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Thaksin tests Thailand's deal

Asia Times - September 22, 2011

Shawn W Crispin, Bangkok How long will Thailand's political peace last? By certain estimations the pre-election accommodation that paved the way for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's rise to power and self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra's return to influence is already showing signs of strain. How the royalist establishment might respond to perceived threats, however, is a wildcard. (See The deal behind Thailand's polls - Asia Times Online, June 30, 2011)

Yingluck, Thaksin's political novice sister, struck a notably conciliatory pose on the campaign trail, emphasizing national reconciliation as one of her top policy priorities. In a symbolic bow to royal power, her maiden speech as premier underscored the need for Thais to rally around King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his 84th birthday celebrations scheduled for this December.

Analysts interpreted her apparent decision against appointing top United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) protest leaders, some of whom have been critical of the monarchy, and known anti-royal elements in her Puea Thai party to prominent government posts as yet another nod to royal power. So, too, were public comments by two of her top ministers that they planned to uphold draconian lese majeste laws more firmly than the outgoing Abhisit Vejjajiva government.

There were certain early signs of reciprocity. Some have noted that unlike the royal confirmation of two former Thaksin-aligned governments in 2008, the Royal Household Bureau, which manages the royal palace's public relations, distributed and allowed local newspapers to publish prominently photos of Yingluck's meeting with King Bhumibol after he issued a royal command for her to take the premiership.

Other moves, more apparently orchestrated by her self-exiled elder sibling who is legally banned from politics, have been more provocative towards royal establishment interests and indicate he is willing to risk pushing the limits of the pre-election accommodation reached with the military and palace. Yingluck's government is now purging the bureaucracy of perceived allies of the outgoing Abhisit government and known royalists, and replacing them with known Thaksin loyalists and family members. Thaksin's aggressive reshuffles, including over security portfolios, have contributed to instability in the past.

A recent high level police rotation that will pave the way for Thaksin's former brother-in-law, Priewphan Damapong, to become national police chief later this year. Surapong Tovichakchaikul, a Thaksin relative through marriage, was appointed foreign minister despite a scant resume in foreign affairs. The new government also ousted the National Security Council chief, an official with known ties to top 2006 coup plotter and former spy chief Prasong Soonsiri.

The moves are consistent with past Thaksin-led political promotions of family members to top government positions, including to the army's leadership, and political enemies to inactive posts. Because Abhisit presided over five sets of reshuffles and mini-reshuffles during his two and a half year tenure, Yingluck and her Thaksin-affiliated advisers are moving aggressively to assert control over the bureaucracy, traditionally viewed as a bastion of royal influence.

While these moves were mostly anticipated, the rapid reshuffle of top Justice Ministry officials arguably carries a greater potential for ruffling royalist feathers. That's especially true if promoted officials prioritize motions to potentially absolve Thaksin's 2008 criminal conviction and reverse the 2010 Supreme Court decision that seized US$1.4 billion of Thaksin's personal assets.

The reshuffle of royalist judicial officials is considered sensitive because of the special emphasis King Bhumibol has in recent years placed on top judges to rule with independence and righteousness in adjudicating the country's complex and increasingly volatile political problems. Weeks before the July 3 polls, Bhumibol made high profile speeches to newly appointed judges, advising them to be vigilant and impartial in serving the nation.

Since the 2006 coup, the judiciary has emerged as an important royalist power center, one that Thaksin's "red shirt" allies have accused of double standards in political rulings they've likened to "judicial coups". A series of pivotal decisions have gone against Thaksin and his political allies, including the 2007 dissolution of his original Thai Rak Thai party and decisions in 2008 that brought down two of his aligned governments. More recent decisions, however, have let Thaksin's family members off the hook for tax evasion and other business-related charges.

While Thai court judges are legally independent of the Justice Ministry, it seems clear that Thaksin's political allies are bidding to neutralize the judiciary's future ability to undermine or even topple Yingluck's administration. That said, there are widespread doubts about who is the real power behind Yingluck, with a behind-the-scenes team of Thaksin-affiliated advisors more clearly controlling her government's policy and pace.

Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung, a former tough-talking high-ranking police official and long time patronage politician, has filled much of the leadership vacuum left by Yingluck's inexperience. He has taken the rhetorical lead in calling for a reversal of Thaksin's criminal conviction and lobbying for his return to Thailand via a royal pardon. Thaksin has said he would like to return to the country to attend his daughter's wedding in November.

Chalerm, who was instrumental in securing Thaksin's original state concession to outfit the national police force with computers in the 1980s, embodies the double standards in Thai society that Thaksin's "red shirt" movement rallied against in opposing Abhisit and a royalist aristocracy, and has exposed clearly and early the disconnect between Thaksin's reform rhetoric and political actions.

(Chalerm's son, Duangchalerm, was acquitted in 2004 on what international experts say were questionable legal grounds in the fatal shooting of an off-duty police officer in a Bangkok nightclub. He was handed down a one-month suspended jail term and a US$25 fine.)

Analysts believe Chalerm's elevation was also prompted in part by his historical antagonism towards privy council president Prem Tinsulanonda, one of King Bhumibol's top royal advisers and a former prime minister and army commander. Prem stands accused by "red shirt" activists of orchestrating the 2006 coup that toppled Thaksin's administration, charges he has denied. Chalerm helped to bump Prem from the premiership in 1988 through allegations of misconduct at a naval facility he claimed to have recorded on videotape.

