Pitak Siam postmortem offers many lessons

That the anti-government Pitak Siam (Protecting Thailand) protest movement has subsided from a bang to a whimper in merely four weeks offers a host of reality checks and lessons for Thailand's political polarisation. At issue is whether the leading protagonists on all sides of the divide will take the away the right cues and come back with better responses that can move Thailand beyond its protracted conflict.

A defiant Pitak Siam protester tries to break through a police cordon during last Saturday’s clash before the rally was abruptly called off. CHANUT KATANYU

First and foremost, Thailand is still very much divided, a division that cannot be wished away but needs to be worked out the hard way. Pitak Siam has rendered impotent the Truth for Reconciliation Commission's report and recommendations, issued last September to much fanfare as well as controversy. The enabling environment for Thailand's long-term reconciliation still needs to be cultivated and nurtured. It is likely that tensions and turmoil will worsen before enabling conditions can be put in place and accepted by all sides. This is an unfortunate reality, but denying it will not bring reconciliation closer to hand.

Moreover, Pitak Siam, led by retired General Boonlert Kaewprasit (nicknamed Seh Ai) found traction as surprisingly quickly as it flopped spectacularly four weeks later. When it convened at the Royal Turf Club on Oct 28, it elicited a much higher turnout than all sides anticipated. This traction should not be underestimated. Disenchantment and grievances against the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in person, and against her exiled brother Thaksin Shinawatra by proxy, run deep and persistent. Pitak Siam became an ephemeral resurgence of the anti-Thaksin coalition that ousted and kept him away prior to, and after the September 2006 military coup. This coalition has not gone away and will likely regroup in future manifestations under more conducive circumstances.

Gen Boonlert certainly miscalculated and mistimed his initial success at the Royal Turf Club. Protest movements on the street require a build-up. In 2008, the People's Alliance for Democracy demonstrated for more than six months. They suffered innumerable ups and downs. At their nadir, only a few hundred showed up under windswept and stormy conditions during the wettest of monsoon days. At their peak, they commanded spellbound adherents well into five figures. The red-shirt United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) also built up their followers day by day in the lead-up to the April 2009 riots and the March-May 2010 Ratchaprasong demonstrations. Social movements need build-ups. Perhaps in his military style, Gen Boonlert went for broke too soon.

Leadership is key. Pitak Siam never had the kind of stage leaders that the PAD and UDD offered. Stage leaders must be in sufficient numbers as they take turns to rally the crowds with the right messages, the most gifted and crowd-connecting orators saved for prime time during the few hours before midnight. It also takes more than charisma and oratory skills to gather tens of thousands in one place. Music, food and entertainment have to pepper the rallies in the right measurements and at the right junctures.

With the PAD's successful movement in 2008 as a benchmark, the pretext does not need to be all that compelling. The PAD essentially went against Thaksin's proxy prime minister, the late Samak Sundaravej, for no particular reason other than that they said he was corrupt because Thaksin was corrupt. That was enough because Mr Samak was a tough target. He bit back and fought fiercely. Ms Yingluck is a soft and elusive target to pin down. Detached and aloof without the baggage of her brother and his other proxies, she is difficult to pick a fight with.

Changes of governments in contemporary Thailand derive from forceful seizures of power (1991 and 2006), parliamentary no-confidence and/or snap polls (1995, 1996 and 2011), incumbent resignations (1992, 1997 and 2007), and expiry of terms (2000 and 2005). When it is by force, the army has to show up. Here is a basket where Gen Boonlert may have kept his biggest eggs in the hope that the army would somehow show up when mayhem hit the streets.

Still, these were necessary but far from sufficient conditions to bring down the Yingluck government. Other forces are at work. Chief among them is what could be called Thailand's learning and experiential curve. After the turmoil in 2008 caused by the PAD, which is the most comparable to Gen Boonlert's anti-government enterprise, the exhaustion effect has set in. All that took place in 2008 to depose Mr Thaksin's proxy government could happen again but the price has risen prohibitively. Another coup would doom the coup-makers and their backers.

Thus the three indispensable pillars missing in Gen Boonlert's misadventure in the context of 2008 were the army's backing, the judiciary's assertiveness and signals from so-called special powers the Thai press alluded to throughout that year. Protest movements around here do not succeed on their own without army intervention. In turn, army meddling has to be acquiesced and accompanied by what the Thai media called special powers. Even with army resolve, the judiciary also has to step in and step up its activism. The counterfactual observation of this formulaic overthrow of government in the past decade is the ultimate failure of the UDD's protests in 2009 and 2010.

What the Pitak Siam followers must now realise is that the best way forward for them, and for Thailand indirectly, is to find a way to win at the polls. Short of electoral victory in the future, their extra-parliamentary and extra-constitutional options will be increasingly limited. If they can face up to this reality, the lesson to take away is to remake the opposition party to win at the polls.

It would be a mistake for the Yingluck administration and for Mr Thaksin afar to feel vindicated and emboldened by Pitak Siam's failure. A government popular with the majority but unacceptable to the minority can still make Thailand a bitter and unwieldy country to administer. Although it has just sailed through a no-confidence debate, the Yingluck government can do itself and Thailand a service by promoting parliamentary checks and public accountability. Showing magnanimity and continuing to reach out to the minority are the best way forward for the government even while it will take longer to find Thailand's way forward.


The writer is Director of Chulalongkorn University's Institute of Security and International Studies.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Thitinan Pongsudhirak
Position: Director of the Institute of Security and Internat