Monday, September 1, 2008

A high-wire act in Thailand

International Herald Tribune

Sunday, August 31, 2008 Philip Bowring

BANGKOK: Now playing here is a balancing act between political theater and deadly serious power struggle that both fascinates and alarms the public.

Will mass demonstrations, the occupation of the seat of government and of some airports force the resignation of the elected prime minister, Samak Sundaravej, whom opponents see as surrogate for the prime minister deposed in 2006, Thaksin Shinawatra?

Will these high profile, well-funded but disparate activists fail to foment a full-blown crisis? Or will the military step in with another coup? Or will the king impose a compromise which implicitly undermines rule by ballot box?

So far, Thailand has just about kept its balance as shifting alliances make the issues more complex than a simple struggle between the pro- and anti-Thaksin forces. The former prime minister himself is now in Britain, having jumped bail when faced with corruption charges.

At stake for the longer run are fundamental issues: What form of democracy, if any, should Thailand have? What will be the role of the monarchy when King Bhumipol, 80, whose standing has risen in step with his 62 years on the throne, is no longer there.

The protesters under the banner of the Peoples Alliance for Democracy include both liberals and conservatives - liberal, constitutionalist democrats outraged by the corruption and authoritarianism to which democracy, they allege, degenerated under Thaksin; right-wing royalists who loathe populism and would like rule by a military and bureaucratic elite blessed by the monarch. With them are assorted opportunists better known for their love of the limelight than for principles.

As for Prime Minister Samak, 73, at one level he is a Thaksin surrogate whose legitimacy stems from last year's election won by the People Power Party created by Thaksin loyalists. But at another he has long associations with right-wing royalists and with the military and police who accord him some trust even though they remain mostly anti-Thaksin. So far, the army has stood aside.

While Samak remains under pressure to quit, Thaksin loyalists are beginning to wonder if he will opt to survive in office and let the judiciary press on with the prosecution of Thaksin and the appropriation of huge assets held by his family and associates.

Thaksin himself was clearly surprised that he was not able to do a deal with the Samak government, in part due to pressure from the royal palace to let the law take its course. To many, Thaksin's crime was not so much corruption, which has been rampant in every government, as his centralization of power and largesse.

Some monarchists also hint that Thaksin is a covert republican. But what they really fear is that King Bhumipol's successor, lacking his authority, will be unable to act as a balance to populist democracy and will revert to the purely ceremonial institution the monarchy was during Bhumipol's first two decades, when military strongmen ran the country.

They know that whatever case is made against him, Thaksin will remain admired by the poor, whom he helped with health and credit schemes, and by businessmen, who praised his "get things done" approach.

The Bangkok middle class espouses democracy but in practice fears that it could threaten not just their liberties but the income disparities that make their lives comfortable. Likewise the bureaucracy in this highly centralized state is hardly corruption-free but resents being bossed by the likes of Thaksin.

As for the army, it still sees itself as the ultimate defender of stability and the monarchy. But it has learned from experience that direct interventions are not solutions. Indeed, things are much the same now as before the 2006 coup when Thaksin was facing daily demonstrations by the same people as Samak today.

Thailand is an open society, and most Thais want democratic participation. The military and most of the monarchists accept that. But the question of what kind of democracy and to what extent it should be balanced by the courts, the army, the Bangkok mob or the king remains unsettled.

Unstable but manageable politics is likely to continue - at least until the succession, at which points predictions are impossible.

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