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Thailand’s Anti-Democratic Royalists Precipitate Political Chaos

The polarized country is deeply divided between poor rural dwellers and an urban middle class enjoying the fruits of globalization.

by Samuel Oakford
May 9 2014, 5:05pm

Photo by Adam Jones

Royalist opponents of Thailand’s elected government are paralyzing the country — again.

After months of protests, the country’s Constitutional Court on Wednesday ordered Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra removed from office, ruling that she had abused her power by transferring her national security chief to another post in 2011.

The following day, an anti-corruption commission unanimously voted to charge Yingluck in connection with a rice subsidy scheme it alleged was plagued by waste. In its announcement, the commission asked the Thai Senate to initiate impeachment proceedings against Yingluck.

Thailand’s constitution, written by the military in 2007, dictates that the king name judges to the court. Only half of the senate is elected by direct vote; judges and civil servants appoint the other half.

Yingluck Shinawatra delivered a statement to the media on May 7 after Thailand's Constitutional Court removed her from office.

Supporters of Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party immediately called the court’s intervention a judicial coup. The Court’s decision stopped short of removing Yingluck’s entire cabinet, however. Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan, Yingluck’s deputy prime minister and a confidant of her brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, replaced her on an interim basis.

These developments have further polarized a country that is deeply divided between an urban middle class enjoying the fruits of globalization and poorer rural dwellers that form the backbone of Pheu Thai.

On Friday, police fired tear gas and water cannons at nationalist “yellow shirt” protesters — so-called for their use of the royal color — who descended on Bangkok, calling for the full ouster of the government. At one of the rallies, opposition protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban repeated his call for an unelected council to solve Thailand’s political woes. Suthep demanded that the Constitutional Court and the senate reconfigure the government, and said he stood ready to name a new prime minister himself if necessary — despite a lack of authority to actually do so. Any such move would trigger a constitutional crisis.

Yingluck’s supporters, known as “red shirts,” have called for a massive counter-protest on Saturday.

Thailand prepares for civil war as Bangkok grows more menacing. Read more here.

This showdown isn’t Thailand’s first, and it almost assuredly won’t be its last.

The court’s move marks the third time since 2006 that unelected institutions with ties to the royal family have removed Thailand’s elected prime minister. That year, Yingluck’s brother Thaksin, a telecoms billionaire, was deposed by a military coup, after yellow shirt protesters besieged the capital.

Red shirts, who are mostly low income residents from the provinces north of Bangkok, first emerged as a response to the 2006 coup, agitating against what they saw as elitist meddling in the democratic process.

Facing corruption charges, Thaksin later fled the country and his party, Thai Rak Thai, was banned. Reincarnated as the People’s Power Party, his supporters won the 2008 elections only to see Prime Minister Samak Sundravej deposed by the Constitutional Court for hosting a televised cooking show.

This current chapter of the decade-long crisis began in December when the Yingluck attempted to pass an amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return to the country.

The rice-subsidy program, introduced by Yingluck in 2011, is emblematic of Thaksin’s brand of populism. The scheme offered farmers prices above the market rate for their crop, a practice that led critics to accuse Yingluck of “buying off” voters in rural areas. Supporters said it helped put money in the pockets of rural residents who make up 90 percent of Thailand’s poor.

But plummeting rice prices led to a glut and the government struggled to pay thousands of farmers, many of whom have yet to be reimbursed. Yingluck's government was forced to borrow money to cover expenses and amounted losses the anti-corruption commission estimates at 9.2 billion dollars.

The yellow shirts are essentially an undemocratic movement — an urban elite chafing under, in their view, “the tyranny of the majority.” In February, protesters in Bangkok literally stopped the democratic process by blocking polling stations during general elections.

At a protest earlier this year, Suthep declared, “Our aim is to reform our country without the interference of politicians or political parties.” It’s not clear what that means.

“They talk about a lot of alternatives, but they’re all basically the same: to have some sort of people’s council, council of experts, some sort of interim body,” Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, told VICE News.

Kurlantzick says that the 2006 coup gave opponents of Thaksin and subsequent governments the idea that if they protested enough, the military would eventually intervene on their behalf. But soldiers have not yet taken control away from the civilian government.

Thailand has shown a remarkable ability to remain in a perpetual state of crisis while postponing its inevitable political reckoning. Despite repeated warnings of civil war, the military remains a firm presence behind the scenes. Though it has chosen not to involve itself overtly in the latest crisis, it would likely intervene should widespread violence occur.

Looming over the crisis is the world’s longest-serving head of state: Thailand’s 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who took power in 1946. Though his powers are technically limited, like those of the Queen of England, many of Thailand’s citizens revere him. Criticism of the monarch is punished severely.

Thailand’s elite, even those who aren’t outright royalists, are fearful of what comes after King Bhumibol. His son and heir, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, is seen as closer to Thaksin than his father. As a leaked 2005 US State Department cable put it, “the King will not be around forever, and Thaksin long ago invested in Crown Prince futures.” Thaksin reportedly gave the crown prince a Maybach luxury vehicle and paid off his extensive gambling debts.

It may only be after King Bhumibol’s death that the question of democracy and majority representation in Thailand is resolved.

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford

Photo via Flickr

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