Academic journal article Southeast Asian Affairs

THAILAND IN 2013: Haunted by the History of a Perilous Tomorrow

Academic journal article Southeast Asian Affairs

THAILAND IN 2013: Haunted by the History of a Perilous Tomorrow

Article excerpt

Raw Wounds

Thailand in 2013 once again faced the ghosts of its recent and turbulent past. As Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra sought to further consolidate the political control her Pheua Thai Party achieved at the 2011 election, struggles to determine the distribution of power among the country's social, political and economic elite intensified. In the long-running battle to define the future of Thailand - and the role of popular electoral mandates in the country's governance - the aggressive tactics of anti-government forces broke an uneasy and unstable stalemate.1 It was the mobilization of large-scale anti-government protests in November and December 2013 that left the country in a difficult position at year's end. The aim of toppling the "Thaksin regime" remained unfulfilled while many of the most powerful forces in the kingdom have made clear their discomfort with the deposed Prime Minister's continued popularity and perceived political meddling. Thaksin's use of the Pheua Thai government as a vehicle for his ambitions to return to Thailand and undo the damage of the 2006 coup remain central to a power struggle that will soon enter its second decade. As the end of King Bhumibol Adulyadej's reign looms, the expectations of further violence and instability are sparking new flashpoints. At the same time significant violence continues in the southern-most provinces, with no signs of immediate diminution.

Uprising Redux

The catalyst for the anti-government uprising in Bangkok towards the end of 2013 may well have been accidental, or at least the result of clumsy miscalculation. The Pheua Thai government introduced legislation to grant amnesties to a wide variety of figures implicated in the past decade's political turbulence with the knowledge that, as before, Thaksin's inclusion among those to be exonerated would be contentious.2 This deal was the product of some negotiation between the government and other powerful forces, particularly the army. It would have significant advantages for Thaksin but others would similarly benefit. However, a number of different groups, including "yellow" and "red" street forces, made the determination, for their own reasons, that the amnesty was inappropriate. In November 2013, The Economist reported that "[t]he government's latest attempt to get Thaksin Shinawatra back has united almost everyone against it".3 On the one hand there were those "yellow" elements, consistently supportive of the palace and the Democrat Party, who found it impossible to countenance Thaksin's return to the kingdom as a free man. Led by southern Thai provincial strongman, former Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, they still hope that Thaksin will be jailed for abuse of power during his Prime Ministership.4 On the other hand, pro-Thaksin "reds", including some of the most radical voices, opposed the amnesty for the way it would forgive the alleged crimes of those who ordered and implemented the crackdown on protestors in April and May 2010.5 Those violent incidents remain raw for many of Thaksin's closest allies, still traumatized by the killing of "red" protestors.

On both sides, inheritances of historical animosity and distrust motivated opposition to the conciliatory tone of the amnesty bill. For Prime Minister Yingluck the amnesty offered a chance to reconcile a variety of powerful forces and to support the longevity of her government. Since her election in 2011 she has worked assiduously to cultivate acceptance among the army leadership and other powerbrokers that could end her government with judicial or military interventions.6 The amnesty provided one opportunity for different elite factions to support a mutually beneficial arrangement that would give confidence to their interlocking deals. It may have been predicated on the mutual recognition that during the challenging years that may follow the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej a modicum of elite unity will be preferable. Different forces have worked to support, and to scupper, that prospect. …

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