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.

Democracy Lab

Now the Social Revolution Can Begin

The end of Nepal's bloody civil war was supposed to bring freedom to the downtrodden. But democracy actually makes some things more complicated.

KATHMANDU, Nepal — Even by South Asian standards, it's hard to overstate how much of a political basket case Nepal has been over the years. Since a degree of democracy was introduced in 1990, it has suffered a brutal Maoist insurgency, the massacre of most of its royal family, a return to absolute rule, the abolition of the monarchy, and the collapse of every single elected government.

Yet for all the disastrous instability over the past decade and a half, Nepal has also experienced major historical change. Political power has gradually been passed down to its most oppressed castes and ethnicities. The country's successful national election this week (Nov. 19) brings glimmers of hope for one of South Asia's poorest nations.

In 2006, the country's decade-long civil war -- in which Maoist insurgents vied to topple the Nepalese monarchy, leaving an estimated 13,000 people dead -- finally came to a conclusion. Within two years of the peace agreement that ended this brutal conflict, the Maoist rebels could proclaim that their key objectives had been achieved: the 240-year-old monarchy was abolished, replaced by a democratic republic, and their party had confounded expectations with a resounding election victory.

Sadly, Nepal's politics has hardly been a paragon of stability and enlightened leadership since then. There have been five different governments in as many years, and the leading parties continue to squabble over the drafting of a new constitution. From 2010 to 2011, parliament held 17 in-house elections in an attempt to select a prime minister. In another instance, its members wasted over three months deciding which flag to adopt; weeks more were wasted in choosing the national bird, animal, and flower. In the meantime, almost nothing was done to improve on the grinding poverty faced by most of Nepal's 27 million citizens.

The euphoria that accompanied the end of the war and the fall of the much-despised King Gyanendra created the false impression that radical change had already come. Gyanendra's disastrous handling of the war, his repression of civil rights groups, and his attempt to impose absolute rule allowed the rebels and mainstream parties to make common cause against him. Things might have been different if it hadn't been for the crown prince that machine-gunned most of his own family to death in 2001. His bizarre and still unexplained drunken rampage eliminated the more popular and sensible members of the royal family.

But the abolition of the monarchy was only the beginning of real change in Nepalese society. Nepali politics had long been dominated by a small selection of upper castes, mostly from Kathmandu, while a bewildering spectrum of castes and ethnic groups -- nearly 100 of them -- were systematically shut out of power. The end of the war and the advent of true democracy finally allowed these groups to burst onto the political stage: 120 parties -- many of them based around caste and ethnicity -- took part in a lively contest before the Nov. 19th general election.

It will be a long and fraught process to overturn centuries of discrimination. Take, for example, an ethnic group called the Madhesi who live in the southern Terai plains. Despite making up around 35 percent of Nepal's population, their supposed "Indian-ness" means they have rarely been included in state institutions. Every single chief district officer (the most powerful government representative at regional level) has been sent down from the hill areas; not one is ethnically Madhesi. Only five or six Madhesi have ever made it into the officer ranks of the Nepalese Army.

The situation is even worse for low-caste Hindus, such as the Dalits. Still considered "untouchable" in many areas, they are often subject to debt bondage and prevented from entering temples and schools or drinking from the same taps as higher castes.

It was from groups such as these that the Maoists were able to recruit for their insurgency, creating a political awakening that cannot now be undone. Indeed, this social revolution has outgrown even the Maoists' intentions. At the end of the civil war, a powerful and occasionally violent Madhesi civil rights movement burst into life, and continues to grow in influence. The group could trigger its own insurgency if Madhesis remain excluded from institutions for much longer.

The pressure valve for these tensions has been the promise of federalism which would restructure the country into a series of provinces and devolve power to them in such a way that marginalized groups gain a real stake in governance. The Maoists have sided with a broad range of ethnic- and caste-based parties to push this agenda, but it has been strongly resisted by conservative parties that have traditionally dominated Kathmandu politics. The two main conservative parties are the Nepali Congress, the leading force for democracy over the decades but dominated by upper castes, and the Unified Marxist-Leninists (UML) who, despite their name, are far from progressive.

The conservatives argue that federalizing the country in the way proposed by the Maoists and their allies will lead to balkanization. With so many communities jumbled together around the country, they argue, it will be impossible to create provinces that boost one ethnic group without marginalizing many others. But many see their centralizing alternatives as thinly veiled attempts to maintain the grip of upper-caste elites in Kathmandu.

It is this disagreement over federalism that has delayed the completion of the constitution. Last year, Nepal's Parliament missed their final drafting deadline, forcing an 18-month hiatus as parties bickered over how to hold elections without a constitution. The general election held this week finally marks the beginning of the end of that long-drawn-out process. Once the votes are tallied, there will be a new Constituent Assembly, which will hopefully finish the job. Given the lack of opinion polls, it has been impossible to make firm predictions ahead of the counting, which will take many days. But since every party on the ballot has promised that the constitution will be completed within a year, the future looks bright.

The potential spoiler in all this has been a hardline faction of the Maoists, the Dashists, which split off from the parent party in June 2012, taking around a third of the party's cadres with them. The slow progress on the constitution had left many former rebels disillusioned with the democratic process. They were also unimpressed with the Maoist leadership's increasingly bourgeois lifestyle. Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal (known by his nom de guerre "Prachanda," or "The Fierce One") has become infamous for his love of Rolex watches and the 15-room mansion he rents in Kathmandu. This lavish lifestyle only exacerbated the sense that the Maoist party's revolutionary ideals -- for which the insurgents had sacrificed so much -- were being compromised by its leadership's cooperation with the conservative parties.

The hardliner splinter group did its best to derail this week's election, staging a crippling transport strike (known as a "banda") in the 10 days leading up to the poll. Voters were threatened, bombs planted at polling stations, buses and taxi drivers attacked -- all in a bid to show their strength and to intimidate voters into staying home. But speaking to Foreign Policy last week, one of the Dashists' senior leaders, Dev Gurung, struggled to give a convincing reason for their election boycott. He evoked technical issues, accusing the mainstream parties of "abusing the rule of law and principle of separation of powers" by appointing the chief justice of the Supreme Court to oversee the elections -- a little rich coming from a party that throws petrol bombs at buses. "We have not directed any of our cadres to carry out violence," he said, even less convincingly. One Western diplomat put it succinctly: "They dignify this stuff with the name ‘guerrilla tactics,' but it's just terrorism."

In the end, the banda mustered little popular support, and in particular failed to win over the transport industry's laborers, who urgently depend on their meager daily wages. Voting day, by contrast, turned out to be a resounding success, with early calculations pointing to a turnout of over 70 percent. It is clear that voters are tired of militancy and see their ballots as the best way to press their case for a better life. Regardless of the eventual results, the violence-free poll on Nov. 19 marked a major step forward for democracy in Nepal.

The challenge now, beyond the furious horse-trading required to build a governing coalition, will be figuring out a way to deal with these hardliners, perhaps by offering them an informal seat in the constitution talks to prevent them from veering into more concerted guerrilla violence.

But all the major steps so far -- from removing the monarchy to drafting the constitution -- are rather cosmetic compared with the deeper social forces that have been unleashed in the process. As in India, democracy is providing a voice to downtrodden ethnicities and castes for the first time in history, with implications that will be as profound as they are unpredictable. A constitution that truly respects the rights of all Nepalese citizens holds out the promise of overturning centuries of crushing social hierarchy. Ironing out its details will be a long and fractious process, but it seems clear that for this Himalayan nation, the insurgency is over, and the social revolution can begin.