Thai Election 2007 – Part 1

November 27, 2007

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In September 2006, military leaders in Thailand staged a bloodless coup that brought an end to then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinatwatra’s government. More than a year later, Thailand is gearing up for an election on the 23rd of December. The polls will determine the course of its immediate future. This week, in the first of a four part series on Thailand’s 2007 General Election, experts share their views on the impact of the military coup on Thailand and the mindset of Thai society. I’m Mubin Sa’adat and you’re tuned in to Radio Singapore International.

Following last year’s coup, a military-installed interim government was set up under the leadership of former army general Surayud Chulanont. Soon after seizing power, General Surayud promised to return to civilian rule within a year. But over the past few months, Thai politics underwent significant changes. First Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party was dissolved followed by the ban on 111 of its members from politics. Investigations into alleged corruption of Thaksin’s government was launched and martial law was imposed on certain states. The divide in the political arena extended into Thai society. But some political analysts pointed that these divisions were already there and with Thaksin’s ouster, they came into the open. Professor Surat Horachaikul from the International Affairs Department at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

SH: First of all, if you think that the coup de’tat was conducted to stop Thaksin, which is equivalent to de-democratization in that time, then of course much has been successful because Thaksin could not run the country after that. If you talk about uprooting Thaksinism in terms of cronyism and corruption and other kinds of human rights abuses and so on, then of course little has been achieved. So that depends. If you talk from a national unity perspective, then one can also say that the country is also largely divided and it is still divided. In the last year, what the militarily installed government could have done is provide space for dialogues among different groups so that they can come up with arguments about their differences. End of the day, from the national unity perspective, we also need to move forward. So in this very little has been achieved. I think there first remain two things. First of all we cannot say that because of the coup de’tat, the country has been divided. In fact the coup de’tat took place on the basis that the country was largely divided. And that’s why the coup needed to take place. So at least its kind of a recess instead of protesting against one another. Right now, you can see it from various perspectives. Those who love Thaksin, they do see that as anti-Thaksin rather than coup and democracy. It depends on who you’re talking about but largely I think the country resembles these groups of people.

In August this year, at a huge rally organized by the interim government at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, Prime Minister Surayud appealed to the masses to exercise their on a referendum on a new constitution drawn up by the interim government. In the words of General Surayud, the new constitution would lay the groundwork for Thailand’s democracy to have a stable and ethical political system. But some analysts see the constitution as a tool that could only further strengthen the military. Professor Giles Ungpakorn from Chulalongkorn University.

GU: Well the divisions were already there before the coup de’tat there were large campaigns against Thaksin. But what the coup has resulted in is a decrease in democratic space. We’ve had a military dictatorship in power for over a year now. They have dissolved the only party that the majority of the electorate supported. They’ve brought in a new non-democratic constitution that has decreased the democratic space by having appointed senators and increased the influence of unelected judges and civil servants. They have written into the constitution that the government must follow neo-liberal policies along with a sufficiency economy. They’ve written into the constitution that the government must increase military spending. So that’s the kind of constitution they have produced. And also they’ve written that it was okay to stage the coup and that no one could be punished. That sets the precedence for further coups in the future. They’re trying to pass a number of very laws through their parliament.
However the Thai people were anxious not to delay the elections any further. The constitution got its nod from the referendum and the general election has been set for the 23rd of December. Independent news analyst Nattakorn Devakula shares his view on whether the interim government’s promise of democracy after the election would be fulfilled.

ND: Thailand is not a true a democracy due to systemic elements that we have. We’re not aspiring to be one in the first place. But its not necessarily a horrible thing. For me, when people say that Thailand is going to return to democracy on the 23rd of December, I mean that’s partially true, we can have an election but we were never a true democracy in the first place. That basically the essence of it. We were a semi-authoritarian democracy which is not difficult to find in the world. We have a constitutional monarchy. That essentially implies we’re not a pure democracy in the republican sense. It’s a definitional fact that we are not a true democracy. Because that is the case, what I would say as an additional comment to what the Prime Minister says that we’re going to return to democracy on the 23rd December, yes we’ll return to the semi-authoritarian democracy that we were before the coup, with a little a bit of change in the rules of the game.

But there are those quarters who doubt the promises of the military-installed government- a skepticism born out of past experience and current allegiance. Professor Surat elaborates.

