Time out for Thailand’s elites

Thai elites need to rethink their grasp on institutional order amid shift in political loyalties.

Thailand's Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was ordered by a court to step down in a divisive ruling that handed a victory to anti-government protesters [AP]

Thailand is heading for a political showdown unless opposing sides consider compromise. The anti-government movement is calling for electoral reform after the dismissal of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on May 7. The Constitutional Court ruled Yingluck abused her power by appointing a relative as national security chief. Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party favour pressing ahead with a planned election on July 20.

Thailand is no stranger to coups – a well-oiled military and institutional tool to oust the unfavoured. In the past, those who brandished this weapon have had the socio-economic upper hand. Now the millions who traditionally deferred to the elites are shifting their political devotions from the elites to themselves. Deference can no longer be relied upon. A majority thumbs up at the ballot box for anti-establishment parties and growing disgruntlement with the elites means the coup as guaranteed silencer of the masses could no longer be relied upon.

Is it time out for Thailand’s political elites? Their steel grasp on state organs, like the Constitutional Court and the National Anti-Corruption Commission, to retain power is a rearguard action from factions grasping for air. Demands by the establishment for sweeping political reform over a general election is a delaying ploy to regroup.

Globalisation is driving and fuelling the awakening of Thailand’s other half – and the elites are using state institutions as barbed wire to keep out the popular voice.

If the July 20 election were to go ahead, then the poorer populace would almost certainly hand the Pheu Thai party another victory. It’s already handed Yingluck and her influential brother Thaksin Shinawatra six consecutive election victories between 2001 and 2013.

Stacked with Yingluck allies, the government views elections as the best way to resolve the crisis. The opposition, led by Suthep Thaugsuban and his People’s Democratic Reform Committee, are pushing hard for sweeping reform of the parliamentary system before another election takes place. Another key PDRC mission is to wipe Thai politics clean of Thaksinite influence.

Thailand’s old elites broadly consist of the royalist civil service, the judiciary and the army. Newly rich Bangkok-based middle-classes have swelled their ranks.

The old elites have lost touch and richer Bangkokians want to preserve their position. What it amounts to is a detachment from the rearranging sentiments of the Thai masses.

A globalised alertness has dawned upon this demographic. Michael Montesano, co-ordinator of the Thailand Studies Program at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, suggests the legions that travel abroad to work eventually return to Thailand freshly aware of their place in society’s pecking order. Using the vote and protests as vehicles for expression, they’re compelling the state to take notice of their voice. Globalisation is driving and fuelling the awakening of Thailand’s other half – and the elites are using state institutions as barbed wire to keep out the popular voice.

Shinawatras’ connection to rural heartland

No one understands the situation better than the Shinawatras. Despite their extraordinary self-made wealth, Yingluck and her billionaire sibling Thaksin, made a calculated tactic to skirt around the elite club.

Their popularity stems in part from their origins. Born in Chiang Mai, Yingluck remained in this northern province to complete her first university degree. This link to the countryside clinched Yingluck’s connection to the voters, says Montesano. Yingluck campaigned for the 2011 general election on a platform of poverty eradication and national reconciliation. Her rice-pledge scheme, although botched, was aimed at lifting the incomes of the rural poor. Supong Limtanakool and other Yingluck critics say the scheme squandered state coffers and promoted corruption, and paved the way to her downfall.

Thaksin’s acute sense of voter as “customer” shook the elites out of their ivory towers. Measures pushing for an affordable medical system, to setting up a “village fund” to boost rural development, sealed the loyalty of millions. No surprise that the elites were deeply uncomfortable with this new political paradigm as it threatened to dismantle their comfortable set up.

Thai scholar, Duncan McCargo, writes, “because of Thailand’s hidden “caste system”, – which is linked to popular Buddhist notions that the poor deserve their lower status because of accumulated demerits from previous lives – Bangkokians typically have a profoundly paternalistic view of the masses”.

Many richer Thais believe this uneducated lot aren’t ready to vote.

“The leaders of the current anti-government protests – many of whom come from Bangkok – constantly deride these voters as ignorant and susceptible to electoral manipulation and vote-buying,” writes McCargo.

A fair slice of the elites would likely support an army-backed coup. Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha said that the military was ready to use “full force” to stop the violence. But overall Prayuth has been fairly reticent to issue strong statements about deploying troops to calm the tension. In the days after Yingluck’s dismissal Prayuth said any military action to solve the stalemate must be the last resort.

Prayuth has an astute understanding that the institutional health of the army relies on its legitimacy. In a democracy, even in a flawed one like Thailand’s, armed forces derive their validity more from the peaceful protection of civilians more than violent intervention. In 2010, television images of tanks bulldozing the pro-Thaksin red shirt encampment in central Bangkok were broadcast uninterrupted around the world. Ninety people died in the crackdown. Global condemnation of the force used on protesters was swift and sweeping. Prayuth does not want to be the general who orders a fresh round of bloodshed.

Army concerns over legitimacy

International legal adviser to the red shirts, Robert Amsterdam, says Prayuth is also concerned about his legacy. The 60-year old is due to retire in September and paramount to him is the preservation of his reputation as protector and figure of authority. Amsterdam says he will drive an indictment to the International Criminal Court in the Hague if the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Thai Army acts with impunity.

In Thailand, the army is a huge centre of power. It’s part of the ruling nexus, which composes of the monarchy, the political establishment and the monied classes.

At the centre of this turbulent vortex is the Thai monarchy and the anxiety over the question of royal succession. The world’s longest-reigning monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, is 86-years old and in frail health.

Amidst the widening schism between the vying groups is the question of the traditional role of the Thai monarch as unifying national force.

Yet the monarchy could be about to enter a new and different phase in its evolution in an attempt to adapt to Thailand’s new political and social landscape. Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn does not hold the same mesmeric sway over the Thai people as his father. Observers say the prince seems to be increasingly aligned with the Thaksin cause.

While national reconciliation appears the only way forward, the loudest voices aren’t backing unity. The uncompromising rhetoric from both sides could lead Thailand down a dangerous path. Moreover, there appears no single leader who has the ability or charisma to knock heads together for posterity.

National unity has been achieved in trying circumstances before. After decades of hostility between East and West Germany, the Berlin Wall came crumbling down in 1989. Eighty million people were joined together at the hip and Germany now leads Europe as its economic and political powerhouse.

Meanwhile, the political upheaval is resonating around the Thai economy. Widespread predictions point to a further downward trend on the 2.4 percent GDP growth rate. The market has fallen nearly 20 percent since October 2013.

What’s needed is a short-term compromise to diffuse the shock. It’s painful and requires humility, but the alternative is an escalation of the crisis with no near end in sight.

Zarina Banu is a freelance writer, focusing on economics and business-policy in the Asia-Pacific.