Thailand: Court Ruling Delays Political Violence

3 MINS READJul 14, 2012 | 11:18 GMT
Thailand: Court Ruling Delays Political Violence
A portrait of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (L) and current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in Bangkok

The Constitutional Court of Thailand on July 13 dismissed five complaints lodged against the ruling Pheu Thai Party over the party's proposed constitutional amendments. The decision permits the ruling party to attempt to rewrite parts of the 2007 constitution, which was drafted by the military after the 2006 coup that overthrew then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

However, many perceive Pheu Thai's move as a veiled attempt to pave the way for the return of Thaksin, who has been living in self-imposed exile since 2008. As a result, the opposition Democrat Party has opposed the charter changes, which go against the interests of the military and the monarchy (although those two institutions have not spoken out against the amendments). The resultant political controversy provoked massive street protests in Bangkok in May and June.

The July 13 decision was surprising given the court's backing by the traditional political establishment, which generally supports the Democrats and sees Pheu Thai, as well as Thaksin's return, as a threat to its power. Indeed, the court dissolved the two parties that preceded Pheu Thai, both of which were also heavily influenced by Thaksin. Those rulings contributed to much of Thailand's political turmoil since 2006, and a decision to uphold the most recent complaints likely would have sparked fresh protests.

The court likely ruled in favor of Pheu Thai to avoid additional political turmoil, and the ruling exemplifies how circumspect each side has been in order to subdue the upheaval. While the ruling has delayed the threat of immediate violence, however, the larger political crisis remains — especially in light of the failing health of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Since its landslide victory in 2011, the Pheu Thai government, led by Thaksin's younger sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, has prioritized the charter changes. Pheu Thai also attempted to pass a national reconciliation bill that would have granted amnesty for those involved in the coup, laying the groundwork for Thaksin's return. The former prime minister has influenced both efforts.

Thaksin hoped to capitalize on the ruling party's momentum and achieve reconciliation sooner rather than later. However, he moved prematurely, creating rifts within Pheu Thai. Thaksin urged many of his Red Shirt supporters to drop their legal cases for the sake of reconciliation. This encouraged anti-Thaksin groups, most notably the Yellow Shirts, to hold mass protests outside parliament and block the bills' passage in parliament. Recognizing his mistake, Thaksin re-sought support from the Red Shirts to push the bills forward. As dissatisfaction grew among the Red Shirts, so too did elements within Pheu Thai grow wary of Thaksin's influence. These elements saw the former prime minister's moves as needlessly provocative and ultimately detrimental to the party. Fearing court-imposed dissolution, the party backed off its advocacy of the constitutional amendments, saying it would obey the court's decision.

While the July 13 ruling enables Pheu Thai to move forward with the charter changes, it also opens the issue to wider political debate. Aware of the power held by the political opposition and street protesters — and cognizant of the rift within the party — Thaksin knows he can no longer afford to prioritize his agenda and disregard the Red Shirts or mainstream Pheu Thai politicians. Therefore, he must recalculate his plan for amnesty.

Political Calculations

Meanwhile, controversy surrounding the amendments has left Pheu Thai exposed to political attack. Indeed, the political opposition, led by the Democrats, is attempting to characterize the agendas of Pheu Thai and Thaksin as attempts to overthrow the country's constitutional monarchy. The Democrats have regained some political momentum recently and have had some success politicizing Pheu Thai's agenda. For their part, however, the monarchy and the military have remained mostly silent regarding persistent rumors of a possible coup, and Yingluck has taken steps to reconcile with the monarchy. Senior military officials have insisted that there will not be a coup.

Of course, such silent gestures should not be taken at face value. The fundamental interests between the traditional political establishment and the current civilian government are rooted in societal and political divisions between Bangkok and the periphery, particularly the northern and northeastern regions. Despite the appearance of cordiality, each side will continue to try to undermine the another.

Notably, the monarchy's and military's silence stems from room for agreement within the amendments. For example, the potential reconciliation agreements could grant amnesty for those who participated in the 2006 coup as well as those who participated in bloody crackdowns on protesters in 2010. With the Thai king's health waning, there is a mutual interest for all sides to act cautiously, lest the country devolve into further turmoil in the event of a dynastic transition.

The sensitivity of Thai politics means any miscalculation could reignite political violence. So far, six years of violence have yet to bring about substantive change. Instead, the ruling party and the opposition continue to show an unwillingness to come to a meaningful compromise. The possibility of future showdowns cannot be ruled out.

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