DEC 7 — Thailand on Wednesday celebrated the birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who turns 85 this year. Waves of humans wearing yellow, the colour that symbolises the King, swept through Rachadamneon Avenue where the celebration was held, a testimony to how the Thais continue to worship possibly the only King many will know in their lifetime.
At this very spot, just over a week ago, anti-government forces held a rally in an attempt to topple the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. One of the justifications was that Yingluck had emerged as a threat to the royal institution. Six years ago, her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin, was also accused of the same crime.
Almost simultaneously last week, the opposition Democrat Party, known for its royalist leanings, filed a no-confidence motion against the government. Yingluck comfortably survived the vote following a heated three-day debate in Parliament on the government’s controversial rice-pledging scheme and flood management budget.
Yingluck denied her government had committed corruption and that the rice-pledging scheme directly benefited middle-income farmers who happened to be loyal supporters of the ruling Pheu Thai Party. She also spoke proudly of her government’s success in preventing the devastating floods this year (unlike in 2011, when raging floods swept the central plains).
In Thai politics, a no-confidence debate is a usual affair. But this debate was significant as it took place a day after the much-anticipated anti-government rally. Both events were co-ordinated attacks against the government.
A DESPERATE ACT
The leader of the rally, General Boonlert Kaewprasit, a leader of the right-wing Siam Pitak group, is also known as a devout royalist. A veteran soldier, he joined a group of military men some 30 years ago in staging a coup against the royally-appointed Prime Minister of the day, Thanin Kraivixian. Today, he has transformed himself into an outspoken royalist against the Yingluck government.
He is known to have forged close ties with former Prime Minister General Surayud Chulanont, now a Privy Councillor, who had formed a military government in the aftermath of the 2006 coup ousting Thaksin Shinawatra.
So it would seem the conflict between Boonlert and Yingluck mirrors a deeper conflict between the royalists and the Thaksin faction.
Boonlert proposed that for Thailand to move forward, the country must be “frozen” for five years, to allow “bad politicians” to retire and “good politicians” to enter the scene. He said he had no faith in democracy and wanted to return political power to the King.
But analysts perceive the recent move by the anti-government group as an act of desperation.
Over the past year, Yingluck’s government has performed impressively in implementing a myriad of populist programmes, inherited from the Thaksin era, aimed at winning the hearts and minds of those in the far-flung provinces. The rice-pledging scheme is one of many ambitious projects designed to empower the grassroots. The opposition leaders fear the success of these projects would further alienate them from rural voters.
So, it was to put pressure on the government that the Siam Pitak called for last week’s demonstration. Former Foreign Minister Prasong Soonsiri, another Siam Pitak leader, vowed to “kick Yingluck out” of the country like her brother by the year’s end.
Many Thais, however, did not see the rationale for this given the government’s performance, and refused to participate. The event was a failure.
Clearly, Boonlert and the Siam Pitak feel that taking on Yingluck at the ballot box would be an uphill task, especially since they have never attempted to build a connection with rural voters.
The party’s inability to compete within the democratic framework has compelled them to seek illegitimate means to topple the elected government. (There is a saying in Thailand that rural voters elect the government, but Bangkok residents overthrow it.)
Thailand has seen the most military coups in the recent history of Southeast Asia — 18 so far. Now that the royal celebration is over, rumours are getting louder in Bangkok about another possible coup.
Supporters of Boonlert and the Siam Pitak are waiting for a signal of the next anti-government demonstration, likely to be held this month.
It is possible that this new demonstration, especially if it turns violent, could provoke the military’s intervention. At this critical juncture in Thailand when a royal transition could happen anytime, all sides of the political divide are seeking to control the situation, and therefore political power.
But it may not be easy for the Siam Pitak to overthrow Yingluck. Last week’s failed rally showed that many Thais are tired of relentless street demonstrations, particularly when the government has appeared to perform well and succeeded in strengthening the Thai economy.
A new round of protests would also invite the red-shirted supporters of Yingluck to return to the streets. They have already said they would organise a protest to counter the anti-government group.
The future of Thailand looks bleak. The country remains largely divided, and issues pertaining to the monarchy have continued to be deeply, and dangerously, politicised. — Today
* Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.