Thailand's False Peace
Wall Street Journal
01 January 2012
By PAVIN CHACHAVALPONGPUN
Thai political conflict over the past few years has been characterized by class warfare between feudal elites and the peasants. But this may now be changing as a new government that rose with the support of the underclass reaches an accommodation with the military and the palace.
The previous Democrat government, which ruled from 2008-11, whole-heartedly aligned itself with the aristocracy, while the current ruling party, the Puea Thai, styled itself a protector of the rural poor. Supporters of the red-shirt protest movement based in the northeast tend to be die-hard fans of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose government was ousted in a military coup in 2006, and they helped elect his sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Five months after the July election, on the surface little seems to have changed under the new regime. Thai politics remains fiercely polarized. Ms. Yingluck continues to play the role of a reticent leader, refusing to discuss key issues facing the country. Her usual statement has been, "Let the minister in charge handle them."
But frustration is growing among the lower classes, especially Ms. Yingluck's red-shirt supporters. The government has been unable to bring to justice the civilian and military leaders who were responsible for the killing of 91 protesters in May last year; most of the dead were members of the red-shirt movement. The process of amending the 2007 constitution, drafted by the military government in the aftermath of the coup, has been slow.
Puea Thai supporters are also losing patience with the Yingluck government because of its support for lese-majeste laws, which they want amended or abolished. Cases accusing people of insulting the monarchy are proliferating. Three recent prosecutions have put a spotlight on the flaws of this law, which is often abused by royalist politicians. So far, Ms. Yingluck has said, "I have no intention to push for the reform of the laws."
A court sentenced 61-year-old Thai-Chinese man known as Akong to 20 years in prison for allegedly sending four text messages to the secretary to former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Joe Gordon, who was born Thai but holds American citizenship, was also jailed for translating and posting online part of the banned book about the life of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, "The King Never Smiles" by Paul Handley. And finally, a Thai lecturer who left comments on a local website about the role of the monarchy from an academic perspective was also accused of violating the lese-majeste law.
Because the monarchy plays a huge role in Thai politics, misuse of the lese-majeste law threatens to limit the space for free expression. The law has been used as a weapon to undermine enemies as well as those with different political ideas.
Instead of promoting an open society, Ms. Yingluck has allowed her ministers to implement harsher measures against perceived anti-monarchy elements. The government has spent millions of dollars installing spy software to monitor antimonarchy websites. Chalerm Yubumrung, deputy prime minister and minister of interior, even boasted, "My government has closed down more websites than in the previous administration."
The military has joined the government's effort in hunting down those believed to be a threat to the monarchy. Army Chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha said earlier this month, "Anyone campaigning for the abolition of the lese-majeste law should leave Thailand." While his statement reflects the army's loyalty to the king, at a deeper level the military fears being stripped of political power if the lese-majeste law were abolished.
In the meantime, the hyperroyalists, most belonging to the upper class, depict the anti-lese-majeste campaigners as traitors bent on overthrowing the monarchy. They are using the monarchy as a club with which to beat anyone who discusses the role of the palace and its supporters in the military.
Puea Thai supporters suspect that Ms. Yingluck may have struck a grand bargain with the traditional elites: If she leaves the lese-majeste law alone, they will not overturn her government by street protests, court cases and military intervention, as they did previous pro-Thaksin governments. If this is true, the class war is over and the Puea Thai has become an accepted part of the Thai elitist world.
This might bring stability to Thailand for a time. But it is not sustainable. In their frustration, Ms. Yingluck's supporters may turn to more radical groups. The more the elites exploit the lese-majeste law for their own purposes, the more they erode true support for the monarchy. By stopping progress toward democracy, they are ensuring that when class war resurfaces it will be even more divisive.
Mr. Pavin is a fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.