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Thailand's Political Crisis

Panjaj Kumar Jha was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • September 21, 2006

    Thailand is once again at the crossroads of political uncertainty and the entry of the military in the affairs of the state has created a sense of instability. On September 19, 2006, the Thai armed forces dismissed the Thai Rat Thai Party government and revoked the country's 1997 constitution even though acting Prime Minster Thaksin Shinawatra has announced a state of emergency in Thailand. General Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, the army chief, has assumed prime ministerial powers till alternate political arrangements are made.

    The last couple of months saw a seesaw battle between Thaksin Shinawatra and the Opposition over the issue of free and fair elections, which were scheduled for October 15 but were indefinitely postponed by the ousted prime minister. This created a sense of political uncertainty and seems to have provided an opportunity for the Army to take over the reins of power. The Thaksin government, which came to power in 2001 in the aftermath of the financial crisis, instituted populist measures like cheap loans and government handouts. The resultant popularity enabled it to retain power in the 2005 elections. It seemed that Thailand would slowly regain its pre-crisis economic growth, which was 6.1 per cent in 2004 though it slumped to 4.5 per cent in 2005.

    But the Thaksin administration came under fire over his handling of several issues. The first of these related to his administration's ineffective handling of the Muslim insurgency in the southern provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala provinces since January 2004. Thaksin took a hard-line stance against the problem in southern Thailand, going to the extent of declaring a sizeable number of villages in the three provinces as a "Red Zone". This meant that they would not be able to obtain developmental funds from the government while at the same time empowering the Army to undertake strong measures to curb the rebellion. Thaksin's reputation was also severely damaged when 78 Muslims who were protesting against government apathy died in police custody in October 2004 in Southern Thailand.

    At the same time, he faced strong criticism and opposition on the issue of the sale of shares in his family owned Shin Corp (one of the biggest telecom companies of Thailand) to Singapore's government owned investment company Temasek Holdings. The sale of 49.6 per cent stake in Shin Corp for US $ 1.9 billion on January 23 came under fire since it was on the same day that Thaksin had raised the limitation on foreign ownership in Shin Corp to 49 per cent from the previous 25 per cent. He also evaded taxes on the capital gained through this sale. This incensed the opposition Democrat Party, which launched an intense move to upstage his government.

    Thaksin also antagonized the labour unions by privatizing the country's Electricity Generating Authority and by conducting negotiations with the United States for a free trade agreement. He added to the forces ranged against him by curbing press freedom and by granting favours to close business associates and relatives.

    The first attempt to impeach Thaksin was started in February 2006 by 28 senators through an appeal in the Constitutional Court. But this was rejected by the Court. The mass rallies that followed were led by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a conglomeration of opposition parties and NGOs. PAD was led by Sondhi Limthongkul, General Chamlong Srimuang (both former allies of Thaksin) and Thaksin's political rivals. Thaksin reacted by dissolving the parliament on February 24 and announcing general elections for April 2. The April 2 elections and April 23 bye-elections were boycotted by the opposition parties and even though Thaksin's party 'Thai Rat Thai' won a sizeable majority this did not bring legitimacy to his government because of the failure to produce a non-partisan upper house (the Senate), which is considered necessary to ensure checks and balance in the functioning of the government. The Constitutional Court invalidated the results of these elections contested by the Thai Rat Thai alone, in a judgement delivered on May 8, 2006. It even asked the election commissioners to resign and when the latter refused to comply, they were jailed and subsequently removed from their official positions. However, it needs to be mentioned here that a virtual one party election is allowed in the Thai constitution, provided the sole party contesting elections has enough support of the electorate and wins at least 20 per cent of the popular vote.

    Though Thaksin had subsequently given assurances that he would not contest the elections scheduled for October 15, he has been nursing the ambition of running again as a prime ministerial candidate. His decision to postpone the October elections created frenzy among the Opposition and the military coup of two days ago is a direct fallout of this crisis. Military leaders have claimed that they have the support of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is a revered figure in Thailand, so as to thwart any mass unrest against the coup. Thailand has a history of generals taking over power as well as contesting elections to legitimise their rule.

    The coup leaders' dissolution of the 1997 Thai Constitution could be because of two major factors. First, because it allows even a single party to contest elections. Secondly, it does not empower the King to appoint a Prime minister to overcome a political crisis. It was not that the prospects of a military coup did not cross the mind of Thaksin Shinawatra. In fact, back in April 2006, consequent to rumours of a military coup, he had summoned a meeting of military officers to tighten his control over the government. Even at that time, the Deputy Commander of Internal Security Operations, Panlop Pinmanee, had hinted that a military coup was inevitable if political instability continued. He had remarked that political instability would have an adverse impact on the share prices, the Thai currency and even on investment, all of which would snow ball into a larger public grievance. He had warned that in such a situation an intervention by either the King or the military could not be ruled out. These remarks did not find favour with Thaksin and so when a junior army officer was arrested near his house in August with a car laden with explosives, he immediately used this as a pretext to sack General Panlop Pinmanee. This dismissal and the prosecution of some military officers along with the ambivalent stance taken by Thaksin with regard to his candidature for Prime Ministership and his postponement of the elections, provided the spark for the recent coup.

    Though it is quite early in the day to arrive at a concrete prognosis, it is clear that the military would seek legitimacy for its actions from the Thai King, as is evident from the fact that the army run radio-station has been playing songs in praise of the king since the coup began. Though there are hints that the Opposition would repose faith in the Army, for his part the King has to come to terms with the changed political scenario in Thailand and assure the country's population that democracy would indeed return. If the political crisis were to continue indefinitely with no signs of a return to normalcy, it would have adverse consequences on the Thai economy and society.