Articles

Thailand's False Peace

Wall Street Journal
01 January 2012

Useful perspectives from Thailand

Prime Minister Yingluck must foster greater free speech now, or risk seeing radicals do so later.
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.
JOIN THE DISCUSSION

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Print article only

2 Comments:

  1. From apar on 02 January 2012 15:05:12 WIB
    I don't understand about that
  2. From Veronika on 13 July 2012 10:19:46 WIB
    the initial exeiecmtnt over her nomination as the main opposition candidate for prime minister would soon fizzle out.A smiling Yingluck arrived at Puea Thai headquarters Sunday afternoon, clad in bright purple, to be mobbed by jubilant supporters and the media, but cautioned she wanted to wait for the official results before claiming victory. Thank you to the people who came out to vote, she told supporters.With her groomed appearance, relaxed demeanour and carefully choreographed stage routines, Yingluck 18 years junior to her controversial big brother proved a hit on the campaign trail. There's no question she's getting a bounce from exeiecmtnt over the idea of Thailand having a woman prime minister, the novelty of a fairly young, attractive candidate, and because the Democrats are running such a lacklustre campaign, said Thailand expert Michael Montesano.And on top of that is her name a big plus in the eyes of Thaksin's fans but a turnoff for supporters of the establishment. She could have been a potted plant and that would have been true, said Montesano, of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.Yingluck told AFP while campaigning that she and her brother were similar in their approach. We are alike in the sense that I have learned from him in business and I understand his vision, how he solves problems and the way he built everything from the beginning, she said.Thaksin remains a hugely divisive figure in Thailand. He was ousted in a 2006 military coup and fled the country in 2008 before a court sentenced him in his absence to two years in prison for corruption.He is still adored by many rural and working class voters for his populist policies while in power, but is reviled by the ruling elite who see him as corrupt and a threat to the revered monarchy.Yingluck herself, however, is seen as a fresh face largely untainted by scandal. Accusations by her political foes that she lied in court to protect her brother appear to have had little impact on her popularity.In contrast to British-born premier Abhisit who is criticised for lacking the common touch, she has refrained from negative campaigning, instead focusing on her policies and stressing the need for reconciliation after years of unrest. She's able to look natural in front of big crowds in a way that the prime minister just cannot, no matter what he does, said Montesano.Yingluck was born on June 21, 1967, into one of the most prominent ethnic Chinese families in northern Chiang Mai province, the youngest of nine siblings.Until recently president of Thai real estate firm SC Asset Corp, she graduated in political science from Chiang Mai University and earned a masters degree in public administration at Kentucky State University in the United States.She returned to Thailand to work for one of Thaksin's companies as a trainee in the early 1990s, going on to take various positions within her brother's business empire.She is a former president of the mobile telephone unit of Shin Corp., the telecoms giant founded by Thaksin that was at the centre of a scandal over the tax-free sale of the family's shares in the group in 2006.While her business credentials are well known, observers say she has given few concrete clues about what kind of leader she would be. She is at the moment sticking by what Thaksin has asked her to do in a very detailed way, said a Bangkok-based Western diplomat. I don't think we have yet seen what she is capable of.

Add Your Comment

Comments with fake names or email may be rejected.

Real Name:

Real Email: (will not be shown)

Message: (stay on topic)

Sorry, No HTML

Important! Please type Security Image here:

« Home