Thailand on the Brink

If Sunday's election is cancelled, the crisis will get much worse.

Thailand is a divided nation. This can be easily observed daily on the streets of Bangkok. The challenge is that the division is profound and will not easily be mended.

A minority of powerful elites seem determined once again to devastate the nation’s fragile parliamentary democracy by preventing the February 2 national election. Hundreds of thousands of antigovernment protesters, closely aligned to the Bangkok-centered Democrat Party, have taken to the streets the past two months to oust the caretaker government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and create an appointed government. They have called on the military, the courts and constitutionally mandated but politicized watchdog agencies to stop the election. Protesters have forcibly prevented fellow citizens from reaching polls for advance voting in Bangkok. Police have been restrained in the face of continuing demonstrators’ provocations, but the government has announced a state of emergency, which allows the authorities to ban gatherings of more than five people.

The United States and the rest of the international community, including Thailand’s ASEAN partners, who have championed Myanmar’s democratic transition, need to speak clearly in support of democracy. Most specifically, they must call for protection for citizens to vote.

Political transitions in Thailand have been difficult. Given existing political divisions progress rests on strengthening democratic institutions and respect for the rule of law. Traditional elites, including the military and other professed defenders of the monarchy, have only reluctantly acquiesced to democratic changes. The country’s numerous coups underscore their aversion. In this century, another coup would put Thailand in pariah status.

Government by technocrats and soldiers gave way to more robust party politics in the 1990s.The terrible 1997 economic crisis opened the door for Thaksin Shinawatra (PM Yingluck’s older brother), a telecommunications tycoon, to win power in 2001 with policies that appealed to business as well as previously neglected rural voters. In office, he exploited his electoral supremacy to ride roughshod over existing checks and balances and to flout human rights. But his populist policies gained enduring support from the majority of voters. He or his proxies have won every election since 2001. His popularity and power earned him the enmity of the traditional elites, and in 2006 the army ousted him. Following a conviction in 2008 for abuse of power, he has lived in self-imposed exile, exercising his power remotely. His party’s badly mistaken passage of a blanket amnesty that would have voided Thaksin’s conviction sparked the latest antigovernment protests.

The protesters, linked to the opposition Democrat party, dismiss the Thaksin’s party’s success as a result of vote buying and rural backwardness, an attitude that is as outdated as it patronizing. Many urban, middle-class protesters resent the electoral clout of upcountry voters, whom they view as uneducated as well as easily bought. Support for Thaksin’s party continues from his costly populist policies that responded to an awakening electorate. The protesters’ obsession with Thaksin blinds them to the underlying causes of his enduring potency. But the gravest problem with the protesters’ agenda is that by denying the majority of Thais a political voice, it invites violence.

Too many Thais have no great faith in the democratic process, for which Thaksin deserves a good share of the blame. Thaksin’s party needs to reform, and to start by instituting primary elections, as many

of its constituents demand. The Democrat party is willing to reject their namesake—democracy—because they cannot convince more people to vote for their candidates. Instead of boycotting, undermining and opposing the coming election, they have to adopt, however difficult for them, a more embracing platform and act as a truly national party serving voters also in the North and Northeast. Events of the past eight years, each time leading back to elections, show that Thais across the country desperately want a more honest responsive government. That will not be achieved by coups and courts that short-circuit and then rewire the political rules every time one party loses.

The International Crisis Group has emphasized the need to pursue comprehensive, broadly accepted agreement on Thai democracy. That will obviously not be easy and will take much time, but there is simply no solution without respect for the majority of voters. It requires some sort of broad national dialogue on decentralization and state reform. That can only proceed under a constitutionally required electoral processes.

The message from the Obama administration and the international community to Thailand—including the military, the government, the opposition and the judiciary—should be clear: violence, military coups and rigged regimes have no place in the twenty-first century. Thailand has long been a U.S. security partner in Southeast Asia, with more than forty joint military exercises a year, a large military training program and high-level joint planning on counterterror and counterdrug threats. Continued antidemocratic violence will severely strain that relationship. A military coup would shatter it. The Obama administration needs to be more engaged privately and publicly in conveying an unambiguous message to the whole country that elections must follow constitutional order and be popularly based. Failure will seriously harm Thailand’s relations with the United States.

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