tenure as PM will soon end. But to his credit, Abhisit was determined to avoid major bloodshed when he called out the army to control the demonstrators. While some criticized Abhisit for weakness in confronting the red shirts, the government seemed to understand that the worst outcome would be violent clashes leaving behind a number of red-shirted martyrs. In retrospect, Abhisit may eventually be credited with resolving a difficult and violent situation with minimal loss of life.

Despite the criticisms directed against the government, it seems doubtful that the Abhisit government will fold. For Abhisit to step down as Prime Minister it would require a vote against him in Parliament or direct intervention by the military, neither of which are likely at this time. The coalition in Parliament will want to avoid at all costs new elections, which would probably bring another reincarnation of Thaksin’s old TRT party into power. The military has demonstrated that they can be the agents of political change but not political leadership.

Thailand has once again suffered a blow to its international reputation. As in the case of the airport closure in November, tourism has suffered a direct hit. Finance Minister Korn acknowledged that Thailand’s expected GDP figures for the year, already projected at minus 3%, will drop further with the loss of tourism revenue. Caution and skepticism will prevail in the international business community, previously encouraged by what they hoped would be a period of increased stability once the Democrat-led coalition came into office. Minister Korn and Foreign Minister Kasit will undoubtedly face many questions about Thailand’s future when they visit Washington next week for the annual meetings of the IMF.


And now [the political economist] who points out why Thaksin’s support is so strong, …:

Abhisit has exactly zero democratic legitimacy and I am rather taken aback by your simplistic characterization of the red shirts as merely backing the “ousted, corrupt (even by Thai standards) former Prime Minister Thaksin”. Undoubtedly, Thaksin is no angel – he got rich in telcoms kind of Carlos Slim-style by rigging the public licenses etc. and he surely has engaged in vote-buying and the like. It may well be that the red shirts are a largely rent-a-crowd paid to protest directly by Thaksin.

However, Thaksin is also the first Thai politician who actually conducted polling of what the non-Bangkok Thai population wanted – mostly cheap government loans for village infrastructure and free healthcare in the rural areas – and lo’ and behold, when PM he largely delivered that, which is why he remains so stubbornly popular outside of Bangkok.

The simple fact that he is the first Thai politician with what resembles a popular democratic mandate – he is likely to win any new election – and who correspondingly doesn’t need to share the “legitimacy of the King” to rule – essentially he doesn’t need the King at all (and will surely walk all over the Crown Prince once he accedes to the throne), which is why he is loathed by Prem and the other royal advisors, and why they continuously rewrite the Constitution to try and keep him out of politics.

Indeed, it was the yellow shirts, who when bringing down the previously pro-Thaksin government, wanted to bring back an atavistic form of elite-controlled government in Thailand and revert to “the good old days” and in fact demanded that a new explicitly non-democratic Constitution be written, so that the Bangkok elite may continue to rule over the majority of rural Thais. But that is simply trying to ignore the central cleavage in Thailand – that most of the wealth is in Bangkok, but most of the people live outside of Bangkok.



One response

26 08 2009
New: Prem’s birthday « Political Prisoners in Thailand

[…] Songkitti is reported the man responsible for the direction of the troops in their suppression of the Songkhran Uprising […]

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