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Public Issues
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Permalink : http://oknation.nationtv.tv/blog/DrPatom
วันพุธ ที่ 18 มีนาคม 2552
Posted by ปฐม_มณีโรจน์ , ผู้อ่าน : 2346 , 12:40:35 น.  
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( บทความภาษาอังกฤษ เขียนขึ้นเพื่อประมวลและลำดับความที่ทราบกันดีอยูแล้วในเอกสารภาษาไทยและสังคมไทย แต่อาจจะเป็นประโยชน์แก่ผู้สนใจทั้งชาวไทยและต่างประเทศที่อยู่ในประเทศไทยและอยู่ต่างประเทศ)

THE POLARIZATION OF THE THAI POLITY

 

   Patom  Manirojana, 

   Rangsit University

The crisis in the Thai political system has obviously become a matter of international concern of late.  The nature of the problem is a profound division or the polarization, to be exact, of the Thai people along the line of political preference. In retrospective view back in the cold war era, the root ideological conflicts in the Kingdom can be described and analyzed in terms of the conventional conservatism (rightists) vs. the progressivism (leftists) dichotomy. Ever since, political changes in Thailand has become more and more complicated not just because of the complex and turbulent nature of change itself, but also a mix of some recent massive efforts in domestic as well as international multimedia. Many issues reported by some overseas media have been oversimplified, subjective and biased interpretations and conclusions of the affairs. The root and the complication of conflicts may be hard to grasp by distant observers who have not been familiar with the historical and contemporary context of the system. Is military dictatorship still active in the country? Has the current Royal Thai Government (RTG) been working under the mandate of the military dictatorship?  Does the jeopardy backed by the “red-shirt” political movement has anything to do with the communist ideology? Is Thailand already in trouble in serious economic crisis without an appropriate and qualified persons to handle the problems?

The Kingdom of Siam had been under absolute monarchy until the 1932 peaceful revolution that transformed the regime into the constitutional monarchy, the historical compromise between the traditional monarchy and the modern democracy. Legally speaking, the monarch as the head of the state exercises the sovereignty of the people through the legislative, the executive and the judicial institutions and processes. On factual or behavioral terms, the Thai constitutional monarchy functions according to the framework of constitutional monarchy set forth by Walter Bagehot back in the 19th century.  

The Bureaucratic Polity 

Despite the peaceful transformation of power in the 1932 revolution, the working relationships between the monarch and the new ruling elite group was not entirely normal.  A series of unhealthy relationships finally led to the abdication of King Rama VII in March 1935. Young Prince Ananda was just 8 years old when he  was tipped as the next king while he was studying in Switzerland. Until Prince Ananda reaches the age of maturity, the kingdom would be reigned by the board of regency. Since the democratic political organs to be formed were novice and inexperienced and other contemporary extra-bureaucratic institutions were all very weak, the real political power naturally rested in the revolutionary bureaucratic elites. The bureaucratic polity thus emerged to succeed the monarchy as a central mechanism for national modernization.

To average Thais, military interventions into the political system has been quite  familiar phenomena. Since 1932, the Thai political system has experienced up to 18 coups ( 8 of which were unsuccessful). All successful coups have similarly kept the constitutional monarchy intact. However, some difference may be noted. It is evident that the general pattern of the recent coups are markedly different from that of earlier coups in the pre-1973 period. After the WW II, the distinguished characteristics of the politics in the third world had been observed by some political scientists for the emergence of newly independent countries and the military politics in many of those countries. Thailand certainly was not an exception to the case.

During WW II, Thai government under Prime Minister P. Pibulsongkram had taken side with the Japanese as Pridi Bhanomyong, his leading opponent, organized an underground “Free Thai” movement against Japanese domination. That explains why the post-WW Thai military governments underwent the cold war era by openly cooperating with the free world. The practices of the then military governments were tolerated by the Western powers on a simple justification that the military strength was needed to counter the communist threats. The threats may be in the form of external invasion in the “domino theory” scenario or the form of domestic insurgencies  already underway. In 1957, the controlling military leadership changed hand from the Western trained P. Phibulsongkram to the locally trained Sarit Dhanarat by a successful coup. In those days, the military government did not encounter a serious resistance from any civilian sector no matter how repressive or powerful the military junta were. The Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) seemd to be the only challenge. The CPT initiated their armed force activities in 1965. Even after Sarit’s death in 1963, his heirs continued to exercise military control for another decade (with a brief interruption of parliamentary politics between 1969 – 1971). The military leaders managed to establish a political party (Saha Prachathai Party) to extend their political control under the parliamentary system. It is unbelievable that they again staged a successful coup against their own civilian government to transform the system back to the military regime in 1971. That was the prelude to the 1973 student-led people uprising. Up to that time, the Thai political regime had obviously been a military dictatorship both in forms and substances.

