Thailand: Superficial Stability Veils Enduring Divides

10 MINS READJul 12, 2014 | 11:12 GMT
Thailand: Superficial Stability Veils Enduring Divides
(Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)
Thai soldiers lead away an alleged Red Shirt member ahead of a planned protest in Bangkok on May 25.

The Thai military's efforts to eradicate former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's political influence in Thailand have subdued his "Red Shirt" supporters, at least for now. Since taking power in a bloodless coup May 22, the junta has dismantled the opposition movement's leadership structure, disrupting its organizing capabilities and shutting off sources of funding, which will likely prevent the opposition from challenging the interim government in the immediate future. However, the Red Shirts will likely reconstitute themselves relatively quickly once the military eases the clampdown, and certain elements are capable of causing considerable chaos. If the military cannot divide, co-opt or contain the movement, it will be forced to tighten its hold on power, a development that would only galvanize the Red Shirt hard-liners, particularly if Thaksin chooses to escalate the fight.

Nearly eight years ago, the Thai military removed Thaksin, believing that the former telecommunications tycoon had become a powerful and corrupt threat to the elite-dominated system of checks and balances under which the country had flourished. But rather than quietly remain in exile for a few years before returning to an apolitical life, as is the tradition set forth by previous ousted Thai leaders, Thaksin sparred with the Thai establishment from abroad. Buoyed by his wealth, his enduring rural support and his connections in the police and business circles, he continued to mold a loose coalition of Red Shirt groups known collectively as the United Front Against Dictatorship for Democracy, which was an agile and disciplined bloc of supporters primarily from Thailand's north and northeast. Thaksin's popularity enabled his proxies to overcome numerous obstacles put up by the courts, monarchy and military and to enjoy sweeping victories in every general election since the 2006 coup.

The years between 2006 and the most recent coup were marked by massive street protests, many intended to incite violence, and escalating stand-offs between the Red Shirts and rival camps. The resultant instability threatened to weaken investor confidence and undermine Thailand's ability to exploit the region's political and economic opportunities. Consequently, many in the military and the Bangkok-based political establishment believed that the 2006 coup and the three subsequent court rulings that ousted Thaksin-backed governments were effete attempts to purge Thaksin's influence from Thai politics. A more forceful approach, the elite believed, was needed to restore stability and ensure Thailand's regional prospects.

The Military's Goals and Constraints

This year, the ruling Pheu Thai Party was ousted from government May 22. (Thaksin's sister Yingluck Shinawatra served as prime minister until the courts removed her two weeks before the coup.) Since then, the military has moved quickly to undermine the Red Shirts' ability to mobilize voters and protesters, reportedly shutting down hundreds of pro-Thaksin community radio and TV stations and thousands of websites and newspapers. Red Shirt leaders have been banned from leaving the country and have had their homes raided and their assets frozen. The junta has prohibited political gatherings and criticism of the military and has detained hundreds of opposition leaders, activists, academics and sympathizers. Several prominent leaders publicly renounced or suspended political activity upon their releases. Moreover, the junta has purged several Thaksin allies from the military, police and government, as well as from lucrative positions on boards of state-owned enterprises. The purges have eliminated major sources of influence and patronage developed during Pheu Thai Party's nearly three-year rule.

Only a handful of small, minimally violent protests have materialized since the most recent coup. Media criticism has been mostly muted, and an atmosphere of self-censorship has taken root. After months of warning that a coup would be met with violence, many Red Shirt leaders have begun calling on their supporters to lay low and cooperate with the military. The violence that occurred throughout the preceding months has largely ceased.

Still, with more than a decade of practice challenging the Thai establishment, Thaksin's grassroots support base has developed into a loosely coordinated, yet seasoned force with extensive mobilization experience, diversified leadership and sources of funding, deep institutional memory and an immeasurable amount of pent-up anger. The military's crackdown is unlikely to eliminate these intangible strengths, making it possible that the Red Shirt movement could arise again, particularly during the February-May dry season, when rural farmers would be able leave their fields. Indeed, similar albeit tamer tactics were used following the 2006 coup with little long-term success.

Meanwhile, the military will try to garner support from segments of the north and northeast through populist spending projects and other measures. The junta will also likely incorporate certain figures previously aligned with Thaksin in the interim government that will be appointed in August or September, including several ministers from Thaksin's former administration who are helping craft the junta's economic policies. Simultaneously, the military will encourage certain pro-Thaksin factions of lawmakers to defect from the Pheu Thai coalition, as the establishment Democrat Party did during its takeover in 2008. It could also try to sideline Thaksin by empowering a new class of rural-populist leaders independent of the Shinawatra family. It remains unclear whether any of these measures would moderate opposition to the junta.

Before the upcoming elections, tentatively scheduled for October, the junta will likely rewrite the Thai Constitution in a way that expands the role of appointed lawmakers and limits the electoral threats posed by rural populists. One way or another, it will ensure that a Thaksin-backed government cannot hold power during Thailand's impending royal succession. (King Bhumibol Adulyadej's 68-year reign is nearing an end.) However, such efforts by the military could further galvanize the opposition and undermine any possibility of reconciliation. In short, the junta cannot ease up on the Red Shirts until it finds a way to disenfranchise Thaksin, but it cannot stifle Thaksin's followers indefinitely without aggravating Thailand's core divisions.

