Thai politics is eerily quiet

It is unusual for Bangkok dwellers to be docile under military rule but perhaps turbulence lies ahead.


Just over six months after Thailand's latest military coup, the country's politics appears calm and puzzling at the same time.

Events that should be taking place on the ground are not, and those that have transpired have been unanticipated and counter-intuitive.

Thailand's political environment has been surreal. Those who wish for Thailand to move beyond its protracted crisis and polarisation would like to see a good ending to the coup period, but the odds are otherwise. It is likely that Thailand is going through calm before storm clouds gather from early next year.

We can first look at the losing side of the military coup, namely, the political forces under the influence and control of self-exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

These include the deposed Puea Thai party and its erstwhile leader Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of Thaksin and also a former prime minister, who was disqualified on a malfeasance charge shortly before the putsch.

Despite being elected to power by an overall parliamentary majority and garnering 265 of 500 MP seats in the July 2011 election, the Yingluck-led Puea Thai party - under Thaksin's control - ended up squandering its huge mandate.

Its policy platform, particularly the rice price manipulation scheme, boomeranged. This meant that its other policy programmes that showed promise, including the massive rail development for improved logistics and productivity and wage increases to promote consumption-driven growth, also lost traction.

The bigger puzzle, just as the Yingluck government had overcome the flood crisis and sporadic street protests into the second half of its four-year term, was the infamous amnesty gambit. Thaksin's underestimation of the wrath and fury his amnesty ambition would stir up among his opponents will go down as one of Thailand's most mystifying political outcomes.

It ended his sister's tenure and undermined the solidarity of the different forces under Puea Thai and the "red shirt" United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD). The UDD rank and file was against exonerating some of Thaksin's adversaries, even when that meant keeping Thaksin under prosecution.

The red shirts also have been counter-intuitive. Given their fiery rhetoric and establishment of red-shirt villages, and even hints of secession and armed insurrection in some rural provinces, Thailand might well be in the midst of a civil war now.

The coup on May 22 effectively disenfranchised pro-Thaksin voters for the third time, following a putsch in September 2006 and a judicial dissolution of Thaksin's ruling party in December 2008. But it has been surprisingly quiet on the red-shirt front.

True, martial law is still in place to suppress open dissent and red-shirt mobilisation. And some of the red-shirt leaders have been detained and released on pledges to stay on the sidelines.

Yet, if such repeated disenfranchisements through military coups were to happen elsewhere, such as in Latin America and Africa, those whose political and fundamental rights and freedoms are stripped away so blatantly would probably not take it so tamely as people have in Thailand.

No broad-based uprising is evident on the Thai scene, at least during the post-coup six months.

As the military regime's mistakes and missteps become more pervasive and entrenched - such as the creeping nepotism and hypocrisy on military promotions and asset disclosure now on public display - the opposition and resistance from red shirts and from other segments of society are likely to expand and intensify. Still, the post-coup calm and quiet have been unanticipated.

That Thaksin's Puea Thai and the UDD's red shirts are biding their time is attributable to several factors. They probably want to wait for the generals to bungle their own coup and pave the way to their own downfall.

The Thaksin supporters probably believe they will win the next election when it is eventually held. And if conditions ripen for resistance and uprising, these forces are likely to reappear.

Moreover, Thaksin may have calculated that it is not worth having a showdown with his establishment opponents at this time. He is unlikely to have the wherewithal to overcome such brinkmanship, especially during Thailand's once-in-a-lifetime transition involving the royal succession.

And he may be concerned for the safety and security of the entire Shinawatra clan during the coup period. He certainly has not thrown in the towel, but his pause and relative political inactivity compared with his movements from, say, 2007 to 2010, have been surprising.

The most disappointing feature of Thai politics is that some of the people making public noises on behalf of the Thai electorate are those who have systematically undermined the democratic system in the first place.

Chief among them are members of the Democrat Party leadership, which has now called for a referendum on the new Constitution. This is the leadership that alternated between losing and boycotting elections since 2006.

A puzzle on this side is that the Democrat Party has not had a leadership change. In any other self-respecting political party, a leadership team that keeps losing or forfeiting in the electoral arena would have been replaced long ago.

There would be either a resignation out of conscience and accountability, or a leadership challenge from within.

This means the Democrat Party has not had the imagination, ideas and inventiveness to come up with policies that can beat the Thaksin party machine.

Excuses, such as rural voters lacking education and information or that Thaksin keeps buying them off at election time, may have found receptive ears in 2006 and earlier, but they have become old and unconvincing in recent months.

It is overdue for Democrat Party supporters to get new leaders and for those leaders to come up with party policies that can win elections and pull Thailand out of its undemocratic quagmire.

Perhaps most astonishing of all has been Thai society itself. This is a Bangkok-dominated society that has spent the past four decades opposing military dictatorships.

Its heyday of bringing down military rule in 1973 and again in 1992 is well recorded. But it is now putting up with military rule in counter-intuitive ways, in the face of an illustrious democratic past. Thai people are not supposed to be so docile in living under a military government, but they have been.

To be sure, popular grievances will accumulate, and tension and turmoil will likely appear on the horizon. Future storm clouds might well gather into a political tempest of unprecedented proportions.

Thailand's military dictatorships over the past five decades have ended in blood and tears, and it is unlikely that the current military regime will avoid the fate of its authoritarian forebears. But so far since the Thai military most recently seized power, Thailand's relative political stability is not what we might expect, notwithstanding the turbulence to come.

The writer teaches international political economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Political Science in Bangkok.