Land of Smiles

Written and researched by

Enrique Chaljub

Context

          The context of the current political landscape in Thailand starts to take a familiar shape after the ratification of the 1997 constitution, the country’s most democratic to date. One year later, Thaksin Shinawatra, a former policeman turned businessman turned politician, founded the Thai Rak Thai Party (TRT). Much of Thai politics since has revolved around Thaksin and the conservative reaction he aroused.

           The unprecedented success of TRT in the 2001 elections and onward has been interpreted in multiple ways by academia. Most, if not all, hit on some truth in Thai politics, given its multifaceted nature. Arguably, the best way to simplify Thaksin’s extraordinary rise is a very opportunistic man in a very opportune moment. It’s hard to overlook the political prowess and public image skills of a man that, in the run up to his premiership, was able to turn public opinion drastically in his favor (~30% to ~70%) during a corruption case against him. It’s also hard to ignore the historical context of his ascension. A new and drastically more democratic constitution, the 1997 Asian financial crisis, and the growing access to television and radio by everyday Thais were all critical factors to Thaksin’s come up.

          Thaksin won an impressive victory in 2001, coming only two seats short of a parliamentary majority. Still unsatisfied, he set out an ambitious plan to gain more than 400 seats out of 500 in the 2005 elections. Although initially he projected a modern businessman-politician persona, Thaksin grew increasingly populistic in rhetoric, presumably to gain public support during his corruption trial in 2000. But populist policies alone would not guarantee the parliamentary takeover he desired. For that, Thaksin applied corporate-like tactics never before implemented in Thai politics. Despite marketing itself as a “people’s party,” there was nothing grassroots about TRT. The party boasted a tight, efficient, hierarchical structure where all policy making decisions were made at the top by a small group of trusted advisors with a high emphasis on polls, marketing, and metrics. Actual MPs had so little say many of them barely showed up to parliament. TRT also began aggressively pursuing mergers with smaller parties and recruiting established politicians. Despite these efforts, and a popularity boost by his widely praised response to the 2004 tsunami, Thaksin fell short of his exaggerated goal. Nonetheless, TRT’s victory in 2005 made it the first party to win an absolute majority in free and fair elections, winning an unprecedented 375 seats out of 500.

 

          The party’s top-down corporate structure foreshadowed Thaksin’s ruling style. While in power he proved to have little regard for oversight and existing procedures. In his military appointments Thaksin sidestepped the Privy Council and began to promote family members and military preparatory classmates to top positions in the military. He carried out similar actions aimed at restructuring the bureaucracy. These glaring power grabs increasingly concerned and angered the traditional ruling class. Judging by his historic victory in 2005, the chances of ousting him democratically seemed slim.

 

          Similar to the conservative countermovement in the 70s, the ruling class found its social base in Bangkok’s middle class. Allegations of corruption and tax evasion began to turn the press, intellectuals, and the middle class against Thaksin. The People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) began a campaign of well-organized street protest wearing yellow, the color of the Crown, in early 2006. On September 16 of that year, while Thaksin attended a UN General Assembly in New York, he watched on television as a military coup deposed him back home. TRT was later dissolved by the Constitutional Court on May 2007.

 

          Perhaps to quell fears of a prolonged military government, the ruling junta moved relatively quickly to restore popular mandate. A new constitution was drafted, approved by the people via referendum, and signed into existence by the King by August 24, 2007. Some of the changes made from the 1997 constitution included a half appointed and half elected senate, a weaker executive, and a more powerful judiciary. All were meant to address Thaksin and similar individuals’ potential to monopolize and abuse power.

 

To the chagrin of the forces behind the 2006 coup, when elections were held in December of 2007, the People’s Power Party (PPP), a reincarnation of TRT, won a plurality of seats and led the ruling coalition. With Thaksin now in self-imposed exile, Samak Sundaravej, a veteran politician and Thaksin ally, became PM and leader of the party. Soon after, however, PPP’s deputy chairman was found guilty of electoral fraud and the party was promptly dissolved by the newly supercharged Constitutional Court. The parties which made up Samak’s coalition government formed a new one under the leadership of Abhasit Vejajjiva, the leader of the Democrat Party.

 

          Before new general elections were held in 2011, two large pro-Thaksin protest demanding elections (one in 2009 and another in 2010) transpired and both were suppressed using military force leaving more than 90 dead. The protesters wore red, color coding themselves like the anti-Thaksin PAD activists (yellow), spawning the simplified the Red Shirts vs Yellow Shirts dichotomy that Western media likes to overemphasize. 

 

          On July 3, 2011 elections finally took place. The PPP was replaced by the Pheu Thai Party, the third and latest incarnation of Thai Rak Thai. Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s younger sister, led the ticket for Pheu Thai and became Thailand’s first female PM. Pheu Thai won by landslide, acquiring 265 seats out of 500.