The Possibility of Violence

Since 2006, Thailand's cycle of political protests has been punctuated by hit-and-run attacks, bombings and assassinations, including a string of at least 80 grenade attacks on pro-establishment businesses and protest groups in 2009 alone. Most of the attacks were symbolic, occurring late at night to avoid injuries, but violence from both sides has typically escalated whenever protests have intensified, most notably in April and May of 2010, when open street battles with the military left nearly 100 people dead and more than a thousand wounded. In the months preceding the most recent coup, clashes between rival protest camps (most waged by anti-Thaksin forces) left at least 28 people dead.

There is little evidence that Thaksin or top Red Shirt leaders directly organized any of the violence. Nonetheless, sympathetic radical elements have at least been inspired by the ousted prime minister to act upon the calls for civil war made by Red Shirt leaders and to respond to attacks on Red Shirt protests by anti-Thaksin radicals. Their capabilities may have been bolstered by the relatively free flow of arms and financial support through Thailand's porous borders, making acquisition of light arms and low-level guerrilla tactics relatively easy. Indeed, since martial law was declared May 20, authorities claim to have seized more than 2,000 weapons — mostly small arms, assault rifles, bomb components and military-grade hardware such as anti-personnel grenades, anti-tank weapons and mortars — from stockpiles discovered around the country. In addition to its other crackdown measures, the junta has sought to lock down cross-border flows of drugs, other smuggled goods and migrant workers — moves that could be perceived in part as attempts to cut off possible sources of Red Shirt arms, funding and supporters.

Radical factions from both sides of the divide have also received support from elements of the army and police, most notably by ousted Gen. Khattiya Sawasdipol, who claimed to command a faction of militant Red Shirts before his assassination at a protest in 2010. Militants known as the "Men in Black" played a role in the 2010 escalation of violence by launching grenade and sniper attacks from behind Red Shirt lines in Bangkok. Much of the conscript-heavy military hails from Red Shirt-dominated regions, raising concerns among the military brass about their loyalties.

Thaksin's Options

Thaksin has been conspicuously silent since the coup, and it is unclear what his next moves will be. Self-exiled in Dubai since 2008, the former prime minister may simply choose to wait out the military's initial crackdown in hopes that military overreach will generate heavier international pressure. Meanwhile, he may quietly rebuild the Red Shirts' organizational and communications capabilities. This would instill a sense of moral high ground while Thaksin tries to broker a compromise behind the scenes or maneuvers into position ready for the junta to loosen its grip. Several senior Red Shirt and Pheu Thai leaders have publicly said that there is little the movement can do until circumstances improve. Thaksin may believe that Thailand's impasse simply will not be resolved until the impending royal succession pushes the crisis into even more uncertain territory.

However, Thaksin may be unwilling to risk provoking the junta into further tearing down his family's remaining business empire in Thailand. The courts seized some $1.2 billion from him in 2010 and could seek to nationalize other companies still owned by the Shinawatra family. Other Red Shirt backers and Pheu Thai Party lawmakers who still have something to lose may be similarly hesitant to challenge the military openly.

The more successful the military is in removing Thaksin's options, the more likely he will be to look for other ways to raise the cost of sidelining him, especially considering that former attempts at compromise have failed. During her recent two-year stint as prime minister, Yingluck gave the military and political establishment considerable leeway, alienating many Red Shirt elements in the process, and still found herself deposed. If the military succeeds in controlling the direction of the royal succession — or if the Red Shirts move on without him — Thaksin may find himself without hope of ever brokering an amnesty deal.

Recently, former Pheu Thai chairman Charupong Rangsuan announced the creation of a nonviolent exile resistance organization consisting of a small number of exiled academics, activists and lawmakers, many of whom have been close with Thaksin in the past. Thaksin is not an official member, and the group says he is not a funder. But he has lent tacit support to the organization through his legal adviser, a Canadian lawyer who hosted a media event with another of the group's leaders, Jakrapob Penkair, in Hong Kong on June 25.

If Thaksin channels his efforts through the exiled organization, it could help maintain the anti-coup momentum, focusing media attention on the junta's more draconian tactics, as well as lobbying foreign governments to maintain pressure on the junta. But the organization is unlikely to evolve into a "government-in-exile," as it has claimed it will. Although the West has condemned the coup, the group has yet to provide evidence to support its weak claims that Western countries are interested in hosting it. Thaksin's supporters are more likely to receive tacit support closer to home, particularly from Cambodia, which has long been a destination for fleeing Red Shirts and from where Thaksin has used his ties with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to challenge the Thai establishment. Still, because the opposition want to exploit foreign connections, and considering Phnom Penh's own long-standing concerns over the border, the Cambodian government's ability and desire to exploit the Red Shirt movements has weakened substantially.

Nonetheless, Thaksin will seek to leave the option to escalate open, though it may not be his choice to make. The Red Shirt movement has at times been plagued by bitter divisions, and hard-line factions have derailed negotiations in the past, including those before the May 2010 crackdown. Suspicions among some Red Shirt factions that Thaksin is putting his interests ahead of their own have reportedly risen in recent years, particularly during Pheu Thai's attempts to push through an amnesty bill that would have paved the way for Thaksin's return while leaving many Red Shirts in jail as political prisoners. If the exiled billionaire is perceived to oppose a resistance movement in order to preserve his own business interests, some hard-line Red Shirts may take advantage of their geographic advantages and restart a campaign of violence on their own. This would give the military reason to prolong its clampdown, ensuring that the underlying dynamic in Thailand's political crisis endures.  

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