SH: Well definitely, people are quite skeptical given the past records of Thailand, in fact when the coup took place, they never returned democracy to the people easily. But of course Surayud and the CNS- the defunct CNS because its now working on only meeting agendas – these people kept their word within about a one year frame of time. In this sense, a lot of people are seeing that maybe this is a kind of way out to the new light we might see at the end of the tunnel, problems will be solved and so on. But a number of people are also seeing that this coup is intentionally architectured in a way not to allow Thaksin to come back at any cost, even his nominee and so on. So we have to go to these perceptions and that’s where its important concerning this question. So skepticism depends very much on how people see it. You ask scholars who are neutral, they think Thaksin is a bad guy, he should not be here, they don’t like the coup either. But when you ask a solution from them, they say we don’t need to provide a solution either.

In some provinces, the elections will be held under martial law. In others, the military will be closely monitoring the events to quell any kind of unrest. Campaigning has already begun. Pick-up trucks bedecked with party posters are moving around the busy streets of key constituencies with loudspeakers promoting party slogans. Billboards of party members hang conspicuously from lampposts along the roads. These are familiar scenes as election day nears. But noticeably absent is Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai. Next week, we will analyze the impact of the dissolution of the Thai Rak Thai Party and look at the key parties and personalities contesting in the election. For Radio Singapore International, I’m Mubin Sa’adat.

Thai Election 2007 – Part 3

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This week in our series on Thailand’s upcoming election, we take a look at the issues that may dominate the campaign. How will the campaign be fought and what are the concerns of the voters? The answers to these questions, shortly . Welcome to the program I’m Mubin Sa’adat.

Election campaigns often tend to be the best platform for information on a country’s state of affairs. Politicians- in the hope of drawing attention and garnering support- are much more open and frank about the assessment of their counterparts and the situation on hand. But the military coup in Thailand last year has brought many issues out into the open. But political parties, especially those who support the disbanded Thai Rak Thai and its leader Thaksin Shinawatra are worried that this transparency may not be so clear when it comes to the conduct of the poll. Professor Sunai Phasuk from the Human Rights Watch in Bangkok.

SP: The main request form all political parties is first of all the removal of marshal law. Even the Democrats are against the enforcement of marshal law. Of course the People’s Power Party are very much against it in every way. They know that they are the target. They know that’s the first thing. They know that Marshall Law can ban freedom of movements so political activists cannot go about campaigning for their parties. All forms of censorship can be enforced. So you cannot have political assembly or gathering under Marshall Law. This is against the basic activities of political campaigning. The second one is all political parties hope for the neutrality of bureaucrats of government officials on top of everything. But now looking at the Election Commission, it shows clear bias against the PPP. Too bad we don’t see complains coming from other political parties against the election commission, against the performance of government officials. It used to be more vocal but it seems like some parties are enjoying this. The last point I would say comes from the government not the political parties. The government and the military authority as well as the Election Commission campaign that politics and the elections are dirty and that money is used to buy vote. So they want to incorporate ethical virtues into the electoral process by using all means such as appointing General Sonthi as the chairman of a Thai vote buying committee, using expensive media campaigns against vote buying, money politics. But the question is whether this will be used across the board against all political parties or just against the PPP. That remains to be seen.

The People’s Power Party is of course judged to have spawned from Thai Rak Thai. Its influence is just as pervasive, especially in the countryside where farmers remain staunch supporters of Thaksin. Its then no surprise that the government’s campaign against money politics and vote buying is targeted at the rural community. Professor Giles Ungpakorn from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok views this as a myth.

GU: Well parties like the Democrat Party or Chak Thai are people who didn’t support Thaksin and supported the coup. So they are not particularly bothered or worried about it. But of course, they would like to appear to be independent of the junta now that the election is coming up. The problem with the Election Commission is that they are working under two ideas. One is that you can legislate against vote buying. Vote buying exists because there is no real competition for policies. This is the experience throughout the world. The second thing is this longstanding campaign that people should vote for good people. And it goes with this idea that the rural poor don’t understand politics and so on. This myth can be exploded just by actually making some serious studies of how poor people have voted in Thailand. And those studies have been done.

The issues go beyond the political sphere. The economy and society will perhaps receive unprecedented attention from politicians as they display their utmost altruistic front during the campaigns. Professor Surat Horachaikul from Chulalongkorn University, on some of the pressing issues in Thailand.