          This second Shinawatra administration more or less followed the footsteps of the first. Like Thaksin, Yingluck promised bizarre a mixture of business friendly and populist policies. This included a rice bill which set a fixed price on rice regardless of market fluctuations. The plan proved to be a disaster and left the government with massive stockpiles of rice too expensive to sell. Perhaps even more disastrous to her premiership was the infamous amnesty bill. If passed, the bill would, among other things, absolve Thaksin of the corruption convictions which kept him in exile. The bill sparked intense opposition across the political spectrum and despite passing through the Pheu Thai controlled lowerhouse, was unanimously rejected by the senate. 

          Undeterred by the senate’s rejection, and the fact that Pheu Thai made no effort to revive the bill after the intense backlash, protests continued in the similar, prolonged and organized manner they had in 2006 against Thaksin. This time they were coordinated by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), a well funded organization with not so subtle similarities to PAD. These demonstrations were supplemented by public officials, university professors, judges, and professional groups who published statements calling for Yingluck’s resignation. On December 8, 2013, all Democrat MPs resigned en masse in an effort to intensify the pressure on Yingluck. A day later, under increasing constrain, Yingluck dissolved parliament and called for new elections in early 2014. However, the elections failed to appease the forces out for Yingluck’s head, as the Democrat Party announced a boycott of the elections very early on and PDRC successfully blocked access to multiple polling stations on election day.

 

          As the situation deteriorated and became increasingly violent, another threat, once again from the judiciary, loomed over Yingluck’s administration. On May 7, 2014, the Constitutional Court unanimously ousted Yingluck and nine other ministers from office over the “illegal” removal of a cabinet member. On May 20th, the Royal Thai Army declared martial law and two days later a coup d'état. Yingluck later fled into exile, evading a guilty verdict of dereliction of duty over the infamous rice subsidy scheme. 

 

          The military junta which engineered the coup created the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha, which has been ruling Thailand ever since. By banning all political gatherings, instituting a curfew, and heavy repression of dissenting voices, the NCPO effectively restored “peace and order” to Thai politics via authoritarian rule. Since then, Thailand has seen the death of its beloved King of 70 years (one of the longest reigning sovereign monarchs in history), the drafting of its 20th constitution, the NCPO’s consolidation of power, the continued postponement of general elections, and the creation of a new pro-military party, Palang Pracharat. 

 

          The actions of the NCPO during its time in power, like the rest of the events in this highly simplified outline of recent Thai political history, are worthy of a more detailed analysis and explanation. But for the sake of brevity, I will touch on some of the key issues/factors to keep in mind when reading the events soon to take place.

 

          Firstly, this is by no means a fair election. Ignoring the Electoral Commission’s glaring bias and the campaigning handicaps on non-military parties, Thailand’s 20th Constitution gives the NCPO exceptional power. For one, the senate is entirely unelected. Instead it is almost entirely hand-picked by the NCPO. This means 200 out of the total 700 parliamentary votes which go to selecting a new PM are essentially in Prayut’s pocket. Palang Pracharat only needs 151 seats out of 500 in the lower house for Prayut to stay in power.

 

          Secondly, under this new landscape alliances might take unexpected shifts. This doesn’t mean the Democrat Party will suddenly become pro-Thaksin, but rather under the threat of previously “dormant” actors, bitter rivals like Pheu Thais and Democrats might bind together. The biggest sign of this is Abhisit’s multiple statements rejecting any possibility of supporting General Prayut as PM, although he recently said he was open to “working with” Palang Pracharat under certain conditions which would diminish the power of the NCPO. 

 

          Thirdly, it is important to clarify the Monarchy’s precise role in Thai politics. When it is said the Monarchy is “above politics,” it is not that it does not play a part in them. Rather, the Monarchy is seen to be a moral authority above and overseeing normal politics. The Crown’s interventions have come at crucial points and usually are aimed at restoring peace. Although at some points it has been heavily linked to and cooperated with the military, it has at other moments sided against it. The military, on the other hand, has consistently relied on its “defender of the Crown” title for legitimacy.

 

          Fourth and final point to keep in mind, Thais are currently deliberating (and have been for quite a while) on whether or not representative democracy is a good political system of Thailand. Anti-Thaksin leaders have frequently suggested that a “one man, one vote” system simply doesn’t fit Thailand. This newest constitution is the embodiment of this long and powerful anti-democratic sentiment among some Thais who have grown tired of perceived corruption of elected politicians.

 

          During the course of our time here in Thailand we will continue to study the last five years of NCPO rule, as well as the results and repercussions of the highly anticipated elections. These will be the likely subjects of our next mini projects, all of which will be posted on this website.

 




 

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