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WorldVoices: What’s Next For Thailand?

[Editor’s Note: WorldVoices—a recurring feature of the WorldPolicy blog—links to opinion and analysis of current events from English-language news sources around the globe.]

By Samantha Chu

On July 3, a landslide victory in Thailand’s election made Yingluck Shinawatra the country’s first female prime minister. But her election poses a critical dilemma since she was, effectively, simply a proxy for her brother — deposed in a military coup and now in exile in Dubai. Their party, Pheu Thai, emerged with a majority of 265 seats, and, after Yingluck formed a coalition with four smaller parties, now effectively controls 299 seats, or 60 percent of the parliament. Outgoing Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s Democrats won only 159 seats.

Yingluck takes the helm of country polarized by the legacy of her older brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, the telecommunications tycoon and champion of Thailand’s poor who was elected prime minister in 2001 and 2005. Toppled by a military coup in 2006, he currently lives abroad to avoid a standing two-year prison sentence for corruption. Even so, he is widely agreed to be the de facto leader of Pheu Thai, which ran with the campaign slogan, “Thaksin Thinks, Pheu Thai Acts.”

Since Thaksin’s exile, the Red Shirts (ardent Thaksin supporters, largely from the countryside) and the opposing Yellow Shirts (a mix of royalists, ultra-nationalists, and the urban middle class) have periodically staged chaotic, at time violent, protests – including, in 2010, a two-month shutdown of the bulk of downtown Bangkok by the Red Shirts. More than 90 people were killed when the military intervened.

With Thaksin overshadowing the political scene, Thailand’s stability rests heavily on whether his sister seeks amnesty for her brother. Many observers are optimistic about the ability of Yingluck to navigate these treacherous waters and bring stability to this nation with the military hovering in the background, but just as many advise caution.

One blog post by The Australian congratulates Yingluck on her “stellar victory” but stresses that she must legitimize it by distancing herself from her brother:

Ms. Yingluck needs to move with the utmost caution, for though her success resulted from the massive endorsement of Pheu Thai by the long-marginalized rural and urban poor, the Red Shirts to whom Thaksin is a hero, the powerful military establishment remains implacably hostile to him. It is a cause for optimism that the military has pledged it will not get involved in the post-election process. Ms. Yingluck should lose no time reaching a working accommodation with the generals that ensures they stand by that pledge. A return to the protracted street violence of recent years would be a disaster.

The key to stability is Thaksin and whether Ms. Yingluck can both corral him and assert herself as the country's democratically elected leader, rather than as his puppet. Promisingly, he has said that while he wants to return home, he wants to be part of a solution, not create new problems. His sister should hold him to that. Ms. Yingluck would be wise to leave it to the courts to deal with her brother's appeals against his conviction for corruption and abuse of power rather than provoke the military by ordering an amnesty.

In a column for the Indian Express, Alia Allana suggests that the influence of King Bhumibol, the Thai monarch, is perhaps an even more important factor for stability:

Thaksin’s return would, of course, be a politically polarizing development. Traditionally, in such situations, the monarch becomes the arbiter of Thailand’s woes. Last year, King Bhumibol spoke out when law and order crumbled in the country. He is respected and adored by most Thais, but there is cause for worry. He is 83, unwell and has not named an heir.

Yingluck, one should recall, is not the first Thaksin affiliate to come to power. Two other governments — of Samak Sundaravej and of Thaksin’s brother-in-law Somchai Wongsawat — had been in power after Thaksin’s exit. They were swiftly ousted on dubious charges…It was during these two governments that the king intervened to restore law and order. The question in Thai politics is: who will have such sway over the army and the people after Bhumibol?

Politics in Thailand is far from consistent, the military too influential and Bangkok’s elite too interfering. Thailand does enter a new phase though and this will be further stabilised by the appointment of an heir.

Jakarta Timeseditorial warns that the election points to a continuing disparity between Thailand’s rich and poor:

In any other democracy, a landslide victory means a decisive mandate from the people for the winners to govern. But this is not the case in Thailand, unfortunately. Instead, the election outcome has created greater uncertainty about the nation’s future…

The only decisive outcome from the election is the message sent to the political elite in Bangkok about the growing wealth gap that has split the nation between the urban rich and rural poor. This has translated in recent years to the “yellow shirts” and “red shirts” in street protests and counter-protests. Unless the political elite (meaning political parties), the monarchy and the military address this disparity, Thailand will be effectively made up of two nations largely defined by their income levels. This will make its democracy vulnerable to exploitation by politicians with lots of money.

In an editorial, The Nation, a Thai English-language newspaper, counsels political parties of all shades not to neglect the country’s future in the long run:

In the longer term, the Yingluck administration will have to improve the country's competitiveness in preparation for Thailand's entry to the Asean Economic Community, where we will face direct competition from other countries in the region.

Unfortunately, none of the political parties has offered any platform to address Thailand's competitiveness. Instead, they have preferred to focus on populist measures. Such policies should in fact be short-lived, with the government instead turning its focus on how to improve the productivity of the country and its people in the long run. However, the Pheu Thai Party has not yet made any serious plan to improve education or improve the capacity of people in a sustainable manner.

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Samantha Chu is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ratchaprasong 2]

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