NEWSPAPERS around the world have been jammed this week with pictures of Thailand’s first female prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra. The surname is familiar because Yingluck is the youngest sister of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin, who was booted out of power by the 2006 military coup.
Yingluck’s victory is yet another blunt popular verdict on that intervention. Her Pheua Thai party won 265 of 500 seats, a triumph by Thai electoral standards, leaving the coup-plotters to face some uncomfortable truths. Foremost among them is the reality that in open electoral competition their alternative vision for the country – one where royal and military powerbrokers ride roughshod over electoral mandates – is unpalatable to most Thai voters.
At every opportunity over the past decade the Thai people have resoundingly endorsed Thaksin’s political juggernaut. Elite powerbrokers struggle to accept these popular judgements and express bewilderment that Thaksin still commands the most effective election-winning machine in Thai history. His success repudiates the privilege of unelected elites and white-ants their claims to represent the best interests of the country.
Thaksin’s success especially infuriates those palace and army factions that have worked tirelessly to spoil his reputation and eradicate any chance of his return to power. Their dismay reflects expensive and remarkable failure.
The public loyalty Thaksin commands is only bested, in Thailand, by the displays of fanatical devotion inspired by the monarchy and its figurehead, eighty-three-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Strikingly, King Bhumibol no longer holds a monopoly on public reverence or the affections of the rural poor.
Thaksin’s opponents continue to expect him to stumble and thus alienate the provincial voters who repeatedly throw their support behind the big-city billionaire. But even the former prime minister’s exile to a plush mansion in Dubai has not dented his popularity. What his opponents also fail to appreciate is that the winning formula is not accidental: it is defined by modern campaign wizardry, careful brand management and the dark arts of polling research.
Strategies for electoral dominance developed by earlier generations of Thai politicians have also been given the Thaksin treatment. Vote-buying and influence-peddling still play their part, but these old techniques have been refined to an unprecedented degree by Pheua Thai. In last weekend’s election, and against such an effective challenger, the government of former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva never really stood a chance.
Anti-Thaksin forces have tried everything to keep Thaksin out of power. Their hard work was most starkly demonstrated in their response to the events of April and May 2010, when Thaksin loyalists and their fellow travellers, often simply called Red Shirts, escalated their protests in central Bangkok. For weeks the Red Shirts occupied prime real estate and brought the ordinary business of some districts to a standstill.
Fortified behind mounds of tyres, but also prepared to venture out in rowdy convoys, the protesters called for the resignation of the Abhisit government. Red Shirt leaders denounced Abhisit as illegitimate and goaded him into over-reacting. Thaksin, through his regular phone-ins, kept the protesters enthused and promised that he would be home from exile soon.
Some Red Shirts sought a showdown with the Thai military, and on a number of occasions, in both April and May 2010, government forces moved in. The government gloves came off the moment a self-proclaimed commander of the Red Shirt militant wing was clinically executed. In the days that followed the world watched, sometimes with unconcealed horror, as a civilian protest was crushed by the Thai army.
Eight soldiers from the government side were killed while the protesters suffered at least eighty fatalities and ferried hundreds of their wounded to hospitals. Army snipers, perched atop strategic locations, picked off Red Shirts with little prospect of retaliation. Slingshots, homemade rockets and Molotov cocktails were the best that most Red Shirts could muster; against a modern military such battles are always one-sided.
This mismatched combat put Prime Minister Abhisit in an even more difficult position. The tragedy for Abhisit’s backers is that he never recovered his reputation for moderation and good judgement. While some Thais vocally supported the crackdown, and applauded Abhisit’s decisive approach, there are many more who could never forgive his tactics. The army commanders called the shots but Abhisit ended up taking much of the blame.
THE OTHER part of Thailand’s political establishment whose reputation was damaged during this crackdown was the royal family. Red Shirt vitriol increasingly targeted the palace.
Oblique references to King Bhumibol, Queen Sirikit and key palace aides like the Privy Council chairman, General Prem Tinsulanonda, were fodder for protest signs and graffiti. Later in 2010, a popular protest chant, the product of spontaneous acceptance among Red Shirts, targeted those they claimed “ordered the killings.” In the months after the crackdown, while they were still usually careful to obscure the specific targets of their anger, Red Shirts were no longer shy about taking on the political authority of the palace.
What these events show is that Thailand’s real challenges are not going to be determined by the spin and jostling of the elites, nor by the outcome of a single election. In a dramatic turn, many Thais are aggressively questioning their social conditioning. One of the best ways to appreciate the resulting transformation is through the countless web forums on which the country’s future is being debated. These forums are matched by Red Shirt talkback radio stations and a plethora of other uncensored outlets for opinion.
Meanwhile, control of the traditional media is still in few hands. Two key Thai television stations are owned by the army, and the government retains significant control of most other terrestrial radio and television broadcasters. Thai newspapers offer more diverse perspectives but still struggle to publish on the most sensitive topics. Overall, the traditional media offers only modest space for genuinely alternative voices.
