Shrinking political space

26 05 2009

Nirmal Ghosh (The Malaysian Insider, 25 May 2009: “Shrinking space for honest debate”) has an interesting story on the narrowing political space in contemporary Thailand.

Ghosh points out that while Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva may have won one round against red shirt protesters, he is now “surrounded by the tightest security for any premier in recent memory – and it is handled by the army, not the police.” He adds that “Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya rarely sleeps in the same place every night, and his security too is handled by the army.”

Academic Michael Nelson speaking at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, saw a conflict between monarchism and democracy that has not been resolved since the 1932 overthrow of the absolute monarchy.

At the same event, Chulalongkorn University’s Thitinan Pongsudhirak spoke of how former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s manipulation of the political system resulted in an end to the old “consensus” amongst the Thai elites which saw them pitted against each other. That struggle has also seen the poor recruited.

The red-shirted United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship’s supporters manifest “a sense of injustice. In their eyes, it is unjust that elected pro-Thaksin governments have been thrown out by the army or by ‘judicial coups’.” Every dismissal of their grievances by the establishment, every example of favourable treatment of the yellow-shirts or the blue-shirted vigilantes deployed against them in Pattaya last month, fuels their resentment.”

Ghosh explains that “the UDD is about more than just Thaksin; he is just a rallying point for broader grievances.” He points out that “leading intellectual, Mr Prawase Wasi, argues that the fights over Thaksin and the supposed plots to destroy the monarchy are ‘distorting the complexity of justice, simplifying it to a single-dimension issue’.” Prawese is further quoted: “In a pluralistic society…there are people who worship the monarchy and those who don’t – it is natural. The key is how to channel the differences towards creative collaboration and output. Justice is the only common ground…”.

Ghosh observes that: “In Thailand’s polarised environment, however, expressing opinions freely is like negotiating a minefield.” He cites Thitinan as saying: “We live in a tightening box of space for intellectual honesty.”

And, with the Abhisit government actively recruiting and encouraging spies, the space is narrowing exceptionally rapidly.