SH: I can tell you from my experience in the last two months where I have been talking to people from all corners of the kingdom, south, north, northeastern and son. A number of people are saying that if we don’t have political stability this will have a kind of great impact on investment , impact on our economic conditions and so on. A number of people see that there’s globalization and we need to compete with others. So many people refer to Vietnam as a country that’s moving ahead of us and so on. Many people are not happy with the strength of the Thai Baht against US dollars. Of course the importers are happy about it but you have to see it in a very large perspective. Those exporting are not happy. People are really are sick of what’s going on in the far south of Thailand. But definitely they are talking about utopian ideas as well. Its not going to be resolved quickly. We need to be very careful because those are also our brothers and sisters, they also Thai citizens. We need to maybe learn from lessons in the past during the Thaksin regime, his hard hand on these people and so on. So these kinds of issues are there. So are political parties converting these issues? They argue that we also have political stability and then from political stability only can we compete with the others in the name of globalization. These people are talking about how to give people education concerning development of human resources in the national picture so that they can go and join the labour force and become very competitive and bring about stability. So these campaigns, manifestos and so on directly link to what the people want because one of the things that Thaksin has taught these political parties is very clear, you conduct polls on what people are sick about, what people are really worried about.

Professor Somchai Srisuthiyakorn from Thammasat University has similar concerns.

SS: I think the things the Thai people are concerned if the government after the election can lead the country to peace in the sense that there’s no conflict between groups in Thai society because now you have two sides, one supporting Thaksin and supporting the military. So they hope that after elections this will be resolved and everyone can work together. This is something Thai people want to see. The other issue is the economic problem. When you compare, the money today in the bank has decreased for day-to-day expenses. So people are hopeful that the government will have a strong economic team to solve the economic problems and allow Thailand to compete with other countries in Southeast Asia.

A Thai university student joked that politicians are like diapers. They need to be changed regularly for the same reason. Well doing away with corrupt politicians is perhaps the right thing to do. But can any country withstand frequent change in government for this reason? Can the people cope with shattered hopes time and time again? The military coup last year was justified on the grounds of weeding out corrupt politicians for the future of Thailand. But will the post-election government have it easy? Will stability truly reign in the country after the election? Tune in next week for the final part of this series as analysts answer these questions. For Radio Singapore International, I’m Mubin Sa’adat.

Thai Election 2007 – Part 4

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Thais will go to the polls on 23rd December. They will vote for a new government that will represent the transition from military rule. The red carpets maybe out to welcome democracy. But will this bring about stability? Will the leadership be free from the ills of Thai politics that were supposedly weeded out by the military coup? In the final part of the series on the upcoming Thai elections, we look at what lies ahead for Thailand’s political future. Welcome to the program, I’m Mubin Sa’adat.

Campaigning for the Thailand’s election is coming to an end. The promises, possibilities and problems have been vigorously announced over the past weeks by candidates. Voters will have one thing etched in their minds when they go to the polls on the 23rd of this month.Will a post-election Thailand be better off than before? Professor Sunai Phasuk from Human Rights Watch in Bangkok believes that the political scene will go through a period of instability at the onset.

SP: I don’t think there will be stability immediately after the election given the way the military tries to interfere in politics. So we may see protests after election results immediately after its announced. What might happen, enforcement of Marshall Law, or Internal Security Act to clamp down political opposition. So that is the first thing that will remove stability in Thailand. The second source of stability is the contents of the new 2007 constitution which allows the government to be challenged by opposition very easily. So the new government will surely be a coalition government which in itself is unstable. With challenges from a strong opposition, the government will be so busy struggling for survival than coming up with new policies. And then the third element is if military interference continues, civil society will be brought to the streets. The media too can become fed-up with the lack of progress and worse, military interference. The military too may decide to bite the bullet and play a more critical role. All these factors put together, Thailand can plunge into a spiral of instability. So the life of the next government could be very short. Six to eight months. And then we can have a another election and no one guarantee we can come up after that. So the instability could continue well until 2008.

Professor Sunai is concerned about possible military interference after the elections. But independent news analyst Nathakorn Devakula has a different view, although he agrees the post-election situation may not necessarily be stable.

