Thailand’s elite revolutionaries

People power in Thailand is different from people power in Nepal 

Nepali Times

ANNE CERA in BANGKOK

ANNE CERA
LAP DOG: Protesters at the seige of Government house in Bangkok last week.

ss who could be the powerful backers giving the PAD the high level support they need to carry on their campaign.

Since August, Thailand’s government is not in the Government House. The administration has been forced to conduct its business out of Bangkok’s old airport. Government House itself is a sea of yellow: the colour that symbolises Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Thailand’s would-be revolution is being led by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), but this is not what most Nepalis understand by revolution, or democracy.

This ‘people power’ is made up of Bangkok’s middle class and their leaders are from the old aristocratic elite. They want to bring down a government that was elected by a landslide less than a year ago, and want an elected parliament dissolved. To make it all happen, they say the army should stage its 19th coup in Thai history.

Over 400 people were injured in street battles around parliament on 7 October. Three protesters were killed. But PAD has rarely attracted crowds exceeding a few thousand and opinion polls show that most Bangkok residents oppose their protests. Even the government’s fiercest critics say that if an election was held again the government would win it. So why is the government so powerless to contain the crisis?

The answer lies in the premiership of Thaksin Shinawatra, the controversial telecoms billionaire who led Thailand 2001-2006. It also lies in the great undiscussed issue of Thai politics, the monarchy.

At the beginning of the decade Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party developed a devoted following among the rural poor with policies that delivered cheap health care and economic development. They rewarded him with an unprecedented second term and a giant parliamentary majority.

Not everyone was so happy. Liberals criticised Thaksin for authoritarianism, the Bangkok middle class were appalled by what they saw as Thaksin’s use of government power to promote his business interests, and the old, aristocratic political establishment were also alarmed.

“The bureaucrats, the military and the monarchy, the troika that has called the shots in Thailand for decades opposed Thaksin,” explains Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

In 2006 Thaksin was overthrown by a military coup. Many of his supporters believe the plot was masterminded by General Prem Tinsulanonda, chairman of the privy council and King Bhumibol’s chief adviser. Prem has always denied the allegation.

Thaksin was disqualified from politics. But when elections were held at the end of 2007, to the coup-makers’ dismay, the rural poor voted Thaksin’s supporters back into office. A few weeks later the PAD were back on the streets. This is a contest between populist democrats who the poor keep electing, and conservatives in the bureaucracy, military and the palace who are anxious to preserve the traditional status-quo, analysts say.

King Bhumibol is revered by Thais as a semi-divine figure who, during 62 years on the throne, has overseen the development of his country from a rural backwater to prosperous land of skyscrapers, skytrains and shopping malls. The countryside has developed less rapidly.

The king’s portrait appears all over the country, often covering the side of buildings many stories high. He is officially above politics but, in his own words, has been “in the middle, and working in every field”. In 1973 and in 1992 he intervened when military regimes opened fire on unarmed protesters to stop the slaughter and restore democracy. In 2006, he quickly endorsed the coup that toppled Thaksin.

But Thais never discuss the king’s role in politics because anything seen as an ‘insult’ to the king is punishable with 20 years in jail. Prosecutions are common. One subject in particular is off limits: the royal succession. King Bhumibol is 80 years old and has suffered poor health.

Writing in the latest edition of the American scholarly quarterly Journal of Democracy Thitinan says: ‘Both sides are well aware, as all Thais fear but dare not say in public, that Thailand’s future is up for grabs…the setting sun on the king’s long reign is the background against which the battle of attrition for Thailand’s soul is taking place. King Bhumibol’s unsurpassed moral authority has been Thailand’s sheet anchor, the mainstay of national stability and continuity. Once he is gone, the country will be in uncharted waters.’

It is unclear who will Thailand’s next monarch. Thitinan says none of King Bhumibol’s eligible heirs can reasonably be expected to command as much popularity, reverence and moral authority as he does.

King Bhumibol has made no public comment on the latest round of PAD protests since they began. But his wife, Queen Sirikit, announced a personal donation for the treatment of injured protesters and, a few days later, for injured policemen.

“We, ladies and gentlemen, are the musketeers of the king and queen,” PAD leader Sonthi Limthongkul told supporters as he celebrated the donations. This week, Queen Sirikit and the army chief, Gen Anupong, attendedthe funeral of one of the protesters who had died. According to The Nation, the queen described the dead woman as “a good girl” who “helped to protect the country and the monarchy”.

No one in Thailand is willing to publicly discuss who could be the powerful backers giving the PAD the high level support they need to carry on their campaign.

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