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Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012

No end in sight to Thailand's post-Thaksin crisis


By PAVIN CHACHAVALPONGPUN
Special to The Japan Times

KYOTO — Thailand's political crisis has continued to deepen and might be heading toward a new round of violent confrontation.

Recently the Yingluck Shinawatra government went ahead with a Cabinet reshuffle for the third time in just over a year. And this time the new Cabinet looks a lot more "Thaksinite" than the previous incarnations. This signifies an ever-growing confidence on the part of Thaksin, the former Thai premier and brother of Yingluck, who is believed to be the real "mover" behind the current government.

Thaksin has planted a number of loyalists and promoted some of his most trusted allies in the Cabinet.

For example, Surapong Tovichakchaikul has been promoted to deputy prime minister while being allowed to keep his post as foreign minister. Surapong is Thaksin's half brother and has helped facilitate Thaksin's time abroad. Soon after taking up the foreign minister portfolio, Surapong returned Thaksin's passport to him, claiming that the charges against him were politically motivated.

Observers see the reshuffle as another bold attempt of the government to bring Thaksin home. Thaksin was ousted by a military coup in 2006 and sentenced to two years imprisonment for corruption — a crime that Thaksin has venomously denied. He is on the run from Thai law, but remains powerful in the political realm — so powerful that he was threatened with assassination during his planned visit to Myanmar's Tachilek, a town bordering Thailand. He later canceled his trip.

Admittedly, in the past year the Yingluck government has done rather well in terms of lifting the nation's economy and implementing effective populist policies solidly backed by its rural supporters. And it has been pushing for reconciliation. This suggests that Yingluck might be able to survive her full four-year term — a possibility that has further infuriated her political opponents.

To weaken the government, opponents launched the tired tactics of street protests to discredit Yingluck while calling for military intervention. In late October, rivals organized a rally at a horse-racing stadium inside the Royal Turf Club with an assembly of over 20,000 antigovernment protesters attending the event. Among them are also royalists who continue to denounce the rise of Thaksin and Yingluck as a threat to the Thai monarchy.

The leader of the antigovernment groups was retired Gen. Boonlert Kaewprasit who infamously called for a coup to topple the Yingluck government. He said, "I would love to see a coup." He also added that he wished to "freeze" Thailand for five years so that all "bad politicians" would disappear, paving the way for moral and ethical ones. Boonlert said that another rally will be held Friday and Saturday to kick out the Yingluck government.

In Parliament, the opposition Democrat Party has joined the antigovernment bandwagon, seeking to file a no-confidence motion against Yingluck and her Cabinet members. But since the possibility of winning the motion is slim, some Democrats have turned to vulgar tactics to taint the reputation of Yingluck, such as accusing her of being unable to speak proper English, or criticizing her supposedly inappropriate sense of dress.

The reshuffle is not the only reason why anti-Thaksin forces have re-emerged on the political scene. The Yingluck government — under immense pressure by Yingluck's supporters to bring to justice those who killed the red-shirt demonstrators in May 2010 — initially appeared to want to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to facilitate the investigation of that fatal incident.

However, the government finally gave up its attempt to ratify the ICC because it was not ready to confront the nation's military forces. So far, Yingluck has tried indefatigably to build a working relationship with the military. The ICC issue could wreck this relationship — and this could also mean an even smaller chance for Thaksin to return home.

Throughout the recent antigovernment protests, the military has kept quiet. The outspoken army chief, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, has been unusually cautious about lending his support to the event at the Royal Turf Club. Prayuth has also distanced himself from the leader of the Democrat Party and former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva despite the fact that they once worked in unison to overthrow Thaksin's political proxies.

The shrewd position of the army is understandable. While the Yingluck government still poses a threat to the military and the political position of the monarchy, staging another coup would be too devastating. The real challenge will derive from the red-shirt movement that first emerged in Thailand because of its anti-coup agenda. The mushrooming of "red-shirt villages" in the far-flung north and northeastern regions of Thailand has been inspired by a perceived need to eliminate the culture of political intervention by the military.

Could it be that the military is now playing two roles at the same time? One is to cooperate with the government on key issues, ranging from reconciliation, amnesty and even the improvement of Thai-Cambodian relations. The other is to discreetly endorse the moves by the antigovernment forces in undermining the Yingluck regime.

The key for the military is to work with the government but also to keep it weak and vulnerable. But this will not end the Thai crisis as long as antigovernment groups refuse to set down the extra-constitutional devices that they use to remove elected governments from power.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University's Center for Southeast Asian Studies.


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