Any Thai people over 60 years old who had survived the Sarit’s regime to witness the recent coups after 1973 can appreciate the difference comparing with earlier military regimes. The 1973 student uprising was the first show of the student led “people’s power” that put an end to the long military dominance in the Kingdom. Some scholars described the phenomenon as “the bureaucratic polity at bay.”

The Business-Bureacratic Politics

Since then, the Thai military from time to time did make some attempts to exert control over the politics again but not as successful as their predecessors’  achievements. The 1976 coup to stabilize the October 6 political turmoil, despite the success, was short lived. Their stated just the limited goals to undertake the mission of “administrative reform” rather than the more ambitious "political revolution." Many young students and other protesters who were brutally suppressed, of which a large number were leftist oriented, fled to join the CPT and took part in the subversive activities in the countryside. Four years later, General Prem Tinnasulanonda, the then military commander who became a prime minister emerged as the right leader at the right time to launch a strategy to successfully persuade a significant number of the CPT’s armed forces to quit the terrorism and go back to town and to schools. This success simply terminated the serious CPT’s challenge and eventually underminded the famous “domino” theory. An expanding portion of politicians in the legislature and the cabinet came from the non -governmental/business background to accumulate confidence and political experiences for the future responsibility as political leadership in the post “bureaucratic polity” era.

Prem served as a Prime Minister leading a number of coalition governments to enhance the political stability for a decade before calling it quit in July 1988. That marked the end of the government of bureaucratic-business partnership and the beginning of plutocracy in Thai politics.

The Plutocracy

Post-Prem politics is no longer dominated by the bureaucratic power but shared with several parties or groups of businessmen-turn-politicians. Another military coup took place again in 1990 and claimed to counter the corruption problems of Chartchai government. The military junta this time did not outline any grand revolutionary /reform scheme and modestly viewed their status as just “the National Peace Keeping Council” (NPKC).  To stay away from the military dictatorship image, they initially set up a respectable civilian government under Prime Minister Ananda Panyarachun, another senior diplomat who had experienced the higher ranking post in Washington D.C. following two other Thai prime ministers in the past:  Pote Sarasin and M.R.Seni Pramoj . However when a leading military junta of the NPKC, General Suchinda Kraprayoon, broke the public promise (he had made earlier that he would not seek any political office) to accept the nomination for the prime ministership in 1992, he and the NPKC subsequently faced a fierce public protest. Chamlong Srimaung, a retired military officer who had been an alumnus of the Chulachomkloa Military Academy was one of the leading protesters. The 1992 protest turned to be the “Bloody May” when the military decided to suppress the protesters by armed force resulting in several civilian deaths and injuries before H. M. the King stepped in to pacify the crisis. That seemed to have been the last serious military dictatorship in action. Without any military intervention, Thailand managed to formulate and pass the 1977 constitution, the “democratic” constitution that aimed to strengthen the political party, the more powerful prime ministership, the independent quasi-judicial commissions designed to check and curb the towering executive power such as the National Counter Corruption Commission (NCCC) and the judicial power became a multiple-track court system as the administrative court and the constitutional court were introduced.   

The Polarized State

Despite the new constitution, the Thai political system in the 2000’s was polarized by a long series of profound conflicts and confrontations. The dramatic deterioration of the situation was apparent in 2005 when the popularity of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra took a plunge from the peak of unprecedented one-party majority government to be challenged and rocked by a very strong protest in Bangkok streets.

Many of Thaksin’s opponents had been part of his “fan club” before but, for a variety of reasons, they changed their minds later on. Some old friends simply quitted Thaksin’s bandwagon quietly yet, some others openly turned against and challenged it. A couple of examples may clearly state the case. Sondhi Limthongkul, a prominent ‘media mogul’ had earlier supported Thaksin and his political movement. After the rift with Thaksin in 2005, Sondhi originally organized a political rally as a sole protester against him. However, he shifted the strategy to accommodate four other major political activists as the team leaders of the newly formed anti-Thaksin movement, the “People’s Alliance for Democracy” (PAD). One of those four allies is Major General Chumlong Srimaung. Chumlong had been one of Thaksin’s former admirers as well. On the basis of the old-school ties, he had earlier invited wealthy Thaksin to replace him as the head of his political party, the Bhalang Dharma Party (BDP). However, Thaksin’s political orientation did not seem to match the culture of honest, ethical-based and clean politics of the BDP. Subsequently, Thaksin refrained from the active moving force and allowed the BDP to drastically decline. The BDP was out of political scene in 2001 national election.

Thaksin was still around in Thai politics. He set up the Thai Rak Thai (TRT) Party on the less idealistic and more pragmatic ground relative to that of the BDP and made a promising start. His newly formed TRT party kicked of a successful campaign to win over the long time established Democrat Party in the national election and, thus, formed the government. He confirmed the expansion of his majority block in the parliament by consolidating with few allied parties to the point that the opposition party in the parliament was technically unable to initiate a censure of his government.  The TRT’s performance in the next election in 2005 was even more impressive. The party won a record absolute majority to form a single party government, the first time ever in Thai political history.