But since the coup of September 2006 more critical media options have emerged. The magazine Fah Deow Gan (which translates as “Same Sky”) and the website Prachatai are among the most prominent. Both have faced bans for dealing with royal matters. But throughout these disruptions they continue to publish, to shift internet addresses when required, and to encourage a spirit of free-thinking criticism.
Their subversive flourishes are matched by opponents who fear that this is not the time for Thailand to develop wide-ranging public debates. They claim that popular debate is inappropriate when it comes to the highly sensitive transition that will occur at the end of King Bhumibol’s reign. Plainly, commoners have no business involving themselves, or their politics, in royal affairs.
What worries the palace and military powerbrokers is that easy access to the internet means that anyone can voice an opinion or publish a critical view. For the defenders of Thailand’s official narrative about the pre-eminence of royal power, it is distressing that some Red Shirts have embraced anti-monarchy talk. With the election of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra these sentiments could threaten to become part of the elite political conversation.
Rank-and-file Red Shirts are understandably emboldened by their electoral victory and their continued dominance at the ballot-box. Yingluck and Thaksin, however, will seek to carefully judge the political mood. Thaksin has even declared that he wants to return to Thailand to participate in lavish celebrations for King Bhumibol’s eighty-fourth birthday in December. But having unleashed Red Shirt anger, can Thaksin now disown the more critical elements that have been instrumental in maintaining his public support?
Because the palace and military powerbrokers will continue to attack Thaksin, he will need to retain popular backing. Without doubt, rabid anti-Thaksin elements will be planning the next steps in their campaign of destabilisation. But others may prefer to be more pragmatic, and some powerbrokers will be hoping that Thaksin can, in the end, help to protect their interests too.
The looming royal succession is a defining challenge for everyone, including the Red Shirts. The inevitable transition from King Bhumibol to his successor is often described as a key reason for the 2006 coup. The fear among elite powerbrokers was that the electorally successful billionaire would use the end of the reign to reinforce his own status and diminish royal prerogatives. Some worried that Thaksin had become too close to Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, or that his influence could be mobilised in other directions.
Now, instead of embracing the more radical Red Shirt rhetoric, Yingluck and Thaksin appear likely to seek compromise. While nobody is exactly sure what will happen, and the palace and military dynamics remain opaque, it seems that reconciliation may now be on the cards.
Nobody in Thailand’s long-running political saga is getting any younger. The king’s key confidante and most trusted lieutenant, General Prem Tinsulanonda, is ninety. Other powerbrokers are also getting long in the tooth. Politicians, retired military officers and advisers in their seventies and eighties are common. After so much conflict, do they have the stamina for another round of blood-letting and recriminations?
Every indication is that the palace and military are prepared to tolerate a Yingluck government, at least until a certain threshold of provocation is reached. In time, anti-Thaksin forces may even accept his return to the country and a negotiated settlement of their many disagreements. But this may not be enough for some among Thailand’s deeply agitated Red Shirts. They are still enraged by the events of April and May 2010. Some of their emotion is targeted, explicitly and without apology, at the most senior figures in Thai society.
Attacks on King Bhumibol, Queen Sirikit and their children are not as exceptional as they once were. Anti-monarchy talk is no longer the preserve of fringe elements among former Communist Party of Thailand cadre. Calls for reform of the monarchy – in a wide range of economic, legal, political and cultural dimensions – now punctuate the popular story of Thailand’s political conflict.
One of the immediate challenges facing Yingluck’s new government will be to keep all sides relatively happy. This may prove an impossible task.
Those who distrust the Shinawatra family, and resent its ongoing influence, have much to lose under her prime ministership. On the other hand, there is reason to expect that the political and social currents unleashed by recent events will not be mollified by Yingluck’s conciliation.
She is likely to be too conservative for many of those who hope to see her government usher in sweeping reforms. Cautious and moderate approaches will prevail, at least until Yingluck becomes confident that the powerful forces arrayed against her have opted for a truce. Thaksin, meanwhile, is too shrewd a politician, and now too experienced in disappointment, to let this opportunity to dominate the political landscape slip away.
The early signs are that Thaksin is relishing the chance to get his hands back on the levers of power. Once he starts to regain his old status many Red Shirts are likely to be disillusioned. They may wonder how, after the violence of April and May 2010, the leading light of the Red Shirt movement can ever cosy up with the palace and military again.
Shifting alliances are standard in Thai politics. Thaksin is aware that reconciliation will only come from carefully rebuilding the trust of senior palace and military figures. There is much bad blood between them but, with the appropriate incentives, it could all be brought back to equilibrium.
This would leave many Red Shirts confused about the value of their recent struggles. Were they bleeding for the return of the Shinawatra dynasty? Or were they struggling for a more democratic future, where palace and military ambitions are finally subordinated to the will of the people? •
Nicholas Farrelly is a Southeast Asia specialist in the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific. In 2006 he co-founded New Mandala, a prominent website on regional politics and societies.