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06-01-12, 01:29 AM #1Paknam Web Online Staff
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Shifting political tides portend turmoil
THAILAND IN 2012
Shifting political tides portend turmoil
Published: 6/01/2012 at 12:00 AMNewspaper section: News
Thailand has arrived at the outset of 2012 more bruised and battered compared to its previous bouts of political instability, characterised by several years of protests and violence and then capped recently by the floods.
The Thai body politic is congenitally unruly but rarely so unsettled and intractable. This year will see more of the same polarisation and conflict that have beset the Thai landscape since a military coup deposed the deeply flawed Thaksin Shinawatra in September 2006.
But the ground will increasingly shift from Thaksin's glaring defects and wrongdoings to the exposure of his adversaries' deficiencies and shortcomings. Paramount among the issues in play at the structural level will be the untenable intellectual hegemony of Thailand's monarchy-centred socio-political hierarchy in the late royal twilight. Myriad machinations and manifestations will underpin this overarching superstructure in search of a new balance.
After the floods, a stalemate on the one hand and a pause on the other, which can appear as a tentative accommodation, have taken hold. The government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra upholds the sanctity of the monarchy with repression and crackdown on dissent and freedom of fair expression.
Unsurprisingly, Article 12 of the Criminal Code, otherwise known as the Lese Majeste Law, and its related Computer Crimes Act have been enforced with growing frequency.
In return, the government gets to rule without debilitating street protests and coup threats.
Neither side is able to come up with a more decisive move. The government does not have the wherewithal to amend these laws. Nor can establishment forces muster enough strength to go through more rounds of party dissolutions and changes of government, let alone a military coup.
In this environment of stalemate, various interest and advocacy groups will clamour to air their grievances and get their way.
Chief among them this year will be Thaksin's manoeuvres to return home. He has won four consecutive Thai elections over the past decade but also left a trail of liabilities to preclude the longevity of his rule _ from the corruption convictions, nefarious conflicts of interest, human rights violations, and so forth.
Yet he lurks and rules from abroad. Whether he comes back this year will depend on his patience and his opponents' willingness to make a deal.
There may now be too much bad blood for any lasting deal to take place. At the same time, the spectre of Thaksin going for broke and returning in defiance should not be dismissed. That would lead to a showdown which could also accelerate Thailand's endgame.
His former loyalists in the Thai Rak Thai (TRT) Party will be eligible to retake political office after May 2012.
Whatever talent Thai politicians have to offer, much of it has been systematically kept out of the playing field for the past five years. That the former 111 TRT MPs, minus Thaksin, re-enter the fray is likely to provide a broad boost to the Yingluck government, notwithstanding intra-Pheu Thai squabbling in the event.
The charter change movement is likely to gather steam. As it was induced by the pro-coup forces back in 2007, the current constitution is essentially anti-politician and anti-political parties. A self-respecting democracy that ensures justice and equality can hardly grow out of it.
Yet changing the charter will elicit opposition because of distrust. It was the ability to change the charter after his crushing February 2005 election victory that partly upended Thaksin's rule.
Thus, charter change will be mired in acrimony this year, a flashpoint of renewed conflict if taken too far.
As it evolves, Thailand's polarisation is now between traditional monarchists and electoral democrats, with a substantial overlap between them.
The monarchists do not reject democratic rule so long as it privileges the monarchy-centred hierarchy as the anchor of Thai society. Most democrats are supportive of the monarchy, but they want their vote to count, and reject the undemocratic interventions by royalist groups and judicial institutions since the coup.
In Thailand, there is more monarchy among the democrats than there is democracy among the monarchists. Changing times that have accompanied the end of the Cold War, which was instrumental in fostering Thailand's monarchy-military dominance, new media technologies, younger generations, and international norms around democracy and human rights _ all are putting inexorable pressure on Thailand's hierarchy to adjust.
All along the Thai fault line divided by an old order that has to give way, there are adversarial issues of contention that have become increasingly raw and visceral.
The problem is that any new order can be even more unwieldy and unstable. If the incumbency has to go, there are no guarantees that any new upstart replacement will not be worse.
The best outcomes in situations like this will be for the incumbency to adapt while in a position of strength, rather than having to change when its hand is much weaker.
This year, as in the preceding few, offers yet another opportunity for such adjustments.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.
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