Thailand’s Got 99 Problems…

Ernest Chong

Thailand’s Got 99 Problems … and it just can’t seem to catch a break.

After a virtual political ‘honeymoon’ through the first four months of her administration, rookie Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has seen a mounting number of issues that are straining her government’s already-limited capabilities. Governing the politically-divided and economically-precarious nation that Ms. Shinawatra’s administration inherited now threatens to become even more challenging.

In part, some of these issues are the latest manifestations of underlying problems that predate Ms. Shinawatra’s landslide July 2011 election victory. Thailand remains deeply divided over political differences stemming from the 2006 coup d’etat and self-exiled ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra – Yingluck’s brother. The political unrest since 2005 has resulted in a fractured society – best exemplified by the Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt movements – with bitter grievances that will be difficult to reconcile.

Existing economic troubles add to this difficulty. Thailand’s late-industrializing, lower-wage neighbours are now catching up, meaning Bangkok’s export-oriented, labour-intensive industrial growth strategy has run its course. A new strategy is needed for further growth, but systemic neglect of the nation’s education system, poor public infrastructure, and an antiquated taxation system has mired Thailand in a middle income trap.

To this laundry list of woes is added a new set of challenges. The military remains unable to make headway against the long-running Malay insurgency in the south. The unusually heavy flooding in October devastated the country’s most productive industries and called into question the nation’s preparedness against future natural disasters. Flood damage, the deepening euro crisis, and lacklustre American economic recovery caused the Thai economy to contract sharply in the last quarter of 2011. The government has been criticized for its mishandling of the October floods while its populist campaign promises raise questions about its monetary discipline. A spate of botched bomb plots early this year has highlighted national security gaps and now threatens to undermine even the country’s previously-indefatigable tourism industry.

To any government, this is already an unenviable menu of challenges. It seems, however, that Thailand is intent on adding to its misery: late last month, the Thai Parliament passed a controversial but long-awaited Constitution amendment proposal that promises further dichotomization.

This will be a gargantuan task for Ms. Shinawatra’s fledgling administration. The proposal sets the stage for a constitution drafting assembly (CDA) that will have 180 days to rewrite the charter before it is put up for public approval through national referendum. Thailand has had 17 constitutions in its 80-year history as a constitutional democracy, with five iterations in the last 20 years alone – an indication of the country’s intrinsic political instability.

Conflict is almost guaranteed. The current constitution was written by a military-appointed committee after the 2006 coup to include a number of punitive clauses intended to politically devastate Thaksin’s party and its allies. Some of these articles will now be up for amendment review. Anti-Thaksin groups, including royalist Thai elites and the military, see amending these clauses as a way to eventually grant Thaksin amnesty and revive his political support base. Such a direct challenge will not go unanswered. Though soundly defeated in the 2011 elections, the anti-Thaksin movement still control some critical parts of the state and have popular support among country’s upper and middle classes. This small but powerful segment of Thai society therefore retains the capability to destabilize the current government. Indeed, the last time such a charter amendment attempt was made in 2008, the protests that erupted in response eventually brought down the government of the day.

Given the possibility of such a volatile response and the plethora of other problems her government faces, it is not immediately clear why Ms. Shinawatra would choose this moment to push through a charter amendment.

The answer, it seems, lies in Ms. Shinawatra’s need to do something. With public confidence in her administration wavering (here, here, here) and very little to show in terms of economic progress or development,  Ms. Shinawatra needs to take a greater leadership role. The Prime Minister has to show critics, supporters, and the public alike that she has the political courage to tackle the tough issues on her plate.

At the same time, Ms. Shinawatra is beholden to her political patrons. After more than six months in office, she has done very little for the supporters who helped secure her election victory. Anti-Thaksin “Yellow Shirts” and the military still dominate government appointments and budgeting, and have further polarized the population by becoming increasingly cavalier with the country’s lese majeste laws. A number of pro-Thaksin “Red Shirts” now have prominent government positions – and are pressuring her to do more – but the vast majority of her brother’s political allies remain outside of Thai politics by virtue of the charter she now seeks to change.

Ms. Shinawatra is therefore also flexing her legally-elected government mandate in preparation for a larger political showdown in the near future. A detente between the royalist military and the populist government that allowed some artificial calm since July is rapidly coming to an end. With the five-year political activity ban on Thaksin’s allies expiring soon, the Yellow Shirts and the military face a narrowing window before Ms. Shinawatra’s administration is rejuvenated with experience and wider appeal. Such confidence would allow the government to push forward with its agenda, including rolling back elitist influence. Similarly, the military’s oppressive conduct in response to the 2010 protests has convinced Red Shirt leaders of greater civilian control over the military.

The pending charter amendment process is therefore likely to be a political watershed. While such amendments may be seen as entirely reasonable to external observers, Thai elites and the military will not accept this aggressive curtailment of their political domination lightly. The Yellow Shirts stand to lose substantial portions of their traditional benefits. The military, heavily connected to the monarchy, perceive this as an existential threat to their political independence (and their access to lucrative sources of commercial income). Their positions are made all the more precarious given the King’s increasing frailty and the uncertainty of outcomes in the inevitable royal succession.

In this regard, Thai politics are remarkably short-sighted. As much as Thaksin and lese majeste are immutable issues for monarchists, elites, and the military, a declining Thailand is of little benefit to either side. Whether they are in opposition or power (and thus are charged with rectifying ostensibly worsening problems), it is in both sides’ respective interests to work towards a Thailand that is economically viable rather than inherit one that is fiscally devastated. Thailand remains a manufacturing centre, and economists believe it is poised to make a strong comeback this year. Given its geo-strategic position, Thailand has the potential to become a major transport, logistics, and distribution hub for Chinese and Southeast Asian goods. Such potential is only attainable by a nation with its domestic house in order. One wonders whether this charter amendment is a step in the right direction. 

Ernest Chong graduated from the Master of Public Policy program at the School of Public Policy and Governance in 2011. He also holds a Master of Arts in War Studies from King’s College London. He is currently assistant publisher at Global Brief magazine and is an affiliated analyst for Polaris Strategies, a Washington D.C.-based geo-political consultancy start-up. His areas of interest focus on defence and security issues in Canada, the United States, and the Asia-Pacific.

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