Dispatch

Thailand's War of Attrition

As the government and opposition forces take to the streets, an exiled billionaire waits in the wings, and battle lines are drawn.

BANGKOK — With his sister in office, a majority in the lower house, and billions in the bank, Thailand's self-exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had every reason to feel confident he might soon return home. But an attempt by the ruling Pheu Thai party to ram a sweeping political amnesty through parliament has backfired. As the government he influences from overseas fights for survival, Thailand's latest political crisis threatens longer-term damage to Thaksin's support base. And it leaves him a long way from home.

Portrayed by the Shinawatras as an attempt to draw a line under nearly a decade of bruising political encounters, the amnesty bill would have cleared Thaksin of a two-year prison term for graft in absentia after his ouster by coup in 2006. Murder charges against Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the opposition Democrat Party, over his role in crushing Bangkok street protests by Thaksin supporters, known as "Red Shirts," when he was prime minister in 2010 would also have been quashed.

"Should we reset and move on or should we continue to fight?" Thaksin said in a last-ditch attempt at convincing his opponents that the bill could lead to political reconciliation during an interview published in Thai and English on Oct. 24.

Eight days later, the Pheu Thai-dominated lower house unanimously passed the bill amid an opposition walkout. By the time it reached the upper house on Nov. 12, however, the bill had become so toxic that senators had little choice but to reject it 141-0.

As it reached the Senate, almost every corner of Thai society was livid. Office workers in the central Silom district of Bangkok left their desks and poured into the street blowing whistles; university staff and students marched together on campuses, and opposition supporters set up tents around the capital's Democracy Monument near the seat of government.

A bill that was designed to "reset" the country's long-running political feud by clearing everyone's name thereby -- in theory, keeping everyone happy -- had achieved the opposite. For Thaksin supporters, many of whom were killed and injured at the hands of the military in 2010, the amnesty would clear main opposition Democrat Party leader Abhisit, a man they commonly refer to as "the murderer." For his opponents, the bill is seen as a cynical attempt by the government to sweep graft under the carpet and smooth the return of a hated and divisive figure. There are also fears that Thaksin's assets worth $1.47 billion could be unfrozen.

Following a coup in September 2006, Thailand's political divide has widened in a cyclical series of political crises typified by protests and clashes involving the "Yellow Shirts," self-proclaimed defenders of the monarchy, and the Red Shirts, opponents of the coup. As a result, chaos has become a regular feature of life in the Thai capital: In November 2008, Yellow Shirts seized both Bangkok airports to protest a new government deemed a proxy of Thaksin; less than two years later, parts of Bangkok were turned into free-fire zones as the army clashed with encamped Red Shirts. Amid the battles, the Reds have aimed to overturn the constitutional legacy of the coup in the name of greater democratic reform. For the Yellows, the goal remains the end of Thaksin's influence, a man deemed a threat to the monarchy, an enduring symbol of graft and greed.

"Corruption is the No. 1 problem with the government," says Chao Chaonarich, a real-estate agent from Bangkok. One of the thousands of Yellow Shirt protesters who continue to rally in Bangkok as the opposition aims to topple Yingluck, Chao complained the government's record was far from stellar even before the amnesty bill.

Government critics argue that a populist rice-pledging scheme which guarantees farmers a fixed price per kilo is costing the country dear, guaranteeing prices above market rates while sapping overseas demand. The Shinawatras have pursued an election-winning strategy of "Thaksinomics," playing to the rural poor -- the majority -- by providing subsidies on everything from health insurance to energy in recent years, with mixed results. The rice-pledging scheme left taxpayers with a bill for 136 billion baht ($4.3 billion) during Yingluck's first year in office and an estimated $9.6 billion in the 18 months since. The government has refused to disclose recent losses but the state budget is hemorrhaging funds by most accounts: In recent weeks, some farmers have been told they must wait months before they will receive payment with debt as percentage of GDP climbing to 44.3 percent.

To add further damage to the Pheu Thai government, the International Monetary Fund called for the rice policy to be scrapped on Nov. 11. That was the same day the Senate shot down the amnesty bill and the International Court of Justice in The Hague mostly sided with Cambodia in a ruling on a territorial dispute over land around Preah Vihear, a 1,000-year-old Hindu temple.

If policies like the rice scheme were supposed to lock-in voters for Yingluck and Thaksin in Thailand's agricultural heartland in the north, the amnesty debacle has mobilized opponents, particularly in Bangkok, while turning off rural supporters.

A Bangkok University poll conducted a few days before the Senate killed the bill put opposition leader Abhisit ahead of Yingluck for the first time since she easily defeated him in June 2011 elections. Her approval rating has slumped to 26.7 percent against 37.2 percent for Abhisit -- in June of this year, Yingluck was nearly nine percentage points clear according to the same pollsters.