As Thaksin’s political influence appeared indestructible in early 2005, the honeymoon period was soon over when Thaksin’ popularity declined among the intellectual and middle-income urban dwellers because of many cases of power abuses and mismanagement. Sonthi, Chumlong and PAD movement gradually picked up support to set up an expanding crowd of yellow-shirt protesters to stage many large and protracted rallies in Bangkok to outst Thaksin. Thaksin refused to quit, his line of reasoning is quite different from the typical Western politicians in democratic systems who always offer to resign when his/her existence or performance become issues to be seriously questioned and the functions of the system jeopardized. Public minded democratic leaders scarcely cite their winning record and their rights to stick to the office amidst troublesome protests. Rather, they usually view the case from the point of view of public interest that if his earlier “asset” qualification turns out to be “liabilities” of the system, the longer he stays in power, the costly the system will suffer. Thaksin did not seem to subscribe to the line of philosophical underpinning. He vowed to stay put and continue to fight at any costs. This certainly seems to be a factors contributing to the latest polarization of the politics. The September 19 coup, thus, was undertaken to prohibit the potential destructive confrontation of the warring yellow-shirt PAD and Thaksin’s red shirt forces.

 

The nature of Thai political crisis in the first decade of the new millennium is quite different from the classical pattern familiar to elder Thai people. During the international cold war, particularly the post 1973 uprising, the typical conflicts tend to be between the conventional capitalist-socialist line. Following General Prem’ s successful political unification in the 1980’s, a Thai prominent political scientist (Anek Laodharmatasana) came up with a “Two-City Democracy” theoretical framework to analyze and explain the contrasting political preference between 2 major groups of Thai people: the rural vs. urban dwellers. To him, the majority rural voters regularly win the election and form the government just to be ousted by the urban middle-class protesters.

The performance of September 19 coup led by General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin did not reverse the trend of the declining image of dominant military dictatorship of the old days. In Bangkok, public reaction to the coup was a mix between some protests and surprisingly the massive greeting of the armed force with flowers in the street by a relatively large number of people. A number of protesters were allowed to voice their resentment freely without any use of force to stop them. The military junta seized full power to control the country for just a couple of weeks before they turned over the duties and responsibilities to the civilian government under Surayuth Chulanont in an effort to enforce the business as usual, the rule of law. The constitution drafting council was later on set up with a reasonable working schedule. Formally, the coup marked a negative status of Thailand’s image in the international arena despite the junta’s apparent  modesty and the “de facto” rule of law practiced by Surayuth government.  Thaksin’s opponents, of which PAD is included, were disappointed by the coup/government paradoxical soft and inactive management of the post-coup affairs as well as the waste of chances to undermine “Thaksinocracy.”  No doubt, the victory of  Bhalang Prachachon Party backed by Thaksin in the December 2007 election came as no surprise to the Thai public. That certainly marked an official end to the role of the 19 September coup junta as Surayuth government turn over the govening power to Samak Soondaravej, the prime minister with Thaksin's backing. Thaksin subsequently returned to Thailand peacefully in early 2008.

However, Thaksin did not enjoy the victory and the activities of Samak’s government  that he supported long enough. The political confrontation of the polarized factions( PAD yellow-shirt and Thaksin’s red-shirt ) erupted again. PAD resumed the rally to outst Samak, whom they considered Thaksin’s nominee. Moreover, Thaksin was charged with a criminal case of the “conflict of interest” of his public office and eventually convicted by the Court on Crime of the Politicians for 2 year imprisonment. He fled by travelling out of the country and became a fugitive to avoid the punishment. His excuse to justify his actions was that he had been unfairly treated and became a victim of politically motivated  conspiracy and vowed to fight back. His problem was yet worsened when Somchai government who had succeeded Samak was also out of power in December 2008 and Abhisit of the opposing Democrat party became the Prime Minister. Thaksin, still at large and active in the international media with a strong financial power, has been busy organizing a united front of international press and domestic political movement of parliamentary cum “red shirt” group in an effort to fight back.

In sum, the current political polarization in Thailand can no longer be conceptualized in terms of the historical left-right wings dichotomy any more. Anek Laodharmmatasana’s conceptual scheme of “urban – rural confrontation” is no longer clear cut and raises some questions. Actually, two current opposing factions can be considered both conservative or rightist movements: the capitalist red-shirt and the royalist yellow-shirt. The members of both factions cut across all socioeconomic levels, geographical distributions as well as ideological affiliations. As for the former leftists, they are still around and have been taking parts in both sides.The leftists in the yellow-shirt movement seem to be satisfied to achieve social equity in the democracy under constitutional monarchy. On the contrary, the red-shirt leftists may be either already contented with the current capitalist system or, rather, consider capitalism as just  instrumental toward whatever leftist leaning systems they have been aspiring since the cold war era.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




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