What Next for Thailand?

The Khmer Times, 17 October 2016

Thailand has gone through a dark decade of political turmoil and uncertainty after the military coup in 2006 that ousted then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who rapidly climbed up the power ladder with his brand of populist politics, which included pro-poor healthcare and agricultural reforms.
A power struggle then started between the so-called “Thaksin network” and the traditional elite establishment became acute in the early 2000s. The so-called “monarchy network,” including the military leaders, perceived the “Thaksin network” as an emerging threat to their power and interests.
In 2008, Mr. Thaksin was convicted and sentenced in absentia to two years in jail for abuse of power after fleeing Thailand. He has been living in self-imposed exile since 2006.
After the 2006 coup, Thai politics and society became deeply polarized. The color-coded political division between the red shirts and the yellow shirts posed a serious threat to national peace and stability.
The political party backed by the red-shirt movement, which largely consisted of supporters of Mr. Thaksin, and many say was funded by Mr. Thaksin, came to power in late 2011 after winning a general election. After Mr. Thaksin’s proxies, including his brother-in-law, became prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, Mr. Thaksin’s younger sister, was put at the helm.
But her reign ended after another coup in May 2014.
Last year, the ill-fated Ms. Yingluck was accused of negligence over her government’s rice subsidy scheme and last month she was fined up to $1 billion. She called the judgment unfair and unjust.
The 2006 and 2014 coups were staged partly to diminish the electoral power of the “Thaksin network” and to marginalize his family and clique in the political game, and to also stop the violence between his supporters and those against him.
Although public and social order has been restored after the coup in 2014, political reconciliation remains far from reach. The lack of political trust and tolerance between the two main political opponents remains deep.
Social movements and freedom of speech in Thailand have been significantly restricted under the government led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha.
The passing of the much-revered King Bhumibol Aduljadej last week created a deep political hole in the Kingdom. The late king was the epicenter of the Thai political entity, the soul of the Thai nation and the pillar of national unity.
The legitimacy of the military government will be further questioned should there be a lack of assurance that democracy will be restored and democratic elections are conducted.
Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn is facing a daunting task ahead to maintain his late father’s high moral authority, loyalty and charisma.
To fill the gap within the period of transition, the government announced that the head of the Privy Council, 96-year-old Prem Tinsulanonda, would temporarily assume the role as regent while waiting for the crown prince to formally succeed his late father.
Thai political analyst professor Pavin Chachavalpongpun wrote in the Washington Post on Friday that “as for Vajiralongkorn, the path ahead is clear. If he chooses to maintain his alliance with the military and refuses to work with democratic governments, his reign will be contested and may not survive.
“If he decides to go ahead with reform, placing the monarchical institution strictly within the constitutional framework, the chance of the monarchy becoming a viable institution is bright.”
The future of Thailand depends on how the nation can move forward with national reconciliation and democratic consolidation.
The one-year mourning period may provide a strategic opportunity for political leaders to reflect and demonstrate genuine conciliatory political will and other measures.
National reconciliation is not possible unless there is a genuine political will to have an inclusive political dialogue to achieve win-win outcomes.
It is a critical period from now until the next general election. No one knows what will happen. Uncertainty remains high at the moment.
The military regime will likely consolidate its power to ensure a smooth royal transition and play a role of political power broker.
The general elections expected to take place by the end of next year will likely be pushed further to 2018, depending on the speed of the election preparations.
Long-term political stability requires democratic consolidation and a fine and stable balance of power between the civilian political leaders and the network supporting the monarchy, which includes many of the top military leaders.
“Growth prospects, peace and stability will likely come about after the generals step aside in favor of civilian-led compromises that can return Thailand to popular rule,” wrote Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies in May 2016 in the Asian Nikkei Review.
The Thai social and economic ecosystem has proven to be quite resilient and able to wither the political storms and turbulence.
Thailand now needs the right political chemistry to advance the country.

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