After eight uneasy months of relative calm after its latest military coup on May 22, Thai politics is heating up again following the impeachment of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra for dereliction of duty over her ousted government's rice-pledging scheme.
Apart from banning her from holding political office for five years, the impeachment is accompanied by criminal and civil charges on similar grounds that could send Ms Yingluck to prison or into exile. As the noose tightens around her, it has undermined Thailand's reconciliation efforts, setting the country up for a new phase of political turbulence. Pro- and anti-coup forces opposed to and supportive of the legacy of Ms Yingluck's brother Thaksin, a deposed former prime minister himself, vie for Thailand's future political order in the waning twilight of King Bhumibol Adulyadej's glorious 68-year reign.
With martial law still in place since the coup, Thailand is essentially under a virtual military lockdown. During this once-in-a-lifetime transition, the army has practically made the royal succession the top national security priority. Most matters still operate under a business-as-usual environment but dissent and challenges related to the security of the monarchy are not tolerated. While creating societal tensions by suppressing dissent and ruling under martial law, the army's vigilance and draconian resolve to secure the throne are best understood as Thailand's search for recalibrated political arrangements that maintain some continuity with a monarchy-centred past while adopting the imperatives of democratic rule that satisfy popular demands and expectations.
The Yingluck impeachment is unlikely to lead to a new balance in Thai politics. The manoeuvre was a power play by the coup-appointed National Legislative Assembly (NLA). Ms Yingluck was already disqualified from office prior to the putsch for improperly overseeing a senior bureaucrat's transfer. As the coup abolished the 2007 Constitution, the case against her had to rely on enabling laws. Impeaching Ms Yingluck when she was no longer premier at coup time while there was no Constitution in place required elastic legal technicalities. Ultimately, she was removed and banned for not stopping the loss-making rice policy.
But in view of signals from the Thai military junta, particularly Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the NLA's overwhelming vote of 190 to 18 was unsurprising. Sidelining Ms Yingluck reinforces the coup's rationale of conflict resolution and corruption eradication. More importantly, if not banned from politics, Ms Yingluck may well lead Mr Thaksin's party machine to victory again at the next polls. Evidently, the rice-pledging policy was a disastrous miscalculation in trying to manipulate global rice prices, and its implementation reeked of corruption. But if this measure of dismal policy with attendant corruption were applied to previous and future Thai premiers, most of them would fail the test.
The key indicator of how far Mr Thaksin's opponents will keep him at bay by going after his sister is her criminal and civil prosecution for the same rice-related corruption. Ms Yingluck's worst-case scenario is jail time. Her criminal trial could be drawn out for years like most other cases or it could be accelerated into another power play, depending on how the authorities want to play it. Imagining Ms Yingluck skipping the country for exile is easier than seeing her behind bars. Alternatively, slapping her with a hefty bill of US$18 billion (S$24 billion) for the rice losses would be another way of keeping her down and out.
The short-term fallout over Ms Yingluck's impeachment has been limited because the military is firmly consolidated under the junta, with martial law as a coercive instrument to quell street protests. General Prayut, Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, and Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda are all former army chiefs from the same army unit with deep fraternal bonds going back four decades. The current army chief, Gen Udomdej Sitabutr, is the youngest of this ruling fraternity of army generals.
As these generals have made the royal succession a security priority, they are unlikely to be in a rush to leave office, notwithstanding pledges to hold elections by early next year. The likelihood for them to leave on time would be their ability to control transitional outcomes, including the next polls. Otherwise there is no point for the generals to stage the coup only to find Mr Thaksin's party machine back in power after the election, which was the case following their previous putsch in September 2006. Thailand's interim period of coup and military rule could thus become indefinite.
In the medium and longer term, however, the generals are likely to come under more pressure and be put to the test. The backlash against the anti-Thaksin power plays over recent years from two coups in 2006 and last year, two judicial dissolutions of Mr Thaksin's parties in 2007 and 2008, and Ms Yingluck's coup-induced ban from politics and potential prison sentence will likely become volatile and virulent when it later surfaces.
Evidently, impeaching and banning Ms Yingluck from politics has rendered reconciliation and accommodation more elusive and harder to reach. Yet, had Mr Thaksin's opponents let her off lightly, her political standing and proven electoral appeal would complicate and undermine their post-coup plans. In hindsight, the Yingluck impeachment and ban from elections could be seen as part of a larger and ongoing build-up that is part and parcel of the Thai transition and contested political order after succession.
Such an all-consuming, highest-stakes contest is best resolved through compromise and mutual accommodation. In the longer term, neither Mr Thaksin's forces nor his adversaries are Thailand's answers. Moving beyond both requires a commitment to an inclusive, fair and balanced system of electoral democracy with institutional safeguards for checks and balances. The starting point has to be the realisation that Thailand is owned by all Thais, not some more than others, not a few over the rest.
Doing so would allow Thailand to find a third way between Mr Thaksin and his adversaries, and to regain its footing during its transitional quest for a new balance between a remarkable reign and an electoral democracy that will not be turned back. Until then, Thailand will continue to hover in a holding pattern with limited and patchy movements forward.
The writer teaches International Political Economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.