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Friday, September 19, 2008
A full circle after two years
Two years ago today, I was in Australia on a semi-holiday. I had just hopped into bed in my hotel room – preparing for a relaxing evening in front of the television. I was supposed to deliver a lecture about the state of Thai journalism at the University of Queensland’s School of Journalism in Brisbane.
My mobile phone rang. A high-ranking source in the Thaksin government said: Pichai, the coup is on, just turn on your television. Of course I couldn’t. And even if I could all I would only hear military march tunes which many of us would instantly recognize as the launching of a coup d’etat. After my lecture, I spent most of the day on the 20th of September two years ago, answering questions from Australian radio, television and newspapers about the state of Thai democracy.
Today is not only the second anniversary of the September 19 coup d’etat against Khun Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand’s 24th prime minister. Today is all the first day at work for Thailand’s 26th prime minister, Khun Somchai Wongsawat – who happens to be Khun Thaksin’s brother in law. But unlike Khun Thaksin who worked out of Government House. Khun Somchai can’t go to the office as other prime ministers as Government House is occupied by the Peoples Alliance for Democracy.
Looking back, how does one begin to understand what has happened, and how did we get to where we are today? What does it all mean? Where do we go from here? What lies ahead? Let’s start with the easy part – Where do we go from here? What lies ahead in the short term? Despite his more conciliatory approach - which will certainly be a change from the combative style of his predecessor Samak Sundaravej and improve the political atmosphere - there’s every chance that the Somchai Government and Cabinet will not last long.
We are likely to know the composition of the new Cabinet soon. We are told that this will be finalised on Monday although I am skeptical. The traditional bargaining and posturing for posts and quotas among PPP factions may force a delay. Certainly all is not well between Thaksin Shinawatra and Newin Chidchob who commands about 70 MPs.
Having lost face when Palang Prachachon and coalition factions failed to turn up at Parliament to nominate Samak Sundaravej as Prime Minister, Newin was get his own back when the party’s support swung in favour of Khun Somchai. He held off support for Khun Somchai and got his flock to gather for dinner at the Bua Restaurant behind Seri Centre on Sri Nakharind Road – a very expensive meal.
As his MPs wined and dined, Khun Newin negotiated for two more Cabinet posts from the 4 which his faction holds. He wants command of the Communications Ministry. Let’s see if this pans out. If it does, it could indicate Newin is planning his own exit strategy for the next elections – whenever that may be. In the meantime, PM Somchai has already started to project an image of compromise, especially with the PAD. Unfortunately I expect little progress since the PAD itself has adopted such a hard line stance. if there is any, it will take time.
But by November, the time will arrive for the Constitution Court to decide whether or not Palang Prachachon, Chart Thai, Matchima Prachatipatai and later the Democrat parties, will be dissolved for election fraud violations under the current charter. For the Democrats a clearer picture will emerge at the end of this month when the Election Commission is expected to decide whether or not one of its MPs will receive a red card for election fraud. It he does then the case will be forwarded to the Attorney General’s office for review. If it agrees with the Election Commission, the case goes immediately to the Constitution Court. If not a 30-day joint review period commences with the Election Commission.
A dissolution decision means MPs will flock to new homes. Khun Thaksin’s brother, Khun Payap Shinawatra, has been busy preparing the party’s new home. For Palang Prachachon and Matchima, this new nest is the Pua Thai Party. But for the executive committee members of these parties, a dissolution decision means that they are banned from politics for 5 years.
Such a decision will hit Chart Thai the hardest. Of its current 24 MPs, 20 are executive committee members. Matchima are in a similar situation. Palang Prachachon will fare better as it has 233 MPs with 30 executive committee members. But for PM Somchai, it will mean that this first-time MP, his political career will be effectively over.
Therefore the search for a new prime minister, and again, the formation of a Cabinet starts a new. But this time around the choices will have to come from third-tier MPs. Palang Prachachon - assuming the factions can agree the share vested interests – will remain the dominant party.
So by the end of the year, perhaps even into the first few months of 2009, we are back where we are today – a new prime minister and Cabinet but with the PAD still entrenched in the grounds of Government House. Thai society, its people, this country still deeply divided. Again, the questions I asked earlier remains. How did we get where we are today? What does it all mean? Where do we go from here? What lies ahead in the long term?