ND: I don’t think more stable would define what we would have. I mean, right now its stable, before the coup it wasn’t stable. Democracy in Thailand sometimes does not equate equality. I think it would be stable from the sense of no changes. But I think you’ll get some action that will be very positive for the foreign investment community. This administration is seen as being anti foreign investment. Is it that or not doesn’t even matter now. The new administration will come in and try to change that image. So foreigners need not worry. That’s one thing that’s going to change and it’ll be good. But the other thing that won’t be good is that the new administration will be scared of a lot of NGOs that can mobilize individuals to go up against projects. This ranges from coal plant in Rayong to the plan to study the feasibility of a nuclear power program. And also the extension of Suvarnabhum, building another terminal. All these things will be pressured from NGOs. That’s an irritation to the administration and the overall investment climate. And you don’t when the government is going to dissolve parliament. So its not stable. That’s the problem with a parliamentary democracy of a developing democracy, parliaments dissolve very often, you don’t have policy clarity in the long term.

Stability aside, the newly formed government will face immediate challenges on both the domestic and foreign spheres. Professor Sunai Phasuk elaborates.

SP: For domestic policies, first thing is that needs to be done urgently is solutions to conflict in the south. Will Thailand allow for some sort of autonomy in the south and will the government introduce greater local participation in politics? That needs to be discussed immediately. And the question of how to balance the deployment of military force and political measures. Because clearly now the number of troops does not guarantee better stability and greater safety in the south at all. Clearly this strategy is wrong. There needs to be a new strategy. Not by withdrawing troops. But by balancing the troops with something else. That’s the first thing. The second thing is to perform some exorcism of the coup to truly restore democracy. That should be priority, how to take the media out of that cage of fear and censorship. From the political front, how to allow civil society to prosper again. The interim government has done nothing. Under Thaksin more than 20 famous political activists were murdered. One year into the interim government they have not done anything to investigate the case. Beyond that its going to be economic confidence, both local consumer and foreign investor. What to do with financial policy, foreign investment policy or something that touched the Thai public very much. What will the new government do to allow us to compete with foreign business?

Thailand’s former Foreign Minister, Professor Krasae Chanawongse is now the Chairman of Princess of Naradhiwas University Council. He is of the view that there will be no change in Thai foreign policy in Thailand.

KC: I believe it will be very similar, when we say one-China policy it will be one-China policy. And we always follow the UN system. In the case of Myanmar, we are friends, we’re like relatives. We also have some history of fighting in the war so we have to be careful, very sensitive. Asean member countries must understand our situation because the other Asean members are not neighboring countries, other then Laos. China is big, but not Thailand. So we are not going to act big. So the rest of world must understand. Change in Myanmar should be from inside. We must respect them, its their own country. In the past, maybe because of the outside interference from especially western countries, the mass media from the western world tries to convince us. The leadership in Myanmar, they are also humans, also good people. More or less like the relationship in other developing countries. But they have their own way.

Professor Giles Ungpakorn from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok concurs.

GU: In terms of foreign policy, whether it’s the junta, the Democrat Party or the Thai Rak Thai and its descendents in People’s Power, they share a common interest in neo-liberal policies. They’re willing to sign free trade agreements and privatize and so on. So there’ll be no difference in that sense. There’ll be slight differences in their attitudes towards the Burmese regime in terms of those comfortable working with the military government in Burma and those who are critical. Sonthi is in the quarter saying democracy takes a long time and you can’t pressurize it.

On the question of former Prime Minister Thaksin’s possible return to Thailand, Professor Giles said only one scenario would make it possible.

GU: The PPP has sort of hinted to open the door for him to comeback to face charges and clear his name. And also to reinstate those politicians who were banned form politics. Whether they are able to carry that out depends on the number of votes. But if you move forward another 10 years, don’t be surprised to see people who are now pitted against each other cooperating.

With military interference being a key issue in Thai politics, would the newly elected government embark on a mission to reduce its strength? Professor Surat Horachaikul from Chulalongkorn University feels the new leaders would not attempt to take that path.

SH: I don’t think any new government will immediately directly interfere with the military. And I don’t think that’s wise. Why, because I don’t see anything wrong with the military institute building itself. The only way to reduce its strength is to be honest and clear to people. If politicians are honest and they do according to what they say, they don’t become threats to national security. People will ask themselves why they need to pay for military institutes like this. Those who love Thaksin will say this is going backwards. I think that’s not entirely fair. If you are against Thaksin, they will say of course military has its duties to protect at least the monarchy which is a symbol of the country. When politicians provide welfare and security to the people, people do not need to go somewhere else.

Regardless who dominates the political scene after the election, Thailand is expected to take a new democratic course for its future. The political battles will be going on in inconspicuous fashion. But the man on the street might not be too concerned as long as the country is on the path of economic progress and social stability. That wraps up the series on Thai Election 2007. For Radio Singapore International I’m Mubin Sa’adat.

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