The more delicate dynamic, however, concerns relations with the military. The appointment of Deputy Prime Minister for Security Kowit Wattana, a known royalist and Bhumibol favorite, and Yuthasak Sasiprapha, a retired general with family ties to military elites, was interpreted widely as a conciliatory first move. Yuthasak has vowed not to rotate any top commanders, including army chief and palace favorite Prayuth Chan-ocha, at this year's reshuffle, which is due to come into force on October 1.

Security analysts will comb through the reshuffle list's mid-ranking promotions and demotions for indications that Thaksin is putting allied pieces in place to consolidate his control over the armed forces at future reshuffles. A bid this week to nominate retired General Panlop Pinmanee, a Thaksin ally and UDD supporter who advocated the protest group form a "people's army" to topple Abhisit's government, to head the military's Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), Thailand's powerful equivalent of the US Department of Homeland Security, is indicative of such designs.

The power play over ISOC also hints at a potential showdown between Prayuth and Thaksin, via Yingluck, over control of the Armed Forces Security Center, the military's main and highly effective intelligence-gathering apparatus. The military has traditionally bid to retain control over the facility, which generates a steady flow of domestic intelligence, including on politicians' activities, by appointing its commander.

Past information gathered by the center, some military analysts speculate, could be used to build legal cases against top military officials, including Prayuth, responsible for last year's lethal crackdown on the UDD's protest, where 92 people, mostly civilians, were killed. It is thus notable that Chalerm, a former police intelligence chief, has called for new investigations by police into a handful of the killings that apparently stalled under Abhisit's watch.

Questions of unity

It's not immediately clear that the rhetoric and reshuffles are necessarily at odds with the terms of the pre-election accommodation reached between Thaksin, the military and at least one side of the royal palace.

The bigger question is whether the royalist establishment was initially and is currently unified in doing a deal with Thaksin for the sake of stability, and whether it will react in unison if Thaksin is perceived to break the bargain, as royalists claim he has with several past behind-the-scenes agreements.

Indeed, there are indications of divergent thinking at the highest levels of the royal establishment, though it's not clear if the apparent opposed views represent real splits or are instead a diversionary good cop, bad cop routine to keep Thaksin on his heels. Analysts note that royalists have a corporate interest in maintaining the monarchy's exalted position in Thai society, and would be expected to fall in line if a genuine threat to that continuity emerged.

In particular, it seems unlikely that Bhumibol's advisory Privy Council would support any exclusive royal pardon for Thaksin considering the emphasis the revered monarch has placed on the need for greater judicial strength and independence. Royalists will likely strongly balk at any motion that is perceived to put political pressure on Bhumibol to decide in Thaksin's favor. By law, the Thai monarchy is above politics.

That said, the royal establishment forces that remain opposed to Thaksin have increasingly limited options to fight back and those are being blunted. It's ability to mobilize destabilizing street protests has diminished with the marginalization of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) Yellow Shirt protest group that was pivotal in setting the stage for the 2006 coup and judicial toppling of two Thaksin-aligned governments in 2008.

While the royalist Yellow Shirts could still be mobilized, it's not clear the group will have the same popular pulling power or middle class resonance as it's previous incarnations, particularly if it's viewed, as this and last year's anti-Abhisit protests were widely perceived, as a front for a military power grab. Those nationalistic demonstrations failed to galvanize the same popular support as previous anti-Thaksin rallies and revealed uncomfortable splits in the conservative camp that was earlier unified in its opposition to Thaksin.

Moreover, there are questions about the once potent protest group's state of allegiance. PAD co-leader and media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul has recently said in private meetings that he views the "feudalists" as the heart of Thailand's political problems, a line that would seem to echo last year's anti-establishment "red shirt" protests.

At the same time, his local Puu Jaht Gahn-ASTV newspaper has remained highly critical of Thaksin and Yingluck, including a scoop story that claimed a Thaksin spin-doctor had purchased favorable press coverage of Yingluck's election campaign in a handful of local media outlets.

If renewed anti-Thaksin street protests are remote, nor is it clear that another military coup so soon after democratic elections would be viable though it is no doubt significant that military-influenced bodies continue to sharpen and refine their authoritarian tools. While military power is widely perceived to be on the ascendency, there are contrary indicators that Prayuth and his top deputies are eager to step back from daily politics as long as they can maintain enough power to guard against any political threat to the monarchy, including during the royal succession.

Thailand's five-year-old political conflict will not be resolved until the royal succession is put to rest and a new power-sharing order is established. As the pre-election accommodation indicates, it is possible that Thaksin, the military and palace can reach an accord and work together to assure stability during the anticipated succession from King Bhumibol to Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. Thaksin could, after Bhumibol's passing, be brought in from the cold and even granted a prominent position in a new royal order led by Vajiralongkorn.

However, another succession scenario foresees the Privy Council declaring a long period of national mourning, perhaps as long as 999 days in auspicious recognition of Bhumibol's reign as the ninth monarch in the Chakri dynasty, and a military-backed suspension of democracy to assure a smooth transition. By law, the Privy Council will have two years to formally crown the next monarch after his or her name is approved by parliament, and the council's members in the interregnum will be legally empowered to assume royal responsibilities.

Some analysts believe such a scenario could bring Thaksin into direct conflict with the royal caretaker, members of which his supporters have accused of orchestrating the 2006 coup that ousted him from power. His "red shirt" protest group has mobilized potent anti-monarchy sentiment in the past, and analysts believe it may be easier to advocate in the highly revered Bhumibol's absence. It's a dark sky scenario that could lead to more violence and a heavy-handed military intervention, and it's a scenario that judging by current and past events cannot be discounted.

[Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor. The article is an adaptation of a longer September 21 presentation he made to the United States-based Prince Street Capital Management hedge fund in Bangkok.]

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