Her policies have remained strictly Thaksin-centric: Economically with the rice policy and a first-time car-buyers financing scheme, and politically in attempting to nullify constitutional changes made following the coup against her exiled brother.

Thida Thavornseth, chairman of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), a core Red Shirt group, estimated the government had lost "at least 10 percent" of its support in the past few weeks. Key supporters who want to see rule of law, democratic reform, and Abhisit on trial for murder are "angry" she says.

Thida was among four key Red Shirt leaders were removed from a scheduled appearance on Asia Update, a television channel financially backed by Thaksin's son Panthongtae, a week before the crucial Senate vote. Their message wasn't what Thaksin wanted people to hear, she said: All were against the bill. In response, the UDD is set to launch its own TV channel next month.

Other former Thaksin supporters have spoken of more drastic moves away from him, and his sister. Among the Red Shirt protests against the amnesty bill, some leaders of the movement spoke of setting up a political party to rival the Shinawatras.

"Many people don't feel the same about Yingluck and Thaksin anymore," says Thida.

An increasingly fractured group, the Red Shirts represent a number of factions who all share one thing in common: Since his first election victory in 2001, most have jumped on the Thaksin bandwagon. In a country where King Bhumibol Adulyadej has reigned from behind closely guarded palace gates since 1946 (the longest-serving monarch in the world), the Red Shirts have considered Thaksin a breath of fresh, democratic air to mix up the old elite. To his detractors, the telecoms billionaire-cum-politician has instead been viewed as nouveau-riche, a young upstart prepared to upset the regal status quo to his own end.

He hinted at reforming what is known as Article 112, Thailand's draconian lese majeste law; so too did his sister when she took office. But with an escalating number of Red Shirts behind bars in recent years, "Pheu Thai has been singularly unresponsive in the effort to bring up this issue," says David Streckfuss, a leading academic on lese majeste. The controversial amnesty bill was described as a "blanket amnesty" by most news media for everyone from Thaksin down to the lowest-ranking Red Shirt behind bars. But the only Thais who wouldn't get a clean slate under the proposed law were those behind bars on lese majeste convictions, says Streckfuss.

With antagonism running high and the number of cases rising to about 150 every year, Article 112 is for the time being too politically explosive for the government to handle in the current political climate, adds Streckfuss.

In a country where this draconian law makes free political discussion impossible, Thailand's latest political quagmire has raised even more questions than usual as the impasse rumbles on. Why did Thaksin risk such a disastrous political move? And where does it leave supporters who have for the first time openly protested in the streets against him?

Mutterings of a back-room deal between Thaksin, the military, and even the "network monarchy" (the royals and their associated offices including the Privy Council) provide a plausible explanation as to why Thaksin felt confident enough to push the amnesty bill so hard from exile through his supporters. But we don't know what's happening behind the scenes, says Duncan McCargo, author of The Thaksinization of Thailand.

"The amnesty issue relates to what the state of play is over a deal between the two sides," he says. "It's not simply about what Thaksin is doing."

Audio tapes of a supposed conversation appeared on YouTube in which Thaksin discussed a military reshuffle and his possible return to Thailand with Deputy Defense Minister Yuthasak Sasiprapha emerged in July fueling conspiracy theories over a backroom deal. Yuthasak's roles in previous Thaksin administrations added an appearance of authenticity.

But those close to the billionaire tycoon in recent years -- including exiled UDD founding member Jakrapob Penkair -- remain adamant that he was not party to any discussions with the military, opposition or any other senior establishment figure in the lead up to the amnesty bill.

"There's no such deal. But I admit that there might be some deal among those in high places in Thailand that our side is not involved in," says Jarapob, alluding to a deal among other power factions.

As leaders of the opposition Democrat party appeared on stage in front of thousands of supporters in Bangkok during a final push to topple the government this week, Yingluck has called for talks with the opposition. It's the first public mention of dialogue since Thailand's latest political battle began.

The "unpalatable" opposition is resurgent but cannot expect to win an election anytime soon, says McCargo. With Thaksin recoiled and no closer to a return, his position has weakened. And although Yingluck remains vulnerable in the short term and far from in full control, she is likely to emerge further distanced from her divisive older brother and therefore stronger, adds McCargo.

Thailand, though, remains no closer to a settlement, much less in possession of a leader to help end the cycle of mutually assured political destruction.

"For Thai people, you don't have any other choice," says Thida of the UDD. "If you don't choose Pheu Thai, but you support democracy, who do you choose now?"

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Correction (Nov. 22, 2013): An earlier version of this article misstated the year King Bhumibol Adulyadej's reign began. His reign began in 1946.

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