For decades since Thailand became a democracy under a constitutional monarchy we went through the process of elections that led to governments – whether headed by a non-elected MP or MP - that shared interests among the various parties. By various parties I mean politicians, the bureaucrats, the military and business. When political conflicts emerged – the coup d’etat was the Thai way of “problem solving” – at least that’s how the last coup two was described by certain academics who disagreed with the coup, but like the majority of Thais around the country, were relieved by it.
Underlying all these governments and elections was the system of patronage. Patronage within the current political system which even today remains unchanged where you have the people, the village headman, the canvassers, the politicians, the ministers, the cabinet and government going up the line.
Khun Thaksin used patronage like any other leader but better was at it. He reached out and connected directly with the grassroots. He was wealthy. He had a strong and decisive style. In fact, in the beginning he had the support, not only of grassroots organisation, business and even the ruling elite.
So what happened? What went wrong? Of course, when he started abusing his power, developing policies that benefited his supporters and family members, support dwindled among academics, grassroots organisations, and even certain segments of business. When Sondhi Limthongkul could not get what he wanted, a long-time friend and supporter, became an enemy.
His use of patronage extended deep within the bureaucracies, even in segments of the military, particularly his former classmates. Hut with a clear parliamentary majority, with so much popularity and support, with so much wealth why did he go down this path? One former Cabinet minister told me: “power corrupts”. One key question is why, how and when did Thaksin alienate the ruling elite?
Former Cabinet ministers say that his mistake was that he viewed members of the Royal court, merely government officials. Relations got worse during preparations of the APEC leaders meeting. We all know what the coup two years ago was meant to achieve – and how it failed. Unlike other coups, it prompted a sigh of relief, even among those of us who disagree with this method of resolving political conflicts.
I recall chatting, again with former Thaksin ministers, saying that unless a compromise is reached behind the scenes, unless someone negotiates with Khun Thaksin and those who oppose him, the conflict will not end, and the division in Thailand would deepen. Unlike past prime ministers or military leaders who were subject of coups or fell out of favour, Thaksin refused to bow down. If like others he agreed to stay quiet – accept his fate so to speak – he would like the others, be allowed to return to Thai society to live a comfortable life.
Why didn’t he? This is puzzling even to those who worked closely with him and supported him. These supporters say that often he would agree with you one moment, speak to another minister soon after and change his mind. Despite all efforts, and missteps by the military-installed Surayud Government, Thaksin’s popularity among grassroots Thais remained intact. It was hoped that Thaksin and all that he represents could be uprooted through legal, righteous and democratic means. The recent election that saw the rise of Samak Sundaravej proves it is easily said than done.
Now we have a political mess, a quagmire where the rule of law is ignored and a reluctance to enforce the law for fear of bloodshed. We have as situation where the PAD not only illegally broke into government compounds and now occupy Government House. They are demanding a new political system, which they themselves are unable to articulate. Clearly various forces back the PAD from the ruling elite, certain members of the military, businesses and of course ordinary citizens. Otherwise they would not be able to be camped in Government House today.
Even during Khun Samak’s tenure as prime minister, at least two occasions we thought another coup could be launched. Certainly following Thaksin’s return from exile to face legal charges and more recently when PAD and pro-Samak protestors clashed, there was talk of preparations. Only this time the word was that the job would be done properly, that Thaksin supporters would be hunted and uprooted. There was talk of a “black period” of authoritarian rule lasting a long time.
Fortunately this did not occur, as it would clearly throw us back to the political Stone Age. We have managed to avoid bloodshed thanks to the position adopted by Gen Anupong Paochinda. I have no doubt that Gen Anupong’s aides are sounding out a political way out. I know they are talking to academics that are close to the PAD. Some of these academics are reflecting the view that perhaps its time that we took a break from our current system of parliamentary democracy.
They are saying that we should set up some interim administration (not elected) and spend perhaps two to three years to iron out a new process. The problem is what is this process, its still vague and unclear. Does this sound familiar? So where do we go from here? How do we resolve the deep divisions? No one has a real clear way forward.
What I am grateful for, however, that despite this deep division we now face we have not resorted to the use of force like in the past that has lead to the deaths of dozens if not hundreds. I hope we can reach compromise somehow. And even if changes have to be made to the system, I hope this can be achieved through a participatory process whereby those with differing views can express them freely and that we learn to accept that those who hold differing views, have the right to express them as we do.